Expansive Poetry & Music Online
Guest Essay

An Interview with Frederick Turner

with Paul Lake

Frederick Turner has written a book on Shakespeare (Shakespeare and the Nature of Time, 1971); a science fiction novel set on Mars (A Double Shadow, 1978); an epic poem set in futuristic America (The New World, 1985); several collections of lyrics (Between Two Lives, 1972; April Wind and Other Poems, 1991); a verse epic about the terraforming and settlement of Mars, (Genesis, 1988); a long narrative poem set in Southeast Asia (The Return, 1979); a book of translations (Foamy Sky: the Major Poems of Miklos Radnoti, 1992); and several collections of essays on topics ranging from literature, critical theory, and myth, to time, evolution, economics, and religion (Natural Classicism; The Rebirth of Value; Beauty; Tempest, Flute, & Oz; The Culture of Hope.)

				Paul Lake

Lake: Both of your parents were anthropologists, and you grew up partly in Africa. Could you briefly describe your childhood?

Turner: Being an anthropology brat is something like being an army brat. I never really settled down anywhere and, in fact, my archetypal deep sense of a boyhood home, so to speak, is probably as much in central Africa as anywhere else. The kids that I played with there, particularly a kid called Sakeru, those were my best friends, and when I came back to England, I felt quite alienated.

Lake: At what age did you come back to England?

Turner: About eleven years old. I yearned for Africa for about seven years. In England, my father was a lecturer in anthropology at the University of Manchester. We were living in a gray North country industrial suburb, and I yearned for Africa, and so I began then to reinvent in words an inner Africa during that time.

Lake: Where did you go to school?

Turner: I went to Manchester Grammar School, which was then perhaps one of the best schools in England. A peculiar school, because its tradition was logical positivist, working class, very intellectual, with a sort of Bertrand Russell flavor. A very good science school--I suppose, a sort of a British equivalent of the Brooklyn Science School.

Lake: What led you finally to settle in America?

Turner: I had in fact visited America just before I went to Oxford, after finishing at Manchester Grammar School. I'd already passed the exam to get into Oxford. My father went to Palo Alto, with the rest of the family, to the Stanford Center for Behavioral Studies. I went out to join them and had a kind of transcendent experience of America--absolutely fell in love with it. In some strange way California echoed for me my boyhood experience of Africa.

At that time I was a rather devout and mystical Catholic. I got together with a group of Stanford Newman Club students, who were very idealistically wanting to do something about the world situation. This was the late sixties, sixty-two, the time of the Peace Corps and the Civil Rights movement and so on. In England I had been part of the campaign for nuclear disarmament as a teenager. But in California, what we would do was to go into Mexican barrios and help them build a church and so on. Then we all went out and got jobs, begged a whole lot of medical equipment from doctors, and bought an old bus; then took a big trip down to Mexico and built a schoolhouse and a dispensary and a basketball court in a little Mexican village, and had a medical student come up from Mexico City to staff the pharmacy. It was a wonderful experience.

Lake: When did you realize you wanted to be a poet?

Turner: Well, I suppose I must have been about eight. I was on a long trip with my father on a truck, from Mwinilunga District into another part of what was then Rhodesia, now Zambia, and I had this kind of blinding revelation of self-awareness. What immediately came along with it was a sense that I wanted to tell everybody that somehow some marvelous thing could happen between the inner life and the life of external reality. Later on, poetry turned into a way of recuperating what was lost.

Lake: In essays, you've described ritual as the source of human language, culture, and literature. What rituals did you witness?

Turner: It seems to me that in Africa almost every night I remember going to sleep hearing the drums. There were all kinds of rituals. I was one of a gang of little Ndembu boys. We would hang around and sort of fight other little gangs of Ndembu boys, and we'd get into lots of trouble. During the burning season, when they burned off the elephant grass (later, it made me prick up my ears when I heard about prairie restorationists burning off the prairies), we would help them burn--we were little pyromaniacs--and later we'd help them put the fire out. We would hang around the rituals, especially the old people's rituals or the women's rituals. We were fascinated by the women's puberty rituals, as you can imagine.

Lake: How much did you actually witness?

