An Interview with Charles Johnson
Photo by Lynette Huffman-Johnson.
Charles Johnson's novels, short stories and television scripts explore classical problems and metaphysical questions against the background of black American life. His approach to writing is phenomenological, in the style of philosopher Edmund Husserl, but he also draws inspiration from the entire continuum of Asian thought, from the Vedas to Zen Buddhism. His work brings together Eastern and Western philosophical traditions, with the hope that some new perception of experience, especially black experience, will emerge.
Cartoon by Charles Johnson
You've been a cartoonist, a student of philosophy, a television producer and a photojournalist. Why did you choose to write fiction rather than continuing in one of these other fields?
I still do all of those things. It's not like one got left behind and another was picked up, but when you're talking about language, you have the possibility of multiple levels of meaning. If I shifted at all from the image to the word it's because the word is polymorphous and you can create a work of fiction that has more dimensions than a drawing or even a film. Film of course is wonderful, but I can't think of a single film, even the ones that I love, that are as rich and complex, and have the same vision and depth, as the greatest novels.
Do you think that you will keep writing fiction, or will you use it up and go on to something else?
Right now, fiction is at the center of my work: telling stories in many different forms. I just do the film because it's fun, and because I like to work with producers and creative people who extend my own imagination, and because I want to make some money. But fiction is the basic thing. When you write a story, you have to do everything that the entire film crew listed in the movie credits does, which is work as a scriptwriter, producer, prop person, costume designer—the whole thing. You have far greater freedom as a writer of fiction, and you're challenged to force your imagination into all these different roles.
So fiction is a more aristocratic art form, whereas film is more democratic?
More aristocratic, yes. Every film is a celebration of the crew. Every book, no matter what the writer might have drawn upon, is ultimately the product of a single consciousness.
Did writing come easily for you?
Writing came easily, yes. I enjoyed writing. I enjoyed writing papers in college, because I enjoyed expressing myself in language. So when I started writing novels it seemed to me to be an extension of what I was already doing.
Why did you start with a longer form of fiction like the novel?
Because the novel, of all the fictional forms we have, is the most expansive. It has the greatest room for exploring experience, for character development, and creating a coherent, consistent, complete world.
What did drawing do for your writing?
My concern with commercial objectives got exhausted early through drawing. When I was in high school I did six drawings for a magic-magazine company in Chicago; I thought my life had changed. I still have that first dollar framed. I was obsessed with publication. I think I published a thousand drawings.
By the time I got to fiction I was more patient. I didn't have the hunger to publish that I did when I was a cartoonist. That was good because it taught me to let the story develop as long as it needed to. I care about the process of fiction now more than the egotistical joy of seeing my name in print.
How did you develop your writing style?
The first six books I wrote were heavily influenced by three writers—Richard Wright, James Baldwin and John A. Williams—all of whom I admired a great deal. The books were very naturalistic. They were about racial politics for the most part. They were dark, grim,
murder-filled novels. I couldn't read any of them after I was finished.
I started feeling that a change was necessary after the sixth book.
There were levels of meaning that I wanted to achieve, philosophical questions that I wanted to raise, and naturalism as an approach prevented that. It was at that time that I met John Gardner, who changed my life and literary approach. He had twenty-five years of experience as a writer behind him. I looked at his work very carefully, even to the extent of reconstructing scenes to see if they could be done differently. And he taught me two things that I couldn't get a handle on as a young writer: voice and prose rhythm. He was very helpful with that because he was a very gifted stylist. Also he was a polymathic writer: he could write in several different forms. He had a strong philosophical background. He was passionate about fiction, not just his own, but good writing by other people.
So my writing changed under the influence of Gardner. I found the outlets I needed for philosophically interesting fiction in respect to the black experience. I still write some stories that are naturalistic, but only if the meaning of the story demands that approach.
And so naturalism is just one of many approaches?
