Tag Archives: Winter 1997


Rootprintsby Helene Cixous and Mireille Calle-GruberMemory And Life Writing
Hélène Cixous and Mireille Calle-Gruber
translated by Eric Prenowitz
Routledge ($17.95)

by David Clippinger

Rootprints is a wonderful introduction to the complexity of Hélène Cixous' ideas and the various types of her writing. The text offers an intermediary position between the forms of theory and the forms of fiction; it is a hinged door that opens onto both her theory and fiction, and demonstrates that either path is worthy of serious exploration.

Cixous' place in the literary theory canon is firmly established; her widely anthologized essay “The Laugh of the Medusa” is usually granted a cornerstone position in feminist post-structural theory. So it may seem somewhat surprising to stumble upon this remark early in Rootprints:

What is most true is poetic because it is not stopped-stoppable. All that is stopped, grasped, all that is subjugated, easily transmitted, easily picked up, all that comes under the word concept, which is to say all that is taken, caged, is less true. . . . There is a continuity in the living; whereas theory entails a discontinuity, a cut, which is altogether the opposite of life. I am not anathematizing all theory. It is indispensable, at times, to make progress, but alone it is false.

Cixous' theoretical texts are indeed “circulated and appropriated,” as she says—”they were made for this, by the way”—but the body of her fiction has been relatively neglected. While not disparaging her theoretical writings, the above comment touches upon the root of the matter: her novels aren't read because they reflect multiplicity and irreducibility, while the theoretical texts offer a more limited and limiting perspective—a perspective that fiction must strive against.

Writing that resists categorization reflects the ever-unfolding, ever-evolving nature of living, and if nothing else Cixous' work argues for the absolute contingency of life and writing. Rootprints demonstrates that the autobiographical figures largely into Cixous' own written life, offering a re-vision of her theoretical texts; its concluding section, “Albums and legends,” attempts to unearth the roots of Cixous' writerly desires within the scope of her family genealogy. The autobiography moves effortlessly through time and weaves a rich tapestry of events, experiences, and people that deepens the context of her writing, offering wonderful insights into the entire body of Cixous' work. In fact, the final section can be regarded as the triumphant enactment of Cixous' theory. An excellent primer to one of literary theory's major thinkers Rootprints also contains a series of theoretical “appendices,” including an appreciative essay by Jacques Derrida and theoretical “vignettes” on the writing of Cixous by Mireille Calle-Gruber.

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Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 4, Winter (#8) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997

Chaos As Usual

Chaos As Usual edited by Juliane Lorenz Conversations About Rainer Werner Fassbinder
edited by Juliane Lorenz
Applause ($25.95)

by Jack Granath

Chaos as Usual contains thirty-eight interviews with people close to the German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Approaching such a book, I expected to come out on the far end juggling thirty-eight rival sketches, thirty-eight contradictions, thirty-eight possible Fassbinders. Instead, the book presents a remarkably consistent account of this famously enigmatic man.

From “pater familias” to “ruthless despot,” Fassbinder turns up on page after page in the familiar auteur garb of autocrat. The book swarms with lively anecdotes of Fassbinder tormenting his actors, throwing tantrums, seizing control of certain projects, sabotaging others--everything you expect from a man who had The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant lurking inside him. Limitations of the interview format sometimes conceal the larger significance of these colorful stories, but several of the speakers tease their way toward it, digging beneath the gossip to make connections between this psychology and the work it produced. Actor Ingrid Caven, for instance, explains that Fassbinder “was like an open wound, a fact he tried to hide, to camouflage. But it was why he instantly sensed people's weaknesses in their gestures and their voices. That weakness was his great strength, and it became a powerplay he thoroughly enjoyed.” Actor Gottfried John makes another subtle observation, rooting out the contradiction between Fassbinder's need for absolute control and the revolutionary intention of his work: “I remember being utterly amazed that a group who was working on a project about moral courage, about resistance against meaningless orders, would uncritically follow the orders of their master, as he was already called in those days.” These insights (and many others like them) play an important role in the book, echoing through later interviews, making patterns out of the gossip-spatter.

The same mechanics apply to another subject that surfaces in nearly every interview, the speed at which Fassbinder worked. Ten films in a year and a half, films made in a week, a film re-edited overnight, fifty-four setups a day. The actor who breaks with Fassbinder, saying, “I need a rest. . . . I've picked up sinusitis and an ulcer, I simply have to take a cure”; another who travels with him, tearing “across the countryside at 130 mph,” covering “in three and a half days what I had managed myself [on a previous trip] in two months”; the producer who offers Fassbinder “a million marks to do nothing for a year” (and is refused).

Even minor pauses in the working process caused him depressions which, in turn, accelerated his working mania.

He was panting for the next scene that was already spilling out of his head.

One has to understand that he was literally rushing through his life.

We didn't need any speed in those days. All we needed was a dose of Fassbinder.

I admit that these anecdotes and soundbites are the most memorable and compelling part of the book for me, but they also introduce the main problem in assessing Fassbinder's work, the fact that, as colleague after colleague attests, Fassbinder “wasn't interested in perfection.” As one interviewer poses the question, “How did he reconcile his enormous ambition to the blunders he made?” Were these blunders (spotlights creeping into the frame, underlighting in Berlin Alexanderplatz, blown lines thrown in thanks to his one-take method) extraneous to the work or an important part of it? Again, those comments that burrow beneath the level of anecdote suggest intriguing links between the psychology and the work. Actor and director Margarethe von Trotta, comparing Fassbinder with Pasolini, muses on people who “derive special spiritual and creative power from their excesses.” Actor Elisabeth Trissenaar shapes a similar sentiment from Fassbinder's impatience during rehearsal: “[H]e lived for that extreme concentration that culminates in a single, brilliant moment.” I realize that these fragments don't end in a solution, but they seem to stumble toward one, to point the way.

Perhaps the answer is as simple as cinematographer Michael Ballhaus puts it, that “Fassbinder needed a certain tension born of spontaneity,” but another frequent observation complicates this view. Most of those who worked with him comment on the “borders,” the “boundaries” that Fassbinder pushed them across. They remark on “the reverence with which he laid bare the actor's soul,” on his “refreshingly blunt way of steering a person toward his own highest capacities,” on his “amazing antennae.” The films themselves often seem secondary, process elevated above artifact, the intersection of lives above the shadows recorded on film. Editor Juliane Lorenz puts it well:

[H]e had a special talent for forcing others to live up to their creative potential. He felt responsible for them. He turned those people into actors, production managers, and so on. Nobody starts out as a star or an actor, an editor, whatever. You need somebody who believes in you, and that really means love.

Whether or not shooting a scene seventy times to get even with someone amounts to “love,” Chaos as Usual conveys the enormous passion that Fassbinder brought to his work. More conventional approaches may fill the gaps that an interview leaves behind, but they will have a hard time matching the adrenaline of this book, the spirit of Fassbinder mixed up in it somehow, alive and on the go.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 4, Winter (#8) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997

Commodify Your Dissent

Commodify Your Dissent edited by Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland
Salvos From The Baffler
edited by Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland
W. W. Norton ($15)

by Christopher Sorrentino

Throughout its run, The Baffler has been a consistently engrossing and frequently persuasive journal of cultural criticism, loaded with a kind of edgy intelligence, far from the soi-disant “irreverence” of the day, that barely contains its anger. Its insistence that something is very wrong in post-Reagan America is striking in the midst of these Pollyanna times when criticism per se is equated with mean-spiritedness—particularly now that the language of dissent has been co-opted by that admixture of commercial interests The Baffler calls the “Culture Trust,” and now that the latest slew of manufactured heart's-desires are marketed not simply as shiny new additions to your collection of status counters but as gateways to liberation. The Baffler coheres around the broader sense of this co-optation as it relates to American life and its components, including the farcical Lifestyle Debates engendered by the “alternative” and “Gen X” fiascoes, management theory and business culture, the funny money stock market, the rotting slum/theme park duality of the contemporary city, and the labor movement—none of which, according to The Baffler, can be discussed before acknowledging the might of a culture business that buries everything except its own toxic iridescence beneath the soft snow of its droppings. As its editors write in their introduction to Commodify Your Dissent, an anthology drawing from past issues of The Baffler, “contemporary capitalism has marshaled the forces of culture . . . to ensconce itself in power and to insulate itself from criticism to an almost entirely unprecedented extent.” The Baffler penetrates this insularity and abrades what's beneath, attempting a genuine critique while furiously shadowboxing with the static and interference created by the Culture Trust's stylemakers.

