College taught me many things, little of which it intended. From its textbook atmosphere I drew a vivid picture of who I wasn’t; from my groping rebellion I took an education. Still, there were moments . . . like a poetry class in which I tried to coax images toward meaning and a professor’s back-handed compliment encouraged me more than he knew. It was my first real attempt at poetry — an emotional vision with shifting edges called “Is Love an Illusion?” — that Duke Poet-in-residence James Applewhite held up as a classroom example.
“Most modern poetry,” he said with measured emphasis, “is like a football team that always goes for three points and always makes it. Rarely does it take the greater risk. Here, at least, you’ve gone for the touchdown.”
So I fell eighty yards short; his respect for my attempt was reassuring. For Applewhite, such struggling attempts must seem familiar. From his childhood in the North Carolina farmlands, Applewhite nurtured a desire to “invent my own system . . . explaining the mystery my life seemed lost in.”
“I used to go outside,” he says, “and see the big, piled-up cumulus clouds going over me, and the sun in between, and feel there was a radiance there I somehow had a right to feel myself a part of.”
As an undergraduate at Duke University in the late Fifties, Applewhite felt torn — uncertain whether his path was science or poetry. His love for scientific observation and discovery was tempered by his doubt that a purely rational, scientific outlook would unlock life’s mysteries. He yearned to combine the best of scientific objectivity with his most sensitive insights and, with an eye on each, chose to become a poet.
“One of the virtues of poetry,” he says, “is that it gives a sense of perspective. It allows you to see your life in its natal terrain. It allows you to see the pattern more clearly.”
Now an associate professor of English and director of Duke’s Institute for the Arts, Applewhite has published three books of poetry — Statues of the Grass, Following Gravity, and Foreseeing the Journey — and edited a collection of environmental pieces called Voices from Earth.
In Applewhite there seems little contradiction between his roles as artist, administrator, and educator. While he seemed to maintain scholastic reserve in our interview, I was struck by the poetry of his words; his fluid command of language and intellectual nuance can be breathtaking.
Our interview began when I reminded Applewhite of a statement he recently made: “There’s a very basic confusion afoot whereby society feels that crucial matters will be answered by computers.”
— Howard Jay Rubin
Special thanks for transcribing this interview to Anne Schaaf.
SUN: What about the idea that crucial questions can be decided by computers? Let’s look at the roots of that.
APPLEWHITE: There are many psychologists performing experiments on animals, teaching them certain tasks, moving them through mazes, and so forth, in an attempt to investigate the brain. The issue is what the psyche is. Is the psyche a mechanism — a system of electrochemical responses that can be probed, graphed, analyzed, and explained in terms of stimulus-response? Or is the psyche eternally self-creative? Imagination, free will, independent judgment — don’t they emerge from something we might call the unconscious, which creates the architectural shapes our civilization houses itself in, the collective dreams that movies and novels are, the very science that allows it to imagine it’s a machine that can be analyzed? To me, it’s pretty clear: the world is very largely what we’ve dreamed up.
SUN: So you’re talking about the way our imagination forms our reality.
APPLEWHITE: Yes. Take this continent before white men came here. There are cougars, wolves, bears, snakes that will bite you, but all in all it’s not an alien or inhospitable environment. You think of this eastern seaboard forested over with chestnuts and great oaks and running with clear water and berries growing there, a marvelously hospitable environment for those who knew how to use it — the Indians. And the earlier settlers — those who learned from the Indians — did very well. They adapted to the wilderness. And those who tried to impose what William Carlos Williams calls an “unrelated culture” — tried to do it according to the European pattern — starved. It’s a mistake to consider reality as an immutable given.
