Interview with Jane Taylor, part 2 of 3

Without further ado, we will pick up precisely where we left off yesterday. (The first 1/3 of the interview is posted just below this entry).

LV = Literary Vittles

Jane = Jane Taylor

LV: I’ve noticed your work often deals with very difficult historical subjects unique to South Africa. What’s your process for choosing a particular event to explore? How does this relate to concepts of social and historical memory?

Jane: I think in some ways, because those of us who are living in the new South Africa are very conscious of a break, we live across a kind of rupture. I’m very interested in those questions of how one begins again. It struck me as profoundly ironic and also rather wonderful that South Africa came up with the heart transplant [which I discuss in my book, The Transplant Men]. It was such a natural metaphor, that the whole country had gone through a heart transplant. I don’t know how that happened! (laughs) We must have had a longing for it so we made the science happen. That kind of strange, re-invention of the self and starting again is obviously something that we have as a metaphysical longing. We have quite a strong commitment to new beginnings. My work in some ways has always probed that inquiry. The big sort of historical work that I’ve been looking at for the last 10 years or so is conversion. I’ve been looking at the Reformation and the pressure on people to come to terms with conversion. The thing that struck me that’s so interesting is that whether you’re a Catholic or a Protestant in that era, everyone has to choose. You have to confront conversion. If you stay Catholic you’re refusing conversion, and if you become Protestant you’re choosing conversion. Everybody is in a relationship to beginning again. Thinking about the choices one has about starting. That’s a big and interesting set of inquiries for me. This year at the University of Chicago I’m teaching a course on metamorphosis, because I’m trying to work out how you go from one state to another state, and what is that strange, transitional being that’s neither one nor the other, that’s somehow part of both? In some ways, South Africa now feels as if it’s in that kind of pre-formed condition, sloughing off the old animal, and the new one not quite yet born. There’s an emergent life form inside the egg and you can see it’s still alive, but we’re not quite sure what kind of creature’s going to come out of it.

LV: I think that’s why South Africans still talk about politics. And in the United States you’re not supposed to ask anyone about that anymore. I mean, it’s my impression that South Africans are still very much willing to hear out others and learn about different opinions. And I don’t want to cast everyone in the U.S. into the same mold, but I think we’re more set in our opinions at this point.

Jane: One of the things that was always really striking to me while working with young American scholars in South Africa, they were always in some ways struck by the fact that we had such a strong sense of a future project. And so much of what happens with young Americans that I know, when they think about the future or they think about transformation or about idealism, they think about the past. They think about the Civil Rights movement. So I think one of the remarkable phenomena of the last 4 or 5 years was that it became possible again to think about a future that was ahead of you rather than a future that was behind you. And I think it’s extraordinarily disabling to think that your great experiments are experiments that are in the past. Somehow one has to hold onto the belief that the great experiments are still coming toward you, and that’s what I’m really interested in exploring. How does one catch onto an imagination that believes that change is possible? For all of its messiness and its difficulty, what are the great experiments with change from Ovid through the Reformation? All of those big crises which we think about giving up one being and becoming another being. What form does that exploration of change take? And I think one is pretty well hopeless if you give up believing that the future is ahead of you.
I’ve discovered a rather gorgeous metaphor which comes from the biological sciences. And that is about the butterfly, which you know, if one thinks about metamorphosis the butterfly is the exemplary case. As I understand it, being hopelessly inadequate in these domains, the caterpillar, at the moment of transformation, actually is attacked by a DNA that seems to be a foreign DNA to the caterpillar, and it goes through a kind of meltdown. So all of the chemicals inside the caterpillar that were caterpillar-ness break down, and it becomes a kind of chemical stew. Inside that nutrient-rich environment, a new DNA generates itself. It seems to me, from what I’ve read, it’s as if it’s like an immune breakdown. It’s like an invasion – a foreign DNA inhabits that space. That DNA is referred to as imaginals. The scientists are so bewildered by that transformation that even they come up with a metaphor to describe DNA’s capacity to turn the caterpillar into the butterfly. I think that that imagining of change, the imaginal, that’s something pretty powerful inside the language and inside the science that is a mystery to us.

LV: How do you see your work as facilitating that process?

Jane: Well, you’re the one who read it! (laughs) That makes you puzzle! I think one just has individual conversations. It’s completely thrilling when you find one person who’s prepared to read you, and engage in a discussion. I think that really all you can do is research the things that interest you, and hope that somebody else will find them interesting. How do you proceed?

LV: How do I proceed? In my life?

Jane: With your writing! With the things you follow intellectually.

LV: Right, well I’ve been doing more of the scholarship on this, and for me I think I have to get through that first before I can be able to write a work of fiction, or something artistic, because I need to have that basic understanding first.

Jane: Yeah, I think that is great advice for a young writer. Just read the books you love. There are so many extraordinary competencies out there, people doing wondrous things, mysterious tricks with language. And to try to be attentive to how someone puts together an argument that you’re not even aware they’re arguing, and it’s all in the texture of the way the language works. So, certainly the biggest obligation I would give a young writer is that they become a young reader.

LV: You’ve talked about your fascination with the Reformation, and I’m aware that you’ve been working on After Cardenio – did I say that correctly?

Jane: Very good!

LV: It’s the lost Shakespeare play. Could you explain how you utilize older texts or historical examples to inform your understanding of the modern literature and how it influences the way you write?

Jane: My sense is that the way we imagine ourselves, and this goes back to the idea of the imaginals, is so profoundly informed by previous experiments with modeling the self. I think that even in the most spare contemporary works like a Beckett play, the longer you look at it the more struck you are by how saturated he is in literary experiments in the past, and the forms and the nods to genre, and asking what kind of question can be asked. I think one is always at the edge of interrogating your own traditions, and the more that you pull away from it, you become incoherent, you just become a voice screaming in the wilderness unless you are taking tradition with you, otherwise nobody else is in the room. For me, always, that sense of, how do I draw on the emotional world of people’s other reading experiences? For example, at the beginning of The Transplant Men I have the enormous hubris of invoking Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which begins with a comment about how every happy household is happy in the same way, and every sad household is sad in its own way. So I talked about every murder being basically the same, and every suicide being singular. I’m hoping that at some level—I’m certainly not make strong analogies to the Tolstoy—but at some level I’m appropriating his extraordinarily powerful insight and dragging the emotional meaning that Tolstoy is able to conjure into the world into a much smaller setting. I think that over and over again there are rhythms of thinking that come through the great thinkers and the great writers. They provide a mood and a texture to the work that one’s doing oneself.

LV: Yes, I’m always very excited when I can see connections.

Jane: It’s very satisfying for a reader, isn’t it? I also love that. When you suddenly feel, “I’m in a real conversation with this writer. That writer is addressing me and the pool of knowledge that I have in me.” No matter how remote the contact is, you realize there is a resource inside human culture that allows us to understand and engage with each other. I find myself reading say, a Latin American writer, and suddenly there’s something about Cervantes and Don Quixote that I recognize and I realize oh, we’re not foreigners to one another! We share a resource. I think that’s a great corridor into each other’s souls.

LV: A resounding thesis on the power of literature!

Jane: Yes, let’s hope so! (laughs)

Check back tomorrow for the 3rd and final installment of this interview.


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