Inventing arcadia: an interview with Frederick Turner.
Frederick Turner is Founders Professor of Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas. He was raised in Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States, his itinerant life due to the chosen professional fields of his parents, cultural anthropologists Victor Turner and Mary Douglas.
Turner trained as a Renaissance scholar, writing on Shakespeare's history plays. He is also a widely published poet, former editor of the Kenyon Review, and a recipient of the Levinson Poetry Prize. He has published 11 books, including works on criticism and fiction, and has advised projects as diverse and various as the Journal of Social and Biological Structures, the St. Louis Museum of Art, the Djerassi Foundation, and the Cleveland Radio Project. He is a regular contributor to Harper's magazine and has also appeared on the television series "Smithsonian World."
Frederick Turner is also one of a very few contemporary writers able to say that he has written not one but two full-length epic poems in his lifetime: The New World, published by Princeton University Press in 1985, and Genesis, which tells a tale of the future terraformmg of Mars. Late this past summer, we had the opportunity to discuss Genesis with its author, who is also one of the leading thinkers and spokespersons for the emerging restoration ecology movement (a movement which Turner now prefers to call inventionist ecology, echoing his own interest in the theme of Arcadia restored).
As he looks to the future, Turner sees the hope of a new coherence, a new "and much more decentralized world," one where, in the words of his 1983 essay, "Such Stuff As Dreams: Technology and the Future of Imagination," life will be "more personal, warm, custom-made, organic, untidy, decorated. Our music will be full of enchanting melody again, though it would sound strangely foreign to the ears of Brahms or Beethoven; more dark,skinned, more rhythmic, with an Oriental quaver, more incantatory, with more improvisation in performance. Our visual arts will be mainly representational, with abstraction usually reserved for decorative function, but there will be a rich play of modes of representation; it will once more seek after beauty, nobility, truth, and the sense of wonder. Our architecture will recapitulate the pan-human village clutter, with all functions, domestic, religious, retail, industrial, educational, horticultural, political, jumbled in together; no zoning; and it will be splendidly and comfortably decorated. Our poetry will be as all human poetry was until 70 years ago, richly metrical and rhetorical, full of stories, ideas, moral energy, public statement, scientific speculation, theology, drama, history. Indeed, many of these changes have already begun, though an entrenched rearguard of Modernist reactionaries still holds much of the political and economic power, and middlebrow taste will need decades of deprogramming from its masochistic preferences."
The Humanist interviewed Turner in late July 1993.
O'SULLIVAN: What is restoration ecology-or, to use a more recent term of yours, inventionist ecology?
TURNER: Well, I would make a distinction between restorationist and inventionist ecology. What restoration essentially does is more like a performing art. It seeks to recreate, both as faithfully as possible and in a contemporary context, a past entity-an entity which is valuable in itself-in the way that a violinist or an orchestra might re-create a Mozart concerto. A restorationist reconstructs a past classical, and classic, ecosystem.
O'SULLIVAN: But this isn't, strictly speaking, sheer and simple repetition. There's got to be innovation-some change or difference.
TURNER: Of course. There's a good deal of room, as we know, for virtuosity, for real art, in performance, but it is, in a sense, a secondary art. Inventionist ecology-or inventionist environmentalism--is something more like the artistic creation of the original concerto or symphony. Of course, any time you create a work of art you are using materials that already exist, that have existed in the past. A poet, for instance, uses language, and language is a very ancient and common material-the words are already given to the artist. So no one creates anything out of absolute nothingness. But that's the distinction I would make. I would include things like landscape gardening in a discussion of inventionist ecology-the great landscapes like Bali or Tuscany, great human landscapes which do involve a good deal of conscious art and decision but which use traditional methods like husbandry, plant management, and animal breeding-all careful but traditional methods of preserving ecological richness. We're now at the point where, perhaps because of the achievements of restoration ecology, we may be able to use much more powerful biotechnological methods to create new kinds of landscapes. This is, in a sense, still a speculative dream, but I think a very interesting one.
O'SULLIVAN: This is certainly the vision of your epic, Genesis.
TURNER: Right, exactly. In a way, it's something that con, nects with the whole classical tradition-and when I say classical tradition, I don't mean exclusively European. I think we're beginning to realize that the classical tradition is worldwide. At the same time, it's also something that connects with the sciences and with the rest of nature in a more fully understood way than was traditional.
O'SULLIVAN: In Genesis and elsewhere, you make some very clear distinctions between restoration, on the one hand, and movements like conservationism, preservationism, and deep ecology, on the other. Could you say something about these differences?