Naturalism is one approach to interpreting reality. It came into its own a hundred years ago with certain writers who wanted to achieve the illusion of objectivity, but it leaves out any number of experiences people claim they have had in this world, experiences that don't fit within the narrow confines of the naturalistic method. So instead of being the only approach a writer has at his disposal, it's one of many. Every novel that I do has a strong realistic element, a naturalistic element, but not only that. There are other aspects of experience, of conscious life, that come in and create a more rounded picture of reality.
You see, naturalism is very Greek in its structure. The Greeks have gods manipulating the destinies of man. Naturalism hasn't a god any more, but it has a modern equivalent—social forces. The social forces operating within a naturalistic story are pretty much the equivalent of the old Greek gods.
It's a strange form of literature. It's social determinism, which I
don't particularly like. I think people are free and in control of their destinies, if they really want to be. Naturalism is a literature of victims, as far as I can see. Most of the characters are moved by internal forces or by social conditions or by the age, and are not free to choose how they're going to act. And that's one of the reasons I had to move away from naturalism because I just don't believe that's true of people. I don't think we're puppets. I don't think we're marionettes, whether you're talking about Greek gods, or the economic state of the United States at the moment. Even people who are radically poor and down and out still manage, if they wish, to be self-sacrificing, to care for others, to love and be compassionate, to rise to all the great virtues that we consider to be most human. They are not victims.
Does naturalism rob them of their dignity?
Yes, it does. It gives them no dignity. I don't like that. It's one of the problems I have with a lot of black literature. I'm not knocking naturalism. Everything I've written for television has been naturalistic. It's a very good discipline to make you think about ideas in a particular way and people in a particular way. But you can only get to certain aspects of experience through that. If you look at the life of the spirit naturalistically, you would have to conclude that there is no life of the spirit, there's only a psychological life. If you had to write a story about some of the great saints, Thomas a Kempis, Thomas Aquinas, you would have to think about them not in terms of what they said about themselves, but in terms of modern theories of psychology, Freud down through Maslow. As much as I like Maslow and Jung, I don't think they give a full account of the subjective life. And yet within the framework of naturalism, psychology is all we have in terms of talking about the life of the spirit. It psychologizes it. It makes it mechanical, just a series of causes and effects.
So it's too limited an approach for you?
The great fight in life and in literature always is to prevent some form of idea or situation from enslaving you. It's to keep your mind open and your eyes open and your life open, to find ways of not being limited. Fiction should open us up to new possibilities. It should clarify for us. It should change our perception.
Why has black literature for the most part been written in a naturalistic style?
One reason is because Richard Wright, who had the first bestseller as a black writer in 1940, selected this as his mode of expression. Wright set the style for the literary approach of a generation of black writing.
Now there are exceptions. There were writers in the past who tried other approaches, for example, Jean Toomer in the '20s. There's a little bit of Eastern thought that creeps into his writing. His work is extraordinarily surrealistic and hallucinatory, very different from the naturalistic tradition. But he didn't set the style for other imitators. His work is just unique.
And then we have Ellison's Invisible Man, another unique work which is, by God, more surrealistic, larger-than-life, allegorical and metaphoric than probably anything in black American fiction. But he did not create a body of imitators either.
Naturalism remains the primary style, up to this very day. The main reason for this is that most black writers are interested in social realism, addressing social questions, and naturalism gives you access to that maybe better than other approaches. Wright is rightly understood as the father of modern black fiction, but his approach is a cramped approach; it leaves out a lot.
Are you trying to extend the range of black fiction in your own work?
I'm not going to limit myself to a particular form. As a story suggests itself to me, I look for two things: I look for the fictional form to express it that's most appropriate, I look for the voice that's most appropriate, and then I let the story bring in as many aspects or prismatic sides of reality as it needs to.
When I was a philosophy student reading fiction, I would look at black American literature and be impressed by what I didn't find there. I didn't find a philosophically systematic body of black fiction—black fiction addressing some of the perennial problems of Western man, taking up questions of value, ethics, meaning, the good, the true, the beautiful, the self, epistemology—right on down the line. There was none of that.