I’m not saying there aren’t volcanoes, but we’ve discovered that volcanoes are very fertile sources. The lava that comes out is, in a few years, a source for marvelous growth, because those nutrients coming out of what’s commonly called the bowels of the earth are endlessly fertile; that’s where many of our elements come from in the first place. So although there is destructiveness in nature, there is also enormous creativity and fertility. The truly alien world is the world of economic exploitation, the canyons of big city streets, those metal cars of the New York subway system that the young graffiti artists feel initially overwhelmed by and then feel the need to cover with the intricate graphs and glyphs of their own personalities, to write their names on them, and so to make these alien steel cars into something that they can relate to. The human psyche is incapable of accepting a neutral environment; it has to shape the environment so the psyche can relate to it or it feels oppressed by it. The paradoxical thing is that somehow, in the evolution of society, we have evolved structures that seem like an impregnable stone establishment. We think of them almost like Mount Rushmore, something that’s just there. But we have to realize that it was really the human imagination that created these monumental edifices — Wall Street, the Stock Exchange, the Empire State Building. We can’t blame that on nature, or on God, or on the devil. And we have to remember that if we made it we can make something different.
The computer is just a tool. It’s a much better way of counting than counting on our fingers, but it’s a tool. So why pretend that the computer is going to solve our problems for us? It’s one more way of ducking responsibility. And it’s a way of distorting the issues by trying to argue that they are quantitative. Now, at a certain level, they are quantitative. We need enormous math to deal with the gross national product; it’s almost as complex as natural phenomena. But beyond the math what do we find out? The gross national product is largely dependent on policy decisions, and the great irony is that these decisions are made by a President and his council who don’t have more than a rudimentary knowledge of economics, and yet have persuaded the nation that it’s possible to run this enormous deficit without difficulty. This is one illustration of the fact that beyond the numbers there are always policy decisions, political decisions, decisions of vision which are either stale, old, like Reagan’s, or fresh, creative, and these are the ones that shape the reality we inhabit.
Life is not primarily negative unless it’s made to be so. So why should poetry be negative? It should have a kind of basic joy and vividness just in being because that’s the way the world is unless it’s been hurt or crippled or perverted or tied down or strung-up or strung-out.
SUN: It’s not based on rationality, then.
APPLEWHITE: Absolutely not! Would that it were more rational, in a good sense of the word. In fact, the odd thing about our century is that there is this amazing conjunction of rationalities in the service of irrationalities. Math in the service of mad scientists — the Nazi experimenters on hostage populations, or the planners of better weapons systems who use mathematics, chemistry, and physics in their planning but who seem, at the final level, strange Dr. Strangeloves. I think there’s hope for the human condition, but I also think we are in a very strange time that is particularly dangerous because of this seemingly great sophistication conjoined with enormous naivete. I think the human animal’s self-knowledge in the twentieth century is less sophisticated in many respects than it has been in earlier periods.
The guise of rationality, the pose of objective social science type of decision, made on the basis of rational evidence, is a mask behind which can be hidden decisions which are made on a very intuitive level. It’s almost impossible ever to have full knowledge of the consequences of a decision. Laws are passed, people are put into positions, weapons systems are geared into production, without us being able to foresee the full consequences. It has to be that way. And it means, then, that these decisions have to be made on the basis of political creeds and intuitive evaluations and emotional responses — which need to be as deeply humane, as self-knowing as they possibly can be. But because of the technological orientation of our civilization it’s possible for people to be educated in a technological way, without necessarily encountering those kind of educative documents which in the past have served to deepen humanity. The Bible, for example, used to be a source of man’s knowledge of man, as well as of God and the devil. Greek tragedy, Homer, Shakespeare. All through Shakespeare we see people deceiving themselves; we have the spectacle of the human impulse to clarity, wisdom, humanity, involved in this tragic struggle with darkness, a kind of octopus of unknowingness, ignorance, mistaken motive. In Christianity, the myth of the fall of man is a central belief. It suggests that the human psyche is essentially flawed, that the best of us are capable of evil and have to struggle mightily and invoke grace in order to avoid, particularly in a position of power, the pitching into arrogance, self-deceit, tyranny, murder. And, you know, it’s true. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and we see it around us on all sides. It may not be murder, but it can be callousness and a kind of murderous failure to understand the needs of those segments of the population that are not in the favor of the reigning party.
