March 23, 2015KR Conversations

Randy Fertel

fertel-microinterview-carouselRandy Fertel, PhD, has taught at Harvard, Tulane, the University of New Orleans, and the New School for Social Research. A contributor to NPR, Huffington Post, the Smithsonian, and Creative Nonfiction, he wrote The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak: A New Orleans Family Memoir (University Press of Mississippi, 2011) and A Taste for Chaos: The Art of Literary Improvisation (Spring Journal Books, March 2015). An excerpt from his essay “Carpe Vitam: How to do Things with Spontaneity” can be found here. The full story appears in the Mar/Apr 2015 issue of the Kenyon Review.

What was your original impetus for writing “Carpe Vitam”? Did you begin with the overarching idea of spontaneity? With a passage of quoted text? With a specific line of analysis that blossomed into something larger?

Carpe Vitam: How to do Things with Spontaneity” is a distillation of the argument in my forthcoming book A Taste for Chaos: The Art of Literary Improvisation. My interest came out of one of those rare moments when one manages to think outside the box. Trained as a Romanticist, suddenly I was looking at spontaneity, one of Romanticism’s key terms, in a completely different light. What if the claim of spontaneous composition—which I began to see everywhere—wasn’t itself off-the-cuff? What if its purpose was rhetorical, an effort to persuade?

Spontaneity is one of those virtually unquestioned values—who doesn’t want to be spontaneous, to live in the present moment, to achieve the kind of unmediated experience the athlete achieves when s/he’s “in the zone”? And “spontaneous” suggests, like the famous introduction to Huckleberry Finn, that the artist has neither motive or moral or plot. Like Keats who said he distrusted poetry that seemed to have “a palpable design upon us,” Mark Twain’s famous notice seems to claim that Huck Finn avoids the meddling of moralistic rationality. That’s what the Romantics were after in part.

But what if spontaneity isn’t so innocent? What if spontaneity, or the appearance of spontaneity, is purposeful? What if someone is in a sweat to appear not to be in a sweat in order to manipulate or persuade you? Once you notice it, this internal contradiction seems worth a second glance. In my case a second glance meant 40 years of study.

Mind you, I am quite comfortable with the idea that art wants to persuade. There is pressure in our culture for art worthy of the name not to be didactic. I agree that art that is too didactic—moralistic—usually loses me. Or art that is too direct. As Hollywood’s famed Samuel Goldwyn put it: “If you’ve got a message, send a telegram.” (His slogan at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer: ars gratia artis). But I think art totally free from the desire to persuade is a very rare bird. Pure art, art for art’s sake, anti-didactic art, is in the end didactic: it means to persuade us not to be moralistic, that life is more complicated that that.

Take for example Archibald MacLeish’s famous High Modernist poem, Ars Poetica, (the Art of Poetry) that teaches that “A poem should not mean / But be.” I heard McLeish speak once and he told a story about a student accosting him in the stacks at Harvard’s Widener Library: “Are you that guy who said poems shouldn’t mean anything?” McLeish admitted that no, that’s not what he meant, not what he meant at all: Art shouldn’t state its meaning.

So, I think humankind is addicted to the impulse to persuade. Rhetoric is the study of devices of persuasion: what we use to convince others to do something or to convince them of our POV, to get them to act or think or feel differently. The paradox here is that the gesture of spontaneity and carelessness, the gesture of having no motive or moral, is an effort to convince us that the artist is sincere, authentic, authoritative, to be trusted. That’s what got me started, that paradox. What I found is that most of the great improvisers—Milton, Sterne, Wordsworth, and Mark Twain himself—are tuned into that paradox. They don’t accept spontaneity as an unproblematic value. But we’ve missed their nuancing of the issue. Critical treatment of spontaneity and spontaneous texts has often merits the charge literary critic Jerome McGann levels against our “uncritical absorption in romanticism’s own self-representations.” My work on improv is meant as a corrective.

In your essay, you ask “why so-called improvisers are so insistent about their texts’ improvised provenance.” Do you see the digital era as exacerbating this tendency, with the proliferation of media that relies on quick composition and disclaimers like “sent from my iPhone”? Or do you think that online writing and publishing, which offers the option of endless post-publication updating and revision, pushes against the impulse to affect spontaneity

Disclaimers like “sent from my iPhone” actually have a deep heritage in literary tradition and even a name. The great medieval scholar, Ernst Curtius called it “the topos of affected modesty.” Elsewhere it is called the convention of anticipatory self-defense: I’m not worth attacking because either I’m not worth your trouble or, if I am worthy, this is not my best effort (a gesture every underachieving schoolchild has mastered).

Such disclaimers relate to the African American device deployed since slavery of “taking advantage of disadvantages.” What I write here on my iPhone may seem careless but that carelessness is just an index of how smart, busy, and important I am. Such disclaimers establish our authority by disclaiming authority. If Aristotle argues that the speaker’s “character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses,” then the improviser—like Rabelais, for example, who claims to be a “drinker speaking to drunks”—is at first glance disconcertingly unauthoritative, which in the end makes him/her more authoritative.

I call it the decorum of imperfection: what I write is the more trustworthy, or more beautiful, because of its flaws. Robert Herrick nailed it a long time ago in his wonderful poem, “Delight in Disorder” where the off-rhymes (“thrown/distraction,” “tie/civility”) embody the “sweet disorder” and “erring lace” that the poet celebrates:

A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness:
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction:
An erring lace which here and there
Enthralls the crimson stomacher:
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbands to flow confusedly:
A winning wave (deserving note)
In the tempestuous petticoat:
A careless shoestring, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me than when art
Is too precise in every part.

How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?