So why is Commodify Your Dissent a disappointing anthology? Maybe it's unfair to judge such a compilation against the virtues of its source—it's a truism that the anthology reviewer is faced only with what's included—but the source should at least serve as a standard, and Commodify Your Dissent falls a little short. Space must have been an issue, and I suspect that editors Tom Frank and Matt Weiland forfeited the variety offered in the magazine in a bid to present a unanimous vision in the anthology—in fact, eight of the twenty-three pieces collected here were authored or co authored by Frank, and nine of the others also are by Baffler editors (a staff-to-outsider ratio far greater than is typical of the magazine). Too bad—the anthology suffers from its lack of outside contributors, and although the editors write of their determination to confront power “in the most direct manner,” part of The Baffler's strength lies in its willingness to be indirect at times; its inclusion of subtly allusive commentaries that balance the frontal assault. And it's as a frontal assault that this anthology is submitted, from “Opening Salvo” to “Closing Blast.” While The Baffler is perhaps most rousing when it's as immediate as these martial metaphors suggest, the results of a hot-off-the-griddle approach sometimes age poorly, and the inclusion of certain essays—e.g., Keith White and Frank's supremely overheated “Twenty-Nothing” (1992)—is questionable. Commodify Your Dissent usually hits home when it drops the cultural combat stance and takes an oblique approach to concentrate on a specific subject, as with Jennifer Brostrom's “The Time Management Gospel,” Stephen Duncombe's “I've Seen the Future—and It's A Sony!”, Dave Mulcahey's “Leadership and You,” and Steve Albini's delightfully tart “The Problem with Music.” Commodify Your Dissent also has the unintended effect of underscoring some of The Baffler's dopier biases, muted enough over the course of a few issues but distinct here. Swipes at fatigued bogeymen like “Academia,” “Postmodernism,” and “Theory” appear frequently, lacking in nearly every instance an exact definition of what's being denounced. And when the early Beats are treated to not one but two special shellackings, each conflating their work with the media's continued infatuation with them, you begin to suspect that Commodify Your Dissent is peering under the bed for what it calls “lifestyle liberals.”

Funny, infuriating, fresh, dogmatic, startling, perceptive: Commodify Your Dissent is each of these things. But I still think that the best Baffler collection is any given issue of the magazine (which I recommend without hesitation): I gradually realized that I was reading an anthology that, for whatever reason, rarely probes issues of race, class, and poverty, of the epidemic inequity of the world. Though there are exceptions to this (notably Kim Phillips's striking “Lotteryville, USA” and Frank's convincingly bleak closer, “Dark Age”), the critique that emerges from a volume that's at its most scathing when it's kvetching about Pearl Jam and Madonna is a narrow one indeed. The editors acknowledge that there's a boundary to that critique, and it would belabor the obvious to do more than suggest that this boundary is perhaps most plainly demarcated by the fact of the anthology's publication by a trade house, even as it speaks of “corroding the machine, filing down the teeth of the gears.” Of course, like the famous cigar, sometimes a trade edition is only a trade edition, and as the editors write, “we suspect that political change is going to require actual politics.” So do I.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 4, Winter (#8) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997

KATHY ACKER (1944-1997)

Kathy Acker

Kathy Acker

by Joshua Beckman

In Tijuana, Mexico, on Saturday November 29 at 1:30 in the afternoon, Kathy Acker, novelist, performance artist, and first wonder of the underground world, passed away at the age of 53. Suffering for eighteen months from breast cancer, and after two mastectomies, she eventually moved to an alternative cancer treatment center, where she fought for the last four weeks of her life. It is not, however, this struggle that we will remember her for.

Born in 1944, Acker was the child of German-Jewish parents, who lived on New York's ritzy Sutton Place and made their money in the glove business. Despite a trust fund that helped to support her, life there was far from easy. Her father abandoned the family just before she was born and her mother took her own life thirty years later. At eighteen, Acker left the house and supported herself by becoming a stripper. It was around this time that she began writing. In her first book, The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula, she began an investigation that would continue through the rest of her work, writing, "Intention: I become a murderess by repeating in words the lives of other murderesses." It was her desire to bring to life the fluid and political nature of identity.

In her most famous book, Blood and Guts in High School, she describes the main character's father as her "boyfriend, brother, sister, money, amusement, and father." The reader must move wildly around as the characters become different people, or simply show the different people they are. Her characters, not unlike Gertrude Stein's, twist themselves, through strange repetition, into new ways of being. In an interview with S. Lotringer she spoke of her world as both mythical and modern, "In my world people don't even remember their names, they aren't sure of their sexuality, they aren't sure if they can define their genders." It is not confusion, but complexity, and in life she played on these borders as well, her gold-toothed grin and leather jacket making its way through contemporary philosophy as easily as San Francisco sex clubs.

Criticized and censored for her experimental nature and the incorporation of other writers' texts into her work, she explains, "What I'm doing is simply taking text to be the same as the world, to be equal to non-text." "I wanted to explore the use of the word I . . . So I placed very direct autobiographical, just diary material, next to fake diary material. I tried to figure out who I wasn't." She believed in words and in the text's limitlessness, its ability to live beyond the control of its creator. While this did not win her many friends in staid literary circles, she did excite a community of artists and philosophers who had already begun to tackle issues of appropriation and subjectivity.

In her last years, her ambition to "understand the fullness of what it is to be human" did not waver. She left San Francisco to be with a lover in England, went on tour with the Mekons (who had made a companion CD to her book Pussy, King of the Pirates), and even wrote an article about her cancer experience called "The Gift of Disease." Her long obsession with body work (specifically weight training) turned into a quest for alternative cures, and though this quest has tragically ended with her passing, it is this unceasing curiosity, this determination to push her own fiercely personal work deeper, that will live on and continue to challenge everyone who dares to pick up her books.

Click here to purchase Blood and Guts in High School at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 4, Winter (#8) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997

The Writer Reads: Stephen Dixon on Thomas Bernhard

“The Plug”

By Stephen Dixon

I did a coupla readings for my last novel, Gould, and at one of them a guy in the audience said "Were you influenced by Thomas Bernhard?" and I said "Why, because of the long paragraphs? To tell you the truth, I know he has a great reputation but I started two Bernhard books and I didn't think he did the long paragraph that well. They were repetitive, a bit formally and almost too rigidly written, and I often lost track of the story in them, and other things why I didn't like them, although what, I forget." "No," he said, "or maybe that, but also because Gould is a character in one of his books too, The Loser. I just thought it was too much of a coincidence that you hadn't read a lot of him and been influenced," and I said "Gould? That guy's name in his book is Gould? I thought I made up that forename," and he said "Glenn Gould," and I said "No, my character is Gould Bookbinder and he doesn't play the piano though I think he does love Bach above all composers and especially the composition Gouldberg Variations," and he said "That's another thing. The first part of your novel is about variations of a single theme, abortions, right?—or that's what you said," and I said, "So, another coincidence. But you made me interested; I'll read The Loser." I didn't, though, but a month later a colleague of mine asked if I'd ever read Bernhard's The Loser andI said "Why, because of the long paragraphs, though he only seems to have one paragraph a book, and because of the name Gould, though I don't know if you know—" and she said "I do: first name, not last name. But I was thinking you'd like him. The two of you do a lot of the same things. The urban settings, dark but comical nature of your characters, their dislike of so many things, though your narrators for the past ten years of your work have been fathers to the extreme as well as loyal husbands, while none of his main characters seem to have children and they never marry either or have sex, at least not in the books," and I said "This is a double coincidence, your bringing up The Loser and someone at a recent reading bringing it up, or maybe 'coincidence' isn't the right word. And sure, I understand it: Gould, the name, and my love for losers, and the long paragraph, so I'm going to read that book, I promise; the next book I start will be The Loser." "What're you reading now?" she said and I said "I forget; what am I reading now? It can't be too interesting if I don't know what it is. It isn't interesting, in fact, so I'm going to buy a copy of his book today." Usually I put things like this off, or just forget it, but this time I didn't. I have to have a book to read and The Loser sounded like the one, but more out of curiosity, which isn't a good reason for me to read a book, than because I was interested in it as literature. So I bought it that day, started it that night, and loved it. There's my literary criticism. The single paragraph worked. So did Glenn Gould as a supporting character and Horowitz in the background. The book was funny and deep and crabby and dark and obsessive. He had his Gould and I had mine and the coincidence of the two of us using the same name, though his last but first and mine first but second, and intrigued, maybe for the same reason—I don't know what his is but mine is that I can't write anything anymore but in a single paragraph—by the long paragraph is, well . . . I lost my thought and apologize for the disarray. I liked it because it was intelligent, or should I say "I also liked it because," and it was short, though took me a long time to finish, relatively speaking, since my eyes aren't what they used to be and eyeglasses don't do what they used to do for me and my body gets tireder faster than it used to and after a long day of work, and every day seems to be a long day of work, only a little of it my writing, I don't have that much time to read the book, which is the only way I like to read: I want to read it, I want to read him. And after I read it I wanted to immediately read another Bernhard book, that's the effect the first one had, so I got Woodcutters and read that and loved it and thought it was better than The Loser, funnier, crabbier, darker, more opinionated and artistic, he did things in this he didn't in the other, trickier literary things: the guy sitting in the chair three quarters of the book, never getting out of it, just observing and thinking about what he observes, like someone out of Beckett's novels but better, though Bernhard must have lifted it from Beckett, at least spiritually—do I know what I'm saying? Let me just say there was a very Beckettian feeling about Woodcutters. Anyway, after that one I immediately got another one, Yes, and didn't much like it—it was older Bernhard, early Bernhard, it didn't take the risks, it didn't compel me to read, and it had paragraphs, I think, and I got The Lime Works and it was only so-so, and I thought "Have I read the very best of Bernhard or is it that his later works are better than his early ones?" and so got Old Masters, one of the last books of Bernhard, I think, and thought that the best one, again the man sitting in a chair, though it's a couch in a museum, and it was even more vitriolic than Woodcutters, and next immediately read Concrete and thought that a very good one and I'm now reading Correction and liking it and I will probably read The CheapEaters, without even thinking "early, late, middle Bernhard," what do I care anymore? I just want to continue to read the guy, though a German professor at Hopkins where I teach told me there are more than twenty Bernhard novels, not all of them translated but all of them to be translated, and I told her maybe that'll be too many for me to read, but you never know. I asked this woman "By the way, this Austrian writer Stifter, he mentions in Old Masters, he's not a real person, is he?" and she said "Oh yes, very famous, a traditionalist, not too well known in America," and I said "Amazing what Bernhard gets away with. Imagine an American writer working into his texts such excoriations of other writers, including contemporaries, which Bernhard does too. And knocking the Academy and prize givers, as Bernhard does in almost all his books: in America writers claw each other to get prizes and, you know, throw up on the hands that pin the medals on their chests and stuff the checks into their pockets. Some of his thoughts are a bit odd and wrongheaded if not occasionally loony," I said, "but most I agree with. And after reading a lot of him, in addition to all the other similarities people have mentioned—well, really, just two people—and I don't think the first ever read my work, just picked it up from the reading I gave and what was on the book jacket—is . . . oh, I forget what I was going to say." I want to end this by saying I haven't been so taken by one writer since I was in my mid-twenties and started reading everything Saul Bellow had written up till then. And in my early twenties, I read one Thomas Mann book after the other, probably not completing his entire oeuvre but getting close. And before that, when I was eighteen, I read everything of Dostoevski's that had been translated. And I forgot Joyce and my mid-twenties when I read everything he wrote, though his corpus wasn't by any means as large as Mann's or Dostoevski's. And one last note: Please don't think I'm writing this as a plug for my own Gould. Or that what I just said in that last sentence is an additional plug. I hate writers who plug their books, who sort of work in a reference to their books, especially the new ones, whenever they can. I only brought up my book because it's consequential to this inconsequential minor essay on Bernhard and that if I hadn't written a book called Gould I probably wouldn't have read The Loser and, of course, after that, another half-dozen Bernhard books. Did I use "inconsequential" right, then? Perhaps even to call this an essay is absurd, though to call it inconsequential and minor isn't. But I hope I just did what I always like to do and that's to belittle my own work and show myself as a writer who's part bumbling semimoron. And also done what I've never done in print before, so far as I can remember, and my memory isn't that good, and that is to plug the work of someone else and write even in the most exaggerated definition of the word an essay. "Exaggerated" isn't the word I meant, I think, but I'm sure you know what I mean even in my probable misuse of it.

