The Syntax of Sorcery: An Interview with Tom Robbins
Forty-odd years ago, there was a countercultural moment, a brief, shining moment, as it were, when the eyes of a generation glimpsed the Eden beneath the veil. However fleeting was this paradise, or however harsh has been its repression, its light nonetheless inspired a rowdy cohort of artists to carry its torch into the future. Tom Robbins is one of these unruly pioneers, and his frequently bestselling novels are so saturated in an uncontainable joie de vivre that they have remained virtually required reading throughout the years and decades since their initial publication.
And so, without further homage, I deliver you to Tom Robbins. I hope that you enjoy reading this interview as much as I enjoyed conducting it.
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Tony Vigorito: Alan Watts once wrote that we actually haven't the answers to the most ordinary of questions, such as "What's going on?" or "Where am I?" So let's start with these allegedly mundane inquiries. What's going on? And where are we?
Tom Robbins: Christians, and some Jews, claim we're in the "end times," but they've been saying this off and on for more than two thousand years. According to Hindu cosmology, we're in the kali yuga, a dark period when the cow of history is balanced precariously on one leg, soon to topple. Then there are our new-age friends who believe that this December we're in for a global cage-rattling which, once the dust has settled, will usher in a great spiritual awakening.
Most of this apocalyptic noise appears to be just wishful thinking on the part of people who find life too messy and uncertain for comfort, let alone for serenity and mirth. The truth, from my perspective, is that the world, indeed, is ending -- and is also being reborn. It's been doing that all day, every day, forever. Each time we exhale, the world ends; when we inhale, there can be, if we allow it, rebirth and spiritual renewal. It all transpires inside of us. In our consciousness, in our hearts. All the time.
Otherwise, ours is an old, old story with an interesting new wrinkle. Throughout most of our history, nothing -- not flood, famine, plague, or new weapons -- has endangered humanity one-tenth as much as the narcissistic ego, with its self-aggrandizing presumptions and its hell-hound spawn of fear and greed. The new wrinkle is that escalating advances in technology are nourishing the narcissistic ego the way chicken manure nourishes a rose bush, while exploding worldwide population is allowing its effects to multiply geometrically. Here's an idea: let's get over ourselves, buy a cherry pie, and go fall in love with life.
You've written nine novels and brought to life a rowdy pantheon of memorable characters. Perhaps it's not fair to ask a parent to pick their favorite kid, but is there one among these characters that you wish was living here among us today?
While he's not really a major character, I'd nominate Dr. Yamaguchi from Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas (my least popular novel, though it's perhaps the one most relevant in today's bushwhacked economy), because (1) he's devised a cure for cancer (the ninja enema) and (2) his philosophy embraces mindful goofiness and extreme personal behavior (crazy wisdom) as possible pathways to enlightenment. On the other hand, I also wouldn't mind seeing Pan (Jitterbug Perfume) pawing the earth in the White House rose garden, or Stubblefield (Villa Incognito) showing up occasionally to feed reality sandwiches to the delusional philistines and corpulent corporate cannibals on Fox News.
Terence McKenna was fond of saying that the world is made of language. As a master wordsmith and a personal friend of Terence, what do you take this notion to mean?
Regrettably, Terence and I never discussed this notion specifically, but my sense is that he was getting at something more profound than are the texturalists, who contend that nothing ever written matters or even exists outside of the text: the actual words an author has put down on the page. And likewise more profound than Wittgenstein, who famously said, "All I know is what I have words for."
What seems likely is that Terence was not only contending that the universe is a genetic, extra-dimensional, interspecies verbal construct, but that it exists primarily as a result of our consciousness of it. What he may actually have been implying is, "the world is made of imagination." There is, after all, a possibility that when it comes to consensual reality, we're making it up. All of it. And language is the universal medium by which we identify and explain our creation to ourselves. Language lends reality to reality.
I do recall hearing Terence say once that everything in nature has stories to tell; not just scientific information to impart, mind you, but something akin to plot-line narration, if one is equipped to "read" it. That has overtones of woo-woo I know, but doubtlessly sensitized by his special connection to the psychotropic properties of plants, he had a way of making a process like photosynthesis sound like a pre-biblical epic.
Knowing how painstakingly you craft words, I suspect you believe as I do that every word is a magic word. Obviously you have chosen to use your magic to enlighten, but do you think it's fair to say that many lesser magic-users are prone to something resembling dark magic?
