Interview with Jim Ralston on Selfishness,
From NIGHTSUN #2 (1982), pp. 76-83. The interview was conducted by Jorn Bramann in the same year.
J.B.: Your book, The Choice of Emptiness, will be
coming out with Acheron Press
this winter. Could you tell us a little about it?
Jim: The book is a collection of essays, interspersed with journal reflections,
about a man going through an emotional and spiritual crisis, and turning within
for new values. The book is structured so that each essay, or chapter, is a
self-contained piece at the same time that it advances the story. We follow the
man through a collapsed marriage, loss of children and job, death of mother,
broken love relationship, and all the time the turning within. Yet not as an
escape from the world, but as a way of finally knowing himself, and very much in
the context of the everyday world he lives in.
J.B.: You say not as an escape from the world, but having read your book I
think that is exactly what your critics will accuse you of. Clearly you are a
sharp critic of the inner life, with all of its subtle complexes, but
nonetheless will you not be accused of practicing a peculiar kind of escapism,
excessive self-concern at the expense of the social environment, of being blind
or unconcerned about what's going on around you. In short, will not your
critics accuse you of practicing the "Culture of Narcissism"?
Jim: They may and probably will, but basically I deny it. To establish a real
social connection in life, we first have to establish a connection in life, we
first have to establish a connection to ourselves. We have to know the underside
of our own lives, we have to reach our own depths, we have to find out who we
are underneath our cultural conditioning and fears. This is not easy to do. It
takes a lot of work and a lot of courage. Many social reformers show themselves
to be excessively concerned with the other, but if you look more closely, you
see they are only covering up their own lack of depth. We have many subtle
hiding places from ourselves and each other. Active compassion for our fellow
man may sometimes be real, but more often it's a sham, what Emerson calls
" virtue on parade." I stand with Thoreau when he says that when people come to
see him with the sole purpose of being helpful, he wants to run for his life. I
distrust most social reformers.
J.B.: To work on oneself may be all well and good. But how much time do we have
for individual reform in light of the neutron bomb, a new armaments race,
systematic destruction of the last remnants of nature, increasing hostilities
between the affluent middle class and so-called minorities, threatening
involvement on our part on the side of ant-popular dictatorships in Latin
America, etc. Haven'¦t we now passed the day where we have the luxury to "work
on ourselves," so to speak? Don't we first have to make sure that we survive?
Jim: Time is regrettably short if the world is to be saved from human
destruction. However I still believe that the revolution of one is our only
hope. By that I mean that a real revolution must be an inside out process. How
can we hope to reform the world if we remain thoroughly unreformed in our
personal lives, if we haven¡¦t worked through the most basic of our inner
diseases: for example, possessiveness, envy, jealousy. Often we find that the
man hell-bent on reforming some institution or overthrowing a government also
lives in mortal fear that his woman may one day show interest in another man.
One gets the feeling of displaced energy here, that the outer work is easier
than the inner, and that there are some more basic diseases that such a man
might work on first, or at least simultaneously. Then, after his own house is
more in order, he will perhaps go about "changing the world" with a lot more
clarity. I guess I'm saying nothing more or less than "remove the beam out of
thine own eye first."
J.B.: Still, people are starving to death, mountains are stripped bare by
bulldozers, more and more hideous nerve gasses are stockpiled by the armies.
Isn¡¦t it most urgent that we do something about such things?
im: Admittedly the world is in trouble, and we have a late start working out
solutions. We seem to be digging ourselves deeper and deeper into unsolvable
problems. And I don't mean to suggest that we have our own lives totally in
order before we dare focus on any of these problems. What I mean to say, and
what I suggest in my book, is that these outside problems are our own inner life
externalized. We are implicated far more than we like to admit. As fathers, for
examples, we build our homes around power hierarchies. We are little dictators
to our children and not at all for their own good as we rationalize, but because
we need the power over them. It covers up or feelings of inadequacy.