Thomas Bernhard's latest book in English translation is The Voice Imitator, available from the University of Chicago Press. Stephen Dixon is the author of eighteen widely acclaimed works of fiction, including the National Book Award nominated Interstate.

Click here to purchase The Loser at your local independent bookstore
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Click here to purchase Interstate at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 4, Winter (#8) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997

Graphic Novels

The World of Graphic Novels

by Eric Lorberer

Comics, Comix, and Graphic Novels: A History of Comic ArtFor those who still think of comic books as being dog-eared denizens of drugstores and newsstands, there's a world of graphic novels beyond the wire rack. The latest milestone in the effort to get this point across is Roger Sabin's Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels (Phaidon Press, $59.95); with illustrations on every one of its pages, the book is a lavish production you'll be proud to put on your coffee table. But it's also a conversational and accessible tour through the murky, cultish, and sometimes complicated history of this marginalized art form, and therein lies its strength. Passing on the tired debate about whether comics are "Art," Sabin looks at the growth of the medium and finds that comics—from Mad magazine to Japanese manga—show development, innovation, and a profound engagement with the culture that habitually ignores them.

It is in fact Sabin's appreciation of context that makes this book so winning. Understanding both the climate of reception (questions of audience, political and economic factors, race and gender issues, etc.) and that of production (aesthetic palates, changes in technology, marketing strategies), Sabin shows the form being molded by subtle or not-so-subtle pressures from both sides. After an excellent first chapter detailing the pre-and early history of comics, he then follows different strands down the timeline of history, a thematic approach that only loosely attempts an overall narrative for the industry's development. The book's middle chapters focus on the various kinds of content (humor, action, etc.) associated with the medium, and Sabin leaves these discussions open at crucial junctures, allowing him to pick up their threads in later chapters—and thus demonstrate how contexts of time and culture interact with and affect the content. Ultimately, it is the artists' growing desire for political and self- expression that comes to the fore as the industry becomes less (or at least differently) formulaic and more friendly to the creative impulses that seed these mass-produced texts.

For all the information packed in his prose, Sabin writes clearly and engagingly about this vast subject. The one aspect he rarely mentions is that of artistic technique, yet with so many different styles represented, one can simply keep an eye on the illustrations to see how motifs and structures repeat or get reinvented, how different approaches to line and text result in different effects. An excellent bibliography refers the reader to a panoply of books about comic art, ranging from critical exegeses by semiotic or Marxist theorists to works more concerned with the nitty-gritty by comic artists themselves. In a genre that is too often associated with its weaker products, Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels is a smart history of "the ten per cent of comics that make things interesting."

Much of that ten per cent is put out by the publisher NBM, whose "Comics Lit" imprint offers graphic novels of varying approach but consistent quality. The phrase might lead one to think these will be illustrated classics, along the lines of Moby Dick summed up in ahandful of four-color pages. Not so. Most of the works are original fictions, often by writers from Europe where, as Sabin points out, Hergé's Tintin comics blazed a trail for comics to be seen "as suitable for anyone between seven and seventy." And those that are closer to the classics spirit, such as Peter Kuper's adaptations of short stories by Kafka or Rick Geary's ongoing Treasury of Victorian Murder, are still worlds apart from the reductive approach of classics for kids. These books open out; they invite the reader to question the narration rather than be lulled by it; most importantly, they bring to the originating text a graphic approach that utterly complements it. Kuper's Give It Up! (NBM, $14.95), for example, brings his nightmarish woodcut style to Kafka's inimitable fables, creating tone poems of black humor the master would be proud of. Geary's Jack the Ripper (NBM, $14.95) is equally well executed, a dizzying array of detailed line drawings which tells the Ripper tale from the point of view of "an unknown British gentleman who lived in London during 1888-1889 and closely followed the increasingly savage killings." Based on actual journals, this personal, layman's perspective provides the perfect counterpoint to Geary's meticulously researched renderings. It should at least be briefly noted that both Kuper and Geary push the envelope of the very language of comics in their highly distancing lack of dialogue balloons.

Another variation of the classics illustrated genre is Martin Rowson's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (The Overlook Press, $26.95). Rowson's artwork is a dead-on imitation of eighteenth-century British satirical cartoonists (whose "skill for exaggeration and ironic juxtaposition of words and pictures set an aesthetic template that has endured to this day," Sabin rightly notes). But again, this is no easy version of the real thing; slashing and burning his way through Sterne's proto-postmodern text, Rowson peppers his Tristram Shandy with self-reflexive scenes of himself doing research on the "graphic thesis" we're reading. This leads the author/artist to match wits with "a merry troupe of leaping French deconstructionists," crash headlong into an Oliver Stone film version of the book, and so on. The spirit of Sterne's book animates this graphic novel so well that it should be a hit with English majors, but it's hard to imagine what anyone else would make of it.

Rowson's book is about as far away from comics as the graphic novel can get; more familiar territory can be found in Kingdom Come (DC, $14.95), a thought provoking morality play from the home of Superman, Batman, and other iconic heroes. This is what Sabin calls a "revisionist superhero story," a genre which takes a darker look at these costumed adventurers. DC arguably catapulted comics into the consciousness of adults with two such revisionist graphic novels released in 1986: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, which imagined a Blade Runner-ish future for the hero, portraying him as nearly psychotic by enhancing the obsessive, violent, and judgemental aspects of the character; and Watchmen, an intricately structured 400 page tale in which the heroes are as phony, conniving, egotistical—as complex—as the rest of us, and which definitively proved that "graphic novel" could be more than a marketing euphemism. Kingdom Come follows in this vein; when the paragons of humanity abdicate their social responsibility to do good they leave chaos in their wake, and end up nearly causing armageddon by fighting each other instead of the bad guys. It's not nearly as successful as its esteemed forebears—some elements of the revisionist approach seem to be wearing thin—but to anyone reared on the exploits of the "Justice League of America" it's still a new and sophisticated chapter in the reworking of a mythology. And while the auteur approach in comics is more prevalent in independent works it's evident even here; Kingdom Come is beautifully hand-painted rather than produced by the assembly line.

If books such as those mentioned above show how comics can explore the bombastic realm of mythos, Dan Clowes' Ghost World (Fantagraphics, $19.95) makes clear that the form has the potential to turn inward as well. Ghost World is a quiet tour de force; Clowes brings a haunted lyricism to the story of two teenage girls and their tortured search for self-definition. In any form it would be astonishing how well Clowes has captured the psyche of the iconoclastic Enid and her best friend Becky; in the graphic novel it's especially impressive that their pathos shines through the panels. And the ghost world is our world, of course, the one where we don't fit in; where other people become either our amusement or our pain; where our loved ones fill their heads with television transmissions instead of feelings. The television, in fact, is a major character in Ghost World, constantly on and saying nothing, and the entire story is cast in its eerie, monotonous blue light. Clowes' stark examination of personal angst and deftness with narrative bring to mind Bergman's Persona (check out that cover). Writing about Clowes' previous work—the more surreal but far less tender graphic novel Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron and the angry/ironic vignettes that appear in his regular comic Eightball—Sabin points out that unlike most comic artists, Clowes "was prepared to explore more abstract territory."