TURNER: Well, actually I would insist upon a distinction between conservationist ecology and preservationism, and I would say that deep ecology is an extreme form of preservationism. I think that different people might make these distinctions in different ways, but it just sort of behooves me to divide the pie up in that way.
Conservation is essentially, I think, human,centered. It implies the rational use of available resources for human ends and purposes. Preservation, I think, recognizes an intrinsic value in nature itself. In the process, though, it contains some theoretical difficulties, such as how we define nature. The preservationist answer is usually to define nature as that which is not human. And having once made that distinction, the way is open for deep ecologists to speak of human beings as if they were some kind of alien plague that has descended upon the innocent body of nature, forever despoiling it. And I think restoration, ecological restoration, has to a large extent solved that problem by showing that human beings can create and restore an authentic piece of nature.
PLETSCH: I'm glad we've raised the preservation question because I want to start off by addressing this point you've made--and very forcefully--that nature
is a dynamic system ....
PLETSCH: ... and due to evolution, fundamentally incompatible, at least in theory, with preservation, because you can't preserve something that's in flux. Could you say something more on that?
TURNER: Well, I think that there are two approaches to this issue. The first is evolutionary, and the second is based on chaos theory. As you point out, if you want to preserve something, the idea essentially implies that there is an intact and unchanging thing which is there to be preserved. Now, one might get sophisticated and point out that you can preserve a process -just as, for instance, you can keep a flame alight so that it doesn't go out, even though a flame is nothing more than a superheated area of gas within a flow of gas. And I think the more sophisticated preservationists would make this kind of argument.
But the problem is that the moment one talks about a process within the contexts of the rest of the universe, then preserving that process becomes extremely problematic. Where do you draw the line? What is the boundary between the process you're trying to preserve and everything else? Niagara Falls is moving backward as the limestone ridge over which it falls is eroded. Do you preserve it best by turning the falls off from time to time and shoring it up from underneath with concrete? Or do you preserve it best by letting it erode back until it just turns into a rapids? It all depends on the size of the context. Does the context include just the ecosystems of the Great Lakes, or does it include the ecosystems of the Great Lakes plus the human beings who live there plus human ideas about history-what the falls must have looked like when people from Europe first saw it, and so on. So, essentially, to go back to my initial distinction, living things evolve and change and are changing all the time. Every species is going through at least genetic drift and probably adaptations of various kinds. Every living ecosystem is going through changes-both long,term, irreversible changes in the nature of this planet, and also changes in the species (and species mix) which make it up. So, what does one preserve?
PLETSCH: Then where does chaos theory fit into the picture?
TURNER: Well, we're beginning to learn even more forcefully through chaos theory that all organized systems in the universe-all living organisms, ecologies, or whatever are, in fact, temporarily stable whirlpools in vast, and finally unpredictable, flows. These whirlpools preserve their form because they are essentially cleaving or adhering to what are called chaotic or strange attractors that exist, as it were, within those processes. Now it makes sense to me that one might, in a sense, want to preserve the chaotic attractors that are within complex, nonlinear, self-organizing feedback processes. But the moment one thinks in those terms, there's no way that you can really exclude everything else that's going on in the universe.
Prigogene talks about chaos as being essentially open-ended, as taking place in open systems. We human beings are inevitably going to be part of any open system in the physical universe, even if in a very, very small way-even if only as observers. But as we know from quantum theory, the act of observation itself can transform, to some extent, the nature of the event being observed-transform it, say, from a probabilistic event into a definite one. And so there's no way you can exclude human beings. Human beings are a part of nature, and in one sense the universe that has been totally unseen and unacted upon by human beings will never be a universe. So, on the deepest and largest philosophical scale, the notion of pure preservation is really incoherent.
PLETSCH: But even if the theory of preservation is incoherent, that shouldn't inhibit you from approving the practical efforts of preservation.
TURNER: Oh, not at all. In fact, given the larger context, if we are a part of nature, and if our decisions themselves are part of nature, there's no reason we shouldn't make certain kinds of decisions when we find a piece of the interconnected flow so deeply valuable that we are willing to isolate it-to put it under glass, so to speak, to preserve it, to try to keep it inviolate-even if it means interfering so that it doesn't follow its own natural process. In fact, preservation is a profoundly unnatural act-in the simple-minded sense of the word natural-- in that, in order to preserve something natural, you have to halt its own natural processes of development and decay. But why not? Why shouldn't that be one of the factors at work in this great play of flow?