Turner: Well, they would shoo us away, and part of the ritual was in fact a kind of ritual shooing away of males. So my mother really got to see more of that than anybody else in the family. It was very beautiful. I still get a kind of internal shudder of delight, thinking about what they did. They put these little white beads in the parting of their black hair, to symbolize the eggs, the woman's fertility, when she was coming of age. And I also learned the hunter's dance and the men's Wuyanga ritual, which is the hunting ritual. And there was another ritual I remember, in which the Makishi, the masked dancer, came and spat herbal medicine onto my throat, and this was a kind of initiation that made me a minor member of the cult.

Lake: In your book Natural Classicism you examined the arts and rituals of a number of cultures and concluded that there are a number of things we all share. What is natural classicism?

Turner: Well, the old dream of classicism, which I think has rightly been revealed as too Eurocentric, was nevertheless a wonderful dream. It was a dream that underpinned democracy and all of those movements toward equal rights. It legitimated the Enlightenment movement for human rights, leading eventually to the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of women; it implied the notion of a fundamental human nature that had certain inalienable rights, as the Declaration of Independence puts it. Without some such notion as that, it seems to me, essentially all one has is a nasty wrestling match among different ethnic groups, which sooner or later ends up with one lot of people who can no longer fight being quietly murdered, as is going on in Yugoslavia now. In other words, there has to be a kind of classicism for all human beings, a sense of the whole human race as having meaningful and deep things in common; and rather than base that on some kind of supernatural, divine justification, I wanted to base that on a natural justification. In other words, to use the wonderful work that's being done in comparative anthropology, in neurobiology and sociobiology, ethology, human evolution studies, paleoanthropology, comparative religion, and so on, as a way of refounding a notion of the human and what is common among all human beings. I'm looking for a world classicism.

Lake: And you found that we had in common such things as epic poetry, certain types of music. What were the others?

Turner: In my book Beauty, I think I list seventeen or so neurocharms, which are peculiar constellations of very special talents that seem to be born in us. The ones that had to do with the arts included, for instance, the natural scale, tonality, in music; a certain kind of pattern-recognition and pattern-enjoying capacity with the eye; poetic meter; story-telling; a classification capacity we have which I think is related to our tradition as gatherers. We were hunters, but we were also gatherers, and maybe even more importantly gatherers. This involved the ability to recognize different species, and to select. The word lect--that part of the word--seems to denote a natural classical neurocharm. And there were others. There's an architectural, an ideographic one, too.

Lake: In Natural Classicism you stated that one of the fruits of adopting natural classicism might be a "refeminization of the arts." What did you mean?

Turner: What I had in mind was how, in Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, Woolf complains about an element of modernism, about these modernist works of literature in which all you can see is this great big capital I. And she's also thinking rather mischievously I suppose of the great phallus. I think she has D.H. Lawrence in mind. What she proposes is a different kind of novel that would, for instance, as she says, portray all those centuries of very intricate relationships between people indoors, in rooms, rooms whose walls are just saturated with the complexity of relationship.

Lake: In a novel like The Waves she disperses consciousness throughout all the characters, male and female.

Turner: Yes, and also in a different way in To the Lighthouse. So what I was really suggesting was that essentially it might be time to put Virginia Woolf's program into effect. Maybe we've had enough of this sterile masculinization of modernist and now postmodernist literature. In a way I think the whole notion of the avant-garde and the severe intellectualization of, say, from Schoenberg to Derrida, or Schoenberg to Luce Irigary, or whatever, is just heavily saturated with testosterone. I'm all for testosterone, but you can get poisoned by it. And I feel myself in many ways to be kind of deeply feminine, whether one takes that as being a gender or a sex thing. A large part of my imagination is feminine, and I want to help refeminize the arts myself.

Lake: You've described deconstructive modernists as being unwilling to recognize the real stable order that the world generates and have called their mode of knowledge both oedipal and patriarchal. What did you mean?