If you want to know more about individual artists' explorations, look no further than Dangerous Drawings (Juno Books, 24.95), an anthology of interviews that includes a wide range of "comix and graphix artists." While about half of those represented are other young turks who, like Clowes, are busy making the world of graphic novels a better place, it's good to hear from a few artists who remember when the "alternative" was "underground," and it's also good to hear from some young "fine" artists who have been powerfully influenced by comics. The book leads off with a lengthy conversation with Art Spiegelman, whose influence on comic art is so enormous that he's mentioned frequently throughout Sabin's book (only R. Crumb is mentioned more); his Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus gave the graphic novel its greatest taste of respectability, and his controversial covers for the New Yorker, discussed at length in this interview, showed the power of the art-punk aesthetic that unifies these otherwise very different artists. Editor Andrea Juno consistently asks the right questions; the book also includes lots of photographs and reproductions to offer visual aids to the discussion.

"In the end, if the official arbiters of taste will not acknowledge comics' cultural value, then at least this means that the form remains a 'free medium'—and there are not many of those left," writes Sabin. Yetlet's hope that his book and the other works mentioned here—along with the dozens of incredible comic artists not mentioned in this particular survey—get a little more recognition. Theirs is a literature whose power and potential are just now beginning to be explored. It would be a shame if no one were watching, because the world of graphic novels is far from a ghost world where only the old forms drone on.

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Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 4, Winter (#8) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997

Beyond the Outsider: an Interview with Colin Wilson

Colin Wilson- Photo by Maurice Basset

by Eric Lorberer and Kelly Everding

Colin Wilson burst onto the literary scene in 1956 with the publication of The Outsider; since then he has written over 100 books in nearly every conceivable genre. In the following interview, he talks at length about what led him to become such a prolific writer and about the ideas that run throughout his work.

Excerpts from this interview, as well as reviews of several of Wilson's recent books and an essay about his work, appear in the Winter 1997 issue of Rain Taxi. Purchase this issue now!

Rain Taxi: Tell us a bit about your background, the publication of The Outsider, and the backlash that ensued. Did it affect your writing in any way?

Wilson: My background was working class: my father was a boot and shoe worker who earned about three pounds a week throughout the 1930s—about ten dollars in modern money. He was a kind of determined anti-intellectual; he'd been a boxer for awhile, but he lost the fight that would have turned him into a professional. He was a born countryman, really, but unfortunately lived in a city and had to work in a factory all his life. The result was that there wasn't an enormous amount of money around. Fortunately, I was very bright at school, and won a scholarship to a secondary school, which is the kind you have to attend in order to go on to university. I'd become fascinated by science at the age of ten—I read nothing else for years, except science fiction, which I managed to get a hold of during the war, those old American magazine such as Amazing Stories, which you could get on exchange in various shops in Leicester. I wanted to become a second Einstein. Unfortunately, I left school without the necessary number of credits. I was invited to take the exam over again, but this was going to be several months away. So when I left school in July 1947, I went to work in a wool factory, which was the first job offered me by the employment exchange. It was heavy work, lugging around crates of wool, and I hated it—it started at six in the morning, finished at six in the evening, and it seemed to me to be completely exhausting and boring.

I had by this time discovered poetry—not at school, where we didn't get taught much of it, but through a book called Practical Knowledge For All, which I bought at a church bazaar, and which contained courses on all sorts of subjects, from aeronautics and biology to philosophy. So in this state of total depression at my prospects, at the notion of having to work like a bloody rat on a treadmill for the rest of my life at jobs I hated, I used to go home in the evening, completely miserable, take myself off to my bedroom, and read poetry. I'd start off by reading the most depressing poetry I could find, things like Eliot's "Waste Land" and "Hollow Men," James Thomson's "City of Dreadful Night," the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, like "For Annie," in which he says the best thing is to be dead. But of course this poetry would exercise a kind of cathartic effect, so that after about a half hour of reading I began to get more and more cheerful, and I'd end up by reading poems like Milton's "L'Allegro" and the love lyrics of James Herrick. I was also at that time reading a great deal of Shakespeare, and I absorbed that the same way as everything else. I hadn't yet developed a dislike of Shakespeare because of his basic pessimism. And of course the other person I admired tremendously was Shaw—I read my way completely through Shaw from beginning to end.

Anyway, one day when I called at school to return some mathematics books I'd borrowed, the headmaster offered me a job as a lab assistant, and this seemed absolutely wonderful: doing school hours, not having to work Saturdays, etc. But I soon discovered, to my horror, that I'd completely lost interest in science! There were some ways I found school as depressing as factory: my physics master was a real bastard who took every opportunity to be nasty. In due course, the exams came and it became completely apparent that I'd lost my interest in science; the headmaster came and said, you know, do you want to stay and pull your socks up, and I said no it's no good, I'm sorry, I just don't have any interest in science anymore. So I left school. I went to the labor exchange and they recommended me to take a job in the civil service, in a tax office. I found that even more boring than the factory or school; there was nothing very interesting to do except sit and file tax forms. What I wanted to do was use my mind: I wanted to write. I had started a journal; I bought a huge notebook and just began pouring my thoughts and feelings into it—which is an excellent way of learning to write. I particularly poured my depressions into it, and one day when I'd been writing about my absolute fury with this bloody physics master, I suddenly decided to commit suicide. I went off to school, to the evening class in analytical chemistry; I went over to the reagent shelf, took down a bottle of potassium cyanide, took off the stopper, and I was about to swallow it when I suddenly had an extremely clear vision of a few seconds in the future, of a horrible burning in the pit of my stomach, and therealization that I would have done something irrevocable. Oddly enough, it was as if I were two persons: I could see this little idiot Colin Wilson with all his stupid emotional problems, but there was also me, and I didn't give a damn whether Colin Wilson killed himself or not—except that if he did, he'd kill me too! And quite suddenly I was overwhelmed by a tremendous feeling of exultation. I put the bottle back on the shelf and rejoined the other students, and for two days I felt an immense sense of euphoria, which only gradually leaked away.

Anyway, the civil service was a horrible bore; I took my exams and to my disgust passed them easily, and became an established civil servant. I went to a town called Rugby which was extremely peaceful and which I hated, and worked there in the tax office, disliking that as much as I disliked everything. By that time I was almost 18, and the time came for me to do my national service; I went into the RAF, where the first eight weeks were spent square-bashing, and suddenly I felt absolutely fine: I was using all my energies up, sleeping well at night, eating enormously, also doing a bit of writing when I got the chance, and life seemed much nicer. But unfortunately when the square-bashing was over they assigned me to an antiaircraft unit as a kind of clerk, and I was back in effect to the civil service. I got more and more bored and fed up, until finally one day, when I typed a letter and the adjutant suddenly shouted at me, this is absolutely filthy Wilson, aren't you ashamed of it, and I said furiously, no. The adjutant looked very surprised and told me to go and wait in his office, where to my surprise he was quite sympathetic and said, now you go and see the MO, and if he will say that you're emotionally unsuited to work as a clerk perhaps we can get you transferred into something you prefer. When I went to see the MO I suddenly had an inspiration: I told him I was a homosexual, which I wasn't, but I knew all about homosexuality because one of my closest friends in Leicester, a character called Allan Bates, was homosexual and sort of a cultured type, and we got on tremendously well. He always said he wanted me to be his lover and all the rest of it, but of course it did just not appeal to me.

To cut a long story short, within about six weeks I was out of the RAF. I had that feeling that fate was deliberately hunting me from pillar to post when I read those lines in W.B. Yeats: "They are plagued by crowds until / They've the passion to escape." I had the feeling that this was what fate was doing to me: plaguing me until I had the passion to escape. I vowed I would never again work in an office. The first thing I did was get a job at a building site; I felt at least hard physical labor was better than sitting in an office with that increasingly stifling feeling. My father was absolutely horrified at this job, and several others—I also worked as a nabby, which is a ditch-digger in America, and my father thought, my God, the clever one in the family, and here I was working as a nabby. The result was that one night he suddenly told me to get out; I borrowed a few pounds from my grandmother and pushed off on the road. I hitchhiked down to Kent where I got a job as an apple-picker, was allowed to sleep in a derelict cottage whose roof had huge holes in it, and after this, on to Dover, and managed to get across to France with less than a pound in my pocket. I spent some weeks in Paris at the so-called Academy of a man called Raymond Duncan, who was the brother of the famous dancer Isadora. He wanted to teach me how to live according to his principles which he called Actionalism, which is basically be as much of an intellectual as you like but be capable of building a house if necessary, or mending pipes, or anything else. And I quite agree with him actually, but it didn't work out: I got bored there. I was always bored because what I wanted was to be a writer.

