An Interview with Peter Dimock
Peter Dimock's latest novel George Anderson: Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time is written as a letter to the former head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel -- a lawyer who drafted and signed one of the Bush era's infamous Torture Memos. While it's true that a handful of soldiers who participated in the beatings, rape, vicious strappado hangings, and other savage abuses at Abu Ghraib were charged and convicted, the masterminds of the legal reasoning that allowed the torture, now euphemistically branded as "enhanced interrogation techniques," of prisoners-of-war have never been held accountable.
Dimock's slim fiction rages against this and a host of state sins while also deftly functioning as a sorrowful, secular confession for an entitled race and class. It does this in an altogether unique style, which one reviewer described as coming from a "speaker who may be in some kind of rapture, or who is ironic, or who is mad, or who is all three." I met the author, a long-serving editor in the New York publishing world, at a restaurant near his home in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.
You've been working in publishing for a long time. You started at Vintage, then being overseen by Anne Freedgood and Jason Epstein, the latter an editor who co-founded The New York Review of Books. Then you worked under Sonny Mehta when Vintage became part of the Knopf group of imprints within Random House. After 2000, you were a senior editor at Columbia University Press and in charge of their history and political science books. I'm sure you've seen a lot of changes. What brought you into publishing and what's kept you in it?
I was in graduate school for ten years, and I spent three of those years teaching as an instructor but not writing a dissertation. And I realized I actually wasn't going to write a dissertation. And I needed to face that fact. I discovered when I was teaching at Yale that I wasn't a very good classroom teacher, but one thing I could do was listen to students talk about their writing. For a couple of years I was director of senior essays in American studies. I liked listening to people talk about what they wanted to write. People bring in what they think the teacher wants, what they think they should be writing. I could hear the voice change when they got close to what really mattered to them. I can hear the difference between what people think they should be writing -- or think they need to be writing in order to please other people -- and how far that is from what they really want to write. You can hear this when you ask questions. The voice changes, and the language changes. And I realized I'm a good editor because I can hear the book that people want to write, which they sometimes can't hear themselves.
Is it something that appears on the page, too? Can you read where a person is interested in going, or wants to go, as well? Or is this mostly when you're working with an author one on one?
It's funny. It's different when I'm working on a writer's page. When I'm talking to a person, a writer, I'm sympathetic to the person and trying to help. But when I'm reading a manuscript -- my experience is mostly with nonfiction work -- I'm actually on the book's side. I'm for the manuscript and against the writer. I tend to get into an argument with the person. You tend to get angry at the person who is trying to wreck the book. Why don't you go down this road? Why do you stop yourself right at the moment when something is happening? And I try to rescue the book from the fear and defensiveness of the author. So on the manuscript page, I'm quite harsh with the author. When I'm reading, I feel like my job is to protect the book from the authors' sabotaging of the thing that they most want to say.
How did you come to know Toni Morrison?
She was leaving Random House. She had been an editor there. I was living in New Brunswick, New Jersey. After she left publishing, she had a lectureship year at Rutgers, teaching two days a week, and she needed a place to stay. There was a small basement apartment in the house where I was living that was free. That was when I was not writing a dissertation and was commuting to New Haven to supervise senior essays. Toni was writing Beloved. We ended up talking a lot. It was a wonderful time for me. Slavery was a subject that I knew and cared about from my work in American studies and in American history. And I was sort of on fire. I mean I had been thinking about that for years. Talking and learning from Toni, I saw her making the reality of the historical presence of slavery in every moment of American life come alive through imaginative work. I saw her restoring the centrality of it to American national historical subjectivity in a way that potentially gave everyone's present new possibility. And she gave me a model of what it might really be like to be able to be an intellectual without being an academic.
Who is Daniel Levin?
Daniel Levin is the real name of the OLC lawyer who signed that document.
The document that is included in the back of the book, the Office of Legal Council's memorandum -- one of the so-called Torture Memos.
