Sunday, August 2, 2009

IN GOD WE DISTRUST




At a time of narrow specialisation, Chandler Burr is the best kind of anachronism, amultilingual writer of encyclopedic learning. A former reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, Burr is the author of three nonfiction books. The first, A Separate Creation, evolved from The Atlantic’s cover story, “Homosexuality and Biology.” A chance encounter with physicist Luca Turin led him to explore the latter’s revolutionary olfactory theory the The Emperor of Scent. His next book, The Perfect Scent, encompassed accounts published by The New Yorker and The New York Times, respectively, of a year he spent in Paris watching master perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena create Un Jardin sur le Nil for the house of Hermes and a year inside Coty, in New York, reporting on the making of Sarah Jessica Parker’s perfume, Lovely. Currently, Burr is the perfume critic for the Style Magazine of The New York Times. His latest book is the novel You or Someone Like You.


You or Someone Like You has been described as “the controversial novel of 2009.”

Is this what you meant it to be?


Is You or Someone Like You a novel about rejection?

Yes, very much. Both in the way I think you mean—Judaism's fierce rejection of non-Jews. Which is exactly why men made up the religion to do. The rejection of non-self was crucial to the survival of this Semitic tribe in the extremely harsh, dangerous East Mediterranean environment of 1,000 BC. This ancient social immune system detects, isolates, and rejects 17-year-old Sam Rosenbaum, as it did me in real life, because he was non-self (both theologically and racially). This is Judaism. According to what you, I, and everyone we know believe in the 21st century world—we’re against racism, tribalism, we embrace cultural difference and reject the idea of a god who favors any group—this is grotesquely immoral. If A=B, and B=C, A=C: Judaism’s core religious belief is immoral.

So is Christianity’s (the ridiculous idea of the saved and damned), Hinduism’s (the hideous belief that there are human beings so theologically polluted they are untouchable), and Islam (all human beings not in Dar-al-Islam, the House of Peace, are in Dar-al-Harb, the House of War, and must be conquered or killed).

And it’s about another kind of rejection, but this time a wonderful one. W.H. Auden rejected exactly these anachronistic, tribalist, racialist, separatist ways of identifying ourselves. The best way to say it is this, from pp 88 and 89 of “You.”

...At some benefit dinner in New York—at the NYPL on Fifth, I believe—[Stanford literature professor] Nicholas Jenkins once said to me it seemed likely to him that Auden would turn out to be the only poet of world stature born in England in the last hundred years. I said to Nick that this struck me as harsh (for England), but the “born in” was certainly crucial in his case. The soles of Auden’s feet took him from England... to New York City, where he started the process of getting an American passport. Auden’s former countrymen did not understand.... He was attacked in Parliament. Philip Larkin declared that when he renounced his English citizenship, he “lost his key subject and emotion . . . and abandoned his audience together with their common dialect and concerns.”

Nick put it directly: They felt Auden had betrayed them.... Auden... didn’t care....Auden had a concept of home, and it wasn’t a particular place. He had transcended physical location.
He had made a choice. His leaving Britain, for whatever reason, did not necessarily reflect poorly on Britain. I would say the same thing for myself. Howard and I talked about
it, of course. Perhaps because Howard never changed passports, or because he encountered the Robert Frost lines first, in high school, Howard sees it Frost’s way:

Home is the place where
When you have to go there
They have to take you in.

It reflected Howard’s experience, of course, I said. After marrying Me [the non-Jew], for example. The place where they had to take you in.

But Auden’s view, I said to them, is a bit different from Frost’s. And I myself hear Auden’s voice more clearly because it involves Choice... Auden, Nick observed, had gone from one mental place to another and discovered in going there that he had arrived nowhere in particular. That he had shed everything and constructed something nameless.

I said [to Howard] that I didn’t know if there was any better synonym for “New Yorker” than Nameless. Free, if you prefer. Liberated from the old ologies. Howard disputed it, but he didn’t understand what Auden meant. He meant you shed the old names and assume new ones, and the new names mean what you want them to. In 1942, just three years after he arrived in his new home, Auden wrote that home is—the meter alone makes me weep—

A sort of honour, not a building site,
Wherever we are, when, if we chose, we might
Be somewhere else, yet trust that we have chosen right.

Auden remarked to Benjamin Britten that New York was one “grand hotel in a world so destabilized that everyone had become a traveler.” I am a traveler, and that my son does not share my accent bothers me in the end not at all. I was and am that thing Auden described, feared, and in the end loved more than anything. I was—I am—nameless. When they demanded of Auden, angrily, resentfully, now that he had left his nation, What Then
Was He?, he replied that he might have given up “English” but he had not—please note—taken “American.” Auden was, he said, a citizen of a polyglot world of transients, misfits, rootless and chaotically blending souls, placing themselves as they wished, or as they were driven, jealously guarding old identities in order to furiously stomp them out, cooperatively and energetically defiant. He was, in short, “a New Yorker.”


