To listen to or download a podcast interview with Arlene on New Creative Community for The Bat Segundo Show, click here and select interview #107.
An Interview with Arlene Goldbard by Jan Cohen-Cruz
This is excerpted from a longer interview appearing on the Community Arts Network in July 2004.
Q (Jan Cohen-Cruz): I loved reading Clarity. So let’s talk about Dina, your filmmaker-turned-press secretary, and Nick, her love interest, who she brings in to her plan. They met in film school?
A (Arlene Goldbard): Yes. I modeled him a little bit on Jim Morrison; you know he was a film student at UCLA.
Q: And now he’s dropped out and he is a drug dealer, but he doesn’t seem to be dealing drugs that do harm to people.
A: Yeah, my characters make a distinction between what they see as good drugs, the counter-culture’s drugs, drugs that dissolve the ego and dissolve boundaries and make people have a sense of belonging and participation in the same spiritual universe, and bad drugs like sugar and cocaine and alcohol and caffeine that reinforce your ego and make you feel more separate from other people. So he’s been a dealer of “good drugs.” He started out as an LSD manufacturer in the 70’s, and then he moved on to Ecstasy in the 80’s, and now he has lots and lots of money and doesn’t need to do anything like that at all. He devotes himself to anonymous good works.
Q: So what are you exploring through these characters? To what degree are they archetypes of choices that people have made over these years since the 60’s and 70’s?
A: I saw Dina as representing someone who by increments immersed herself so deeply in establishment systems, thinking that that was the arena in which events are shaped. She wanted to have a part of that, she imagined that she could have a constructive influence. But she finds herself feeling very used and compromised at this point. And Nick is very much someone who said, “Fuck the whole system, it’s worthless, I don’t want to have anything to do with it, I’m going to be in this separate world over here.” And he comes to a point in his life where he really feels like he has no agency as a person, because his entire essence, the spine of his existence, has been refusal.
Q: There’s a slight touch of fantasy in the novel, which begins with the words, “Once upon a time,” and then centers on a drug that would get people to see clearly, which is almost fable-like, and yet much of the novel is very realistic. Would you talk a little bit about that intertwining of styles?
A: It’s funny, you know. My original title was “Clarity: A Fable.” And several of my readers said, “No, no, drop that, it sets up an expectation that might be too extreme for what you’ve done.” Because really what I tried for was something that was very naturalistic, with a little shift away. And so for me it’s a fable, it’s a parable.
Q: Yes, I see that … Both Dina and Nick are alienated from their very different families, with his being intellectual but rather cold and removed and hers being middle-class, emotional, suburban Jews. Is that a fair way to characterize them?
A: Yes, to me Dina’s parents seemed immersed in the little world, and her pushing off from her family was a choice to engage with the big world.
Q: And what about Nick in relationship to his family, and that alienation?
A: I tried to express the cynicism that’s fostered in the Academy through Nick’s father, who is a professor. He’s very interested in judgment, and the cynicism that that creates, the feeling that nothing is perfect, therefore everything is shit. You know, “I have nothing, but I have my critique.” I think that’s done a lot of damage. I think it’s very hard in our moment to have people who are intelligent, thoughtful, well-read, actually make any statement asserting what they love and believe. It’s so much easier to get people to engage with their critiques.
Q: Dina has an active spiritual life and a strong connection to particular aspects of Judaism. Would you talk a bit about where you see the spiritual in the socially-active, engaged life?
A: Well, in terms of that particular aspect of spirituality, the book draws on a movement that I’m part of. I’m the vice-chair of the national organization for Jewish renewal, ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal (although my term expires this summer, so I probably won’t be by the time this interview appears on the Web). And the two primary spiritual concepts that are treated in the book are t’shuvah and tikkun. T’shuvah means turning, or if you elaborate on that, reorientation. The concept of t’shuvah is that it’s always possible to correct a misdirection. The metaphor is, for example, that we are orbiting around the center of our lives, and if we find ourselves turned away from that source of life, we can reorient in the very small movement of turning in place toward it. So it’s always there, available, ready, happening, and it often is a surprisingly small movement that corrects the course. Tikkun is the idea of repair, of fixing the world, that’s supposed to be Jewish people’s mission — to repair the world in partnership with the Divine. In the book the particular use of tikkun is the idea that we can take action in the present that in some way repairs the injuries of the past. It doesn’t erase them because what’s happened has happened, but something can lift you up out of your connection to the pain that you sustained and point you in another direction. So these are two core ideas of Jewish spirituality that I believe are really badly needed in our society, whatever names you use to describe them. Because from what I see in the big world of the United States now, anyone who’s made a mistake is condemned for life; the possibility of t’shuvah is not present in our systems and our ideas about human nature. And tikkun, forget it, you know, three strikes and you’re out. So those ideas have been really powerful for me, and I wanted to give them to my character as what she calls spiritual technologies to deploy in the service of her life story.
