EW: I’m not sure what you mean by ‘responsibilities’. I try to write well and, as Basil Bunting said about himself, not to be ‘conspicuously dishonest’.
AR: I guess what I’m asking is: What are the responsibilities of presenting knowledge that comes from outside one’s own culture, of presenting it without – as you mention above – appropriating it?
EW: One of the results of the endemic misreading of Edward Said is the bizarre belief that one can only write ‘authentically’ – and moreover that one should only write – about one’s own culture. In my case, that would leave me with aging white males of Jewish origin who live in Manhattan. Basically me and Woody Allen. (In fact, it would be like being trapped in a Woody Allen movie.)
Literature has always been on the boat with Odysseus. One of its primary functions is the imagining of other cultures – a celebration of the varieties of humanness. This has nothing to do with the evils of global capitalism: an essay on Indonesian mythology is not a sweatshop in Jakarta. On the contrary, it is, in a very tiny way, a pinprick against those evils, for it makes one think about the world inhabited by those people at the machines making sneakers or lingerie.
AR: Are facts neutral, or are they always in some way shaped, politicised, altered by their narrative context?
EW: Ha – you already know the answer to that! In the midst of the American presidential campaign, it’s safe to say that facts are also politicised by being ignored. In my essays, I take as ‘fact’ or ‘verifiable information’ anything that some culture has believed to be true, whether or not our current culture agrees.
AR: Indeed, at this point we’re seeing and hearing a lot of Donald Trump. Does his language and rhetoric set your mind going in the way that of George W Bush and his media machine did?
EW: I wrote about the 2012 elections in an epic blog for the LRB called ‘The Romneyana’, but I haven’t done anything about 2016 yet. It’s obvious that the Obama presidency has unleashed virulent and unashamedly racist forces that are gathering around buffoonish villains who seem straight out of 1930s agitprop. White people will soon lose their majority in the USA. Obama is the most visible sign of this inevitable future, and it’s driving certain people crazy, especially in the Confederate and cowboy states. The way this president has been treated by the Republican Party is sickening and unprecedented. Luckily, time and demographics will erase them. But in the meantime …
AR: You mention your work for the London Review of Books – why is writing about American politics for publication outside the US important, as opposed to agitating within the American media?
EW: Unlike nearly all other countries, the literary public intellectual does not exist in the USA, except for a few ‘single issue’ individuals. Political opinions are expressed by journalists, pundits, and think-tank wonks. So there is nowhere in mass-circulated print for me to go. (And, unlike most other countries, American literary writers do not appear on television and almost never on radio.) But during the Bush years, I thought it useful to demonstrate abroad that the USA was not a monolith of opinion, and since the world was eager for some anti-Bush and anti-Iraq War sentiment from an American, my articles were translated into thirty languages, went viral, and so on. I had weirdly become a pundit – in some countries often on radio and TV – though in the USA I was only known as the translator of Octavio Paz and Borges. Luckily – unlike most pundits, who have territory to defend – nothing I said has proven to be wrong. And in the first week of the Bush Administration, I predicted that he would invade Iraq.
AR: In the early 1980s you wrote that a golden age of literature should be measured by its troughs rather than its peaks, that there will always be good works but that the mediocre ones better define a period. To apply this approach to poetry in the present moment, how do you think it stacks up?
EW: What I said is that there are always great poets, but in a golden age the mediocre poets are good. I don’t think we’re in a golden age, but there are so many poets it’s impossible to know what’s going on. In the USA, the writing schools are turning out 2000 poetry MFAs every year. Not to mention the rest of the Anglophone world and the rest of the world.
Just the other day something obvious occurred to me: in the last twenty years or so, there has not been a single living foreign (non-English-language) poet who has had the same popularity among poets here as, say, Sebald and Bolaño and Ferrante and Knausgaard and others have had among readers of literature. It’s unhealthy.
AR: The only people who describe Eliot Weinberger as a poet are not Eliot Weinberger. Yet you publish poems and a number of your essays could be defined as poems, as found poetry, as poetic in form and content. What stops you from identifying as a poet?
EW: That’s not exactly true. Poetry in America is a professional career, and almost no one considers me to be a poet. I’m invited to give a reading in the USA about once every five years. I’m not on the circuit.
My essays are inspired by poetry, use many of the same techniques, and are composed by ear, but they’re not poems, as they’re not the products of my imagination. (And, as I said, they’re not ‘found’, meaning verbatim reproductions.)
AR: When I read a work like ‘The Sahara’, which consists of the single sentence ‘Camels’ feet leave lotus-pad prints in the sand’, I’m tempted to ask what makes it an essay and not a poem. And so is this the difference, that it comes from outside of you, rather than from your imagination?
EW: I should have a t-shirt made: ‘I went to the Sahara and all I got was this lousy one-line essay.’ It could be a poem, but I see it as a travel essay condensed to one sentence.
AR: You’ve translated a number of essays, articles and lectures by Jorge Luis Borges, including ‘John Wilkins’ Analytical Language’, in which he talks of ‘a certain Chinese encyclopedia’ called the Heavenly Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, which divides animals into ‘(a) those that belong to the emperor’; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained;’ etc. That essay can be found in The Total Library, which you edited, alongside 160 other pieces, two-thirds of which were not previously available in English. What’s it like to go through such an archive, to uncover these works and open them up to an English-speaking readership?