To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Nathaniel Tarn: From Anthropologist to Informant, a Field Record of Gary Snyder (Part Two)

[Tarn’s comments continue in parentheses and italics, Snyder’s in roman type. For Part One of the interview click here. ]

(When pressed on this a little - take Barthes’ highly sophisticated S/Z for instance I’m teaching right now - admits graciously that maybe he has not quite kept up with increasing sophistication of narrative technique studies. NT disagrees a little with feelings about Ph.D. Things start getting repetitive after the Ph.D. These blank sheets in Rangoon the second time round and a big howl of “No” inside...”Did you ever feel also that the mental orientations were ultimately in conflict: you know, a certain kind of allegiance to ‘objective’ fact on the one hand going against the alchemist in you on the other?”)

GS: Oh yes, very much that! And then the sense that in the world of folklore and mythology there’s a...wisdom tradition if you like, half buried but that poets can dig it out and anthropologists can’t and aren’t allowed to...Three years out of the field, I think I realized that I didn’t want to be the anthropologist but the informant. That’s it: wanting to be a subject by which I mean being authentically what you are. I made it a rule in Japan not to elicit information that didn’t come out naturally in my relationships with people. By really living with people you can enter into certain things... but then there’s the difficulty of keeping quiet, of not betraying trust. I was, yes, conscious of the “danger” of being an anthropologist; at the beginning, yes, I collected information, but in the world of Zen now, I’m an informant.

(NT: “Well like not being obliged to ask a certain type of question any more, just being allowed to be with people and not swamped by the culture coming at you 24 hours a day.” “On the other hand, it leaves one with a certain attitude to fact, right?”: cf. Note to The Beautiful Contradictions: “For him - the anthropologist - scientific records serve as a formal constraint, as well as a point of departure, for the imagination and faithful topography may be very near to the concept of justice.”)

GS: Yes, I continue to respect facts. To have your facts right is to allow yourself the latitude to be far out in other ways


GS: I admire it but I could never do it myself. Philip Lamantia, an old friend, is the leading Surrealist poet in America. I read him with great pleasure.

(“How were other writers reacting to Anthropology?”)

GS: Whalen was a great reader. He was a veteran of World War II and had a better library than Reed College in certain subjects. He had a big collection on Indian Philosophy. He read a lot of anthropology. Very remarkable man. Dell, Dell of course was more of a poet then than an anthropologist, he was very romantic, revolutionary poet, a good poet. Now he’s gone the other way. Yes, Kerouac and Ginsberg were interested, but they weren’t respecters of the fact, you know, like people who’ve been through this are respecters of the fact ...

(“And after Indiana?” )

GS: I began to move towards Oriental studies. I had the sudden realization that Anthropology was concerned with understanding human nature - but then why go to other people, why not study one’s own nature? So ... Zen. When I’d firmly decided that all this was to be done as a poet, then I went to Berkeley: 1953-55. I told the Head of Oriental Studies, Ed Schafer, with whom I still correspond, that I would never take a higher degree. At that time Oriental Studies had precious few people, they were glad to get students. I still tell young people, I make a pedagogical point of getting kids to learn about as many cultures as possible: Anthropology replaces History in this respect.

(Ask about any kinship felt with Olson’s Sumeria, Maya etc. I’ve noticed Olson never really comes up in Snyder’s work ...)

GS: I never came to Olson. I was rather put off by the Mayan Letters, the Romanticism and the lack of scholarly seriousness. Around 1953. I never trusted Olson as a scholar. Maybe its an East Coast thing against a West Coast thing. Non-Americans think we’re all the same, but West Coast is West Coast.

(Express surprise; instance Olson’s useful work on Maya fisheries for a start - (meeting CO for the first time at Bled in 64 or so, taking him the first Cape contract, saying, on meeting, just finished the Letters/him: well? well? as a Mayanist? - But Charles, you spend the whole book telling Mayanists to go to hell! - Ah!...Well, never mind, what do you think of it, what do you think of it? Very excited...) and Dorn among the Shoshone?)