Yes. It's a mind-breaking document, written in 2004, that is supposed to withdraw the secret 2002 legal authorization of torture by the same office. The earlier memo was released in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib scandal. Levin went to extremes because there is no American case law regarding torture. At least there wasn't in 2004. It has always been considered legally beyond the pale. He did a very courageous thing, it seems to me, when he used his White House authority, without telling anyone around him, to order Special Forces trainers to waterboard him so that he could obtain direct evidence with which to test the meaning of the language in the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which the U.S. had signed -- in particular, the phrase defining torture as an act "committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering." Levin needed first-hand evidence of what "severe physical or mental pain or suffering" meant in the context of U.S. conduct of interrogations.
He felt he had to be waterboarded in order to understand the statute.
Right. He saw immediately that waterboarding was torture, and then he eventually went ahead and signed the document that essentially legalizes it. Officially the document he wrote and signed was supposed to withdraw permission to torture, but actually grants it by stating in a footnote that nothing in his document disagrees with the legality of the findings in the previous authorization written in 2002. It's a crazy-making document. I wanted the reader to encounter directly legal language that destroyed American democratic coherence in the pursuit of global imperial power.
You mention Cheney, Bybee, Yoo, Addington -- plenty of those involved -- by name. Why did you fictionalize Daniel Levin as David Kallen?
I did almost no biographical, historical research. I made this character up in my mind. And so I didn't want my character and the historical one confused. I really don't know who Daniel Levin is. The character, David Kallen, is a composite figure. But I do identify with him. Part of me understands what he did and part of me just doesn't. There's some moment at which you just don't sign that fucking document, even if you have been ordered to write it. But my novel isn't a j'accuse. And just as Theo Fales is not my voice -- he does not speak for the author -- David Kallen is not the historical Daniel Levin. I wanted to preserve these separations.
But you include the entire memorandum.
Except his signature.
Doesn't that point to the true source enough?
Yes. It's all in the open. All the torture stuff is so much out in the open. We're all habituated to it without having an adequate language or a morally or historically coherent imaginative vision with which to react to the implications of that habituation.
The OLC memorandum makes up perhaps a fifth of the book. It's a large portion of the book. Why did you feel justified in using that length?
Words either matter or they don't. And these words are lethal, but nobody bothers to read them. This document is a toxic abuse of language. It's an instrumentalization of language for pure power. And that power becomes its own argument and is not accountable to language. Power is slipping beyond accountability. I wanted to imply that readers are partly responsible for this happening, and I include myself; not reading the document for what it is is itself an ongoing war crime that makes all Americans complicit in internationally illegal acts. That's the way power operates. The institutions by which power can be held accountable through language, I think, are failing. This is just one example. Everything's in the open, but somehow it doesn't matter.
In your last book, A Short Rhetoric for Leaving the Family, a narrator is writing a letter to accompany an inheritance. In your latest novel, George Anderson, the narrator is trying to secure royalty rights for the son of a famous African-American composer. How is the idea of inheritance or reclaiming inheritance operating in this novel?
Inheritance implies continuity and continuity implies narrative fulfillment -- or denial -- of justice. The ability to hand down property generationally among very rich people usually comes with some narrative of stewardship that justifies the right to own such a disproportionate share of wealth. It's justified by claims of somehow fulfilling history's trajectory or logic of justice by virtue of inherent superiority or natural entitlement or special ability to preserve and perpetuate the country's best aspects. Handing down property is the way very rich people tell themselves they are keeping faith with the dead. But the economic history we've actually been living over the last forty years makes a total mockery of all that. We need a language for the real costs in human lives of American economic dominance. We've become so fixated on accumulating limitless wealth through extraction, using almost limitless force, including slavery, to do so, that we've forgotten that capitalism, in its Enlightenment version, was originally conceived of as a transition. Capitalism's creative destruction was supposed to create the material abundance with which a sustainable wellbeing for everyone could become practicably imaginable. It's as if wealth and power have now become their own self-evident justification despite the obvious catastrophes they are perpetrating in their present configurations.
Both of your books are stylistic gambles. The purpose and direction of that style is not immediately recognizable. We don't know why you're making these stylistic choices. In your author's note you write that the success of your ambition will "rest upon the reader's response to [your] invention of a form... no matter how estranged or estranging the results may seem at first." While writing, how aware are you of your gamble? Did it seem like a gamble? And how did you reconcile yourself to this risk?