Certain individual words do possess more pitch, more radiance, more shazam! than others, but it's the way words are juxtaposed with other words in a phrase or sentence that can create magic. Perhaps literally. The word "grammar," like its sister word "glamour," is actually derived from an old Scottish word that meant "sorcery." When we were made to diagram sentences in high school, we were unwittingly being instructed in syntax sorcery, in wizardry. We were all enrolled at Hogwarts. Who knew?
When a culture is being dumbed down as effectively as ours is, its narrative arts (literature, film, theatre) seem to vacillate between the brutal and the bland, sometimes in the same work. The pervasive brutality in current fiction -- the death, disease, dysfunction, depression, dismemberment, drug addiction, dementia, and dreary little dramas of domestic discord -- is an obvious example of how language in exploitative, cynical or simply neurotic hands can add to the weariness, the darkness in the world. Less apparent is that bland writing -- timid, antiseptic, vanilla writing -- is nearly as unhealthy as the brutal and dark. Instead of sipping, say, elixir, nectar, tequila, or champagne, the reader is invited to slurp lumpy milk or choke on the author's dust bunnies.
Robert Anton Wilson wrote, "Society is the devil's masquerade," while Terence McKenna cautioned, "culture is not your friend," and of course all of your writing is peppered with anti-establishment protagonists and provocateurs. Is society in some general sense a dangerous distraction to the human project?
I'll say this much: virtually every advancement made by our species since civilization first peeked out of its nest of stone has been initiated by lone individuals, mavericks who more often than not were ignored, mocked, or viciously persecuted by society and its institutions. Society in general maintains such a vested interested in its cozy habits and solidified belief systems that it had rather die -- or kill -- than entertain change. Consider how threatened religious fundamentalists of all faiths remain to this day by science in general and Darwin in particular.
Cultural institutions by and large share one primary objective: herd control. Even when ostensibly benign, their propensity for manipulation, compartmentalization, standardization and suppression of potentially disruptive behavior or ideas, has served to freeze the evolution of consciousness practically in its tracks. In technological development, in production of material goods and creature comforts, we've challenged the very gods, but psychologically, emotionally, we're scarcely more than chimpanzees with bulldozers, baboons with big bombs.
In East of Eden, John Steinbeck wrote that there's never been a great creative collaboration. When the Beatles first burst on the scene, I thought they were proving him wrong. Later, we learned that Lennon and McCartney had each composed their pop masterpieces separately, individually. So it goes. Genius may stand on the shoulders of giants, but it stands alone. However, I digress.
We humans have always defined ourselves by narration. What's happening today is that we're allowing multi-national corporations to tell our stories for us. The theme of corporate stories (and millions drink them in every day) seldom varies: to be happy you must consume, to be special you must conform. Absurd, obviously, yet our identities have become so fragile, so elusive, that we seem content to let advertisers provide us with their version of who we are, to let them recreate us in their image: a cookie-cutter image based on market research, shallow sociology, and insidious lies. Individualism is bad for business -- though absolutely necessary for freedom, progressive knowledge, and any possible interface with the transcendent. And yes, it's entirely possible to function as a free-thinking individual without succumbing to narcissism. This can be tricky at times, I suppose, but then so can the tango -- particularly if you're dancing alone.
Synchronicity has been described as evidence that this assemblage of separate personalities that passes for life are merely the infinite faces of an underlying unity -- perhaps similar to the "clockworks" you describe in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. What are your thoughts on this, or more to the point, do you have a memorable story of synchronicity you'd care to share?
What we, thanks to Jung, call "synchronicity" (coincidence on steroids), Buddhists have long known as "the interpenetration of realities." Whether it's a natural law of sorts or simply evidence of mathematical inevitability (an infinite number of monkeys locked up with an infinite number of typewriters eventually producing Hamlet, not to mention Tarzan of the Apes), it seems to be as real as it is eerie.
One night I inexplicably dreamed of a horse race. It was won by a steed named Seafood Kabob. The next day I telephoned a guy I knew who did PR for the racetrack outside of Seattle and asked him, half jokingly, to let me know should he ever come across a horse by that name, as I was prepared to bet the ranch dressing on it. Not a week passed before he mailed me a racing form in which I read that a horse named Seafood and another called Shish Kabob had finished strong in the Louisiana Derby a month or so earlier. I did not follow the sport and was totally unfamiliar with the Louisiana Derby. Now I wish I could report that I followed up on it -- began buying racing forms, contacting a bookie, and winning big bucks on the horses in question -- but, alas, I became distracted and let it pass.
