Joyce Carol Oates at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute

Joyce Carol Oates
(image source: Jewish Week)
Lois Oppenheim Interviews Joyce Carol Oates
As far as inimitable serious novelists go, Joyce Carol Oates ranks right up there with Flannery O'Connor and James Joyce (the two that come to mind). And maybe Herman Melville. But his beard is way more stubby that Oates's wan piercing disposition.

At the New York Psychoanalytic Institute on 82nd street in the city Upper East Side, Lois Oppenheim interviewed Oates on Friday night (October 28th) as part of the Institute's conversation series.

Does Joyce Carol Oates Play?
Having paid the ten dollar student fee and considering myself interested in the intersection between literature and psychoanalysis (wherever that particular intersection will lead me  or one  I am not so sure), I sat myself down in the staid auditorium hall with a plastic glass of free cheap Cabernet Sauvignon.

Oppenheim began the conversation by commenting on how in an e-mail she had asked the author if she had wanted to "play" in Manhattan before the slated time she was supposed to speak at the Institute but then realizing that asking Joyce Carol Oates to play was probably the wrong word to use. Does Joyce Carol Oates play?

One would think not considering how much work she has produced since her first published book in 1963. She was born in 1938 (so that makes for about fifty years of literary output  about fifty books total).

I think Oates took offense to the question because she answered the question about "play" noting she loves to go to museums and view art as well as her teaching career which she considers playful (there is always laughter in the classroom). And there is the point Oppenheim missed that writing can be a form of play.

On Writing From Oates' Point of View
Oates spoke about the craft of writing, how the writer has the idea for a short story, novel, and so on, but the idea has to meet the limits of language. Writing is a process of falling short.

Oppenheim was interested in Oates's biography. Oates was molested as a girl. Her great grandparent was murdered. She spoke about the unspoken violence behind closed doors in the small town she lived in. Did the violence embedded in her background influence her writing and its emphasis on violence?

Oates seemed to resent the question. As if writing about violence, perhaps too much close attention to violence, automatically spoke about the writer's personality.

Oates seems to be a fiction writer not interested in people seeing her writing as an extension of Joyce Carol Oates. She would rather want people to see her writing as art, as an expansive testament to the human spirit.

Does Art Inspire Life Or Does Life Inspire Art?
The question of the evening was, "Is a writer's biography directly inferred by their writing, what they choose to write, what topics and themes they explore?" Does the writer write about herself or does she write about the universal stamp that makes us human, that makes us tick?

Oates made the remark that most writers write about themselves. Proust writes about himself. Phillip Roth writes about himself. Many writers write about themselves. Their stories are reflections of their own lives in some form or fashion.

Oates dismisses the idea that her writings are a mere byproduct of her own traumatic life. She wants to say, I think, that she is no different from anyone else. Most people on this planet, except maybe for the rarified individuals who inhabit the one percent of the world's first-class elite, experience suffering, and violence. She is no different. She writes about violence because it is something people experience.

The room was a bit electric. I loved hearing her speak. She spoke firmly yet not loudly. She seemed to project an aura of quite yet powerful (almost angry) intellectual power. In a certain sense, she is not the docile novelist. She would not be a good analysand, as I heard someone say after the discussion.

After the Interview, Oates Signed My Copy of Sourland
She signed my copy of Sourland. I told her I liked her short story "Dear Joyce Carol" published recently in her short story collection "Dear Husband,". Yes, the comma is included in the title.

She said I didn't look like a guy who would write her letters like the ones described in "Dear Joyce Carol." I think I agree with her. I have written letters to authors but never a series of letters like the ones described in this short story. Oates told me the story was inspired by real-life events. She said she has received letters like the one in the story many times. So maybe there is an element of biography ...

Maybe it is not so much that Oates writes about violence so she can talk about herself in a novel or story, but rather, what constitutes her as a person, as a novelist, as a serious writer, is one who attends to violence because it is immensely important. The novelist attends to the particular in the hopes of reaching for something profound. Is this not the paradox?
- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


Blaise Pascal On The Contradictory Nature of Human Beings

What follows is a short analysis of fragments 164, 19, 142, and 80 from Blaise Pascal's philosophical work Pensées.
 “What a chimera is man! What a novelty, what chaos, what a subject  of contradiction.”- Blaise Pascal, Pensées (1657-58)  

Beginnings: Fragment 164 of Pascal's Pensées

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
Let us begin with fragment 164 of the Pensées where Pascals likens human beings to a freakish chimera, an amalgam of different natures: a monster with the combination of lion's head, goat's body, and a serpent's tail (p. 41). Pascal's thesis is the human condition is contradictory in nature. Subjectivity emerges out of conflict. Knowledge emerges out of paradox. A "cesspool of uncertainty" and "storehouse of truth," the modern subject is a novelty and a monster, the "glory and reject of the universe" (p. 41). "Man is beyond man," Pascal writes (p. 42). In his ability to see himself as mere man, as finite, contingent, yet uniquely novel and independent, man is able to transcend himself through self-awareness. But, as we will see, despite the human capacity to reflect on our own condition we become distracted by the banal and mundane and are bored easily. We often prefer distraction to thinking but we realize that through thinking we are little more than the animals but less than the gods. What makes us who we are as humans is an oscillation back and forth between our greatness and our wretchedness, our distractibility and our insightfulness; in effect, we are a mixture of sense, natural reason, and the ways of the heart.