My experience is the history I have lived through. I was born in 1950. And so I was eighteen in 1968. That's a moment. I was draftable at the height of the Vietnam War. So I have a particular relationship to that time, like everyone who lived through that period. But I remember being overwhelmed -- I still am -- by the sense that we don't have a language adequate to the history we're actually living. I was brought up and trained -- I had all the best education and the best positions from which to assume an intellectual role either as an academic or a literary critic -- but always felt I never could actually assume any such role in good faith. I feel strongly that -- with the exception of contemporary literature, I'm thinking of Morrison, Marquez, Pynchon, and Bishop -- we have not as a culture yet truly grappled with the inadequacy of the language we have available to us for the history we are living. I think we are crippled by this lack of a language.
What's broken in our language? Or what's the cause of that inability to articulate our history?
The point of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment concept of property was the protection of the individual from the despotism of arbitrary, violent force -- whether exercised by a master, the church, or the state. Out of the freedom that came from property holding -- extended as widely as the cornucopia of the New World suddenly seemed to make possible -- a new history seemed possible. We seem to me to have lost a good-faith vocabulary of hope for that new history, and that loss seems to me to have something to do with our nationalism having turned into the limitless aggression of empire. That is, our language of national experience is commandeered for purposes of empire, not possibilities of justice or equality. That leaves us without a way of connecting our everyday lives to visions of real justice expressed in everyday speech.
How can fiction address this lack of a cohesive, non-contradictory American narrative? Or, what does fiction allow you to do that, say, a competing history cannot do?
I wanted to create characters that were experiencing the absence of an adequate language for the history they were living -- to reproduce on the page the subjectivity of an actor inhabiting a nationalist history of imperial complicity without awareness of the lack of a conceptual language for that condition. The madness of my narrator, Theo Fales, is actually the coherence of a subjectivity accurately registering the lack of a language with which to narrate in good faith the history we are all experiencing.
Coherence made from some lack of language?
I remember often acutely feeling my inability to express some knowledge I thought I had and desperately yearning for a way to say it -- and utterly failing. Just going blank. Everyone feels this way at times. Sometimes I think that lyric is the literary form invented to express this state of yearning. I had training as a classical musician and once played the cello seriously. I have always been interested in writing that tries to use musical form. Maybe music is the form coherence takes when words aren't available or can't do the job right. For this novel, I wanted to try to use the relation between words and music in some compositions of John Coltrane as inspiration for my novel's form. I was taken aback when I learned that three of the five songs on the 1964 album Crescent came to him first as words. When the words had become the music Coltrane and his quartet played, he discarded them -- and forgot them. This was a reversal of all my training and the ideology of all my aesthetic commitments. For me words were everything. In my upbringing, something wasn't quite real until it took the form of words. My thought experiment for this novel was to try to come up with a literary form that adequately conveys what it feels like to tell the truth from within a dominant narrative of continuity and inheritance that fails and betrays you at every moment. That is, how do you represent the presence of the legacies of lived American historical experience using the tropes of nationalist triumphalism revalued in light of the fact that they do not protect you? I experienced all the benefits of nationalist language and all the privileges rigorous training in that language affords. I have been taught to entrust myself to that language. What would it be like, I wanted to explore, to compose a novel in the voice of a person like myself who suddenly realizes he can no longer trust a single word? That's the voice in which you hear Theo Fales speaking.
Let's talk about Fales's method and his use of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises. How did you come across them? Why did you think Fales would use them? And why did you think they would be a good backbone structure for the novel?