I think the most important criticism I got over the years came from a journalist friend, Ron Ridenhour, who with great gentleness said after reading a portion, “you sure do like big words.” I still do, I guess, but that gave me just the kick in the pants I needed to begin to get some of the dissertationeze out of my MS. My workshopping it at the Kenyon Review Summer Workshop helped me make it even more accessible to a general audience. I’ve worked very hard at accessibility because while my book is largely about major works of literature, it is also about an everyday phenomenon, the disclaimer of rationality and craft and the embrace of other faculties that the improviser promotes as more likely to embrace more of the world. Every time you try to persuade someone of an idea because it came to you in a shower, you’re deploying this rhetoric.

My colleagues in the workshop and Rebecca McClanahan who led it wanted to hear more of my voice. They wanted to know why the issue was so important to me. Both found its way into the book.

Of course, reading so-called improvisers for 40 years does wonders for the liveliness of your voice: some of their verve and drive has to get under your skin. And most are first person narratives by very lively, not to say wacky narrators: drunks, opium eaters, those who open themselves to subconscious impulses. I hope that verve and drive, and that openness infiltrated my book. I’m told they did.

On a larger scale, improvisers also taught me to be adventurous. My topic was so large, inevitably I started following leads wherever they took me. Emerson’s Essays led me to Montaigne’s and Bacon’s. Bacon’s Essays led me to his books like The Advancement of Learning that, in advancing science as a discipline, shared the improviser’s longing for unmediated experience. The one rule in contemporary, Second City-type comic improvisation is that players must say yes. If I start a sketch saying I met a green alien, you must build on that premise. Keith Johnstone, creator of Theatresports, a form of improvisational theatre, explains that “There are people who prefer to say ‘Yes,’ and there are people who prefer to say ‘No.’ Those who say ‘Yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those that say ‘No’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.”

I said yes a lot and this book is a record of the adventures that ensued, adventures that took me outside my comfortable cubbyhole as a Romanticist and well outside the boundaries of English and American literature. Before long, I was dealing with the whole of the Western canon and not just literature but also music, visual arts, theater, and film, even advertising, in all of which a decorum of imperfection often are central to how they work.

I learned a lot. It was an entire education.

Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?

I guess it was inevitable that it would be someone from New Orleans who would spend much of his life exploring spontaneity and improvisation. And that I should have had parents like mine who embodied the tension at the heart of improv. My mother founded Ruth’s Chris Steak House—I call her the Empress of Steak in my memoir. She was a math and science whiz before becoming an entrepreneur: totally analytic and left-brain. My father, happily known as the Gorilla Man after he ran for mayor on a platform to get a gorilla for the Audubon Zoo, was a creature of, shall we say, exquisite irrationality. I spent much of my life trying to reach my mother on an emotional level and trying to argue the Gorilla Man into rationality. (The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak: A New Orleans Family Memoir, btw, just came out in paperback from University Press of Mississippi.) I guess my improvisers were much better parents. (Insert smiling emoji here).

What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given? 

I enshrine Harvard’s David Perkins in my book as the Romanticist who suggested that “if we really listened to Wordsworth we would leave the university”—an example of our “uncritical absorption in romanticism’s own self-representations” I mention above. I almost took his advice, but not on its merits.

But it is also true that Perkins gave me a great piece of advice about writing. I asked him to read a piece of mine that I thought ready for publication. He was a lugubrious kind of guy. His hand passed over his long, always-worried face from his shock of thick hair to his downeaster granite jaw, and he looked at me and said, Randy, you have to understand that a publishable article has to state the problem it’s going to solve in the first paragraph.

I thought there were two kernels of wisdom there. The obvious one, the one he was trying to give me was, start fast, don’t clear your throat for a page or two. That was good advice that I needed to hear.

The other embedded assumption is that intellectual analysis is about problem solving. I’ve taken that wisdom not only into my writing but also my teaching. We aren’t here to genuflect before works of art but to explore the problems that they seek to solve and the problems that they embody—that they haven’t solved. Ernst Cassirer once said that a philosophic concept is “rather a problem than a solution of a problem—and the full significance of this problem cannot be understood so long as it is still in its first implicit state.” “Spontaneity” isn’t a solution, it’s a problem: how do we deal with this longing we have for unmediated experience? Is unmediated experience the best way to know the world? If so, and if, in fact there is no such thing as unmediated experience, how do we deal with this longing that has no possibility of fulfillment. Spontaneity is a will-o’-the-wisp answer that momentarily promises to fulfill all that longing, a promise and a fulfillment that are inevitably just out of reach. Sometimes, as Browning taught us, reaching beyond our grasp is our proper goal. That great line, by the way, comes from Browning’s poem in the voice of Fra Lippo Lippi, one of the greatest Renaissance fresco painters, a medium that, working in wet plaster, by its nature requires improvisation.

Perkins didn’t support my project on spontaneity—why would you want to do that? he asked—because he couldn’t see spontaneity as a problem, not an solution.

What project(s) are you working on now, or next?

I’ve been thinking for a long time about applying the interdisciplinary method I use in this book to Tim O’Brien’s masterpiece, The Things They Carried. In my teaching war lit for decades I used that novel, easily one of the greatest masterpieces to come out of that dreadful war, as my course’s summation text. We read it last because it seemed to sum up war experience and war narrative. But at a certain point in the late 90s I realized that if it was a great summation text, it could also be a great springboard. After that we would read it first but then reread it at the end of the course to gauge everything we had encountered and learned. It was transformative.

So the new project would do for Tim’s novel what I do in the course: a series of chapters from different disciplinary points of view (history; trauma psychology; myth of the hero; post-colonialism, etc.) and then a final chapter where I would integrate them into a fuller, richer reading.

But first the book tour!