Another example: In Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, I have my male protagonist take the female protagonist, on the occasion of their first date, to a lecture on the disturbing dwindling of the world's frog population. While touring for that book, an interviewer from the St. Petersburg Times inquired if I was aware that T.C. Boyle had written a story, published some months earlier, in which a man takes a girl on their first date to a lecture about the global disappearance of frogs. Well, I'd neither read that story (I still haven't) nor heard of it, and Boyle and I have never met. Hello? Do I hear the theme from Twilight Zone? I mean, what are the odds that two separate writers, strangers, a thousand miles apart, would each invent fictions in which guys take girls to an esoteric frog lecture on their first date. If that isn't synchronicity, it's something equally as weird.
In his book, Aquarius Revisited, Peter O. Whitmer characterized you as of the crew who created the sixties counterculture and changed America. What do you think the enduring legacy of the counterculture has been, or will be?
Although I participated enthusiastically in the sixties psychedelic revolution, and tried to mimic it -- its trappings, its mythology, its silliness, its profundity -- in print in my first novel, I had nothing to do with its creation. Rather, it was the confluence of two disparate elements -- acute socio-political dissatisfaction and pharmacological neo-shamanism -- that precipitated it; and it was democracy, as much as ferocious opposition from both the right-wing and left-wing establishments, that caused it to eventually unravel.
Democracy? Yep, oddly enough. The counterculture light was so bright it began to attract moths (people who sadly were not intellectually or spiritually prepared to meaningfully assimilate transformative multi-dimensional data streams from hyperspace) and stinging stink bugs (the thugs that invariably invade every utopia) in such great numbers that they eventually crowded out the butterflies (the educated middle class truth-seekers who switched on the light in the first place). That's an oversimplification, of course, but it's good to bear in mind that like it or not, enlightenment has always been, even in a golden age, pretty much limited to an elite. In America, the relatively finite psychedelic culture was shoved aside by the burgeoning boogie culture, whose drugs of choice were booze, speed, and cocaine; and whose goal was not to attain spiritual bliss, deeper understanding, or an end to war and repression but rather to get thoroughly fucked up.
Except in the areas of civil rights and medical marijuana, the legacy of the sixties counterculture has been largely superficial. Still, though the light has dimmed and gone underground, something in me would like to think the sixties phenomenon was a dress rehearsal for a grander, wider leap in consciousness yet to come. However, since Seafood Kabob is likely to win the Belmont Stakes before a psychic jailbreak of that magnitude materializes, my strategy is to try to live as if that day were already here.
I think most people would like to have some sort of security, but too often discover that the sacrifices they are required to endure to have it are antithetical to anything resembling the adventurous lives your characters inhabit. Do you think security and adventure are necessarily separate paths?
In your first question, you mentioned Alan Watts. Well, Watts published a luminous book entitled The Wisdom of Insecurity that ought to be required reading for every high school senior. Watts elaborates beautifully on what I've learned from observation and personal experience: namely, that security is an illusion. So, can pursuit of a mirage constitute an adventure? Maybe, but only if there's genuine risk involved. Danger is to adventure what garlic is to spaghetti sauce. Without it, you just end up with stewed tomatoes.
Admittedly, having a bit of disposable cash in the bank can give you a sense of Buddhistic calm, and despite the fallacy involved, that's probably preferable to the bonafide adventure of robbing a bank. A better alternative, however, is to learn to be at peace even when common sense (a highly overrated virtue) would lead you to believe that someone in your situation ought to feel threatened and insecure.
Finally, as someone who has written nine novels, you are uniquely qualified to answer the following question: Is the truth stranger than fiction?
I've become increasingly unwilling to make those distinctions. Just because something didn't happen doesn't mean it isn't true.
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Tom Robbins is the author of nine off-beat but popular novels and a collection of short writings. All of his books are currently in print. He lives in his own time zone north of Seattle.
Tony Vigorito is a regular contributor to Reality Sandwich and the author of the award-winning novel Just a Couple of Days and Nine Kinds of Naked. He is currently finishing his third novel.
Image by 48states, used by permission.Tweet