I’d like to talk for a moment about the major themes that underpin my work—if it’s not already clear from the description I’ve just given of the books. These themes may at first seem unrelated, but are actually integral parts of the future I envision for America, much like food, water and air are “unrelated” but are integral components of human sustenance.
Fundamental to my understanding of human possibility is my belief that caritas (altruism) is the only real love, and without it we’re reduced to a more or less animal existence. We’re enthralled by romance and certainly need it to survive (it helps to reduce loneliness and provides the motivation for pair-bonding), but it’s fundamentally the result of chemical action in the body (pheromones, serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins) and the ideation this ultimately produces in the brain. Romance is essentially sexual—and thus selfish—and this kind of “love,” while exciting and adding much to our enjoyment of life, can be less than productive when considering how to create a more just and fulfilling society.
I think I made this case pretty thoroughly in The Meanings of Love, and it’s a theme I try to reinforce in my later novels, though always through the story. Right now sex and romance rule the roost in America, and we’re so much the poorer for it. It’s part of our literature, our entertainment, our advertising, our music, and in fact it’s become a necessary (and profitable) component of our economic system. Caritas—selfless love—cries in the corner.
A subtheme of the above is that we do need to respect and satisfy the animal in us, all the while remembering its place. Sex is not evil and we don’t need to wring our hands like St Augustine and try to overcome our urges. We simply need to manage them and see if we can’t have them reflect more a sharing of true intimacy than just self-gratification. I grew up learning that sex was all about “getting some,” and this is what I’m talking about. If sex did include love, well, that was icing on the cake, and then my lover was “mine” and others better back off! “Love” as we’ve conceived it is fundamentally self-serving—jealousy proves this beyond all doubt. Isn’t a rethink in order? Could intimacy and giving play a larger role? Thus it’s possible that sex and romance might become more a part of caritas than one might have believed.
A second major theme of my work is our estrangement from Nature. We’ve made a Faustian bargain with technology in creating a more totally controlled environment and much of the alienation we experience today can be directly attributed to this. We really don’t have a “home” anymore like people in the past—we’re a nation of wanderers looking for one. (45 million Americans change their address every year, according to Postal Service statistics.) We like to put a positive spin on this by calling it “mobility” but what’s wrong with the grass on this side of the fence? What does it lack? What exactly are we looking for, and can it ever really be found? Will we magically satisfy that endless craving “over there”?
All of my later novels have this theme running through them, and the characters are only able to think clearly and “groundedly” when they place themselves in a more natural environment. Three Days at Albemarle and Land of Fleurs take place almost entirely in Nature, while the protagonist Jennifer Knox in The Pearl Necklace and St Jen is only able to see herself and her future with any certainty while holing up with her artist aunt in Big Sur. Benjamin from Three Days and Refugees From Albemarle is only fully sane when he’s living with his Indian wife in Taos, New Mexico. The tradeoff: what we as Americans have gained in comfort and money, we’ve lost in peace of mind.
The last major theme is the pernicious direction Western civilization is taking. In short, modernity is killing us. Our estrangement from Nature is only one part of this. Also wearing us down is the rampant materialism of our age, the sexualization of nearly every aspect of our culture, our daily interface with the machine in all its variety, and the loneliness and anxiety that these things can cause.
We laud Aristotle and Plato, da Vinci and Michelangelo, Mozart, John Locke, Darwin, Einstein—and nowadays pop figures probably more so—but are our inner lives any better today than tribal peoples’, past and present? Why have we not built upon the ideas of the crowned heads of our civilization to create the kind of deeply satisfying society we deserve and have been waiting for these last two or three thousand years? Why is everything about making a buck, getting laid and finding one’s own place in the sun for so many? Why do our young people shoot up schools, steal cars, take drugs? Why are we almost to a person so restless? I spend a lot of time talking about the world we’ve inherited in The Meanings of Love, and the characters of the novels are going through their own sometimes agonizing searches for heaven among the byways and shiny but sometimes insidious artifacts of our culture.
I suppose I should add as a footnote that I’m a great believer in the ideals of the American Revolution and I really take our government to task for falling so far short. Thus the threat to the community I created at Albemarle is an intolerant FBI—they ultimately burn the place down—and Homeland Security’s narrow view of what it means to be a patriotic American sends the lawyer in Jennifer Knox into a passion of activity against the Patriot Act. I’ve had my share of unpleasant experiences with the government over the years (none serious, though nevertheless revealing), so this only makes the abuses I see perpetrated against others (at home and abroad) seem all the more acute.
So these are the principal issues I’m contending with—all crucial to our present happiness and future survival, and it can be frustrating when no one cares to hear about it. How do I deal with that—to be a writer with no readers? That’s my koan, the Zen question with no answer. If I were a Zen master I’d simply yield to the absurdity of it or better yet, break a stick in two and walk out the door. As the master would say on the way out, there’s my answer! But alas, that detachment seems beyond me at this point.