Externalized one step further, we find that most of our political figures are
also doing the same thing on a larger scale, and rationalizing in the exact same
way their power maneuvers, they say, are for the people's own good, while
really they're just using a political situation for evidence of their
importance because inwardly they don'¦t feel it. People who aren't working on
their depth lives make poor leaders, either as established power holders or as
revolutionaries, because they are out of touch with themselves. They may think
they're coming from their compassion or wisdom, but really they are disguising
their inner poverty.
J.B.: Then are you saying hat most of the time reformers are merely doing more
mischief, and we all might as well "stay at home" and let the world go to
Jim: Not really. There is an obvious place for revolution, but outer revolution
has been and probably always will be a short term thing because so far it has
never lined up with real changes in inner consciousness. When I express concern
for inner change, I¡¦m not talking about something that excludes outer change,
but something that may be a necessary precondition for it. As it is, reforms and
revolutions almost always remain merely external, and end up seriously perverted
because of it, often creating the old diseases under new labels and new
J.B.: Let's move for a moment to the question
of style. Some readers will
notice that your style is thoroughly traditional, lacks all the usual signs of
experimental contemporary prose. Many people feel there is something
illegitimate about using a style developed before our time. It¡¦s a little like
a twentieth century composer writing music in the style of Brahms. Do you have
any thoughts on that?
Jim: The book came out of a very difficult time in my life. My mother was
dying. My best fiend developed cancer. I was concerned with losing my children,
losing my job, losing an intense love relationship. All my connections to my
past seemed to be disappearing on me, yet I could see no future. Questions of
literary style just weren't that prominent in my life right then.
J.B.: So it appears you used writing as a means to get a point across, to
clarify matters, in part at least to come to terms with yourself. Yet it is true
that in most modern prose the medium has become an end in itself. For example in
abstract painting the lines, colors, and shapes are not used anymore to
represent something else, but rather as ends in themselves¡Xthey cease to be a
means of communication. Do oy reject this type of modern art or modern writing?
It certainly seems to be missing from your book, in which I see your writing as
through and through a means to achieve something beyond writing.
Jim: I think that art that is created as an end in itself will be often used by
the artist as an escape from oneself. A writer who devotes himself too much to
the careful artistic construction of a text might well be escaping from himself
in the same way a political activist might use his activism as an escape from
the unresolved conflicts of his own life. Such a writer might use stylistic
preoccupation or experimentalization as a beautiful or intriguing mask behind
which he hides his own private messiness.
J.B.: Alright, an activist can use his activism to cover up his own personal
problems rather than delving into them, but he doesn¡¦t have to. There are,
after all, activists who are solid. And, similarly, I would think there are
solid experimentalists in art. Do you want to say that an artist¡¦s
preoccupation with formal matters is always an escape?
Jim: No. I don¡¦t want to say that. It is more a matter of emphasis and
priority. What I would insist upon is that, first of all, a writer has something
to say, and then the form will take care of itself. If the subject matter is
alive and real to the author, if it burns inside of him to be expressed, then
the form will grow out of that inner burning, almost as an act of
nature¡Xsomething like, as Keats says, ¡§leaves come to trees.¡¨
In short, I see it something like this: form can never lead forward content; it
has to be the other way around. The shape of a barn is determined by the
purposes it is to serve. It would be nonsense to contemplate possible shapes of
a barn independently of practical needs. I want to underline the word practical.
J.B.: Here you almost sound pragmatic, though I don¡¦t believe you are a
pragmatist in any narrow sense. You are not advocating an attitude toward life
that emphasizes getting ahead, "making it in the world," being "successful,"
Jim: No. All I want to say is that style ought not to have a life of its own.
J.B.: Yet some contemporary writers would feel a bad conscience if they wrote
in your style, simply because it seems too traditional. There is a feeling among
contemporary artists that it is impossible to compose nineteenth century music
in the twentieth century. It¡¦s almost like a taboo.