O'SULLIVAN: I'd like to return to a point you made before when you were talking about preservation and systems theory. In the context of your discussion of chaotic attractors and openended systems, you said that humans were also part of an open system. But you're very clear about the place of human beings in this complex flow of natural processes. In fact, you have used an argument from complexity to talk about the special-or should I say specific-place of humanity in all of this. There you seem to part company with both the deep ecologists and, to a certain extent, your own argument.
TURNER: Well, suppose one takes something like the Mandelbrot set. This is one of the simplest chaotic attractors we know. In fact, it's an attractor not even for a physical process but for a very simple mathematical one-a kind of recursion in a mathematical equation. The Mandelbrot set is actually quite beautiful when you look at it. But eventually it starts to look a little bit insipid, because it's the product of recursion on only one level-a collection of points. Suppose you were to make a kind of recursiveness out of that recursiveness-and here I think we begin to recapitulate the actual history of the Big Bang and the origins of the universe. Suppose, for instance, that one had a world, a kind of mathematical world, in which the Mandelbrot set was somehow entering into complex feedback systems with all kinds of other nonlinear systems-the logistical equations, for instance, which produce an entirely different set of shapes, and so on. In a way, eventually you would end up with something like the birth of physics. I mean, you would end up with space just as a way of being able to fit everything in, and you would end up with time as the only way of solving the scheduling problems that you had fitting everything in with everything else. And with space and time, you then have anomalies and problems, which would give birth to matter and energy.
Now, energy is already a kind of recursion, a feedback of space and time. Energy exists in waves, and waves are a repetition-essentially a circular or a wave movement, which is a repeating of something-which means that it is already recursive at one level. If you take matter, matter is energy that is recursive at yet another level-energy which has contributed some of its store of energy to containing itself, to holding itself in the same place. As a result, it develops asymmetries that you don't find in energy alone. In other words, matter is energy which has folded back upon itself, which is recursive at yet another level.
If you take life, life is matter that has formed long strings, which are recordings of how to make that very piece of matter. So life is matter that is recursive on yet another level. And when you take human beings, when you take human intelligence or that of the higher animals, what you have is life that is becoming neurally aware of itself, has become sensitive to itself, is involved in all kinds of complex feedback systems-evolutionary, social, intellectual, cultural, and so on.
The point I'm trying to make here is that everything in the universe is involved in such complex feedback systems, but some feedback systems are very much more densely recursive, much more self-conscious, if you like, than others-much more self, aware, much more valuable and value,creating. And human beings are the most recursive, the most complex or deep in this sense of all the organisms that we know of in the universe. This isn't to say that we don't participate in larger systems that are even more complex; but if we do, we participate in the same way that the human nervous system participates in the human body. Even if we come across other intelligent beings in the universe, we will simply have found that we are only one part of the nervous system and not all of it. But we're still part of the nervous system of the universe, and any living organism, if threatened, will, in general, sacrifice parts of its body to preserve the nervous system. The nervous system is the thing that is defended to the last by any organism-the fox that bites off its own foot when trapped, and so on.
In other words, nature already makes its decisions about what is most valuable, and the nervous system is the most valuable part of any living organism; that, I suppose, and reproduction-the future is also important to living organisms. But my point is that we human beings occupy the place of the nervous system of the universe, as it were. In fact, I would add that we occupy the place of its reproductive organs as well. We are, to a large extent, the universe's future.
O'SULLIVAN: Sacrifice plays an important role in your thinking and seems to be related to your theories about the biological basis of beauty. In your essay on "Biology and Beauty," for instance, you talk about the relationships among sacrifice, tragedy, beauty, and meaning in the context of the process you call commutation.
TURNER: In the kind of systems I've been talking about--namely, systems that are multileveled and have histories that are irreversible-conflict is inevitable: conflict between levels, competition within levels over the resources afforded by lower levels, competition between members of the same level to be the future, and reproductive competition. The competition is a subtle one; it can be straightforward disruption by the victor of the vanquished, but much more often it is a competition to see just how well one cooperates. Nevertheless, there is a cruel and tragic element to the whole process, even in our own bodies. Anybody who has experienced the process of getting old knows the distinction between the spirit and the flesh. "An aged man," as Yeats said, "is but a paltry thing..." Even within any given human being, there are conflicts between the levels of existence in the body itself and one's "spirit"-the integrated whole that comes out of one's nervous system. The spirit is, in a sense, at war with the aging body, subject to entropic decay. This is tragic. I have a friend who may at the moment be dying. He was a man of tremendous strength and spirit and ability, and I see that going. Life is tragic.