My work basically addresses those philosophical questions. For example, if you're going to talk about the assault on black identity in a culture that is primarily white, primarily Christian, then you must talk about the higher question of identity in an intelligent way. You must take up the question and follow it through as methodically and systematically as you can.
In a work of fiction it means dramatizing that question against the backdrop of black American life. Say you start out walking around today, and you're black and you're thinking about how somebody just denied you a job and you feel that there was bigotry involved, or you go to the counter and give the woman your money and instead of putting the change in your hand, she puts it down so that you have to scrape it off the counter. You wonder, "Why did she act like that? 'Cause I'm black? What does that mean?" Your feelings are murky.
Most people only get to the first level of describing that. They don't take the issue further and begin to explore the question of what it means to be a self. Suppose this person made the decision, "Well, all right, they're bigots and I'm black, and my identity is black." You wind up like George Hawkins. That's exactly the decision he makes in Oxherding Tale. He's hurt by this incident and he becomes a cultural nationalist. He's trying to find some way to make himself feel good, and does it by denying everything that the white world represents, and by elevating everything he feels the black world represents. And even that's a joke, because he says, for example, it means "emotion and not reason, passion and not thought."
But, if you think about it, and you go back and look at other things that other men and women have said about identity, and the great sweat they put into trying to figure out the question, then you have something you can use as fuel for your own investigation. It's like somebody else did a report on it, and now you can use their report. You don't have to agree with it. You don't have to buy their conclusions, but at least they covered some of the territory that you yourself are murkily involved in. And you can come up with something maybe that nobody has ever said, but yet includes what they said. At the heart there will be a philosophical question applicable to all people, but as it takes on the particular form of black American life, we understand something new about it because the universal has to be realized or embodied in the particular.
Are you a practicing Buddhist?
I would call myself a practicing Buddhist, but not a very good practicing Buddhist. I was raised in an Episcopal church in Evanston, then later fell away in college from a belief in institutional religion. But the study of Eastern religion gave me a deep appreciation for the mystical core at the heart of Christianity—the similarity between Meister Eckhart and twelfth-century Zen Buddhists, the parallel statements from Christ and the Buddha—so that I still have my roots in Christianity, but have a deep involvement in all forms of Asian thought and meditation. I meditate and I read the literature, and I do other related disciplines because it feels right for me. For a long time it has. From the time I was nineteen and first in the martial arts, the teacher I had said, "You don't have to study Buddhism to make progress in this martial art but it will help." So I did. Since I was in philosophy already it was easy to do. But I didn't really get serious about meditating until 1979 or '80. Now it's a large part of my life. I do it every day, twice a day sometimes. It's clarifying. It helps to clear my head, get rid of a whole bunch of ideas and just experience things, sometimes with a great deal of immediacy. Right after meditation, language is not operating, I'm just looking at things. It's later that language comes into it and I start making judgments. I say, "What's in front of me is a flower vase." Well, just after meditation it's only this object. I'm just looking
at it. It may appear as a particular kind of image that I've never seen before. It's after language, and after you get into the course of the day, that you begin making easy judgments, and don't see things clearly any more.
What influence has Buddhism had on your fiction?
It amazes me that some people have never pointed out one very simple thing about storytelling, and that is the nature of desire whenever we talk about a conflict for a character. Handbooks on writing, even John Gardner's, say, "To have a story, the character must have a conflict." There must be conflict, because if there's no conflict there's nothing a character can act upon; there's no plot. And the conflict is either something in the character's world that they don't want and they have to get rid of it, or it's something not in their world that they desire to bring in. Well, all fiction which operates on that basis defines part of human nature as involved in desire. It's implicit. It's saying, "This is universal for all men. Desire is fundamental to all of our experience."