What do we project on to the computer? A dream of a self which is opposite to the self in our hearts. We know that we are emotional, irrational, sexual, devious, dreaming, and science has created this image of the man in the white coat, the technician, who’s free of all those subjectivities, all those quirks. (Laughs.) I have great hope for the development of science, particularly in the pure sciences, as discoveries of biology, ecology, physics, and astronomy more and more deepen our sense of the true mystery of the world we inhabit. I think that can only be salutary for a sense that the world is something that we have to accept with fear and awe and respect and in fact need to regard as sacred because it has that dimension of awesomeness that we need. But having said that, I also believe that science is, for the projective imagination, for this dream of objectivity, a great kind of trap and tempts us to project a version of ourselves which is objective but can be cruel.
SUN: You seem to be distinguishing between intuitive behavior that is genuine and intuitive behavior tyrannized by rationality.
APPLEWHITE: People have an enormous capacity for self-deception and psychological projection. You project aspects of your own personality you can’t acknowledge, can’t own as yours, into a computer, maybe. Think about how in science fiction movies the computer, this image of rationality, often goes mad, beginning with Hal in 2001. Now, computers don’t go mad. Computers break down, they malfunction, but they don’t begin to act out of strange motives. They don’t have a hidden agenda unless it’s programmed in, but people do, and there’s a tendency, then, in our age which thinks itself so very rational, to enact primitive kinds of motivations, or irrational hatreds, or prejudices under the guise of something else.
It seems to me that sophisticated people, in a good sense, in all ages, know that when they are acting in the service of beauty, or for the love of God, or for Queen Elizabeth, or as a patriot, that these are basically irrational acts. No rational person would give his life for his country, that’s an irrational act. No rational person would devote their life to writing plays or creating great works of art for which they were not going to be plausibly rewarded in their own lifetimes. But people do these things. This is a kind of sophisticated intuitive behavior which is one of the greatest things civilization has to offer. Building the pyramids or Chartres cathedral are not totally reasonable endeavors — to spend all this money and time and effort and lives in some cases, piling up beautifully cut stone, and yet it’s what gives the grandeur to human existence. It makes humanity in society have something of the brilliance of the light shafting down from the stars.
The world that we are given is beautiful. A white pine living on a mountainside before oxides from cars have altered it is a beautiful thing. Or a bald eagle, or a salmon. The human body in its prime native state is also beautiful. But the human psyche is a very large part of the human animal, and in society the human psyche often has difficulty feeling itself beautiful, in maintaining contact with that kind of primal electricity that animates the universe in its less corrupted state. Now art, whether it be architecture or poetry or violin concertos, is a way, and a very important way, of the human psyche continuing to inhabit that primal beauty that exists rawly in the light of stars and in the needles of conifers, but is in danger of being lost in our accumulation by the million in cities. In my view it’s a kind of sophisticated intuitive behavior that allows the human species to approach that kind of beauty which is in some ways richer than purely natural beauty. A great work of art is not pure nature at all. It’s human consciousness elaborated with something of the perfection of a diatom, but it incorporates an awareness of itself that the diatom or the sand dollar or the bald eagle doesn’t have. So in a way, it’s even deeper.
Why pretend that the computer is going to solve our problems for us? It’s one more way of ducking responsibility.
SUN: When you talk about the irrational, devious parts of ourselves I think about Freud and wonder if our desire for objectivity doesn’t come partly from ideas like Freud’s since — at least the way it filtered into the mass consciousness — Freud labeled the subconscious a nasty place, a place you don’t want to get involved with unless you’ve got years for analysis, while denying its great riches. Now if I deny my unconscious resources because of their deviousness, then all that’s left to build with is the irrational.
APPLEWHITE: I absolutely agree. Jung of course would use the word unconscious, and later Freud did. The subconscious is sub-human, it’s below — and seen as a small, nasty place. Alternatively, we can regard the unconscious as a fertile kind of humus underlying the forest of our waking lives.
SUN: Jung brought in the question, by whatever name you want to call it, of the collective unconscious, a primal image bank to which everybody has access. In your own creative process, is this a working metaphor?
