Excerpts from Ken Jordan/David Rattray interview made in December 1991 several days before David’s collapse with brain tumor:
K: One thing that you say in your article about Cravel—you talk how his honesty, the type of writing that he does: honest of that order actually threatens order.
K: And to me there’s a connection here (I’m not making it clear). I was wondering if you wanted to think a little about that.
D: Yes. Whenever a person makes a breakthrough into honesty; that means self-knowledge and knowledge of what others can’t see too. To be honest in a real absolute way is almost to be prophetic. And if you can be prophetic—and not too many people can be for very long at any time in their lives—but if at least that prophetic note is struck a few times, then it’s gonna upset the applecart. And if that applecart is not upset then conscious life just can’t go on! (Ken laughs)
It has to upset, and it to be upset by things like—I have in that Hölderlin essay something like the centaurs: the centaurs coming out of the cloud, they create the mountain streams and the mountain streams tear everything up in their wake, and they’re equivalent to these guys in the Roman Bacchanalia that run through the street chasing women and doing this and that, but they’re kings for the day! They’re able to get away without breaking the regular laws. And drunkenness, lechery, crazy behavior is tolerated for that day and a kind of crazy anarchy rules.
This injection of irrationality and craziness and disorder into the ordered life is what regenerates life in general. Because without it we’re going to get a hierarchically-ordered system such as many years in ancient Egypt and among the Mayas and so on—I think it could come very easily to us here, and probably will—IBM and all of these great uniform institutions. And I think that a very important part of what the poet is supposed to be doing is upset by the applecart. Because after all the applecart is just an endless series of indigestible meals and social commitments that are useless and probably shouldn’t even be honored, and futile pointless conversations and gestures, and finally to die abandoned and treated like a piece of garbage by people in white coats who are no more civilized or conscientious than the garbage, the sanitation workers, I think. That’s what the applecart means to me.
And when a poet’s voice, a poet’s imagination is able to touch people enough so that they will change that—of course it upsetting the applecart. What is it that it does? I think that poetry has a real kind of, I wouldn’t say preachy kind of function, but it definitely is there to support and encourage people that there’s a worthwhile life out there to be lived. A way of living is there—that all you have to do is invent it. It’s available to all of us.
K: When you say a worthwhile life, and when Pat Robertson says a worthwhile life, you’re talking about two very things. Would Artaud have been talking about a worthwhile life?
D: Oh yes. He would said, a life that is free. He would have said—without any organs. A body that didn’t have any organs. Meaning that all those biological imperatives—somebody like Artaud, after he’d been sick with cancer long enough, he was dreaming of a way to live that was pure and free and enlightened. And I think I can relate to that. I called it in my book, when I was talking about cutting off bonds, cutting loose from those kinds of bonds, I quoted this poet Albers Von Flauten whose diary of 1822 sums it up in a just a rhyming quatrain:
To taste nothing but the flesh of light
Forever whole and sweet
To drink of waters that refresh
But never drive the blood to heat
And I think that kind of life is really there—it just has to be invented.
K: And so the purpose of poetry…
D: Is to help people invent their lives—through language!
K: And at the same time, to subvert all that keeps one from living a real life.
D: Yes, exactly. Even sometimes in a destructive way. I certainly don’t think that the lesson in living that you can get from reading certain kinds of literature including many pages in William Burroughs and Jean Genet—I don’t think they’re really all that edifying in a constructive way. But they help destroy, they help to break it down. I remember the Marquis de Sade saying to someone—and of course he was always constructing these little imaginary debates. And he said to this imaginary opponent: “You build. You’re always building. I destroy! I simplify!” And many of those corrosive pages of the great underground classics help to destroy—they’re not very edifying or uplifting. They’re good for people because they help to destroy something that needs to be destroyed, that needs to be subverted.
K: Do you think there’s more that needs to be destroyed now than 30 years ago?
D: Oh no doubt!
K: It seems there’s more and more that needs to be destroyed. I mean, as the 20th century proceeded and this line of writing has been going on in an attempt to destroy it, the monster that needs to be destroyed has become larger and more secure in its own sense of peculiar purpose.
D: That could be. I certainly don’t think that we’re all supposed to end up as catatonic basket cases staring at a wall…
K: Or television.
D: I wouldn’t even consider that. I reject that out of hand. It’s funny that the Book of Ezekiel has an anticipation of television. It speaks about the time in which people are all going to be sitting in darkness in their rooms, each in their room full of pictures.