O'SULLIVAN: And sacrifice is an acknowledgement of the tragedy?
TURNER: Yes. Sacrifice is one of our ways of recognizing, and one might say becoming a party to and affirming, the tragic nature of our ecosystems. In other words, one might unrealistically and in a utopian way deny tragedy altogether. But in so doing, one is also denying the future as well as the past. To sacrifice is to affirm that one shares with the rest of creation the common shame of having survived through violence or replacement: that here we are, we take up space in the world, we eat, we breathe-there's a fierce and terrible joy in our existence up here at the top of the food chain.
Now, my notion about commutation goes like this: sacririce was originally, it seems to me, actual human sacrifice. This is a mythological statement, sort of like Freud's notion of the primal horde. It's not meant to be a literal description of what happened in our prehistoric past. It's mythical, a useful fiction which might serve to give a flavor of what I'm getting at. The original sacrifice was human sacrifice, and I think that human sacrifice was a way of recognizing that, even earlier, we had to drive out of the collective human cave all the throwbacks and brutes-the rapists, the murderers, the liars, the ones who couldn't play the human game. We would have thrown them out of the cave, exiling them into the outer darkness, where there's "wailing and gnashing of teeth," as the Bible says-driven them out like Grendel, like all the traditional monsters. We are haunted by them, and sometimes they come back to us.
In this sense, sacrifice is a way of propitiating the spirits or memories of those we threw out long ago. But human sacrifice is also a way of recognizing the divinity or completion toward which the universe aspires-a way of saying that some things are more valuable than other things. In the biblical myth, when Abraham is called by the Lord to sacrifice his son Isaac, he complies with the Lord because the Lord is, in a sense, the whole evolutionary meaning of the universe. But more significantly, what happens when Abraham does comply with the will of the Lord is that the Lord says, "Well, you don't have to kill Isaac; you can kill a ram instead." And this is the notion of commutation: that you don't have to make the whole sacrifice; you can make a partial sacrifice or you can substitute a lesser for a greater sacrifice. You can, instead of sacrificing a whole man, take only his foreskin in circumcision. Instead of sacrificing the whole of the bull, you are taught by Prometheus in Greek mythology that you can sacrifice the fat and the bones and the hide, keeping the meat for the people. And the process of commutation and sacrifice goes on until we are sacrificing things as apparently trivial as little pieces of bread in the Christian communion ceremony or candles in Buddhist temples and so on.
My hypothesis is that the growth and development of language itself through metaphor is, in fact, a continuation of this process of commutation. In other words, the whole purpose of meaning-what Jacques Derrida calls "differance/ deferral"-is, I would say, much more like commutation. It's a lessening of the penalty and a kind of refinement of this ancient sacrifice.
O'SULLIVAN: How is all of this related to beauty?
TURNER: I would say that beauty is the self-transcendence of a system that allows into its feedback all of its own history, all of its own past. Beauty, or our sense of beauty, is our recognition of the creative self, transcendence of the universe. Sublimity, on the other hand, has something apocalyptic about it. If you look at certain postmodernist architecture-with its grotesque scale, its grotesque enlargement to the point of satire and caricature, and, finally, a kind of explosion of meaning-you'll see what I'm talking about. There's the Chippendale broken pediment on the AT&T building in New York City, enlarged to hundreds of feet and erected hundreds of feet up in the air so that the mind is stunned and terrified and, at the same time, strangely bored. When the eye returns from that to, say, the corner delicatessen, it's less able to enjoy the modest, natural, human appetites which the delicatessen represents. The mind has been stunned and somewhat damaged by the experience of the sublime. But then the sublime is quite easy to do if you're an artist-just be very loud or very big or very weird. To be beautiful is to take into account the whole organic past of the universe in one's work. That's a harder trick. And, of course, you don't want to lapse into mere prettiness, any more than you want to lapse into being merely sublime.
O'SULLIVAN: But your own work has just that character of sublimity in the sense of magnitude and grandeur and ambition. Terraforming Mars is a rather majestic project, as is writing an epic about it.