I came back from France finally, got a job in Leicester in a steel foundry, and there I met the works nurse, a girl called Betty: she ended by inviting me back to her flat and I ended by seducing her. To once again cut a long story short, my parents insisted that I marry her, and so, again to my disgust, I found myself a married man at the age of 19. I went to London, succeeded in finding a home for us after a great deal of effort; Betty moved down and had the baby, a little boy, Roderick, but in those days landladies didn't like babies or pets, so we moved several more times over the next 18 months. At the end of this time Betty went back to stay with my parents while I stayed on to look for a place for us, by now thoroughly fed up with the whole business. I'd been working in factories throughout my marriage, and I was also busily writing. Betty borrowed some money from her mother so we could take a flat, and the Irish woman who was letting it seemed to me a nice person, but when we'd agreed to take it Betty sent me a telegram saying she'd changed her mind, simply because the Irish woman refused to have a legalized agreement—I assume she was probably right although I trusted the woman. And that really was the end of our marriage. I was quite relieved, and shortly thereafter I went to France, so I suppose technically speaking I deserted her, although in fact she'd written me a letter saying she was sick of the marriage too. I ended up in Paris; Bill Hopkins, a writer I'd met in London, came to join me there for a bit; he was trying to launch a magazine and wanted to explore French printers to see if they were cheaper. Finally, in August or September 1963—I'd been separated from Betty since January—I came back and went to work in a large store in Leicester called Lewis'. On my first day there, the girl who took the new trainees up in the lift, she was a slim girl, I didn't find her particularly pretty, I thought her nose was rather large, but I expected her to talk with this horrible Leicester accent—the equivalent of the deep south accent in America—and in fact when she spoke with a sort of cultured voice, and she had the sweetest smile I'd ever seen, she absolutely beamed good nature. I was completely smitten, but I could see she'd had an engagement ring on, so I just suppressed this feeling of, you know, my God she's adorable, but in point of fact although she was engaged to a student she'd known at Trinity College Dublin and was about to go and marry him in Canada, things worked out so that she ended by coming to London with me instead. And of course we're still together after 44 years, largely because she's so good tempered—I'm not difficult too live with but I do tend to get rather impatient being a workaholic.

Anyway, I moved back to London, quit or got sacked from various jobs . . . I really had that feeling of being driven from pillar to post by sheer frustration. The frustration that had been going on for seven years seemed like it had been going on for eternity. I got the sudden idea: I was spending about three or four pounds a week on rent, but why didn't I instead buy myself a tent and sleep out in the open, in one of London's parks or something. And this I did. At first I slept in a field opposite the factory that I was about to leave, but then I realized the tent was rather visible and that it would be much simpler if I got myself a waterproof sleeping bag. I left all my books and that sort of thing with Joy, who'd started working in a big store down in Oxford Circus, and subsequently
became a librarian. She also got thrown out of one lodging because the landlady objected to me turning up at about eight in the morning to have breakfast with her. (Joy also had a series of neurotic landladies.) Finally I began to go down to the British Museum and began to work on my first novel, Ritual in the Dark. I'd sleep on Hampstead Heath, leave at daylight and cycle down the hill to a little cafe where I could get tea and bread and dripping for about sixpence, and then go on to the British Museum and spend the day, for example, reading up on the actual accounts of the Jack the Ripper murder cases in the Times for 1888, because Ritual in the Dark was based on a sex killer. I discovered in the British Museum a book called The Sadist, which is about a sex killer who'd committed a number of murders in Dusseldorf during the 1920's, and I got this out and read it with absolute absorption, as it once again provided me with the kind of background I needed for my novel. I should mention that I'd started this novel when I was still married to Betty, and had gone around the East End looking at all the Jack the Ripper murder sites that still existed.

When the winter came, having got soaked once or twice, I was forced to move indoors again. And it was when Joy went home for Christmas—I didn't have enough money to go to Leicester—that stuck in my room, eating egg and bacon and tomato for my Christmas dinner, I suddenly got the idea for a book called The Outsider in Literature, and began taking notes for it in the back of my diary, which I still have. This got me quite excited; I wanted to show just how many Outsiders there are in literature, these people who you might call 'in-betweeners', people who are a little too intelligent to put up with the kinds of jobs and lives they're expected to endure in modern society, and yet not intelligent enough to be able to dictate their own terms. But I could also see that all people who are, so to speak, in the wrong place, in the wrong position, are Outsiders. So it was not only these people who fell between two schools, but people like Fitzgerald's Gatsby, who in practice is a bootlegger and a gangster yet who nevertheless is a total romantic. That was what fascinated me, the Romantics of the nineteenth century, and what has been called the eternal longing: this feeling that there must be a better way to live than this, that these moments of ecstasy, these moments of deep peace and serenity which I experienced when reading poetry, must be attainable on a more everyday commonplace basis. It seemed intolerable only to be able to experience this when reading poetry, or in what William James calls "melting moods," and have to spend the rest of your time working at some job you hate. Again, a character like Hamlet is a typical Outsider: he's stuck in a kind of emotional position which he finds completely disagreeable. I agree with Shaw's analysis of Hamlet, which is that according to the old code of morality he ought to be murdering his uncle and perhaps even his mother, and yet he instinctively feels that this is not the right thing to do; he's living by another code of morality, a higher code.

As soon as Christmas was over, I cycled down to the British Museum to work on The Outsider in Literature, and as I was cycling there, I remembered a book I'd read by Henri Barbusse called Under Fire, about the first world war. It mentioned in the introduction that Barbusse had first become famous when he'd written a novel called L'EnferHell—about a man living in a boarding house who discovers a little hole through which he can see into the next room, and he spends all his days watching the people come and go in the next room, and he really struck me as the archetypal Outsider, looking through a hole into other people's lives. So when I got to the Museum I found L'Enfer, read it through from about mid-morning until about three in the afternoon, and then simply copied out a passage of the book: "In the air, on top of a tram, a girl is sitting. Her dress, lifted a little, blows out. . . ." I found this very interesting because the sexual theme was basic in my work. Ritual in the Dark was about that; there was a scene in which the hero, Gerard Sorme, has spent the afternoon making love to his girlfriend about seven times, and is utterly sexually exhausted, and thinks, isn't it wonderful to be finally free of this perpetual sexual itch, and then he goes out to get the milk from the doorstep of the basement, and looking up can see up the skirt of this girl who's passing the area railings, and instantly experiences a wild desire. So I knew absolutely what Barbusse meant, this business about "It is not a woman I want—it is all women."

By this time, I was working in a laundry; it was sort of a dreary laboring job which involved lifting tin baths on and off a moving belt all day long, and if you weren't careful you slashed your hands because a lot of them were very rusty. What finally disgusted me with the laundry was, I had a pocket sized journal, which I filled with ideas and so on, and this was stolen one day; probably whoever stole it had opened it casually and seen some reference to sex, and took it away. I was so angry about this I even offered a reward, but it never turned up. So I gave my notice, went to the labor exchange, and was told that a new coffeehouse was opening in the Haymarket, and that they wanted a washer-up. So I signed on. And I found this a very pleasant job after all the previous jobs I had; quite suddenly fate had ceased to harrow me. Most of the other people working there were young drama students, and this was very pleasant; I'd always worked among working men and women, and to be around students hoping to become the great actor or actress was tremendously stimulating, and I felt perfectly at home among them, since I was determined to become a great writer. By this time I had written the first three chapters of The Outsider, starting off with Barbusse, then going on to talk about Sartre and then Wells' Mind at the End of its Tether. Fortunately my reading had been very eclectic; I'd also been lucky in stumbling upon the kind of thing that I needed. I'd admired Nietzsche since I was about 15, and had bound my copy of Thus Spake Zarathustra in soft leather so that I was able to carry it around in my pocket like a bible. The other book that deeply influenced me was the Bhagavad Gita, which I came across through a reference in T.S. Eliot. I found when I was 16, working in the lab at school, that if I sat and meditated for three-quarters of an hour a day, and that if I got up very early in the morning and took a long run and then walked into town to school instead of taking the bus, that I just felt much fresher and happier. I'd always been fascinated by religion, particularly by religions like Buddhism and Taoism. I'd had this desire to know everything, so when I came across a huge volume called The Bible of the World, I borrowed it and read huge chunks of it, and when I found an abridged edition called The Pocket World Bible, I carried that around with me for years. All of this was poured into The Outsider, as well as all my reading about existentialism: I'd discovered Kierkegaard, read Camus' La Peste when I was married, then came across his L'Estranger, which in England is translated as The Outsider. I also been fascinated by Van Gogh for years, and read his letters, and a life of him, and had books with reproductions of his paintings, and was really quite obsessed by him as well as by Beethoven. And George Fox, founder of the Quaker movement. All these Outsider figures were my heroes.

Now, Joy and I went down to Canterbury Cathedral sometime in the spring of 1955. We wandered into a secondhand shop and I came across a book by Victor Gollancz called A Year of Grace, which was a religious anthology. I bought this for a few pence, and thought, ah, Gollancz would probably understand what The Outsider is all about, and so I carefully typed up the first chapter—in fact, an introduction to the book which is no longer there—and also typed out a chunk from the middle of the book, from the chapter about T.E. Lawrence. I sent these off to Gollancz, and to my great surprise and delight, I received a letter back from him saying, this seems to be a very interesting book, we'd like to see it when you've finished it. At that time, my mother suddenly became very ill—her appendix exploded and she had peritonitis and it looked for awhile as if she wouldn't live—so I rushed up to Leicester, but before I went I went into the office of Victor Gollancz in Covent Garden and asked his secretary if I could leave the half of the book that I'd written and typed up, and she said, no, Mr. Gollancz won't look at unfinished manuscripts and I said, look, I may be gone for months, and I finally persuaded her. Fortunately my mother didn't die—she pulled through, after a near death experience in which she felt an angel appeared to her and said, no, it's not your time to die yet. By the time I got back to London I found a letter waiting from Victor Gollancz saying he would definitely publish the book, and he suggested a better title would simply be The Outsider, and, you know, would I get on and finish it. This overjoyed me but at the same time made me terribly nervous; I was sure that he wouldn't like the rest of the book and that it would all fall through. I plodded on; Joy and I came on holiday to Cornwall that August; I felt it wonderful, that sensation of freedom, and that things were changing, that life was becoming interesting and was no longer harrying me, hunting me from pillar to post. I took various jobs during this period, moved into a room in Notting Hill Gate, a battered house that badly needed repairs, and I was in that house in May 1956 when The Outsider finally appeared.

