For admirers of your writing it has been a tough dozen years or so. This is your first book since 2002, I think. Besides writing for Harper’s and recovering from cancer, what else have you been up to?
Well, partly I’ve been brooding and partly I’ve been angry. I stopped writing for the L.A. Times because the L.A. Times stopped asking me to write for them; I stopped writing for the “News Hour” because the “News Hour” decided to have a web page at the end of their program instead of having essays. Nothing happened to me; the world changed. Steve Jobs became the controlling figure of our time. And in some way, you know, what I’m more and more of the opinion of is that the kind of writing that I want to do is really going to be able to be read by fewer and fewer people now. And I’m reconciled to that.
I’m very lucky that I’m still able to publish books. But you know I know what it’s like to publish a book, and go to a book reading and there are five people there and three of those people are friends of yours that you’ve asked to come. So I don’t think people are reading anymore. I think they’re using language a great deal, but not in any kind of deep or meditative sense. It’s all of this chatter of communication. I don’t know what this neurosis is that has taken over our societies, particularly the United States, but not only the United States. These kids walking down streets checking their messages every few minutes. What that neurosis is, what it is going to mean for serious communication I cannot guess.
Until you went on that jag a minute ago, I was wondering why you had a chapter in a book about religion, to call it a spiritual autobiography, about the fading of newspapers; now I have a sense of why that piece fits in there.
You know one of the things about that piece that I think readers might ignore, it ends with a discussion about the death of American cemeteries. Fewer and fewer people are being buried. More and more of my friends now are being cremated and their ashes, I don’t know where their ashes are anymore. They’re somewhere in Idaho, they’re somewhere on Muir Woods in someplace. That revolution, which I think is related to the fact that we don’t want to live on the earth anymore that there is an anxiety about being here, about being in this place at the same time that the cultural left has come up with this idea of green nature. We all have to become green. Well, nature is primarily brown in the world, you know, and the lessons of nature lead to nature, they don’t lead to this perennial spring.
Or to say it another way, you cannot have spring without winter. That this sentimentality about our lives where people are not buried. So a good friend of mine died; he asked two women friends of his to take his ashes, we know not where. And another friend of mine calls up and says, “I’d love to go see. I’d love to pay my respects, I couldn’t come to the funeral, could I go to the cemetery?” I say, well I have no idea where he is. The death of the newspaper is being told in the cemetery, in the fact that we are not writing obituaries, many of my friends have died without obituaries, because it’s no longer a civic event to die — it’s a private event. You understand? And so, you know, that fact that the newspaper was the receptacle not simply of news of our birth, but of our death, that fact is really the reason why an obituary for a newspaper becomes in the last several pages an obituary for a cemetery.
In the simplest way, the failure of the newspaper marks the end of a sense of place. Newspapers and cities, newspapers and a sense of place have been tied up quite intimately for a long time. They’re both fading at about the same time too.
That’s right. We’re living in the America of placeless-ness and increasingly I think of, that’s why you have people walking down the street quite unconcerned with where they are, or who’s walking towards them or who is behind them. They are in their own place, and they have their own sound, their own entertainment, and they have their own text messages and they’re quite content to live in their own little cocoon.
Right. And there are a lot of elements to this. The scene you just described they’re probably walking through a cityscape that could be almost any city in at least the Western world. So we have kind of electronic communication coming together with maybe cultural narcissism with kind of chain store Wal-Marting process, right? The bookstore has been blown out by the web or by Amazon.
And the little coffee shop has become a Starbucks. And everything is institutionalized. That’s true. But, you see, I think it’s more possible to learn in an institutionalized world if you are disconnected, if you’re not breathing, if you’re walking down the street without putting your eyes on the landscape. I think that that’s what so troubles me.
That people are not, it’s not so much that they’re not experiencing the city they’re living in, but they’re not even experiencing their bodies. I go to an Animal Gym in San Francisco and it’s a gay gym, all these guys, these steroid-ed wonders, wander about. And you would think that between sets they would flirt with each other visually, or they would admire each other, but in fact what they do is they pull out their cell phones and look at their messages. I don’t understand what’s going on; I don’t understand how you could be there developing that body and then turn yourself into a text message, you know?
It’s that sort of movement away from body that is really, really troubling. I understand why and I credit some way, you pull out a cell phone and watch a few old episodes of “The Simpsons” because you don’t want to smell the guy sitting next to you. But I also don’t understand it. If you’re in a subway that’s crowded there’s always somebody to look at, there’s always something to see. There’s always something to smell and that’s what we’re not experiencing anymore; we’re not living in our bodies. That’s why we’re not dying in cemeteries, that’s why were not reading the newspaper. That’s why we think that nature is green.
These evasions of place, that theme runs through these chapters. And in some sense what I’m arguing is that the dream in the desert, which was always for the time before the fall, green Eden before Adam and Eve were sent out to the desert, or for the time after our death where we will be in a heaven that is green. That dream is still very much alive in the secular imagination, and when Oprah Winfrey and Bono go on TV to tell us all about the green and they get on their private jets and go on to another location, to tell those people to be green. What we’re watching is a secular dream of Eden. So many of my friends tell me they’re not religious. I’m like, Of course you’re religious. You watch Oprah Winfrey, don’t you?