TURNER: Well, thank you; and in that sense I would wish my work to be sublime. But I think that in both Genesis and my essay, "Life on Mars," at every point I'm trying to link up these gigantic kinds of ambitions and designs with homely and almost incongruous ancient details. In the essay on terraforming Mars, I talked about Greek ships working their way along the Italian coast and finding the crater,filled, desolate landscape of Vesuvius. Where Greek colonists once found a craterscape, now you've got slopes covered with vines and people boiling pasta and singing songs and watching television. In other words, I've tried to link it up with our human past so that it isn't just something mind,stunning and apocalyptic.
O'SULLIVAN: That's very much akin to what you do in Genesis, creating a hybrid, as it were, by bringing together a traditionally "high" form of literature-the highest, in fact, the epic-with what is generally regarded as a "low" or vulgar genre: namely, science fiction.
TURNER: To give credit where credit is due, while some of the speculative ideas in Genesis are original, quite a lot of them come from the great stock of wonderful ideas which have grown up in science fiction. I mean, science fiction is our modern body of myth, and the neat thing about science fiction is that one doesn't have to be original all the time, just as with Greek drama you could lift whole myths from that wonderful, rich stock that's always around. I'm indebted to science fiction and fantasy writers like Ursula LeGuin, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke; I have an enormous debt to Clarke. But there are others. Shakespeare is my largest single literary influencesort of my model of how one ought to be a writer. In another way, Milton is very important to me. In a strange sort of way, I feel a kinship with Milton's weaknesses. Not to sound too much like Harold Bloom, but Milton is at least a way of being a poet after Shakespeare, so to speak.
PLETSCH: While we're in the aesthetic realm, I think it's a very interesting idea you propose that there is a natural or biologically based human aesthetic that transcends not only cultural boundaries but all the frippery about beauty being "in the eye of the beholder" and so on. Could you say something about that?
TURNER: Sure. My position is fairly simple; it comes from a number of directions. One is from reading work in contemporary human-evolution studies-sociobiology, comparative cultural anthropology, and so on-that we, as an interbreeding and intercommunicating species, evolved with a set of fundamental aesthetic preferences and genres and practices, most of which (well, all of which) are culturally universal. You'll find some version of musical tonality, melody, and scale everywhere in the world. From my own literary and scientific studies, it's now clear to me that meter is culturally universal. The same thing goes for color combinations, color significance, detail, frequency, ratios within individual representations, the whole business of the pictorial itself, certain actual design motifs which seem to be cross-culturally universal, and so on.
There's a whole raft of fundamental human artistic genres and preferences. I call them "fundamental" based upon my research in psychophysics, neurobiology, cognitive studies, and, to some extent, information science. Studies of the human brain show that it actually does prefer certain things-certain ratios like the golden,section ratio and golden-section spirals, and so on. This seems to be a matter of design. Take poetic meter, for instance. A three,second information-processing system in the brain seems to be perfectly tuned to the poetic line, which is three seconds long. And it's three seconds long in every culture; it varies between two and four, usually. So it would seem that we are physiologically and neurologically equipped through our evolution with a set of what I call neurocharms-fundamental capacities that lie dormant in us. These capacities are innate, like language, and need to be evoked-woken up and trained by a particular culture. There's enormous variety in how these cultures express themselves, but nevertheless there are fundamental genres.
PLETSCH: And this biologically based, transcultural aesthetic is part of your legitimation of inventionist ecology.
TURNER: Yes, exactly; because our aesthetic preferences are the result of billions of years of natural evolution, they are in effect what nature came up with given its largest scope and lengthiest period of work in the richest possible environment. In other words, our aesthetics are nature's best stab at judgment on itself.
PLETSCH: Then this aesthetic has to reflect nature or the whole universe in some sense. A universal aesthetic has to reflect the whole universe in order to be a legitimation of our invention or our creative ecology.
TURNER: This also means that it has to be open-ended. If anybody tries to propose a closed aesthetics, they cut themselves off from the continuous creativity of the system.
PLETSCH: And yet you tend to focus rather dramatically on Renaissance aesthetics in order to identify the role of making and imitating nature. This may be a very leading question, but I want you to talk about how the biological basis of the human universal aesthetic leads to the kind of making or innovating you tend to identify with the Renaissance. Is Renaissance aesthetics the only place that you can find a correlative, or shouldn't that be universal, too?
TURNER: Well, there are various reasons why I'm especially interested in the Renaissance. One is that it's an area of scholarship with which I'm familiar; I'm a Shakespeare scholar. But I think that a number of cultures have at a certain point turned back upon themselves, have turned back upon their own past or something in their tradition and become intensely conscious of it. And out of that feedback, something new emerges. In other words, part of the process of creativity is expressed in the old myth of Orpheus, in which you have to go down into the underworld--or, as I say, into our evolutionary or historical past-and meet the ghosts of the dead in order to found the new city.