I'd already had some signs that it was likely to be successful; I'd been sent along to be interviewed by some nice journalist, and he immediately went for this whole business about sleeping on Hampstead Heath; I was at a party and met a young Scotsman who said he'd read The Outsider and thought it was a wonderful book; I said, how did you manage to read it, and he said he'd got hold of a proof. His name was James Burns Singer and he was a poet, and he invited me the next day to go with him when he went down to the magazine Encounter to pick up a check, which he then cashed, and he went out on a binge taking me with him. It was the first time I'd seen the Scots' capacity for consuming alcohol. He was a brilliant poet but died a few years later. On Sunday morning May the 26th 1956, Joy was staying over, and we got up at about eight o'clock, hurried down to the corner and bought the two leading Sunday posh newspapers, The Sunday Times and The Observer, and both turned out to have rave reviews of The Outsider. One by Cyril Connelly and the other by Philip Toynbee, both the major reviewers of those papers. Then somebody told me there'd been a review in the Evening Standard the night before; the headline read, "He's a major writer and he's only 24." Success—within hours the phone was ringing nonstop. First my editor from Gollancz saying an awful lot of people wanted my phone number—well I hadn't got a phone, but the people in the basement had, and they agreed to take calls, and they must have quickly regretted it, because all kinds of people rang up: Life magazine rang up wanting to do an interview, television rang up wanting me to appear on TV, and so on, all day long.

And suddenly there I was leading a completely different sort of life, being invited out to lunch with publishers and professors, meeting journalists and well known actors, being invited to parties and the opening of art shows. Now I must confess that in a funny way I did not enjoy all this; I've always been very much a loner. Yeats said in a poem, "How can they know / Truth flourishes where the student's lamp has shone, / And there alone, that have no solitude?" And I'd lost my solitude. My TV appearances made my face well known; there was nonstop publicity. This was partly due to the fact that a man called John Osborne had written a play called Look Back in Anger, which had gone on at the Royal Court a few days before publication of The Outsider. So in the same Sunday papers that hailed The Outsider there were rave reviews of Look Back in Anger. The reason that we made such a literary impact was that since the war there hadn't really been many new writers in England. There'd been Angus Wilson, a writer in the British Museum who'd actually been very sympathetic to me; he'd been the superintendent of the reading room. And there'd been the so-called Red Brick School, the university novelists, Kingsley Amis and Iris Murdoch, but they had not appealed to the general public, whereas Osborne and myself were suddenly in the popular tabloids all the time. Journalists would ring me up and say, what do think of the seams in ladies stockings? Somebody wrote to me asking about my publicity methods, and how did I get so much? I replied that I knew as much about getting publicity as a football knows about scoring goals.

After a few weeks I noticed that the whole thing was beginning to turn sour; that kind of silly publicity really made the serious critics utterly sick. One of the persons I appeared on TV with was a friend called Dan Farson, son of a writer who'd been famous in the thirties, Negley Farson. When Dan applied for a job in television they said, who do you know, and he said, well I know Colin Wilson, and they said, okay, if you can get an interview with him we'll give you the job. So Dan came along to my flat with a camera crew and I was eating when he arrived, and I went on with the interview munching an apple. This was something that everybody noted, and endlessly commented on. It was Dan in a way who really started my downfall: I was down at his father's house in Devon, and Dan was interviewing me for a new magazine called Books and Art, and he was deliberately asking silly questions, things like, do you consider yourself a genius? And I said, I do think it's quite important to believe in yourself; people like T.E. Lawrence who didn't ended by being destroyed by their lack of self belief. It's much better to believe in yourself, even if you're wrong, like Keats' friend Benjamin Robert Hayden who thought he was a great painter and quite definitely was not, or the 19th century poet Bailey, who wrote a giant poem called "Festus" which is appalling rubbish. But having uttered those provisos I said, yes, it's important to believe you have talent and possibly genius—Shakespeare didn't mind talking about his genius in his Sonnets—and Dan, ignoring everything I said, asked, are there any other geniuses in England, and I sort of rose to the bait and said, well there's my friend Bill Hopkins . . . the result was that this appeared in the magazine with the giant headline "Colin Wilson talks about: MY GENIUS" and of course this kind of thing just made the critics grind their teeth. I quickly noticed that the tone of reference to me in the press and changed within a few weeks; I'd been too successful. In Christmas 1956 when the expensive newspapers ran spreads about the best books of the year, no one mentioned The Outsider at all, except for Arthur Koestler, who added a little note on his paragraph: Bubble of the Year: The Outsider, in which a young man discovers that men of genius suffer from weltschmerz, meaning inner torment. That sort of snotty highbrow comment—oh we Europeans have known this for ages—was typical of Koestler. Later he became a friend, but that was typical of the comment being made at the time.

Early the following year, Joy went into hospital with tonsilitis, and I went up to see her. I'd left my bag with my journals in it on the table in the hall at her home, and while I was away her sister Fay came and read the journals. The following weekend Joy went to see her parents; as usual they nagged her nonstop about when were we going to get married. They'd been shocked to discover that she'd broken off her engagement to this fellow who'd gone off to Canada, and did their best to break the whole thing up; her father actually called on me at my lodgings and said, get out of town, Wilson—as if he'd had any right to say that sort of thing. But one day, in February 1957, while we were giving dinner to an old poof called Gerald Hamilton, who was Mr. Norris in Christopher Isherwood's novel Mr. Norris Changes Trains (in America,The Last of Mr. Norris), when suddenly the door burst open and in came Joy's family. Her mother, father, brother Neil, sister Fay, and her father shouted, the game is up, Wilson! It seems that Fay had told them from reading my journals that I was a homosexual and that I had six mistresses. I laughed and said, here's the journal, take it yourself, and he raised a horsewhip and tried to hit me with it; I gave him a push in the chest and he fell down; the mother shouted, how dare you hit an old man and began hitting me with her umbrella; I thought this was so funny I literally doubled up roaring with laughter and fell on the floor, whereupon Joy's mother proceeded to kick me! Anyhow, I managed to get to the phone and rang the police; they turned up in five minutes and said to Joy's parents, how old is she? They said, she's 24. The police said, well if she's 24 she can do what she likes. You'll have to leave this gentleman's flat because, you know, you're not allowed on other people's premises without their permission. Joy's family went off, and then I noticed that Gerald Hamilton had also disappeared. In about ten minutes there was a ring at the doorbell; I went down and it was a reporter and a photographer—obviously Gerald had rushed straight to the telephone and rung up all Fleet Street. I let them in, told them what had happened—thinking that this would be a kind of insurance from Joy's parents ever trying it again. But no sooner had we got rid of them then there were more below . . . so we decided to sneak out the back door and spend the night at a friend's. We then took a train down to Devon and stayed with Negley Farson. Meanwhile the press managed to get wind of where we were; Joy's father handed over my diaries to the Daily Mail, which published extracts without my permission; the Daily Express also wanted to publish chunks and because they were quite harmless, I told Bill Hopkins that he could edit them and give them to them for free. And that's what happened; they did a double page spread on the diaries of Colin Wilson, with a cartoon of me being chased by a woman waving a horsewhip, which was actually appropriate, because Joy's father is a very gentle person who hated the whole thing—Joy takes after him—and her mother was the moving force behind it. We were discovered by the press in Devon; we had to flee once again, to Ireland; we were generally in the papers all over the place . . . Joy by this time hated the press and didn't want anything to do with them. We were really pursued in the same way as poor old Princess Diana.

At this point, Victor Gollancz, my publisher, asked me to see him, and he said, for God's sake, get out of London or you'll never write another book. I took his advice. The man in the next room said he had a cottage in Cornwall which we could have for 30 bob a week—that's about $2.50—and we came down and looked at it, loved it, and we've been in Cornwall ever since. I persisted with my second book, Religion and the Rebel; I wanted to call it The Rebel, but Gollancz felt since my first book had been called The Outsider,, he didn't want to pinch another title of Camus', so he suggested Religion and the Rebel and I reluctantly agreed. When I completed the book I sent it along to Gollancz who was delighted with it, said he thought it was a major book and so on—he would of course, because it was centrally about religion and religious mystics. I turned to this aspect of the Outsider in reaction against all that publicity; it was my own assertion that "Truth flourishes where the student's lamp has shone." But when Religion and the Rebel finally came out in autumn of 1957, the critics were so sick of me that the book was panned viciously. Time magazine came out with an article labelled "Scrambled Egghead." Now strangely enough, it was a relief: I got so sick of having that spotlight beating on me for 18 months that to suddenly be once again in a dark corner brought a marvelous feeling of relaxation. I'd said in The Outsider that the whole point about an Outsider is that he goes his own way; he plods along, and refuses to be diverted by the insiders. So I thought it was incumbent upon me to do precisely that. But I must confess it was pretty hard work. I started to write a book with my two closest friends, Bill Hopkins and Stuart Holroyd, which was about the way that the hero has disappeared in modern literature, and that everything has been cut down to size. What I wanted to know was: why was it only possible to have heroes in comic books, like Superman or Batman, or in popular thrillers like the James Bond novels? Why is impossible for a serious writer to write a novel in which the hero ends by winning? Why are all modern heroes tragic? It really sprang out of something I observed in The Outsider: people in the 19th century, the great Romantics, had moments of marvelous ecstasy, in which they felt that the whole world was wonderful; then, when they woke up the next morning, couldn't remember what they meant by it, and felt that our moments of ecstasy are illusion, and the truth is this awful grim world that ends by killing you off. Hence the enormously high suicide rate in the 19th century among writers, philosophers, painters and musicians.