Jim: Again I would say that there is such a thing as genuine experimentalism in
writing, and there is also experimentalism for its own sake. The former grows
out of a passionate desire to grow and to create one's own work and one's own
life for oneself, and not to blindly take what culture hands down as the only
models one dare follow. The latter, experimentalism for its own sake, isn¡¦t
really experimental at all, but is more of an unconscious hiding from the fact
that the artist has nothing to say. We might find such an experimental stylist
living a totally safe life in other areas from his work, for example, the
writing professor who lives in the safety of his domestic routine on tenure
track, while in his writing he is wildly experimental, avant-garde. One gets the
feeling that that kind of experimentalism is without much meaning.
J.B.: you seem to criticize experimentalism on the grounds that it does not
express anything, that it is an enterprise pursued apart from the author¡¦s real
needs, real situations, apart from his real existence. It might well be possible
that it could also be criticized because today all aesthetic experiments have in
essence already been conducted. I seriously doubt that anything radically new is
possible anymore in the arts. Artists and writers who still try to be
"revolutionary" are in fact breaking down open doors. Such artists do not risk
anything anymore, but simply repeat endlessly the gestures of the
"revolutionary" artists of earlier times.
Jim: Yes, it seems that experimentalism can be criticized on both counts. A lot
of what is going on at the "leading" art galleries and "avant-garde"
journals is both dishonest and a waste of time.
J.B.: So we conclude that you are entirely justified in using a thoroughly
traditional style in a book whose content I feel to be innovative. I am,
however, still puzzled by this apparent discrepancy between style and content.
Jim: As I said, a writer who has something to say should not worry about style
as such. To make an analogy, couples whose love and passion is waning might be
very concerned with style, performance, variation, etc., outward attempts to
make up for the inward lack. These matters are clearly secondary at the time
these couples are passionately in love . . . . You seem to have a bad conscience
about using traditional styles in modern times, almost a dogmatic concern. Do
you have any good reasons for defending this dogma?
J.B.: In your book you make many suggestions
that love is not so much a goal
towards which a mature person should strive, but much more a means by which a
person could come to himself or herself. I think many people would find this
idea strange if not offensive¡Xlove as a means, not an end. Usually we have the
idea that a love relationship, if it is successful, will represent a fulfillment
of human existence.
Jim: Yes, I think love, sexual/emotional love, is a means to get to yourself,
perhaps for most of us the best means. It is impossible to fall in love without
moving deeper inside ourselves, and there is where there¡¦s work to do. So many
of our latent troubles suddenly become all too available.
J.B.: We are back at the theme of selfishness: most people would say that love
is a means to get to another person, to get outside ourselves in a good way.
They would say that love is an extension of one¡¦s existence, an enrichment. But
you are suggesting something quite different, it seems¡Xthat love is an
opportunity to move more deeply into your own self.
Jim: At first it must be so, I think. The first thing we learn when we fall in
love, if we are able to learn anything at all, is that we can¡¦t love. We are
too afraid, too shallow. We can be jealous, we can be possessive, we can cling
and be clung to, but no mature person would call these qualities love. They are
need, need begat of fear, need begat of having probed too little of our own
depths to be able to stand alone. These are the qualities that we are all so
naively willing to pass off as love. We wish that love would be a way of getting
beyond ourselves, outside of our narrow perimeters, but I seriously doubt that
the means to our own enlargement will ever be through another person. We must
somehow manage that through ourselves, and when a certain fullness of being is
attained, then we will be able to love.
J.B.: It sounds a little like the old paradox: after you don't need it
anymore, then you can have it.
Jim: Yes. Especially with love, I think this is true.
J.B.: But what I was referring to was not so much the many failing and stunted
and half-hearted relationships we see around us, but more the cases where they
seem to succeed. Perhaps these cases exist only in classical literature and
myths. In any event, couldn¡¦t love be an end rather than a means in those cases
where it does succeed?