Now there have been other renaissances. You can even see it in what's emerging from the study of Meso-American artifacts. Another good example of this took place in Japan. Japan has, from time to time, sought to renew itself by turning to its own ancient sources in China-much as England in its renaissance renewed itself by turning to its own ancient civilizational resources in Rome and Greece. It is, if you like, a sort of cultural grand tour. In fact, it's the traditional and ancient form of multiculturalism-a way of opening one's own closed system to some, thing else. You can do that in terms of another contemporary culture, or you can do that with regard to a past culture as well. So a renaissance is any human culture being recursive; it's human culture feeding back upon itself. That's why I've been particularly interested in renaissances in general and in the European Renaissance in particular.
During the European Renaissance, there was a good deal of thinking about these issues. The European Renaissance was profoundly interested in the nature of nature and of art; it was one of the big issues. These were extraordinary times and extraordinary minds, which had recently rediscovered an enormously rich past and had different models of things to compare-you know, Athens and Jerusalem and ancient Rome and new parts of the world which they were just beginning to know about. Their thinking was extremely rich on the whole thing. Many of the great Renaissance thinkers, like Sir Philip Sidney and the Florentine neoplatonists, had some of the same ideas-this notion of an extended imitation of nature in which you imitate not just a fixed state but the actual process of nature. And because nature is itself self-transcending, to do it properly you had to transcend nature-to make another nature, as Philip Sidney says, that is richer and even more beautiful than the nature that already exists.
PLETSCH: In order to be natural.
TURNER: In order to be natural. Shakespeare said the same thing in The Winter's Tale: "Over that art which you say adds to nature, is an art that nature makes."
PLETSCH: And it would be your contention that this same tendency, shall we say, could be found in the renaissances of other cultures as well?
TURNER: Oh, yes, I think so. In very different forms, I think; but this would underlie the creative excitement of the artists working in those other renaissances.
PLETSCH: And this is all, you would contend, part of a biologically based human aesthetic-not always obvious in, say times of classical aesthetics, but which would become obvious in periods of renaissance?
O'SULLIVAN: And also that the ability to recognize beauty is neurally and evolutionarily hard,wired, but given specific form from culture to culture?
TURNER: Yes. For me, the great analogy is language. One of the things that has become clear from the work of such people as Noam Chomsky and, more
recently, Derek Bickerton, who has studied Creole languages, is that there is a fundamental predisposition to language as it exists in human beings, and in fact it's even a predisposition to a certain, particular kind of language-sort of the Creole language that Bickerton dis, cusses. These are the default options of groups of people when they put a language together with which to communicate. Obviously, more developed languages can then override those default options. But language isn't the only capability sitting around in us waiting to be awakened by culture. I've already talked about music, the ability to make visual representations, poetic meter, and so on.
The implication of all this is quite profound for education, I think. If you regard the human brain as a tabula rasa-a blank sheet waiting for culture to come along and inscribe it-then the way you educate is to imagine the most utopian society you can and then try to imprint it on the people you're educating. If, however, human beings are understood to be very intelligent, with a capacity to be human beings-to act, to think, to imagine, to love, all of these the result of an interplay between inherited capacities and a friendly cultural medium-then education has to be very different. What one is then do, ing is giving those innate capacities a particular form in which to express themselves. It's sort of a paradox. It is only through the limitations of a particular language, or a particular culture, that these innate abilities make themselves known; and the particular, innate capacity can then express itself in a seemingly infinite number of ways. I mean, you can say an infinite number of things in English or French or Chinese. You can say an infinite number of things once you've mastered meter, once your ear has become accustomed to nursery rhymes or blues couplets or country,and-western lyrics, whatever-the fundamental human meters. Once you've become able to use them, they then constitute the language in which you can say anything. But in a curious kind of way, it is through limitation that one becomes capable of an enormous range of things which one would have been unable to do before.
O'SULLIVAN: As in the seemingly disparate forms of science fiction and epic?