Turner: If you talk to a Foucauldian, what you usually find is that there's a combination of absolute reverence for the great master and at the same time an Oedipal kind of teeth-gnashing joy at all of the old fathers that Foucault has toppled and delegitimized. Mozart's Don Giovanni is a wonderful critique--right at the very beginning of the whole thing--of the program of modernism. You have Don Giovanni killing the Commendatore--but then the Commendatore coming back. If you like, in the modernist myth, a young man--it's really a group of young men--kills the old man, the old patriarch, the old father. They then essentially take over from the old father; they take the old matriarchy over--and the patriarchy had always protected the matriarchy and been protected by the matriarchy--there was mutual support there. And what the young heroes then do, since they don't have the same kind of commitments to posterity that the old patriarchy did, is to exploit the old matriarchy, and the way they do it essentially is by enlisting the young women against their mothers.

Lake: You've cited the Greek myth of Orestes and Electra as an example of this.

Turner: Yes. The Greeks had already gone through some of this. Hamlet is another version of the story. Goethe's Faust is a classic example because you have Faust denying the father and seducing Gretchen. What then happens is that you get the tragedy of the fallen woman. In England, you get Richardson's Clarissa, and Tess of the D'urbevilles, and in Russia, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Vronsky, who is the young hero, essentially betrays the matriarchy and separates the young woman from the matriarchy. And what we have today is a singularly anguishing situation for what you might call the heroic young woman, because the heroic young woman in order to free herself--what is she to do? The old patriarchy is dead; her real oppressors are her brothers, or her lovers, her betrayers. Her mother is telling her to play the old part. In a sense her rebellion has to be against her mother, but that looks like betrayal of the female cause. And so what do you do? You cast yourself in the role of the young Rousseauvian hero; you make yourself a female version of the male hero and rebel against an imaginary patriarchy.

Lake: In Dostoevsky we might see the other side of that coin in Crime and Punishment, where it's through the female element that Raskolnikov has to find redemption, from Sonya.

Turner: Yes, it's part of that same myth. It's a fascinating place we're in. One way of putting it is that what we're seeing is almost the equivalent of the birth of the heroes at that strange time when writing began, with Gilgamesh and the Trojan War; but it's the birth of a new kind of heroine, and who knows what that's going to produce.

Lake: Perhaps a kind of Renaissance.

Turner: I hope so. The trouble is, so much of contemporary feminist theory is so desperately limiting in this respect and unimaginative, going back to very old models: Romantic and Modernist models.

Lake: Since we're talking of a literary renaissance, let me ask a related question. You belong to a group sometimes called Expansivist Poets, who believe that meter, form, and narrative should be returned to poetry. How do you answer those who say that the ancient genres of literature are corrupted by their association with the repressive regimes of the past?

Turner: If one thinks about repressive regimes, perhaps our century has the best examples of repressive regimes that have ever existed. Our century is also the century in which we to a very large extent overthrew--in the process of the work of the modernist avant-garde--all of those genres.

Lake: So, for instance, there might be some organic relationship between Pound's literary modernism and his fascist politics?

Turner: I think so. In other words, the relationship with the body, the embodiment, the being in one's body that you have to have if you're going to work in the classical genres is always a kind of safeguard against the lunatic and perverse alienated sadism of the really repressive regime. I've been translating the work of Miklos Radnoti, and Radnoti's way of fighting Hitler and the Nazis--as he was being led from one part of the Balkans to another as a Jewish slave-laborer--was by composing poetry in more and more beautiful and perfect and classical meters.

Lake: And so writing in form--or to use Cixous' term, writing the body--might be a way of combatting the abstract intellectualism of ideology, whether it's communist or fascist.

Turner: Exactly. Those ancient forms are never exhausted; they're always generative. They're like the continuous tradition of birth, of mother and daughter and mother and daughter. It's the continuity with our whole inheritance as the wonderful kind of human animal that we are.

Lake: In what sense, though, are Expansive poets uniquely modern? Are there lessons to be learned from the great Modernists? How much of their heritage should we jettison?

Turner: In a paradoxical kind of way, part of what I think the Expansive poets are saying is, don't jettison heritage. One sees Modernism in a different way if one doesn't jettison everything that the Modernists told us to jettison. One then sees Modernism as a kind of peculiar way of stretching a tradition--something that is very wonderful. God, we all come out of the Modernists. I wouldn't want to lose one jot or tittle of Eliot and Yeats and Stevens.