APPLEWHITE: I certainly have thought about the idea of the collective unconscious, and I’m rather persuaded of its possibility. I notice that there are symbols in poetry that one might call archetypal: the night journey, the trip to the underworld, Jonah in the belly of the whale, Aeneas’ exploration below the surface of the earth with a golden bow in his hand, Dante’s visit to hell. These are all metaphors for the need of the conscious mind to refresh itself in a kind of collective and perhaps infernal, but nevertheless fruitful, legacy that exists partly as a sort of cumulative literary and artistic heritage but perhaps in the psyche itself external to individual minds. This becomes a kind of religious proposition, and I think that’s one of the reasons there’s so much resistance to it among literary critics and psychologists who want to say Jung is religion rather than psychology. But after all, when you notice the continuities between the different mythologies, between the different kinds of images that exist, you’re impressed. I find that the psyche is always tending in the poetry I like best to present itself in a duality between light and darkness, between above and below, between the measurable, conscious dimensions of a house in a landscape and the caverns below. The Gothic novel first, and later Gothic fiction and poetry coming into modern poetry, seems to carry out this theme of duality whereby the lighted conscious world, in which characters know what they are doing, is counterpointed by another world that underlies and alters this area of the known.
For creative people, inspiration or imagination is important, and in the experience of writing a poem, as Robert Frost says, there is always a sense of unexpected supply. And most poets know when this is happening. There’s a mysterious quality of the language. It’s partly the rhythm and partly a kind of chemistry between the vowels and consonants. There’s a heightened atmosphere, a kind of shining wetness clinging to the words like a radiant background and holding them together, so that they really are lines, they really are rhythms, they really are things you want to keep, and make better.
SUN: As it’s been said, you can always edit inspiration, but you can’t logic it out to start with.
APPLEWHITE: Right. You’ve got to have something that comes. And if, as a creative person, you’ve had the experience of this happening, over and over again, you know there’s something a little mysterious about it. You know that all your working life you’ve made preparation — everything you’ve read, the other poems you’ve written, all the craftsmanship, the patterning of your own impulse, your breath impulse — but still, in writing the poems that turn out to be good, something happens in part for you in cooperation with you that has some element of spontaneity about it. It’s not that you have to be overwhelmed by emotion, that’s a different thing.
SUN: It’s more like a feeling of something coming through.
SUN: Your mind gives the form for its passage, the walls around it, but it doesn’t supply the content.
APPLEWHITE: Exactly. You just start writing, and you don’t know where it’s going to go, exactly. You may have a sense of a visual image or two or three, maybe almost like a superimposition of different images, with a certain attractive feel to it all, but you don’t know how it’s going to unwind. And the actual words you put down and the rhythms you begin to get alter the initial impulse, so there’s a kind of dialogue between the conscious and the unconscious.
SUN: And in a sense the conscious influence almost necessarily distorts what’s coming from the intuition, or at least shapes it.
APPLEWHITE: That’s a good choice, and I’m glad you gave me the option, and I think it can happen both ways. A good poem can be distorted by a misdirected conscious intention, or the impulse can be improved. Coleridge likened the creative art to driving with loosely held reins; there’s a driver who can alter and help but can’t create that initial impulse just by an act of will or craftsmanship. So you know that you are indebted to something that is part of you, but it feels like it’s part of something else, too.
So, I definitely think there are ways that archetypes manifest themselves in our thought and writing. It’s an issue of considerable complexity though, for if we know that, or think that we know that, what then do we do about it? I don’t think there’s any way one can easily avail oneself of archetypes; they are so deep. Yet it helps one’s world view to suspect that they are there. Just to realize that there are some underpinnings within the unconscious mind helps one have a more optimistic version of the world. But the other side of the coin, of course, is that there are dangerous things in the unconscious, too, dangerous archetypes. But at least it gives you a sense that the world is fruitful, huge, magnificent, perhaps disastrous, deadly, one that has the depths of heaven and hell in it. What I’m saying is, that to use that knowledge in the service of one’s craft is extremely difficult.
SUN: Your new book is called, Foreseeing the Journey. How do you see your own life as a journey, spiritual or otherwise, and if it’s a journey, can it be foreseen?