TURNER: Well, yes, but to be able to talk about this we would have to abandon what I think is the popular notion of a genre understood only as a narrow set of rules-something which merely constricts. Again, it's more like language: a relatively small set of rules serves to make possible an infinite expressiveness. I think that any great genre constitutes a set of opportunities. It is also its own historical past. The epic, I think, is such a genre-always has been. Tragedy is, too, and so on. More that that, genres come with kinds of hooks. A good genre is like a carbon atom. It's got a lot of valences; it can form a lot of compounds. One of the functions of a genre is to combine with other genres to make hybrids, and this can work among serious genres or between serious and more popular ones. Pope's Rape of the Lock combines the high seriousness of the epic with invective, creating mock epic. Shakespeare hybridizes all the time, so you have the historical-tragical (as Polonius puts it), the historical-comical, and so on. Shakespeare was, in fact, attacked by Sidney for mixing his kings and clowns, so to speak. In The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare switches from tragedy to bucolic comedy to something like a mystical masque-all in the same play. So the life of any artistic tradition consists of doing just this. And a good genre can turn back upon itself, in a recursive way, to find the resources to grow and develop new species, to use a biological metaphor. In other words, you can develop new species either by hybridization or through a sort of mutation and recombination within the species itself.
O'SULLIVAN: What was it that led you to write Genesis?
TURNER: Well, I'd always been interested in the notion of terraforming. I suppose it goes back to when I was a child; my parents were doing their field research in Zambia, and we were living in an African village. My mother let me cultivate a little piece of garden, and that had a profound effect on me. I think I've always had this fascination with growing gardens in strange places-to boldly garden where no one had gardened before, to borrow from the motto of "Star Trek." Also, coming to America and transplanting, as it were, my own European values to American conditions were part of the same process. I had always been looking for something that could integrate both my scientific and poetic interests-I come from a very scientific family. And if you marry those things, you get a kind of imaginative technology; you almost happen upon terraforming willy-nilly. But I'd say that these things were all preparations. In the introduction to Genesis, I insist that I'm simply a redactor-a scribe taking dictation-that I had actually heard the poem from somewhere else. That's sort of true, in a way. To say that I listened to someone else and just wrote it down wouldn't be quite true. But the whole experience was definitely one of hearing it rather than just saying it.
I remember very clearly when the poem really began. I'd gone back to England for a year and was on a visiting professorship at the University of Exeter. I had a habit of running down to the River Exe, which was kind of a marshy estuary filled with swaying reeds that would blow in the rain-winds which swept over Dartmoor, and it was very beautiful. I'd do my karate practice there. And there was a great big overpass, a freeway overpass that went over the valley, and I'd sometimes take shelter there from the rain. One day, while I was running beneath the overpass, a line of poetry just came straight into my head. It wasn't-it didn't even have words. It was the rhythm of the poetry, a certain iambic pentameter. Before, in writing longer poems, I'd always avoided iambic pentameter because I was afraid of the gigantic influences of Chaucer and Shakespeare and Milton and Marlowe; I was afraid I'd just end up sounding like them.
But suddenly I heard a new iambic pentameter that was very much faster than the classical uses of iambic pentameter. It 'had more feminine endings and was much lighter. It was something like Keats, but it was also something that one could use in an enormously colloquial way. "Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome" is pentameter; "United Nations Secretariat"-that's pentameter, too. It could be that colloquial, you see, but then it could modulate into something like a drumming decasyllabic that could thunder and be slowed down. All of a sudden, at that point, I had the lines, and then I went home and spent the next two days writing 40 pages of notes that included all the characters, the technology I'd been thinking about for years, the plots, the scenarios. It all came out in this absolute frenzy of listening. And then I staged to write the poem.
O'SULLIVAN: In act IV, scene two, you write:
And could this poem speak itself to being, Then its interpretation might be such As those so vital codes; not to be read Upon a page nor analyzed by scholars Of the writing schools, but played out in The actions of a ring of men and women, Singers and sung, or danced into a drama.
In the context of seed-planting and burning understood as rituals or public drama, and taking the text of Genesis itself to be a kind of ritual, do you see the poem as providing the basis for future rituals, the kind encouraged within restoration?
TURNER: Just to ask the question is to answer it. To do epic these days is very much like restoring a classic landscape, in the sense of restoration ecology. It's also like inventionist ecology in that it's not just restoring it. You get entirely new kinds of landscapes through hybridization, as you say, and also through new adaptive conditions. And I think that, in a sense, this is what I'm trying to do with epic. The ecological or ecotechnology of Genesis is a gigantic metaphor for the aesthetics of the poem itself, for its linguistics. And the planet--the unterraformed planet-is like an empty page; so the terraformed planet is like the poem. The DNA codes of the living organisms which are brought over in the great arc, the arcship, are like the codes of language, the language being used in the poem.