Lake: But in the myth, Modernism represents a great breach with tradition. We define ourselves as postmodern. Part of the myth is that one can't go back to those natural classical forms.

Turner: To say one can't go back sounds very brave, but I think in an odd sort of way what it really amounts to is a fear of recursion and of iteration; it amounts to a fear of the infinite regress, a fear of the fractal, a fear of the nonlinear. Of course you can go back. Of course, every time you do go back, it's different--because you've gone back; because of Modernism. But every time you go back something wonderful happens. What the hell else was the Renaissance? The Renaissance was one of the most inventive periods of human history because they were going back to the Greeks and the Romans. These kind of apocalyptic postmodern pronouncements that you can't go back are really just a way of playing it safe. They're afraid of recursion; they're afraid of chaos theory.

Lake: A number of poets and critics use concepts from science such as chaos theory and quantum indeterminancy to argue against making orderly, coherent art; instead, they suggest that we introduce elements of chance or randomness into our artistic productions. Why are such suggestions misguided?

Turner: Essentially what science seems to show in all of those fields and especially, for instance, in chaos theory, is that order can emerge out of, and does emerge out of, the indeterminancy of the quantum state, out of the apparently wild and chaotic interactions of classical nonlinear, dynamical systems. Strange attractors draw very beautiful forms of order into existence out of precisely those kinds of situations. Prigogine, for instance, sees the increase of entropy not only as a process of increasing disorder, but also as the fuel for the emergence of new systems of order. In other words, what has happened is that rather ignorant people in the humanities and the arts have seized upon certain superficial elements of scientific research, on the fact that science has become interested in chaotic and indeterminant systems, as a kind of desperate justification for an entirely outdated program. And that program is really based upon the nineteenth century notion that the physical world, the natural world, is deterministic, and the sciences deal with that, while the humanities deal with a world which is not deterministic. And since you've gotten rid of the spiritual world and the world of essences, because of Existentialism, the only thing you've got other than order is randomness. In other words, you have to perform an acte gratuit in order to be free; you have to be random. Which more or less reduces you to having all of the responsibility and all the wisdom and thought and freedom of a quantum particle, which is not very much. It's an extremely silly position.

Lake: Are there specific things in literature such as rhyme schemes or narrative order which would function as strange attractors?

Turner: I think that would be a beautiful way of putting it. I think that in fact the great genres are like very large strange attractors--like, for instance, the attractor of the vertebrate body form. Then I would say that within the great genres there are more particular attractors that would be rather like genera and species; then within those there would be the particular attractors of, as it were, individual works of art. There is a certain inevitability about a work of art that all artists have talked about. As if the work of art were being drawn into existence by a kind of pre-existent shape that is calling it into existence.

Lake: Like Michelangelo's figures emerging from stone.

Turner: Yes. There's a sense of emergence, and an emergence in pursuit of an attractor. I think that gives us a very powerful set of metaphors and in fact recuperates a good deal of traditional insight that has been lost in the humanities.

Lake: The concept of feedback, as it's now understood by science, might be a useful metaphor for fiction writers, who talk about how once they've created a character, it begins to take on a life of its own.

Turner: Right. You could even say that your invented characters begin to change you, which is very interesting. You actually enter into relations with them and are surprised by them and sometimes changed by them the way one is changed by people that one is close to. In other words, I think what's going on in the arts, especially in the art of the story, is very much like artificial intelligence. What we do is generate artificial intelligences which then take off on their own. So far those artificial intelligences have been carried, or mediated, by human brains, but they're also mediated to some extent by human institutions like the theater. And maybe eventually they're going to be mediated by silicon chips.

Lake: In Disappearing Through the Skylight, O. B. Harrison has argued that discontinuity and fragmentation are part of the deep structure of modern culture (think only of television and MTV) and that, consequently, to be true to our experience, art should be discontinuous and fragmented. Do you agree?