D: Yes. And I quote that in the chapter on music, there’s a chapter on In Nomine music—I have the exact wording of that: “Ezekiel 8—It says that men are sitting in darkness, each man in his room of pictures.” And I take that as a prophecy of the age on television.
Have we said enough?
K: I think we’ve got quite a bit of good stuff. There’s a couple of gossipy things I’d like to add in—How do you make a living? What do you do during the day?
D: I am very fortunate in this respect. I have a job working for the General Books department of Reader’s Digest. Reader’s Digest General Books make reference books and books like—there’s a wonderful car manual and another on called the Do It Yourself Book. We’ve made dictionaries there; I was the editor of an encyclopedia dictionary for them. I think of myself as having a job that is an exact analogue of the job that Renè Daumal had—he was lucky enough to get a job in about 1935 and he kept it until his death in 1944—the last ten years of his life he wrote for this thing called the Encyclopedie Francaise, I guess an ancestor of the Larousse Encyclopedia—and he had a secure desk job in that place and he did all kinds of tings. He translated Suzuki—not really for them, but I think he wrote the articles about Zen and raga music and all kinds of oriental things, but he was always writing encyclopedia articles and editing them for this French encyclopedia, which was an on-going concern for all of the years of his regular working life. And I feel that my job at Readers’ Digest is an exact equivalent of that. Because the General Books are really a very good kind of popularizing of general interest reference book material and they do a very good job and the public loves them and so it’s a secure job for me. My working conditions are comfortable and the people treat me very well and I enjoy it there.
K: I won’t be the only person who will see a trace of irony in writing the kind of stuff you do, and having a job at Reader’s Digest—I think there’s really something kind of lovely about.
D: Yeah, it’s similar to Daumal and that French encyclopedia. There was an establishment as could be—the kind of thing that could continue majestically though the defeat of 1940.
K: How long have you been at Reader’s Digest?
D: Not since the fall of France! I was hired there in the mid ‘70s, so it’s been more than 15 years.
K: How did you fall into it?
D: I worked for a dictionary called the American Heritage Dictionary immediately after coming back from France. I enjoyed that a lot. Writing a dictionary was like studying the language and it sort of paid to be a student of language forever. After they’d written all the dictionaries they could possibly publish, they fired all of us. I was unemployed for a while, and then while doing freelance work, I got a chance to write a chapter about some ancient history, ancient Greek concerning the rebellion of the Magdi’s against the Greeks.
K: We’re celebrating it this very moment.
D: Exactly. Chanukah—the rededication of the temple. I wrote the chapter on the Maccabees for a wonderful book called Great People of the Bible and How They Lived—I wrote a great chapter on the Maccabees. This taught all about the history of the Hellenistic kingdoms and the beginning of the Roman hegemony in the Middle East. I really got to know it pretty well for working on it, because they insisted on having something that was very substantial and accurate and so to do that I got deeply immersed in everything from the death of Alexander to Julius Caesar. They liked what I did for that so they kept giving me freelance assignments—the early to mid-‘70s was not as bad as getting a it is now, but still, I had to struggle to get a job.
K: You prefer to do this than to be a professor?
D: Oh Christ. I certainly do. I really much prefer this because there’s a clean and clear cutoff between this and my writing career. Whereas a professor, the line of demarcation is not so clear. A professor will find himself all of a sudden to only advise students but—buy you’re supposed to write straight from the shoulder and straight from the heart on all sorts of academic issues and publish them, and if you don’t do so it’s not going to be so good for you in academe. You’ve got to pretend to be keenly interested in a wide variety of academic matters, and you’ve got to sip faculty at the faculty sherry session and you’ve got to play this game, be part of the faculty life and kiss ass to the senior professor, and until a few years ago unless you were well-known, you couldn’t fall in love with your students. There was no freedom in this! It’s worse than playing art politics in New York City.
K: What’s wrong with counseling students?
D: I don’t mind—being a teacher means counseling students, that’s the name of the game, but to sort of sit there and evaluate them and tell your senior and betters what you think they ought to do with them is another story. I’d really hate that.
K: This sort of brings me back to being invisible.