I am not a Jew, a Christian, a Hindu, or a Muslim. I reject those. I am a New Yorker. So are you. So are all people, everywhere in the world, who have transcended the old, now anachronistic, destructive identities, these giant international theological conglomerates manufacturing their poisonous product, these dinosaurs. We have to be better than that.


Balzac once said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” Who is Anne Rosenbaum?

Obviously to a degree Anne is me (“is I,” technically, but I disagree with Anne about the predicate nominative). But Anne is also, very much, in her movements and responses and reactions and perceptions and mental processes, several women I've known. My very English grandmother Marjorie Stewart. My friends Aileen Cheatham and Anne Lester and Anne Sikora.


What is a writer’s main responsibility?

Now that's a question. To tell a great story. To change one's perception of the world. To change the world itself. To be a better mirror. The answer is whichever of those a reader wants. Or maybe it’s whichever the writer wants.


Anne Rosenbaum seems to be someone to whom things happen rather than someone who makes things happen. Why?

That's interesting. I never thought about her that way, but I can see why one would. She doesn't really give a damn about any of it—all the glitz, the movie stars, the expensive houses, the exclusive parties. And there really are people like that. I've known some of them. But Anne is only free of those things. She's not free any more than we are. She simply happens to value Howard, her privacy, and her books. And she is, after the novel takes its 90 degree turn, ferociously active when it comes to protecting and maintaining those things. The things that happen to her are the glitzy things. I think you’d agree that the things she cares about are the things she makes happen.

You have a character in your novel, a rabbi, who says that the teaching of Judaism is forbidden to gentiles. In real life this is inaccurate. Is verisimilitude important in fiction?

With all due respect, this is one of the four things the Orthodox rabbi at the Jerusalem yeshiva said to me when he expelled me. "You caused us to sin by teaching Torah to a non-Jew." Is he wrong? I couldn’t possibly care less. Post-temple diaspora Judaism is explicitly designed to make everything debating material, and I'm not interested. Speaking to this particular work of fiction, this is an example not just of verisimilitude but of direct reportage.


How much, if any, of You or Someone Like You is autobiographical?

That I can answer very specifically: The scene where Sam goes to Israel, goes to the moshav, then to Jerusalem, is invited to the yeshiva by a guy doing kiruv (outreach to non-observant Jews), the details of how he's expelled, are completely autobiographical. Down to every detail. (I didn't start at a friend's Eilat apartment; I backpacked in, then got on a bus, but it was there that I met the girl from La Jolla, and the direct autobiography starts there.) Everything else is fiction. Obviously it's informed by my experience "taking meetings" on screenplays and television series in Hollywood. But it's fiction.


If the greatest distance is the distance between two cultures, what is the best way to bridge it?

I think what people mean by this is actually “The greatest distance is between different values and beliefs.” That’s obviously true. People whose values and beliefs I loathe: Osama bin Laden, Benedict X (X?), who is a closeted homosexual, George W. Bush, Tony Scalia, the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, the editorial board of The Nation. Those are distances. And I have no idea how to bridge them except by killing the other person or waiting for them to die. A conservative Christian once told me he believes education and health care are just like cars, products people buy. If you can’t afford them, fuck you. I actually don’t believe he
Um...transcend the fucking cultures. Which is all but effortless for those of us who live as Auden's nameless in Auden's metaphysical New York. My friends from Indonesia, Japan, Italy, the Maldives, India, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, etc. have different cultures but the same way of looking at the world. And that’s what counts. Fuck cultural differences, they’re just social constructions.


Is universalism the answer to global problems?

Call it Audenism, then hell yes.


If Judeo-Christian ethics are outdated, should they be abolished?

Yes. I could also write a hundred thousand words to answer this, but here let's just go with yes. Well—“abolished.” I’d say transcended, which is a fancy way of saying we have a better way of thinking of ourselves now.


Is assimilation a cultural imperative for Anne?

This is something very important. Anne is not a *cultural assimilationist. Cultures are profoundly different, and they create profoundly different outcomes. Jared Diamond demonstrated that in "Guns, Germs, and Steel," although Jared Diamond has no idea what that book actually demonstrated—which is that there are better and worse cultures; stronger and weaker, more and less corrupt, better and worse at science, the arts, technology—and as a good liberal, he’d be horrified if he were to figure it out. I doubt the Pulitzer committee figured it out either. Some cultures are better at creating knowledge, wealth, science, political progress. Some are worse.

So Anne isn't opposed to Jewish culture. She's opposed to Judaism, or any theology that holds that "God divides people into two." Which is every theology.

On the other hand, if you want to call educated, free-thinking universalist humanism Audenism (whatever we're using) a culture, then yes, she'd like to see the fundamentalist Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus assimilate into it.