Turner: Any technique, any resource that an artist has, as far as I'm concerned, is fine. The only thing is, you can use some resources to the point where you just can't use them any more. For instance, if you want to use a splash of red on a painting as a contrast to the colors that are already there, you can do that until you've covered the whole canvas with red. At that point, there's no longer a contrast with anything else. I'm certainly not against fragmentation. I think fragmentation is a fascinating thing to do in literature and art. The trouble is, you have to have something to fragment. If you're just bouncing the rubble, then you've run out of energy gradient, to use a Prigoginian phrase. You've used up all the Gibbs free energy in the system.

Lake: Harrison has also used the fractal geometry of Mandelbrot as an analogy for certain avant-garde practices in art and literature. Alice Fulton has argued that fractal geometry provides a theoretical basis for free verse. Both claim that formal verse is Euclidean in nature. What do you think of these arguments?

Turner: Well, one just has to look at a fractal; look at the Mandelbrot set. In fact, Modernist theory and practice is much more like Euclidean geometry; that is, it has an outline, a theoretical outline, and no content. It doesn't have any insides. It's something whose theoretical outline is very strict and very severe and very pure. On the other hand, with the traditional genres . . . I figured out once that there are something like 20,000 variations you could do on just one regular pentameter line. What you've got is this almost infinite internal richness that you can generate with these traditional forms, and I would say that that is very much more like a fractal with its incredible self-similarity and these very beautiful organic shapes.

Lake: The line also functions as a kind of gestalt. If you tamper with one end of the line, it affects everything else in that line as well as in previous and succeeding lines.

Turner: Exactly. With a sonnet or a villanelle, if you change one word, you have to change everything. And that exactly corresponds to the local-global correspondence in nonlinear systems and fractal geometry, whereas if you alter one word in a piece of free verse, what you've done is you've altered one word.

Lake: Might fractal geometry serve, instead, as an analogy for the way deconstructionists examine the fractal curves of "differance" while missing the large, beautifully ordered structures they produce?

Turner: That's a good way of putting it, although what I would say is that deconstructionists are like the people who first started noticing the apparent randomness of drips of water coming out of a faucet, drips that seemed to be wildly random. They then said to themselves, "My God, everything must be like that." What then happened was that people began to take careful measurements of the times between each drip and the size of each drip and map them and play them out in computers. And what they found was that behind this apparent randomness was the beautiful butterfly shape of the Lorenz attractor. Deconstruction is essentially an idea whose time had come in about 1910. It's the equivalent of certain kinds of insights that people in science were beginning to have around 1910, the beginnings of quantum theory before it had really become systematized.

Lake: In your essay "Performed Being" you advocate a performative approach to literature, suggesting that, when performed, the "divine plenum" of potential readings in a dramatic text collapses into a single reading, like the wave function of an electron when measured. In what sense, though, can the reading of a nondramatic text--say, a novel or a poem--be viewed as a performative act?

Turner: I have written about that. In order to read properly--Stevens has a poem about being one's own theater--one has to be the theater, and one has to be the actors, and one has to play it out in oneself in one's own "wetware"; and that again requires the courage of performance, a kind of plunge into the humility of particular being; a plunge into the humility of embodiment. It has to do again with the body.

Lake: As in, say, identifying with the character in a novel?

Turner: Yes. A playing of the thing out on one's own passions and emotions and feelings.

Lake: You've argued that the "motivational verisimilitude" of realistic fiction reduces its characters to puppets. What possibilities does science fiction offer that realistic fiction doesn't?

Turner: Science fiction has a lot of the possibilities of the tale, of the kind of story in which you don't have to have a meticulous correspondence between the motivation of your characters and whatever the contemporary popular psychology is. Verisimilitude is that if you're living in a Freudian age, everybody has to be motivated by hatred of their mother or something like that. And if you go back, to let's say, French naturalistic fiction, then it's going to be some combination of desire for sex, desire for power, and desire for self-esteem, and then various ways of hypocritically covering it up. Or you go back a little bit further to theories of humors. At the moment, you have post-Freudian Lacanian psychology, and so you have the psychological automatons of minimalist fiction. What psychological realism or verisimilitude means, essentially, is what the educated vulgar reader thinks is likely psychology, whereas in actual fact, human beings are capable of inventing the most extraordinary motivations for themselves, are capable of really breaking out of the social conventions for how they're supposed to be motivated. This is what Dostoevsky so wonderfully did with his character Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov, and all the great novelists have seen this trap and have found ways to either get out of it or to attack it from within. That's what Flaubert was doing in Madame Bovary: to attack these psychological manacles that the novel imposes on them.