We'd been living in this little Elizabethan cottage for about two years; we asked our landlord whether he wanted it back again . . . since he couldn't be bothered to reply—a typical romantic poet!—we began looking for somewhere else to live. Or rather Joy did; I was staying at home finishing Ritual in the Dark, and she found a house with a for sale notice, but she said it's much too expensive for us—it's nearly 5,000 pounds, which is about $8,000—and in any case it's far too big and I said, good, lots of room for books. We succeeded in raising the cash because although Religion and the Rebel had been attacked so much it nevertheless sold about 10,000 copies, and that was enough for us to put down on a mortgage. We borrowed the rest, and moved into this house with literally about 20 pounds in the world. The Outsider made a fair amount of money; it had been translated into 16 languages, but then it only brought in about a shilling a copy—about 20 cents; it was obvious we weren't going to become rich on this. So we were and always have been permanently broke, which explains to a large extent why I've written so many books. My parents moved into this house with us but that turned out not to be a success, because my father, who'd always wanted to be a countryman, got terribly bored suddenly being out of work with nothing in particular to do except the things he'd always wanted to do, like going fishing and so on, and he just began to go to pieces and spent much too much time in the pub, until my mother insisted on returning to Leicester, which of course he hated even more. He found freedom demoralizing, but hated going back to the factory, with the result that over a longish period he got cancer and died. For which I've always felt partly responsible.

But fortunately, I've always had lots of ideas for books. There was a great deal that I wanted to say. Ritual in the Dark came out in 1960, and that was fairly successful—it didn't sell as well as The Outsider but it did sell quite well, went into paperback, was published in America, went into paperback there. And I began writing more books along this Outsider theme. I'd done this book called The Age of Defeat (in America The Stature of Man) talking about the disappearance of the hero and the need to find some new kind of basic belief that would enable us to create heroes again; now I went on to do a book called The Strength to Dream, which was a study of the imagination; this was followed by a book called Origins of the Sexual Impulse, a subject which, as I've said earlier, has always fascinated me; and then, Beyond the Outsider. These six volumes I called my "Outsider sequence" but of course the critics didn't relent. Many of them just ignored the books, others slammed them.

In the 1970's, I suppose I began to have a new lease on life when I became interested in the occult and the paranormal. In New York I'd met Norman Mailer who said, you need a good agent, that's your problem, and put me on to his agent, Scott Meredith. He wasn't actually able to do much for me but one thing he did do for which I'm eternally gratefully was to approach me with a commission from Random House to write a book about the occult. And I accepted it simply as a commission, as a way of making some money, without any real belief in the subject at all. To my astonishment, when I began to study the subject I found that I got more and more absorbed; before long, I realized that the paranormal has as secure a foundation as physics or chemistry. The great physicist John Wheeler at one point made a demand for all of the phonies, meaning the people who studied the paranormal, be thrown out of the temple of science. But he had not bothered to read up on the subject, he knew nothing about it, he was talking out of the top of his head. So the paranormal provided me with one more subject to plunge into.

Rain Taxi: You've written philosophy, history, biography, criticism and psychology, in addition to novels and plays. What is the common denominator in all your work?

Wilson: I've always been basically a writer of ideas. Ideas fascinate me. Most of my work has been about the question why are we alive and what are we supposed to do now that we are here? But then you could say that all of my work basically springs out of the idea of The Outsider. We experience certain moments in which we feel life is absolutely wonderful. I've noticed it particularly on holiday. We get that feeling that the world is so fascinating, and you say to yourself, ah no, that's just because you're on holiday. Then you take another look and say no it's not, it really is fascinating. Everything seems to remind you of something else. Consciousness seems to spread out in all directions. And this is the state, you realize, that consciousness should be in all the time—like a pond which, when you throw stones in, ripples all the way across. Instead, consciousness has a sort of quality like a very thick heavy jelly that just will not ripple. Human beings seem to suffer from a kind of tunnel vision, only aware of what is in front of their noses. As Huxley suggested in The Doors of Perception, our senses act as filters to prevent too much information from flooding in. The image I've always used is that of the cart horses I used to see pulling wagons in my childhood, whose eyes were covered in blinkers so they wouldn't become alarmed in the traffic. Now nature for some reason has given us the same kind of blinkers, which means we are forced to see the world through a very narrow little slot. So of course we've developed a very narrow, obsessive left brain consciousness, which is quite unlike the wider more easy going consciousness of animals, as Walt Whitman pointed out. And yet it has always seemed to me there's no point in looking back at the animal?that is what I said in The Outsider. No point in wishing we were in an earlier stage in our evolution; what we have to do is to use this kind of consciousness we have to push on until we suddenly break through to new heights.

I've always been fascinated by the historian Arnold Toynbee, who had described that on a number of occasions, being at some spot where there had been some great historic event, he'd suddenly experienced a clear sense of the event just as if it were happening at that very moment. He described being in the ruined citadel of Mistra in Greece which had been overrun in 1815 and had been empty ever since. He'd suddenly had this tremendously clear sense of the day this actually happened, when the inhabitants were massacred or driven out. But see, Toynbee needed a great deal of historical knowledge to be capable of that kind of insight, so it couldn't really be thought of as a kind of occult faculty of the kind that appears to be possessed by most animals. The wife of the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid once told me that their dog always knew when her husband was coming back from a long trip; he just sat at the end of the lane several days before he returned, and on one occasion even knew before he himself knew he was coming back. We human beings have got rid of these telepathic faculties. We don't need them. Substituted for them is a kind of narrow intensity, a thoroughly practical sort of vision. But you can see that in the case of Toynbee, that narrow intensity was able to enable him to virtually see the past, to raise consciousness to a new level of intensity. I've always called that Faculty X. And the example I've always given is that of Proust who in Swann's Way describes how his hero, coming in very tired one day, had taken a little cake called a madeleine and dipped it in herb tea, and as he tasted it suddenly experienced a wonderfully ecstatic sense of happiness, which he was able to pin down to the fact that the madeleine brought back his childhood with great clarity—he'd always been offered a madeleine when he came back from a long walk every Sunday by his Aunt Leone. In other words the madeleine made Proust suddenly aware of the reality of his past in the same way that Toynbee became aware of the reality of some historic event. So it has always seemed to me that the next step of human evolution is involved with what I call Faculty X.

Rain Taxi: Are the divisions between genres important to you? Your novels, like Dostoevsky's, tend to be novels of ideas.

Wilson: Like Dostoevsky I am perpetually asking this question: what is human existence all about? But Dostoevsky tended to be more pessimistic than I am; it seems to me that these moments of Faculty X and these moments Maslow calls "peak experiences" suddenly show us that life could become infinitely more interesting if only we could grasp how to do it, using this particular faculty we already possess, a faculty of concentration, of focus. But like Shaw, I've always believed that it's better to put ideas in a more palatable form—in Shaw's case, of course, plays—not simply for the sake of making them go down easier, but because you can say certain things in a novel or a play that just do not come over in a work of philosophy. Crime and Punishment has a power that is possessed by no work of philosophy that has ever been written. Shawalways said that the ideal philosopher is the artist-philosopher. I totally agree with him. Which is why I've always written just as many novels as works of ideas.

Rain Taxi: One of your many out-of-print works is intriguingly titled "Science Fiction as Existentialism." Can you tell us the basics of this unusual equation?

Wilson: That was based upon a piece I delivered as a lecture to some science fiction congress in the 60s. What I said was that H.G. Wells was fascinated by science because he felt that it would provide the great answer to human existence—the same kind of answer that I've always been looking for, except that it seems to me that Wells is a lot more naive; he thought that mere social progress could bring it about. He didn't recognize that what we need is a new kind of consciousness. But science fiction has always followed from H.G. Wells trying to investigate the possibilities of human existence. It is one of the most potentially creative forms of fiction. Someone like Ian Watson, whose work bubbles with ideas, is really carrying on where Dostoevsky left off—which is to say he's writing science fiction as existentialism. His novel The Embedding, which I think is possibly the best SF novel ever written, simply could not have been written 25 years ago and certainly could not have been written in the time of H.G. Wells. It's post Aldous Huxley, post Wittgenstein, post structuralism and Derrida.

Rain Taxi: Much of your work deals with the controversial triad of sex, crime, and the occult. What are the connections between these fields of study?