D: Yes, I’m much more invisible. Reader’s Digest respects my autonomy as a person and my dignity and independence a hell of a lot more than Princeton University or Yale or Harvard would do. It may seem strange—people turn up their nose at Reader’s Digest—they don’t meddle with me at all! They’ve never done anything to make me feel that they were breathing down my back or messing with me, and if I went to work for an Ivy League college, I can guarantee you there would be all kinds of shit like that.
K: Are you working on any other translations now?
D: I’ll tell you, I’m in that perennial position of someone who says I’m never going to do it again—never, never again—and yesterday I got a contract form—and I won’t name it, I’m just so sick of this. I don’t really want to do it, because most translations aren’t really necessary, and the ones that are desirable—I get neither recognition or support or anything.
K: But isn’t that part of being invisible?
D: You got me there! I suppose it would be more consistent of me to be willing to do this for nothing. But what’s worse than nothing is to do it for a piddling amount of money—and no one will read it, and no one will review it, and a have sense that the whole enterprise was perhaps one of those so-called exercises in futility. I’ve had that feeling about some of the translations I’ve done. The only one that was really gratifying to me in the long run was perhaps the worst that I ever did, and that was the Artaud anthology. I wasn’t a skilled translator from French at the time; I knew the language but I wasn’t skilled at doing the job. And often I didn’t do Artaud justice—and yet a whole generation of students and young poets carried that book around in their hip pockets for 30 years and they thought I was some kind of saint because I’d done this work. And that’s very gratifying. I have to confess that it is. Even though I don’t have very much use for aspects of the so-called Artaud industry, which I unwittingly stepped into and became part of by doing this book.
K: What do you mean by the Artaud industry?
D: I can name one who actually plagiarized of one of my translations; his name is Victor Corti, and his translation of Artaud appears in the Calder & Boyers anthology, and he took my translation of the New Revelations of Being, which was first published by Ferlinghetti and the City Lights Artaud anthology and what he did—he must taken a Xerox copy of that and blown it up big enough to make changes on, and he made a few just a few—he penciled in corrections, changes, there are places where my translation isn’t as good as what he came up with—2 or 3 like that—and the rest, it just verbatim what I did! And I send this to Ferlinghetti who acknowledged that it was true, but pointed out to me that there was nothing we could do about it, and I wrote to Helen Calder the publisher…and I never got a reply. Later on I thought I’d get back at because there was an introduction to Roger Gilbert Lecomte by Artaud, which had been translated by Victor Corti and published by Helen Calder and was about to submit this to George Quahsa at Station Hill, who published my translation of Lecomte—but then I looked at what he had done, and I saw what a lousy asshole translator he was. So I did the whole thing over myself.
That’s just one of my unsavory episodes that I could tell you from my exerience with the Artaud industry. People will jump on something like this. And every ass-licking nitwit from here to Sydney and back is gonna crawl along and every tapeworm trailing out of the ass of this poor doomed man that was dying of a mixture of cancer and drug addiction; they’re gonna eat it and regurgitate it and ask the public to praise them for this and call for NEA grants to get their future bag together forever and sit their ass on the faces of every deserving young person that would like to come up and occupy a place in the sun too and they’re gonna do that FOREVER and I HATE THESE PEOPLE, I HATE THEM. I’ve always hated them because they tried to stop me when I was 20 years old—a whole cabal of this kind of people preventing me from being heard, preventing me from publishing and always pulling wires and it always part of the game of who gets invited to that thing in the backroom of Max’s Kansas City, who gets in this anthology, who gets into this magazine. I despise it and spit on these people and I’d like say it publicly. I know exactly who I’m talking about.
K: This kind of stuff happened in the ’60s…?
D: NO, it’s happening today! Not to me. It’s happening to others.
K: But you’re talking about your own encounters.
D: Oh, I’ve had these kind of encounters, yes.
K: It sounds like you’ve sort of dismissed the whole…
D: Oh yes, it’s gone, it’s gone the way of all things, but my experience with persons who were established and in a position to help me, but did everything they could to wreck me—I had that, I’ve seen them doing it to younger people that I admire and love and respect today. I feel pretty much invulnerable to this myself now. I’m too old and I don’t give a shit. And I’ve got Reader’s Digest paying my paycheck, giving me 3 vacation weeks a year. But I see it happening to others. And it’s the nasty sniping and the same kind of assholes—I could rave forever, but I won’t.
K: And on that note—you’ve got a reading to go to, and I think we’ve got a lot of stuff. This is great. Thank you very much.