Now I wonder if that's true. I'm not entirely convinced of that. I know that there are people on the planet who do not live that way. Buddhists, for example, do not live that way. The first two noble truths of Buddhism are: "Suffering is universal," and "The cause of suffering is desire." The Buddha was an incredible empirical psychologist, because I do think those ideas are universal. As I look at the world, I see suffering. Being alive is suffering in a certain sense, even for insects. And for human beings, the cause of suffering is desire.
Oxherding Tale brings this forward in a way that has not been brought forward in any other book that I've seen, certainly not in black American literature or within American literature. Reb is the Zen Buddhist in the novel, and a lot of reviewers don't realize that. They don't know enough about other cultures to recognize him as such. He doesn't operate out of desire, he operates out of duty. It's duty that is the foundation for all of his behavior.
But isn't there something else behind this sense of duty, such as a god or deity that helps him to decide what his duty is?
The novel never says that. I never mention God. I never even mention Buddhism, as a matter of fact, and that was the hard thing about that novel, because I knew that as soon as I did, people would have a knee-jerk reaction, they would shut down on it. So there's a line that says, "Something acted upon him. A push, a shove, a finger on the spine, only then did he move." You could say it's instinct if you wanted to. But I don't pin it down with God and the universe because modern readers just wouldn't be able to deal with that.
But there's another line, "Reward he did not expect, nor pleasure, desire was painful, duty was everything." That's almost strictly the description of a true Brahman out of the Bhagavad-Gita. It's duty, not desire, that makes Reb do what he does.
If there's an objective situation in the world that is not being fulfilled, you can fulfill it, not because of any egotistical reason, not because you think you're going to get anything out of it, not because you want to edify yourself, but because it needs to be done. You will perhaps alleviate suffering in some way, or maybe you will suppress the evil that exists, and make the good come forward a little bit more clearly. But you do it because it needs to be done.
And that's what motivates Reb. Man does not have to operate out of the basis of desire, so that when people describe it as fundamental to conflict and character, there's a presupposition operating that they haven't really thought about. They haven't thought that they're presenting a view of man metaphysically, and that they are also not thinking about other alternative ways of existence.
Do you agree with John Gardner's thesis that fiction should be moral?
I agree with that absolutely, but in a slightly different way than John. I think that he's right, but I don't believe you can ever successfully argue for moral fiction. It's a faith in man that Gardner had. It goes all the way back to his first book The Forms of Fiction where he says that man is one step lower than the angels. He sees a nobility and dignity in the species, but you will never be able to argue that philosophically and convince all the modern readers who have suffered through the tragedies and disasters of the twentieth century.
What did Gardner mean by moral fiction?
Moral fiction has nothing to do with pre-existing moral precepts that the writer brings to the page. That leads to Pilgrim's Progress, which no one is going to be convinced by in 1980. When Gardner says moral, he means that the writer is responsible for the kind of fictional world that he puts onto the page. A lot of writers try to cop out by saying, "I'm just trying to tell it the way it is." But whenever you have a fictional work, you have an interpretation of reality that immediately refers back to the consciousness of the writer. If the writer sees only gloom, despair, entropy, then we have to ask that writer, "Why is this all that you see, when there are other people out there whose experience is somewhat different, who can argue this is not a complete portrait of reality?"
The second thing is characterization, which Gardner was very concerned about. You must approach characters with the same empathy, identification and effort at understanding that you do with people you care about in the world. To slight characters, to set somebody up as a tool, a device for a story, is to perform in a fundamentally immoral way.
Gardner once raised the question of whether you had to be a good person to be a good writer. And in a sense you do. You have to care about how other people see the world, in order to create a rich, complex fiction that has the feel of the real world where other people's interpretations are in conflict with your own. In the final analysis, the conflict of interpretations may be what fiction is all about, because this is one intersubjective world, a world of multiple interpretations.
Do you strive to write moral fiction?
Yes, I strive for truth and accuracy of character. If you look at a story, what you have is the writer presenting an interpretation of experience that should clarify your experiences for you. We read fiction not just for entertainment, but for clarification, for greater knowledge of who we are and why we behave the way we do.