Jim: Maybe. I don¡¦t know. At that point, when we are loving out of our own
fullness instead of looking to another to fill us up, the question of ends and
means no longer seems to apply. That would mean to love totally without
expectation, no strings attached. It would also mean that we weren¡¦t looking to
the ¡§partner¡¨ for anything in particular, and I suspect at this point the
whole idea of partner (in the connotation of exclusive partner) would dissolve,
and along with it the whole question of ends and means. Such a love would be, in
a very grand sense, free. But that kind of love is still a rare flower in our
world, and not generally apparent. Even in the great literature, ¡§love¡¨
doesn¡¦t succeed either. In fact, I would say that one of the criteria of great
love stories would be to pinpoint and expose illusions about romantic love, the
main illusion being that it will save us from anything. The best stories do just
this. Anna Karenina, Hardy's Tess, Ibsen's The Doll House, Maugham' Of Human
Bondage, Roth's My Life as a Man are a few that come quickly to mind.
J.B.: I think you are right. The only love stories where the romantic myth is
upheld are those in which the lovers die early or are kept apart. I'm thinking
of Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolde for examples.
Jim: So let me say that the main reason why I think my idea of love as a means
isn't "selfish" is simply this: You can't be anything to someone else if you
are nothing to yourself. Most people want to cover up, fill up their own poverty
when they are craving to get lost in someone else. And even if they are
"fortunate" to find someone to try this experiment with, it doesn't work.
J.B.: You really think that T.S. Ellot's words are true.
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas! . . .
I wonder, incidentally, how many teachers of English literature think these
words are true . . . Anyway, you are not suggesting that men and women would be
better off not to fall in love at all.
Jim: No. Even if they had a choice in the matter, which more than not they
don¡¦t, I wouldn¡¦t say that at all. It¡¦s our best chance, really, to find out
who we are. In these days of diminishing frontiers, it' one of the last and
best avenues open into our underworld to discover who we are in our depths. If
we fall in love in the spirit of mutual and honest self-exploration, then love
may serve us as a transformation out of our hollowness into a genuine measure of
fullness. But beware. The sight of ourselves won¡¦t be pretty at first. We will
have to be willing to penetrate underneath our shallow ego images if we are
after a true transformation. In short, love can show us who we are only if we
want to open our eyes and look. It will take us down there. The rest is up to
But to finish on a positive note, the miracle of transformation is dependent on
this and only this that we deeply acknowledge who we are. That's all there is
for us to do. Tolstoy's story, The Death of Ivan Ilych, portrays this idea
with such great power. Ilych is a man who lives somewhat successfully on a
shallow level. He has many superficial pleasures around which he knows
himself a good meal, a crisp game of bridge, thoughts of his respectable name,
his handsome wife and daughters, his property, etc. Then one day, hanging a
curtain, he feels a twinge in his side. It is nothing at first, but a slight
pain annoys him for some weeks, gradually worsening until one day he finds
himself bedridden, then (so utterly amazing to everyone) dying and in tremendous
unrelieved pain. His friends and family slowly move away from his suffering, as
it lingers on weeks and months, only being able to empathize with him so far
before they hunger to return to their ordinary lives. His constant question is,
why me? Why is this happening to me? Hasn't my life been exemplary? Why should
I have to suffer so? Why should I have to die? Finally the suffering becomes
so intense that he begins to scream out, and for three days and nights he
screams without relief. At last, perhaps purified by his great pain, he comes to
his vision that he has wasted his life, that is ¡§why him,¡¨ and in his
hell-depths acknowledgement of that, he is released from his pain, and he is
redeemed from his shallowness.
Certainly dying can put us into contact with our depths, but so can loving, if
we will use it to find ourselves rather than to get away from ourselves. This is
selfishness in the highest sense, for only in his spirit of self-exploration
will we ever have a real life to live and share.
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