Pascal and Montaigne

The truth of man's condition is not revealed solely by natural reason nor is it based on dogmatic assertions. Similar to Montaigne, Pascal argues truth is "neither within our grasp nor is it our target" (p. 42). Truth lies in the lap of God. For Pascal to be a skeptic is to deny incarnate nature. To be a dogmatist is to "repudiate reason." For Pascal, the answer lies somewhere in between these two, between nature and reason.
     The incarnation is a key theological point for Pascal (barely mentioned by Montaigne). Jesus is an ideal concept for Pascal, both fully human and fully divine, "begotten not made," "one in being with the Father." Christ is the new man - a manifestation of man as he would have been in his preternatural state. Because of original sin, ordinary man has lost his divinity except for a fragmentary shard which still remains. Unlike Christ, who revealed himself as God through his divine humanity, Man is a shard of a lost divinity; his greatness lies in his lack, his wretchedness. Pascal’s uncanny psychological insight gleaned from a traditional Catholic Christology becomes a radical statement on the human condition. Man's greatness lies in his capacity to recognize his wretchedness. Unlike a tree man is endowed with a capacity to both recognize his futility and simultaneously derive greatness from it. When Pascal writes, "Within this gnarled chasm lie the twists and turns of our condition," he is acknowledging man's in-betweenness (p. 43). Our animality is mechanistic and made redeemable through the operation of grace, a concept Pascal employs to explain how man is able to understand God at all. Grace makes man "as if on the level of God, participating in his divinity." Without grace we would be "deemed equivalent of brute beasts" (p. 43).
This is the copy of the text
I used to write this post.

Man Doesn't Know What Level to Put Himself

In fragment 19 Pascal says man's quandary is that he does not know what level to put himself (p. 8). Resonating with later existential themes concomitant with Kierkegaard or early existential writing, Pascal paints a modern picture of man lost and unable to find himself. Pascal modifies Augustine's thought that man is restless until he rests in God by stating man is restless and looks for God in “impenetrable darkness” (p. 8). We are neither Protagoras's ideal of "man is the measure of all things" nor are we the scum of the earth, either. We are thinking scum. What makes human beings great is the capacity to acknowledge our fallible, fallen nature. Pascal writes, evoking the Psalmist: we are a "thinking reed". Our wretchedness is a "felix culpa" (happy fault).
Pascal writes, "...without this most incomprehensible of all mysteries we are incomprehensible to ourselves" (p. 43). The oracle of Delphi with its inscription "know thyself" is too naive for Pascal nor is the promise of idle distraction the answer either. Reason cannot untangle the mystery of our wretched human condition, Pascal contends, but through "simple submission" can "we truly know ourselves" (p. 43). Humility is crucial for knowledge. Humility is counter to the claim of an all-encompassing logos that can know everything. Pascal equates total submission to logos as hubris. Access to knowledge does not depend on mental acuity or even keen understanding, but possession of a "humble heart and [those] who embrace lowliness" (p. 7).

Our Entire Knowledge is Not Made Uncertain

Pascal argues in fragment 142 that reason is not enough. Just because reason reveals the fallible nature of the mind, Pascal insists that "our entire knowledge is not made uncertain." Pascal is not a skeptic in the negative sense. He does not distrust reason outright. It is rather that he sees reason as part of the larger story of what constitutes thinking. The ancient skeptics taught we cannot know reality. Montaigne's skepticism is suspicion of scholasticism while Pascal is a skeptic of univocal reason. Reason, Pascal claims does not have to reveal knowledge of first principles: time, space, numbers, etc. We know first principles through the heart (p. 35). The "reasons of the heart" ground knowledge. Pascal's concern is faith in empirical reason. A plank wide enough to hold a philosopher yet suspended over a precipice will be unable to quell panic and -- "his imagination will prevail" -- and he will go pale and start sweating (p. 17). Even with the certainty of clear and distinct reason, we become powerless when our imagination takes over. 

Everyone Should Study their Thoughts

In fragment 80 Pascal writes that "Everyone should study their thoughts," but he leaves the impression, apparent in the immediacy and the urgency of his prose style, that humanity has not taken thinking seriously. Our reading for today ends with disappointment in humanity: "How hollow and full of filth man's heart is" (p. 49). Pascal is keen to see how diversion and distraction intertwine and disrupt a path to knowledge (see fragments 170, 171, and in other places).
Diversion is a promise of happiness man makes for himself. Man knows he is not a God. He knows he is mortal. In spite of this, man still wants to be happy; so he entertains himself. Man cannot stop himself from wanting to be happy even though he knows he is wretched so he chooses to not think about it: "Not having been able to conquer death, wretchedness, or ignorance, men have decided to stop himself from thinking about it" (p. 44). We are equally incapable of either absolute happiness or total access to truth. Pascal's diagnosis is man lives in despair. Pining for happiness, man searches for it through distraction and diversion. Yet he remains hollow and empty. The task of giving up diversion is likened to a king who has many courtiers filling up his empty moments. A king left alone would think. If we removed duty, preoccupation, diversion, distraction, and work from man he would "then see and think" about himself, removed from superfluous duty man would think about what he is, where he comes from, and where he is going" (p. 49).


Pascal, Blaise, Honor Levi, and Blaise Pascal. Pensées and Other Writings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, Twelfth, Adult Education, Homeschooler, Not Grade Specific - TeachersPayTeachers.com