APPLEWHITE: In the title poem, I’m in my parents’ house in eastern North Carolina. My son and I are going to go down to a place called Seven Springs and put the canoe in the water the next day and have an overnight canoe trip on the lower Neuse River, where it’s kind of semi-tropical. I have a long-term connection with the Neuse River and Seven Springs because my grandfather used to go and get spring water from there, and the creek that runs past my town runs into the Neuse River. So it’s a known river with a kind of ancestral connection. But there’s this attic fan in the window, and as I’m trying to go to sleep but can’t, there’s this feeling of taking off from the ground and lifting up, as if the whole house was a kind of great zeppelin with this one fan beating it along through the night. And I have a sense that my airplane models in the attic there, which I made as a kid, are flying with me in loose formation, and all the relatives from the past are there also, flying with me in a state between sleeping and waking. It’s a perspective that is not usual — a sense that in just this one moment, maybe, one can foresee that journey, not in detail, of course, but rather like being a ghost and hovering up above one’s life, up above one’s body, up above one’s whole childhood place and knowing what one knows from having lived, and asking, if you had known this beforehand, would you have come down? Of course you would have to say yes. It’s a poem of assent, of acceptance, of saying, yes, I’ll go ahead with this, but I have been outside, I’ve had a chance to look at it and see the pattern of it.
SUN: Before you again take on the forgetfulness of just going through it.
APPLEWHITE: Exactly — the forgetfulness. Before you’re caught up in the thick atmosphere of the quick-flowing creek, which is a little bit like time.
SUN: It does seem that living in our personalities day to day almost predisposes a lowering of ourselves, a forgetting.
APPLEWHITE: There’s always this tension between our better selves and our worse selves. I suppose everybody’s had the experience of quarreling with somebody you love, and you hear yourself saying things that you know you shouldn’t say, things that are a little too cruel or that you don’t really mean. You stand in the distance and ask, why am I acting like this?
SUN: That’s where you’re caught.
APPLEWHITE: It’s like those Shakespearean tragedies I talked about, wrestling with this chaos principle, and so much of our lives we are like that. One of the redemptive things about writing a poem is that it does feel like a moment when things hang together, when you’re almost a little bit outside time, and not bogged down in that flow that hides you from yourself and hides the people you love like muddy water.
SUN: Can you speak of anything specifically that inspires you, how you get in touch with that?
APPLEWHITE: Different things. I may have been reading someone in particular. I may have been down visiting my home in eastern North Carolina, and driving back on U.S. 70 near Raleigh, and maybe it was raining, and maybe the pavement is wet, and maybe at a certain moment there are red neon lights reflecting off the pavement, looking almost like a fire, a gasoline fire there on the pavement, and maybe I had just a few weeks before been in New York, and felt the sense of incredible busyness, with jetliners and traffic. Maybe that has been brought back to me at just that moment by this one visual situation with the wet pavement and the red light. So the moment there, near Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh, is one local thing, sort of a focusing device, a lens through which my associative faculty puts together a lot of other things.
SUN: Poetry isn’t very popular these days, as if it held little relevance. Do you think this points to any particular failings of modern poetry itself?
APPLEWHITE: I don’t know for sure. I think there may be some failings. Poetry may be too personal, too obscure. What disturbs me most is that poetry is in a sense too despairing. Coleridge said that the primary purpose of a poem, as opposed to works of philosophy or history, is pleasure, not truth. I think that’s a true statement if rightly understood. I think he meant that the poem innately produces aesthetic pleasure — if it’s the right kind of poem for the right kind of reader. There is a texture, a symmetry, a kind of sensuous body that the poem has that pleases us when it passes through our oral imagination, as when smoothly-cut stone passes through our hands. And meter and rhyme are devices which when used rightly bring pleasure. The human psyche is strangely attuned to repetition and variation. One of the reasons that rock music is more popular than other kinds of music is that it has a bass line that is both primitively simple and appealing. Well, poetry that was metrical had, for the ear attuned to it, a regularity and an appeal and a pleasure akin to that. A lot of poetry presently is not that way. I think that’s one reason that poetry is not much more liked. It’s unfortunate that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century a lot of the poetry that had rhyme and meter was also sentimental and simplistic. The last truly large popular figure in poetry was Robert Frost, and I think it’s not entirely coincidence that Frost was accessible through the narrative line. His poems were usually in some iambic meter, and typically rhymed. I don’t think that poetry has to be in rhyme and meter to be fascinating, but I think it has to have some kind of formal genius about it, some idea that’s compelling, and finally some musicality. I hope that my poems have a musicality about them. I sought that consciously for many years, and now it sometimes comes unconsciously.