Wilson: First of all I have to explain my interest in crime. I've always been interested in crime ever since I was a child, when my mother used to read these true detective magazines and my father once brought a book home from work called The Fifty Most Amazing Crimes of the Last 100 Years, which he told us kids not to read- so of course we read it from cover to cover every time they were out of the house. It was this actually that inspired me to write Ritual In The Dark, because most of the articles in it had a picture of the murderer in the beginning of the article, but the article on Jack the Ripper had a huge black question mark, which is what got me fascinated by Jack the Ripper. But I suppose what really interested me about crime and continues to interest me is the fact that it brings with it a sense of seriousness. You may be feeling absolutely bored and fed up and then you read about some crime and suddenly you realize how very lucky you are. And that you're just being utterly spoiled or rather reduced to tunnel vision by a curious narrowness of consciousness.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. Last year, I was flying to New York, and the flight is of course is about seven hours and towards the end of the flight—I had a long trip up from Cornwall and that sort of thing—and I was feeling pretty tired and bored, and I was deliberately trying not to feel tired and bored, thinking, for God's sake, here you are in a perfectly comfortable airplane, to be tired and bored would be a sign of being spoiled. Now it happened at London airport I bought a book called Serial Rapist about a man in Clevelend called Ronny Sheldon who raped about fifty women, and he was caught and at the age of 27 was sentenced to life imprisonment. And thinking about this was enough to cause me to make that mental effort of consciousness, suddenly making consciousness contract, like clenching a fist, which instantly got rid of my sense of boredom and made me feel thoroughly wide awake. With the result that when I landed in New York, driving into New York at midday and realizing it was five o'clock my time, the time when I'm usually getting ready to watch the TV news and drink a glass of wine and eat some smoked salmon, I was able to tell myself, come on, pull yourself together, you're going to behave exactly as if this really was midday and you'd had a good night's sleep. I was able to galvanize my consciousness. And I spent a quite cheerful afternoon in New York and got my dinner in the evening not feeling for a moment that I'd somehow lost five hours. Now that is an example of the value of reading about crime!

Of course the psychology of crime has changed greatly since I wrote an encyclopedia of murder in the late 1950s. Even then I talked about a case in which a man, after watching a program on television called The Sniper,
had gone out with a gun and shot a total stranger through a window. A sort of crime of boredom. And this is what fascinates me above all: that human beings are capable of being bored. Compared to our Cro-Magnon ancestors, we are immensely lucky. Even the poorest person on earth, someone living in some awful slum on the outskirts of Beirut or Mexico City, is nevertheless better off than a caveman who starved and froze throughout the winter. Crime makes it clear that there is something wrong with human consciousness, that it's too narrow. During this century we've seen revolutions in Russia and China, and the hope of their leaders that they have finally created the ideal society—man could be completely happy. In fact, all that they emphasized that Marx's analysis was completely wrong and that human beings need more than a pleasant life in order to be happy. In fact, as Dostoevsky pointed out, we even have a funny kind of basic kind of hunger for suffering. Saints flogged themselves because they felt that somehow they would increase the intensity of consciousness.

Now sex fascinates me for the same kind of reason. As I get older I realize more and more clearly that it is an illusion. I like quoting an American judge in a rape case in which a 13 year old girl had been given a lift by a lorry driver and then taken to some remote place and been raped and strangled; in sentencing this man to death, he'd said the male sexual impulse has a strength which is out of all proportion to any useful purpose that it serves. I certainly noted that during my teens, going around with an absolutely perpetual erection, looking at every pretty girl with longing, imagining what it would be like to take her clothes off and even feeling a stir of desire passing some shop window full of ladies' underwear. I remember when I first had sex at the age of 18 and feeling, is this what I've been tormented about all these years? And then of course the sheer irony of realizing that even though suddenly you feel, oh thank God, I see what an illusion it is, you nevertheless are just as tormented thereafter! I had a scene in one of my three novels about Gerard Sorme which was based on fact. Sorme goes into a ladies' shop to buy his girlfriend a pair of stockings. He's just going to stay the night with her, and he happens to turn around casually standing at the counter. In one of those sort of cubicles there's a woman who's left the door open and she's taking off her dress and he can see at a single glance that in fact she is a middle aged woman, and yet that single glimpse of the dress going over her head gives him a surge of desire like a kick in the stomach. He realizes how absurd this is; he's just going along to spend the night with a pretty teenager, and yet he won't feel nearly the same desire as she takes off her clothes he's now felt spontaneously in a flash for this total stranger. It seems to me there is something very peculiar about this sexual equation; we can see clearly that it's illusion, yet it nevertheless continues to entrap us. And I simply want to know how it does it. It's like wanting to know how a conjurer performs a particular trick.

As for the occult, I was very struck by a comment made by Robert Monroe, the businessman who suddenly discovered he was able to leave his body. He remarked that even out of the body it's possible to experience sexual desire, that a kind of sex can take place between two disembodied persons, but he says the kindof sex that takes place between two disembodied persons is real sex, of which the sex we experience is only a kind of shadow, only a kind of secondhand version. Plato had said very much the same kind of thing.

Rain Taxi:You have books due out this fall that are addressed to younger readers. Have you had to alter your approach when communicating about subjects such as the paranormal with children?

Wilson: They were really written by chance, because I had written a large book on commission about the religious sites of the world for a publisher who specializes in doing books that are visually quite beautiful. When the same publisher approached me and asked me if I'd consider doing the text for some children's books on the paranormal, I said yes. It proved to be a very interesting challenge, but a very irritating one too because the editors continually kept simplifying my stuff and turning it into a kind of Enid Blyton, which infuriates me. Then I'd change it back and we'd have to arrive at some sort of compromise.

Rain Taxi:You've written extensively about prose, poetry, and even music, yet you mention visual art less often—is there any which offers the kind of evidence for human development that you seek?

Wilson: You can see from the piece on Van Gogh in The Outsider and the references to Cezanne and other painters in my work that there was a period in my teens when I was fascinated by the visual arts. Before I went into the RAF I spent all my time borrowing books from the library on painting and on particular painters that I'd admired very much like Van Gogh, El Greco, Cezanne, Michelangelo and Leonardo. When The Outsider came out I became friendly with painters like Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon. And whenever I'm in a foreign city the first thing I do is to make for the nearest art gallery. But on the whole I haven't written as much about visual arts simply because it seems to me that to be a great artist is a kind of natural talent that doesn't require the kind of obsession with ideas that interests me so much. I have known a few painters who have been interested in ideas, but if anything it's weakened their work.

Rain Taxi:The upcoming millennium is giving rise to all sorts of strange notions—is there any evidence for the view that significant global changes will occur at this time?

Wilson: Well, I've been writing a book about UFOs, and people who have experienced abductions have said again and again that they've been warned by these UFO denizens of tremendous and catastrophic changes. I feel, as do these UFO aliens, that man is going to have to pull his socks up tremendously in the course of the next 50 years if he's not to turn his planet into a sort of horrible waste tip. Global warming is undoubtedly going to cause tremendous problems: the melting of the polar ice caps, an increase in all kinds of diseases simply because things like mosquitos will be able to survive more easily in a warmer climate. And above all, of course, the overpopulation. I feel almost guilty sometimes about the kind of planet I'm leaving to my grandchildren.

Rain Taxi:Yet your work is radically optimistic—how do you maintain a positive view of human evolution given the extreme problems that plague humanity?

Wilson: As I said earlier, whenever you catch that glimpse of what consciousness is capable of, you realize that our capacities are far greater than we realize. It seems to me obvious that human beings possess all kinds of powers that we don't even begin to understand. We think about these UFO aliens as apparently possessing extraordinary powers, if the stories of abductees are to be believed, the power to make them do things telepathically and all kinds of things. And yet the truth is almost certain that we ourselves possess such powers if only we recognized it. It always seems to me to be so close, that change in consciousness. As I've said again and again, Maslow found that when he talked to his students about peak experiences they not only remembered peak experiences they had in the past, but they began discussing them among themselves and having peak experiences all the time. It's quite obvious that we could learn to generate peak experiences at will. It's a certain kind of mental attitude that's needed and since mankind has gone through some of these terrible problems over the past two centuries—the Industrial Revolution, the twentieth century with its wars—I feel that nevertheless humankind is beginning to emerge as a rather more mature adult creature than he was. I've often said that if an Elizabethan workman had been transported into the modern world he'd go insane within a matter of weeks. And yet now fairly stupid people can live happily in a modern city and yet cope with its complexity.

Teilhard de Chardin thought that the essence of evolution was what he called complexification. And complexification is happening to us whether we like it or not. I think that humankind has remained very much the same over thousands of years. If you could go back to ancient Rome or Plato's Athens, I don't think you would find that human beings were so very different than the kind you know well today. But I suspect that if you could be transported a couple of hundred years into the future, you would find a quite different kind of human being, assuming of course we learn to cope with the problems and to overcome them. And I've always had a very deep optimism about the human race. I believe, as Shaw did, that the brain will not fail when the will is in earnest. Our main problem at the moment is that we are too lazy and short-sighted to really confront our problems, so that a country like China, for example, refuses to enter into any kind of agreement about releasing CFCs into the atmosphere. America still refuses to do anything about gas guzzling cars. When difficulties force us to face up to these realities, then we shall finally apply our minds to solving them.

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Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 4, Winter (#8) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997