Lake: What can the so-called high arts learn from their popular counterparts?

Turner: I think it's not so much a learning as a re-rooting, a becoming rooted again in the popular. For instance, to talk of poetry, we don't need to go to some kind of mandarin classical example for successful use of poetic meter; we can go straight to country and western lyrics, to blues lyrics, to rap. One might call rap irregular dithyrambic rhyming couplets. Go to the popular forms for that; and I think the same thing goes for science fiction, which is a relatively popular form. There's your great fountain of really deep myth, of how the culture is doing its philosophizing. A culture does its philosophizing through myth, and our particular form of philosophizing through myth is Star Trek and Star Wars. Root ourselves in those things. That isn't to say that we must confine ourselves to those things. All kinds of wonderful fruits and flowers can come out of that soil. But it's fertile soil, and let's not be contemptuous of it.

Lake: You've written novels, essays, poems. Which genre occupies most of your attention, and from which do you derive the most pleasure?

Turner: Unfortunately, at the stage I'm at, educating two sons, the essay form, being by far the most lucrative, occupies a good deal of my time, and more than it should. But on the other hand, I enormously enjoy writing essays. I'm beginning to feel a desperate need to get back to the narrative, but though people give all kinds of fellowships to people writing narrative, they don't give them to me. For a narrative, I need a couple of years to go off and have a good long time to do it. And right now I just don't have that, which causes me anguish. I've got some good stories in me and I want to tell them. Poetry, I can go on writing--at least the shorter forms of poetry. And that constitutes to a large extent--together with my family and my continuing love-affair with my wife and my relations with my very closest friends--a large part of my religion. Poetry is very close to my form of worship.

Lake: In your new book, The Culture of Hope, you describe your essays as "a way to do a clumsy and incomplete version of a poetry that this age is unable or unwilling to hear." Can you describe what these poems would be like--and what makes them unsuited to this age?

Turner: I am writing them. Pretty much all the ideas in my essays are in my poems; it's just that they're done with a good deal more economy and with more depth, too. Almost every idea I ever had is in Genesis, a long poem--and in a lot of the short lyric poems--I have a recent sequence called "Death Mass" which contains a lot of my new thinking.

Lake: So your best ideas go into the poems, and then you mine the poems for essay topics?

Turner: Occasionally, a poem will grow out of an essay: I'll write an essay and then I'll come across something in experience or in reading or just an insight that will suddenly open it up in an enormously new way, and it will become a poem. But usually what happens is that all of my ideas come in the form of poems or while thinking about stories I might write. Then I kind of smear them out into essays, spin them out into essays.

Lake: A last question: When you look into the future, what do you see: a literary renaissance born of natural classical principles, or the triumph of postmodern theory--the heat death of literature?

Turner: I take the optimistic position on rational pessimistic grounds. In other words, if one believes that something is going to happen, one is going to have more resources to make it happen. I believe that there is a renaissance coming, a wonderful cultural florescence, but I also believe that that's going to create problems for us so great that we're going to wish that we were back with our present set. There will be problems about responsibility for the past, when we'll be able to more or less resurrect the past, at some point--literally and totally. It won't just be resurrecting dinosaur genes and making Jurassic Parks-- although we'll be able to do that--because the dinosaur genes are sitting inside of you and me right now. You just have to fiddle around with them a little, and you can make dinosaurs out of them. When we get into the new things that we'll get into--immortality, merging our consciousness with artificial intelligence, and unbelievably beautiful but addictive things like actually becoming one with nature in some kind of neuro-cybernetic way, problems of identity, spiritual problems--we'll begin to ask, How do gods make up their minds as to what is right? We'll look back on this time as being the happy, halcyon days of the late twentieth century.

Frederick Turner with Paul Lake

Frederick Turner's books can be ordered directly from the recommended books section of this Web page.

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