I’m afraid that there has been a transition from the ear to the eye, and a lot of poetry is written for the eye, for the page, and is not really alive off the page. We’re supposed to read it without moving our lips and we’re supposed to receive a sort of pseudo-musicality from this suave concatenation of visual imagery. But in fact, the language itself, as a kind of physical body of sounds in attractive combination, doesn’t have the life that poetry of the past has had. I think that is something poetry needs — that sensual body of sound quality is the flesh within which the ideas live.
We can’t master sufficient factual information to orient ourselves toward life. We have to operate on an intuitive level.
SUN: If poetry is not primarily about seeking truth, does strict honesty have a role in it?
APPLEWHITE: A good poem can’t lie. The attitudes of the writer are more clearly displayed in a poem than the writer can even intend. Often a bad poem is bad because the author wishes to mean something that he doesn’t really mean or feel. There has to be a kind of attitudinal wholeness. It can be complex, but there has to be a conjunction of attitude and sound and image. And it really does require honesty. It requires self-knowledge. It requires the poet having assumed attitudes toward his material that are beautiful because they are just. We’re always swayed by examples of the ability to empathize deeply, to be moved by truly moving things, and to forgive or be hurt by things that are hurtful, if they can be expressed deeply and movingly. One of the problems we have currently is that there are too many who can manage some kind of quasi-pleasurable language but whose attitudes don’t much enhance our lives. The reason I wanted to talk about pleasure in language in the first place is that there’s something natural about pleasure, as in the way that white pine grows up and the way the sun looks in the sky above the mountains. It’s positive. If you’re a person who goes out on a beautiful day, when there’s not anything particularly bothering you, you have enough to eat, you have clothes on your back, that’s positive. Life is not primarily negative, unless it’s made to be so. So why should poetry be negative? It should have a kind of basic joy and vividness just in being because that’s the way the world is unless it’s been hurt or crippled or perverted or tied down or strung-up or strung-out. These are true aspects of human experience, and I’m not saying that poetry ought not to come out of these; it does and must. But if it doesn’t have that positiveness about it, then it’s something that people tend to turn away from, as they turn away from poverty or ugliness. I’m not saying that terrible things shouldn’t be the subject of art. They have been and they can be. But I think in the large picture art has been used to please and enhance. It may create pity and fear in the reader and purge him through catharsis of these emotions — so that what in real life is a painful, dreadful tragedy, when presented by great actors, finally is a pleasurable experience simply because it’s a matter of triumphant artistry. It is a winning of the human imagination over restraint and limitation. That’s exhilarating! And I think that art should be exhilarating. I think it should enlarge our sense of potentiality, increase our sense of connectedness with things, give us perspective so that we can come back to our own lives and see them not with so much crankiness, but rendered more whole, more forgiving, more understanding.
We spoke about the distinction between one’s best and worst self — how we sometimes look at ourselves from a distance and find ourselves being petty or cruel. I think fine art cuts against that. When we come back from an evening of Mozart or Shakespeare, or seeing a great movie, we are less likely to be our worst selves and more likely to be our better selves, because we’ve been reinforced with the idea of greatness, or at least betterness. We’re reminded that human beings may be tragic, but that they can at least have some dignity about them.
Now the odd thing about art from around the turn of the century to the present is its tendency toward self-loathing and self-destruction. I think this was accelerated by the cataclysmic experience of World War I and it’s become a kind of habit. True new aesthetics are rare, and often before they are truly enunciated and perfected we operate automatically out of the old. The expectation that art shall be self-lacerating and despairing has gotten entrenched as an artistic given. And I think that erodes the accessibility and popularity of art, because it translates what should be positive into something negative. Healthy people, although they may face great adversity, are not primarily attracted to the negative. That’s not the way the world works. When you sit down to eat, whether you’re a vegetarian or a steak-lover, the saliva starts coming in the corners of your mouth; there is this positive attraction toward what is there. You look at the world and your mouth waters. Maybe it’s brutal, but that’s the way human nature’s always been. If you’re an anorexic and when you sit down before food your stomach turns, that’s a strange alteration, and that kind of alteration has been wrought on the art of our time. It can become an acquired taste, but it takes a lot of acquiring, and most people will say, “Why bother?”