I was working with a Medievalist who was working on the relationship between papacy and the Holy Roman Empire. I'd studied English Puritanism and early American colonial history, so I knew a lot about Calvinism and had thought about it a lot. This historian mentioned that the spirituality of monasteries represented a kind of social division of labor to achieve collective wellbeing. Not all people were expected to be virtuous or good -- it was enough for the salvation of the community if there was a spiritual minority whose specialized task it was to intercede with God on behalf of everyone. I realized how antithetical that was to every WASP, every Protestant instinct, I had. For WASPs history begins in 1517 with Luther's nailing those Theses on the door -- every man a priest. That is, every person has an individual relationship to God. You translate the bible into German, so that everyone would have access to god's voice individually. And then the Calvinist inflection of all that. When I read The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola, I was taken aback by how militaristically Calvinist it seemed to me. I saw the work as a soldier's field manual based on the recognition that the only way to combat the individualism Luther had let loose on the world was to out-Protestant the Protestants. This consisted in breaking and remaking the individual will into an instrument of obedience. You had to militarize the will to beat your enemies at their own game. I think I can understand why the Inquisition was so ambivalent about Ignatius. He represents a modern kind of agency -- he enlists an individualized remaking of the self into an instrument of official power. Then the Jesuits bravely go into the New World to become the means -- through education -- of drawing indigenous peoples into modernity's grip.
And why do you think Theo Fales, a Protestant at struggle within an incoherent historical narrative, would be drawn to this particular Catholic method?
Fales really wants an answer to the question of how to live in the history he is experiencing. He's at a loss. His language has failed him. He doesn't have a way. He wants to know how to live. The Spiritual Exercises straight off gives the answer: the human being's only job in life, the manual says, "is to love, obey, and praise God." That's it. That's all you ever have to do. Fales needs that kind of explicit, authoritarian certainty. He needs to start somewhere and The Spiritual Exercises gives him that desperate place.
In Fales's method there are seven truth statements. They are all fairly abstract and from disparate sources. For example you quote Marshall McLuhan saying, "When the whole world is a computer and all cultures are recorded on a single tribal drum, the fixed point of view of print culture will be irrelevant and impossible no matter how valuable." In the author's note, you call these seven truth statements crucial. Where did they come from? And why are they "crucial"?
They are things I read that always stayed with me -- things that strike me somehow as irrefutably true. They are things that opened up worlds for me. I love epigraphs -- inscriptions or meditative lines that can encapsulate grand, seemingly coherent, self-justifying projects. I'm always tempted by them. Maybe the seven statements are epigraphs for books I will never be able to write but feel as an editor that someone should.
The other thing that comes across from the inclusion of the memorandum and this appropriation of Loyola's method is your desire to acknowledge the inherent self-contradiction within grand systems and their failures to recognize or comprehend the chaos and the enormity of life. The legal system fails. And Loyola's Spiritual Exercises are really not adequate for what Fales needs.
The thing that Fales does is learn, through listening to Coltrane and making his own notes for the visions that come from that, to trust desire.
Desire, music, and art are perhaps non-systems, or less total systems. Are you therefore suggesting they're more trustworthy because they've less a presumption of totality than church or state narratives?
Exactly. They have to take some form, but they don't in themselves have to betray. This search for a way to trust desire wherever that takes you -- that's what Fales is just beginning to figure out. Maybe that happens after the book ends; maybe he's on his way.
We're not really sure how mad Fales is. Can you speak about the madness? If it represents this response to a lack of a coherent narrative, is there a way out?
I think it's trying to touch bottom of the madness that American culture has gotten to. I was trying to capture Fales at the moment that he does not have a language. I heard Bill Clinton give a Yale Senior Class Day speech, and I was flabbergasted. He's telling the graduating Yale seniors, this privileged elite: It's your world to inherit, yours to administer. Your job is to manage this world. And here are the problems: the world is "unstable, unequal, and unsustainable." Now I want you, as managers of this world, every day, to think about one of these three things. And if you do something, every day, about one of these things, you have done your job. And he's saying the world is unjust, criminal, suicidal. That we're destroying the planet. It's falling apart. And everything is just fine. Everything is fine. And you're entitled to your incomes. If you think about it, it's Orwellian doublethink. He is speaking as if the U.S. -- its conduct of American global dominance -- couldn't be the source of these three things. We don't have an everyday language for this national condition of self-blindness. And I actually think people, subliminally, when they hear that shit -- those kids -- you know in some deep part of you -- that's why people are so depoliticized. You give up all hope of a political language if that's the political language you're given.
You're saying Fales seems mad, but he's only as mad as everyone else.
He's less mad than everyone else. Because he's acting on desire, and this desire leads him to this dead end, and he's facing this dead end, and he's desperate. But that's saner.