Anne says that racism is now a meaningless word. Do you agree with her?

She says that in a moment of hot discussion. And yes, I completely agree. To my mind, she’s making both a minor and a major point.

The minor point every thoughtful person knows: that the word "racism" has by now been so abased by its being flung as an illegitimate, manipulative, hypocritical accusation that its usefulness has dropped toward zero. Black Americans are the single most racist, sexist, and homophobic cultural group in the U.S., holding views that are, according to the polling data, actually worse on all three of these scores than (wait for it) uneducated white Christians. What follows is all the predictable liberal hypocrisy frantically denying this fact. (To reassure you that I’m not partisan: The conservatives are exactly as hypocritical about their various fucked-up dogmas. There’s more than enough on both sides.)

But there's a much more important problem. Almost everyone, when they say the word “race,” are using it as a proxy (and an ever-more inaccurate one, cf. Obama) for what does matter: culture— values, morals, and the behaviors that flow from them. And neither the press, emphatically including my employer The New York Times, nor almost anyone else recognize that culture, not race, is what’s important. And that cultures have—a statement as publicly shocking as it is grossly obvious—negative and positive aspects: Northeast (Japanese, Korean, and Chinese) and South Asian cultures’ emphasis on education turns the 2nd generation of these immigrants into doctors, engineers, etc. The suicidal, insane embrace of violence, disdain for education, and veneration of criminality is, as has been noted thousands of times by observers of all races, destroying African-American culture. The primitive tribalism and religiousness of the Muslim world strangles Muslims, and Wall Street’s culture of vast moral corruption combined with Americans’ bloated, selfish, petulant culture of entitlement is destroying the United States. Cultures produce outcomes. Yet like idiots, we use the word racism when we mean culturalism. Moreoever, where racism (discrimination on the basis of race) is totally illegitimate, culturalism—discriminating, both positively and negatively, on the basis of culture—is totally legitimate. As a universalist secular humanist gay and women’s rights supporter, I want all Muslim immigration stopped, Hispanic immigration continued but according to legal, strict controls, and northeast and south Asian immigration increased. Those are my values, which come from my culture.

Culture, not race or religion, is the real debate of the 21st century, and we haven’t even really started to deal with that fact in our public discussions. People insanely enough called the assassinated Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn a right-winger. A guy who’s openly gay, avidly supports gay and women’s rights and classic liberal social policy, and opposes religious control of public life? This guy’s on the right? Of course not, but the problem is that in Holland the intolerant, anti-gay, anti-women, repressive forces who want religion to control life—the right-wingers—are brown, and Fortuyn is (was) white, and according to post-1960s neoracism, non-whites are always good and whites are always bad. So when this piece of dogma is reversed in reality, i.e. the non-whites are the right wing and the whites are left wing and support all the liberal’s values, the liberals are simply incapable of processing it. Just as they’re incapable of dealing with the fact that a much higher percentage of African-Americans than European-Americans are anti-gay bigots.

All of this is just more theology. Identity politics is simply a secular religion, another illustration of why I dislike organized religion.


Anne implies that anti-Semitism is clearly useful to Jews. How useful to Jews was the Holocaust?

Immeasurably, in terms of the effectiveness the Holocaust has had in keeping Jews together as a people. John Podhoretz once said to me (he was later quoted saying it, I think in the New York Times Magazine), "A little anti-Semitism is good for the Jews." This is not at all paradoxical, nor is it unusual. British violence against Indians and white Americans’ violence against black Americans just after that were crucial to those rights movements. The AIDS epidemic has been hugely good for homosexuals in terms of the force it has generated for gay rights. Both AIDS and the Holocaust are/ were horrific, terrible phenomena in terms of brutality, violence, the loss of human life, and on and on. But if your goal is to ensure that ethnic Jews identify as Jews, this particular group of human beings, which John’s goal is (and which mine is explicitly not), then John is obviously right that anti-Semitism is good for the Jews.


Is Anne a genius or a fool?

I don’t think you have to be a genius to see the obvious. You simply have to be able to think clearly and (and this is the hard part) actually say it in public.

What is a good reader?

Ask Harold Bloom. Understanding literary references is an example of part of Bloom’s answer, and I guess mine, but here’s me trying to make a somewhat more original definition: Someone who takes a step toward a good writer, someone who “puts himself away” a bit to allow her to show him (to allow himself to see on the damn page) what she has to tell him.


“There is truth. And we must find it. We must take what we see and we must judge to find the truth.” How would you like your novel to be judged?

As a literary work, the characters, the word choice, the writing? Hell, that’s up to every reader’s taste. Nothing more. For its ideas? I hope the ideas will be understood and debated coherently. And that it’s judged in this way to have been helpful to all of us.



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