SUN: Some artists see themselves as society’s conscience. You put together a collection of writings about ecology and the environment, Voices from Earth.
APPLEWHITE: A valid function for literature is to widen consciousness so that people see limitations and abuses. That kind of consciousness-raising is in some ways positive. But there’s been a tendency for art not to rouse consciousness to combat abuses, but rather to be a kind of aesthetic self-immolation — the depiction of the suicide of consciousness wherein there is no redeeming quality. This is partly because of a feeling of some radical intellectuals that American civilization is innately corrupt. Granted, America is afflicted with enormous flaws and capitalism is shot through with corruption and unfairness. Still, we look around the world and find other countries are apt to be worse. We wouldn’t trade our own moral climate for that in an iron curtain country. The delicate thing is to retain enough self-rejoicing to be positive, helpful presences capable of fruitful change, as opposed to self-lacerating naysayers who don’t do anything but do themselves in.
SUN: That takes faith that real change, in both an outer and inner sense, is possible.
APPLEWHITE: Yes. Faith in its broadest sense is one of those sophisticated irrationalities. Human beings are given this tendency to persevere and hope for better things. It’s one of the ways that people are capable of being exploited. Blake has written a poem about a boy who has to crawl up chimneys to get the soot out. He has a dream of a redemptive valley where water and sun wash him white again. Not that strength of imagination allows this boy to be more effectively exploited. It keeps him going longer. And that’s true of the human species where all sorts of exploited populations have lived longer and survived because of their positive imaginations and their hopefulness. That doesn’t mean that this hopefulness isn’t a strong ally for the human race. Even if a person’s positive thoughts are wholly fallacious, there’s still an advantage to them. I remember reading a story in Scientific American in which young catfish were put in a tank with other weaker young catfish. And they always won their struggles for status or territory. These catfish were thus taught that they were going to win, and when they were put in a tank with their equals they continued to win because they believed they were going to. That’s the way it is; a belief in a positive outcome can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now I know I’m getting very close here to Norman Vincent Peale and the power of positive thinking. I just want to remind myself and others that art is essentially positive, that it has a therapeutic quality that is part of the innate pleasurableness of an unbent existence. And it ought not to be made otherwise.
SUN: You made the comment recently, referring to universities like this one, that it is possible to emerge from them as ignorant about your basic self as when you entered. As a graduate of this university I agree. Certainly, there is much confusion of knowledge for wisdom, the pressure to carve a narrow channel for oneself in a specialty.
APPLEWHITE: That’s rooted in the development of Western science. The scientific method has had its impact on all the humanistic disciplines also, and I think in some respects has altered them for the worst. A university like Duke is a microcosm of the intellectual culture in which it exists. It is certainly true that wisdom is very much in danger of being lost in knowledge — knowledge which is increasingly being separated into compartments which don’t seem to relate to each other. I suppose that’s one reason that I refer to the idea of a kind of sophisticated intuition. A healthy person with an active imagination and artistic tendencies feels a certain psychic wholeness, at least in their good moments, and an innate sense of orientation toward a plausible universe. You stand on the hillside and the stars are up above the trees on the ridge, reaching in their lovely irregular gnarled way, and the air feels good, and you are located. You know that you are on the surface of a spinning ball that is spinning around a large ball of gas, that is pinwheeling in a galaxy that is exploding away from other galaxies in an exceedingly incomprehensible manner — but that intellectual knowledge doesn’t wholly prevent this sense of intuitive orientation. And we have to have that intuitive sense of orientation because we can’t have a fully conscious orientation. It eludes us; we can’t master sufficient factual information to orient ourselves toward life. We have to operate on an intuitive level.