GS: I always felt that Olson was an apologist for Western Culture; the trip from Sumeria to Gloucester a sort of justification for White-America. I do dig Olson poetically. Well, not since the beginning have people gone dryshod from Europe to the U.S. and people have gone dry shod from Asia to America. That makes a difference, Ships? Well, it’s not as old as walking. And animals walked before men. As for Dorn: he came late to the Shoshone and under Olson’s aegis. He didn’t really like living in Idaho. Now Duncan is possibly my favorite poet, of now. Duncan is Gnostic whereas Olson was esoteric. You know: Duncan, Spicer and Blaser were all students of the great Medievalist Kantarovich at Berkeley. Spice ... Spicer as a matter of fact was part Indian; he looked like a Sioux. I don’t know what he was: I think Sioux or Cherokee. He didn’t go into Indian things specifically but if you look at the Grail poems and Billy the Kid, you’ll see it was there…And Rexroth now: one of the first poets to clearly invoke Amerindian songs.

(Can we go back into the past a bit? What about Fiedler’s The Return of the Vanishing America?)

GS: Fiedler: yes, but cranky. Looking for faggots under every bush. I start from someone like Lawrence who said “when you think the Indians are gone look out”. And there’s that kickoff I’ll use for the final version of Mountains and Rivers: “Where there aint no Indians that’s where you find them thickest”. Jim Bridges said that, great mountain men in the 1820s and 30s.

(“What I meant was” (this unerring sense of his for scholarly transmission) “do you have any sense of lineage?”)

GS: Well, Jeffers is very important to me as the man who claimed for the values of nature against those of technology. And Whitman: a sort of 19th century positive Jeffers. Lawrence I’ve mentioned. Pound: an American trying to construct a myth out of the lore of Europe and Asia with varying degrees of success. Rexroth a neo-classicist with his base in Greek, American Indians, etc. A great reclaimer. Further back? I find it difficult to relate to past America because it’s Christian. I find it easier to go back to the Greek Anthology, the Romans, the medieval Chinese.

(No mention of the great Mesoamerican phenomenon: Maya/Mexican/Inca?)

GS: No, too abstract for me. You see, it was closer for me to get to China because it LOOKS so much more like the North West Pacific Coast!

(Can’t help expatiating on the glories of “my” Americas. Hold that only in a few places up here can one see the grandeur of the Center: the great Kiva at Chaco Canyon, e.g., greater than the one at Aztec that he has seen. Summer of 70: goodbye to Rothenberg at Aztec, after beginning Alcheringa I in Santa Fe …)

GS: It’s the next order of business and my wife is as keen on it as I am. I want to learn Spanish and then, off to Mexico. Since India, I’ve felt I’d be o.k. in a place like Mexico.

(“A few last shots…What about your syncretism?” (GS blank) “well, in Earth House Hold, e.g., p. 57: “involuntary gassho and bow to the virgin” note how you capitalize Buddhist icons but not others usually. I’m referring to my notion that syncretism is mankind’s lot: only the very privileged can afford purism")

GS: Syncretism: yes in theory; no in practice. Both Buddhists and Gnostics agree on this. My practice is now syncretistic but on after years of orthodox practice in Rinzai Zen. My teacher now agrees to this search here for ways of living Zen in America. Padmasambhava is my model here: the great Buddhist acculturater who took Buddhism to Tibet. Making contact with local spirits, getting onto terms with them.

(“Levi-Strauss? You mention him in Earth House Hold. I wasn’t quite sure there how you were seeing him?”)

GS: Fascinating, a genius, but a rationalist. The insights are circumscribed by the commitment to rationalism. The dimension provided in Anthropology by someone like Casteneda is not open to Levi-Strauss. What’s useful in him is the stress on the intellectual power of the primitives. This is his major insight: yes, I agree it came late in his thinking…I have read everything that Levi-Strauss has done in English.

(Notice signs of tiredness. Suggest we are drawing to a close …)

GS: Yes, that was good. It helped me put some order into my thoughts. Now you must reconstitute this conversation.

(“I’ll send it to you. You should check it out.”)

GS: Yes, and now what do you think of all this?

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