Q: And why technologies?
A: Because they’re really methods. They’re ideas for sure, too. But there’s a lot of advice in the tradition and in new material that people are thinking about, and writing, and creating, pushing off from the tradition, about how it’s possible to make t’shuvah, how we could make a difference. I think if it’s just an idea, it doesn’t get implemented. I think of things like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa; it didn’t undo the harm, it didn’t grant ultimate justice to the people who were so horribly injured, but it did make a tikkun in that it created the conditions that made it possible to go forward in that society.
Q: I wonder what strategies the non-fiction writer in you sees for addressing the lack of clarity and unwillingness to really talk and engage that the novelist in you finds through the strategy of the drug, Clarity.
A: Well, this is tricky because there’s an element of surprise in the book …
Q: I don’t want to give it away…
A: But like what I said about t’shuvah, I honestly think there’s a very small adjustment that we can make. It’s like the chaos theory thing about a butterfly flapping its wings in Japan.
Q: Cultural ecology.
A: Yeah, that a small change will actually have a huge impact. For me it’s around very simple ideas. Again a lot of what’s seeming true to me now, even though I’m solidly committed to these things, I even feel in myself that the articulation is somewhat embarrassing. It’s like the embarrassment of saying, “Smile on your brother, everybody get together, and love one another right now,” or “Why can’t we just get along?” But, honestly, that’s what I think. I see this enormous structure of agencies and adjustments and regulations and procedures and blah-blah that we create in lieu of a caring society. I think very often individuals feel exempt from the requirements of caring, because it seems to be taken care of in some way by some sort of disembodied agency outside themselves. There’s something that allows them to cultivate that illusion, and it feels like it’s a very small change to say, “Well, actually no, if I don’t do it, it’s not going to happen.” So I’m looking for ways in stories, in my own speech, and in my participation in groups, to say these things and to ask people to be present to the embarrassment that they feel when they state home truths, and live with that embarrassment rather than adopt a cynical attitude.
I feel that two societies live within our borders. One set of people is happy to say all this stuff all the time: Bush, Reagan, the right, their rhetoric has been full of peace, love, and understanding. So those people don’t have any embarrassment about saying such things. I think their issue is looking honestly at the impact of their actions. For progressives, the distortion is different. I think that it’s become really important not to be fooled, not to be hurt again, not to invest ourselves in things that might not work out, and not to seem to care about something where our caring might not make a difference, you know?
Q: I do know, yes.
A: I didn’t go to college, I went to the movement. There’s only one thing that, therefore, I haven’t been able to do that would have been fun for me, because I think I’m a pretty good teacher. I get to teach on an informal basis — I’m invited to speak at colleges a fair amount — but it wasn’t my great passion to be a teacher. So my lack of formal education has not been an obstacle in any significant way in my life. Because I’m smart and able, nobody ever wonders if I have credentials.
But as I’m getting older — I’m fifty-seven now — I realize that I need to be more active about honoring what I am, which is a working-class intellectual. Those are my own origins. No one in my family had gone to college. I’m self-educated, someone whose ideas about the world are much more grounded in experience than is the case for some other people. My education’s been very spotty because it’s been self-directed, but obviously what I did for four years, forty years ago, is not really the key here …
A: … but I want to find a way now to make a statement that intelligence is not an attribute of class … that wisdom is not an attribute of privilege, and that I’m not the only person who proves that point.
Jan Cohen-Cruz is an Associate Professor of Drama and Director of the Office of Community Connections at NYU Tisch School of the Arts who writes about, teaches, and practices activist and community-based performance. She has just completed Local Acts: U.S. Community Based Performance, to be published by Rutgers University Press.