Casey Walker: In your own work, whether from day to day to in its general arc, what does it look like to you? Where is your curiosity?
Jim Harrison: Well, you can go through it to the point you see not just what is in front of you, but can look at yourself walking away. I see more of the same work I’ve done before, I don’t change gears in quantum leaps. I do find myself reading more and more about botany and anthropology, which reminds me of Erik Erickson saying reality is mankind’s greatest illusion. We are overwhelmed by the perception of how short life is, as in the old Don Juan thing about the whining man who is always whining and whining about hoeing corn and then you hear a dog barking in the distance and the screen door slams and suddenly it’s evening. You have to be very aware of that sensation. Time is one of our great illusions too. In “The Beige Dolorosa,” there’s a man who wants to rename the birds of North America, and he’s created a calendar in which there are only three days a month, which gives him these great open spaces: three 200-hour days. Natives know this kind of thing—how to renew oneself. The interesting thing about being in a rut is that the only think you see are the sides of the rut. You don’t see out. The frogs who fell into the well now think that’s the universe. It’s the perfect metaphor for people rich or poor.
I’m working on the second chapter of a novel where I’ve moved from a seventy-one-year-old man to a thirty-year-old grandson. He’s questioning how, if we primates are mapped for anything that moves, do we discriminate between the spiritual caffeine of TV or movies and what lies mostly still outside the window? Occasionally a bird goes by, the sun goes down and then comes up. But people crave movement and forget that the movement seen on TV and in movies is not part of a living process, that it’s coming out of a tube. Life is subtle and complex. There are no easy, fast answers. There aren’t even any easy questions, let alone answers. In America this affects us in the environmental movement—the idea, the illusion, that every question has an answer. It’s our Calvinist upbringing to believe that everything is solvable. It’s sheer hubris.
CW: How do you describe the core, the spirit, of your work?
JH: This consciousness, I would say. Otherness. Otherness to remind ourselves of the bedrock of life, and death, and love, and suffering. Back to Lorca, what is poetry but love, suffering, and death? Or, the idea of making a heap of all that you have met. I haven’t been nearly as unflinching as I’d hoped to be, no. But, that’s part of my makeup. Early on, my inability to face certain horrors as directly as I should have contributed to that. But, then I’m always looking for the song I could make out of it, too. I can’t quarrel with the limitations which are part of me—everybody has the severest of limitations. You are ultimately what you collectively wish to be. When someone says they could be so much more, I say, well you better get started right now, who’s stopping you? Face it, there’s an anchor tied to your ass.
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