The plot of the story is in effect the writer's equivalent of the philosopher's argument. You say this kind of person is in this situation, and this happens because of that. You're saying in effect: this is the way life works, given these conditions and premises. So plot is extremely important. And if a writer is to abandon plot, it means he's abandoning the responsibility to make sense out of the world and his own experience. Plot is crucial, and intimately related to character.
Do you think that a novel should be as tightly constructed as a philosophical argument?
A novel or story should be as tightly constructed as a logical proof. There shouldn't be anything superfluous in it. There should be no narrative slop. There should be no excesses that get in the way of exploring the characters, the issues; and at the same time entertaining the reader. Readers want three things: they want to laugh, cry and learn something. If you forget any one of those, your fiction is a bit slim.
Are you consciously aware of the theory behind everything in your fiction?
I may be different from other writers in this respect. I have to understand the story philosophically before I can write it. Coming out of philosophy is helpful because I understand 2,000 years of philosophical arguments and positions on different issues in the West and East. So it allows me to get to the major aspects of the problem quickly, but it may still take a while to get to an aspect that is new or original. The process of writing the story helps to do that. It uncovers things. It is a laboratory. You go into the story not knowing the answer, but you know a lot of other theories about the experiment that you're going to do. You've seen other attempts to resolve it. By the end of the story you may be startled by the conclusion that you come to.
So language is the laboratory where the fiction writer works to discover truth?
Language is something that we find ourselves in the midst of. Before my kids were able to speak they found themselves surrounded by all these words and babbles and sounds, till one day magically they made sense and the kids were able to imitate and repeat the sounds, and live within language. It was at that point that the child's very consciousness was structured by the structure of language.
Language has a capacity to rigidify and calcify our seeing; we think only in terms of certain words and certain experiences, and don't break through to anything else. The writer of fiction has to break through that. As Heidegger says, it's language that covers over our perception. And it's language in the hands of an artist that uncovers our perception. It's the same phenomenon that conceals and reveals. This is why I think fiction is exciting. When I'm writing, things happen and I don't quite know where they came from. I'd like to attribute them to the language itself, to its unpredictable possibilities. It's like a trap door, the language drops you down to this whole other level of seeing.
And by rearranging the language you create new perceptions?
It can only happen through words. Heidegger's famous phrase for this is, "Saying is showing." To say is to show, which is why the language of newspapers, television, and the media basically covers over our experience. We get used to talking in shorthand terms; people become incapable of seeing.
It's really hard in writing to free yourself from clichés, ideas minted in the media or other people's minds, so you can see the issue clearly, not thinking in terms of social formulas, social clichés but really trying to look at the subject with radically unsealed vision.
How does this phenomenological approach apply to writing?
It's very easy. It's something that writers and painters use all the time. If you go to an art class, you see people drawing a figure. The people who are not truly seeing will look at the figure on the stage, and something will happen between the time they look back at the page and draw because they won't draw what they see, they will draw what they think a figure looks like—it will have nothing to do with the real person on the stage.
Phenomenology is basically forgetting what you think the human figure looks like, and looking at the human figure in front of you. Every artist does that. You have to divest yourself of the prejudices, the comfortable preconceptions about what you're dealing with. That's hard to do. It makes the process of writing exhilarating but at the same time exhausting.
How does the final result of this process, a work of art, convince us?
A lot of people seem to think that a work of art boils down to being only a matter of taste, subjective difference, and finally fashion or whatever the hell it might be. That's stupid. That's dumb. If somebody is trying to describe a particular character, they can achieve greater and greater accuracy, so that they can come up with a description that nobody will be able to deny.
Art can be looked upon in very objective ways. One of the reasons that art in this country, and particularly in writing programs, is so sloppy is that writing people think art is not serious, that it doesn't have the rigor, the rules of science. But if we're talking about truth and accuracy, then art does have objective standards. We can say, "This story is replaying stuff that the writer has seen in other stories, and is not advancing the form of the novel or the short story." Or we can say, "This writer has written about things that have never been written about before, or has written about things in a way that's deeper than any other writer."