But my point is that I'm making a more, as it were, literally concrete kind of poetry-a poetry which is not just metaphor but is also, at the same time, what you might call a technological blueprint. The poem is, in fact, a design for an enactment, a design for drama. And it would be a technological and civilizational drama. In a sense, the poem is also a score-not necessarily a musical piece in itself but a score, a script. And if people were to use it as the guide for public ritual, I would feel honored beyond words. That would be the kind of thing the poem is for.
I've also been very deeply delighted by the fact that Genesis has been used to some extent by various groups of people all over the world and especially by NASA. They're using it as a kind of mythological tool to think about long-range space projects. And I've actually been consulted by them a few times. I went out to the Ames Space Center in California and met Cad Sagan there, actually. It was very interesting. They know the poem, and, to put it in a comic way, it's become a sort of mascot.
O'SULLIVAN: In Genesis, the character of Beatrice, literally the gardener of Mars, is a little like Dante's Beatrice but also contains something of Milton's Eve. But Milton just lets Eve name the flowers; your heroine is a creator.
TURNER: Well, she really is the gardener. There's the sacrificial hero, Tripitaka, and the patriarchal conceiver, Chance, at the beginning. But they have to be cleared out of the way in order for the actual work of creation to begin. And Beatrice is the one who does the work of creation. I believe that, while nothing comes from nothing, everything was made from nothing-in the sense of creatio ex nihilo. If you like, I suppose one says that, retrospectively, nothing can be made of nothing; prospectively, everything is made of nothing. Time is asymmetrical. Time looks different when you look back on it from what it does when you look forward on it. So there is a profound sort of contradiction (one can see it as a contradiction, and a profound one) when Beatrice gardens the planet according to the notions of Arcadia. In one sense, it looks like simple transplanting; but, in another sense, it's also creating.
One way of resolving the apparent paradox is to turn to Aristotle's distinction between matter and form. If you go about making something, you're just giving new form to existing matter, right? So you're not doing something original-just rearranging already existing stuff. And I would say that the nature of stuff is just old form-in other words, matter is just old form, form that's already been made, has already crystallized, been enacted. Its wave function has already been collapsed, to put it into quantum terms. Form crystallizes into matter, as it were. Take the matter of my desk, for instance. It's very solid, sitting right here in front of me. But, of course, it resolves itself into molecules, which resolve themselves into atoms, which resolve themselves into largely empty space. But even the particles inside resolve themselves into quarks, which resolve themselves into what are really nothing more than very complex spins or twists of space-time. So essentially, if you look at matter with a big enough magnifying glass, it resolves itself into form. And what that means is, if you give new form to existing matter, you're also creating new matter-a new arrangement is new stuff. This is how I've always resolved that paradox.
O'SULLIVAN: Finally, you say that freedom is not the ability to make choices-that's Milton's position-but the capacity to create. To quote from your essay "Life on Mars," this is "the only solution to the problem of desire." What does this do for politics and ethics?
TURNER: It puts a whole lot of contemporary political ethics on an entirely different footing. Milton does talk about choice, but I think that Paradise Lost is about creating a gigantic universe in which freedom, in the sense of creativity, really could exist-what Blake meant when he said that Milton was of the devil's party. These huge divisions between heaven and hell and earth eliminated the barrenness. There's a certain barrenness in understanding freedom as choice. As I've pointed out, either one choice is logically better than the other, in which case you're constrained to believe (empirically or otherwise) that you just desire one more than the other-in this case, you're psychologically determined-or you can make the wrong choice, in which case, again, you're not free. Or you can make a random choice and then it's just the fall of the dice-what the Greeks called tuche. The only real freedom is when you make something, when in being given the choice between A and B you choose C.
How would that play out in terms of ethics and especially political ethics? Well, in such a world, education would certainly be more important than it is now. It's not enough to give people a set of choices. Then they're just wandering around in a supermarket where all of the things are really just the same. What one has to do is to provide people with the capacity to create. To give people freedom is to give them this capacity. And if we believe that we have inherited capacities that need training in order to awaken them, then education has to be very much more of a discipline. One achieves freedom, then, through discipline. This tends to make decent, thinking people squirm a little, but I think it's simply the case.
Gerry O'Sullivan is interim coeditor of The Humanist, a book review editor for Z Magazine, and the coauthor, with Edward S. Herman, of The "Terrorism" Industry (Pantheon).
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|Title Annotation:||The Human Challenge of Ecological Restoration|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1993|
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