There can be areas of a more specialized knowledge. But that kind of specialization isn’t possible for the whole spectrum of our lives. So it’s more important, in my view, to develop a sophistication which helps the intuitive self be its best. We have to base our life decisions on a knowledge that is wiser than rationality. And if we don’t have that we are lacking in unity and wisdom. The problem is that it is possible for education to address these compartmentalized areas of specialization, and help us to be low-temperature physicists or electrical engineers, without ever giving us any perspective about the central body of our existence. If education only gives us mathematical, quantitative knowledge, then we are like children given high-powered weapons.
What I wish for is education which is more oriented toward the whole person, which aproaches what Yeats called “unity of being.” Not that we necessarily ever get there, but perhaps we have some of that in the first place, some sense of happiness and self-balance. Certainly it has to be made more sophisticated and brought into contact with wider knowledge, but I don’t think our basic equipoise of heart and head ought to be knocked awry, because Western civilization doesn’t have anything to put in its place. Western civilization offers an enormous cafeteria of widely disparate bits of knowledge, but it does not have a pattern to assemble these trinkets and transistors into something whole and useful.
SUN: Which points toward a lot of the attraction of Eastern traditions which stress this wholeness.
APPLEWHITE: There has been that attraction. But the Western psyche needs to develop Western patterns for its own integration of personality. Both the arts and psychology can be useful toward this. The ideas of Carl Jung have been very useful to me. But much more is needed. There is a broadening of the intelligence through contact with past civilizations and their art that gives us confidence that preserves us from despair. One of the problems with America is that it is always disavowing its past. You might think this particular year is the most dangerous and most hideous that’s ever been but if you know history and look back to the Winter of Stalingrad, or the time of the Black Death, and have the ability to conceptualize a little bit what it was like then, your despair is qualified.
SUN: We walk around feeling that the world is about to be destroyed, without realizing that’s been said for thousands of years. They called it armageddon or apocalypse. We call it the bomb.
APPLEWHITE: Often savage people felt that they had to perform elaborate rituals to get the sun to come up again and to get Summer reborn out of the cold dragon of Winter. It might not be such a bad idea to do these healing rituals for ourselves. I think we have to reconstruct ourselves day-by-day. My own private rituals of regeneration I won’t go into now, but I do have some.
SUN: Are you sure you don’t want to go into them?
APPLEWHITE: Well, they’re really humble. I think play is like art, and play sometimes helps. I like to tinker about my yard and do things that are non-utilitarian. A year or so ago I made an outdoor table out of cedar I found dead in the woods. I split the wood and planed down the surface of it with a chainsaw and then a chisel. It’s a pretty good table, but the making of it was the thing. Just to be involved in doing something. Or running. I live near the Eno river and I like to run on a path beside the river. I’ve done a little root-cutting and shrubbing along there. Running next to the river is very healing.
SUN: People like to consider you a Southern writer. How important are your roots as a Southerner to you?
APPLEWHITE: It’s important in the way in which every fact of our existence which is a given is important. I’m a Southerner in the way that I’m an anything. I woke up alive in a town of a thousand people, ten miles from Wilson in the heart of the tobacco growing country of eastern North Carolina. I’ve played and worked with the sons and daughters of tenant farmers. I worked in my father’s service station in the summers and imbibed a mix of shiftlessness and lovely indolence and desperate hard work. It was a pretty irrational world. Putting in tobacco was like a war. In Winter you could spend a lot of time driving around the country drinking beer and listening to country music on the radio. I suppose that except for the emotional tensions which are endemic to the South it was a pretty laid-back existence. I still feel a connection with something larger living in the South. I used to go outside when I was a kid and see the big, piled-up cumulus clouds going over me, and the sun in between, and feel there was a radiance there I somehow had a right to feel myself a part of. It was very exhilarating. I didn’t feel cut off and belittled. I felt a kinship with something magnificent going on. It seems to me that is one’s birthright. There are a lot of things that take that away from you, in the South, or wherever. Growing up is a briar patch full of thorns and entanglements. That sense of having lived in a kind of freedom and gloriousness is a memory that helps keep me going.