You can say many things about how art objectively can advance. But you must know cultural and intellectual history and the history of literature to make these judgments. Most writers write totally off the top of their head. They don't know how their work fits within the tradition of literature, they don't know really what their objectives are. But art, like science, has rules, objectives. It's only on the basis of having a sense of tradition that you can say that something fits within the continuum and advances it.
Do you enjoy the process of writing?
I love the process of writing. I am at my fullest when I'm writing. I can think of no activity that brings so much of everything that I am—everything I've learned, everything I feel, all the techniques at my disposal—into one suspended moment that is the work of art. So it's very exhausting when it's working exactly right.
Do you think there will come a time when you will not need or want to write any more?
Every writer should leave that possibility open. There was a time before I was a writer when I did other things. There may be a time after which I don't write but do other things. Art is part of life, it's not the whole of life. It's not the reason for existence. It takes a writer of courage to admit that he has said all that the universe has given for him to say, and after which he would only repeat himself, fall into formulas, imitate other writers, or just basically destroy what he has built if he continues. I don't think a writer should just babble on and on. If you have something to say, you should say it as effectively as you can, then you should shut up.
In his essay, "Poetry and Ambition," Donald Hall says he sees no reason to spend your life writing poetry unless your goal is to write great poems.
Do you agree with this approach to writing?
When it comes to the crunch, the only two worthy goals are to serve this discipline you have entered into by contributing something great and to make a place for yourself in the literature of the age. The ambition of the writer should be to be one of the American writers. That's the highest ambition, to leave behind a work that will be meaningful to people many years after you're dead.
Who do you measure yourself against?
Most of the writers I read on my own time are pre-twentieth century—Dickens and Hawthorne, Poe, Chaucer, Shakespeare, particularly Homer. That's about it. Those writers and also the philosophers—I read a lot of philosophers—who have stood the test of a millennium or 500 years. Those are the ones I think most about, whose works I return to most often. I won't go into all the problems I have with contemporary literature but I have a lot of problems with it. I don't think that most writers write out of the deepest sense of seriousness that Donald Hall talks about. We have an apparatus in America that will give awards and grants and fellowships and a little money to writers. And you can work that game for a lifetime, and never do anything important. You can also find publication, because there are literally hundreds of literary quarterlies, so getting published is nothing really to crow about. And I think that apparatus, which had a good intention, mainly to support the arts, can become a way of degenerating into supporting second-rate writers with very limited ambitions.
I think a real writer simply has to think in other terms. Not, "Will I get in this magazine? Will I get this NEA next year?" but whether or not this work is something he would do if a gun was held to his head and somebody was going to pull the trigger as soon as the last word of the last sentence of the last paragraph of the last page was finished. Now if you can write out of the sense that you're going to die as soon as this work is done, then you will write with urgency, honesty, courage and without flinching at all, as if this were the last testament in language, the last utterance, you could ever make to anybody. If a work is written like that, then I want to read it. If somebody's writing out of that sense, then I'll say, "This is serious. This person's not fooling around. The work is not a means to some other end, the work is not just intended for some silly superficial goal, this work is the writer saying something because he or she feels that if it isn't said, it will be never be said."
Those are the writers I want to read. And there are not many twentieth-century writers like that. Writing is a "career" in the twentieth century. It's a "profession." And I use those words pejoratively. I think writing is a passion. I don't think you choose writing, I think writing and art choose you. I think you write because you have no other choice, not because it's a celebrity thing.
I got a letter many years ago from a woman. She told me that she read Faith and the Good Thing on the verge of committing suicide and after reading it decided to live. You're left with the feeling that you can do some good in this world through what you do, as if art in the old religious sense were good works, or in the Indian sense, karma yoga. You do it because someone's going to benefit from it: that's why you do it.