April 16, 2014

Clarion Review: A Quick Apology for the Interview

It used to be that I would skip printed interviews in magazines and journals, and especially in newspapers. They seemed like rehashings of what the interviewee had already said–perhaps better–in print. As an editor, interviews also struck me as filler for slow issues. And so it went for years that I did not read a single interview even while enjoying interviews on television and especially on the radio.

What you could call my prejudice against print interviews was only broken by that maker and breaker of prejudices: experience. I read a couple of deft interviews, which appeared, strangely enough, in leftist publications like Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and Slate (I have not seen many interviews, and especially many notable ones, in what could be called conservative or right-wing publications. If you know of some, please post them as a response). I say strangely enough since I had never thought that certain genres or print formats were more or less preferred by one side or another in the culture wars. After a little reflection on my last five years of reading, I concluded that whereas the left seems to run the gamut in its literary output, the right is mostly an article, book, and blog literary culture. I have joked with friends who sit on boards of right-leaning institutes that without the article, tri-fold pamphlet, monograph, and dinner-speech, western civilization would disappear. A more revealing comment may be what a not unrenowned conservative friend of mine told me “I just don’t have time for fiction,” he looked toward his vast library, “it requires too much self-disclosure.” There are notable exceptions, yet this seems fair, considering the temperament of many famous litarati of the right and left.

Be that as it may, printed interviews can do in a short space what an essay cannot, and this is its virtue and its temptation to vice. An interviewee can offer a collection of thesis statements, roughly argued, with implications and connections from and between them, without the reader thinking that too much has been said too soon.  Sometimes, when the interviewer is knowledgeable of the interviewee’s corpus, the questions can generate felicitous syntheses of the corpus, with strings strung between seemingly disparate subjects. In this way there is serendipity in the interview–a coming upon what was perhaps not thought before by the author, or understood by the reader. There is a dialectic. Yet, unlike live interviews, the printed interview is usually edited after the fact for content, with many things being restated. This allows the interviewee to hone what he said, and perhaps edit out what is sub par.

Recently, the Clarion Review, published by the American Orthodox Institute, began printing interviews by prominent European intellectuals. The first two were with Roger Scruton, Britain’s most prominent conservative philosopher, and Remi Brague, an influential French scholar and academic, who specializes in medieval Christian, Muslim, and Jewish theology and culture, and their interrelations.

I encourage you to read these provocatively titled pieces, certainly if you find yourself with my old prejudice against the printed interview.

“Yellow Ants”, Fundamentalists, and Cowboys: an interview with Rémi Brague

People keep on referring to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as the three monotheistic religions, as the three “religions of the book”… This is three times nonsense…Judaism, Islam, and Christianity are monotheistic in very different ways…”three religions of the book” is misleading, because the meaning of the book is very different in each religion… Only in Islam is the book itself what is revealed by God…Judaism and Christianity are not religions of the book, but religions with a book…religions cannot easily be compared. There are fundamental differences. Yet they are constantly discussed as if they were essentially the same thing…

Europe’s luck was its initial poverty. For a very long time, Europe remained far removed from the existing cultural centers in Asia. Europeans were barbarians, inhabiting distant, freezing northern shores. And they knew this about themselves. Studying classical languages, and thereby imbibing a civilization wholly different from their own, made them conscious of the fact that they were stinking barbarians, who needed to wash themselves with the soap of higher civilizations.

To read the whole interview:

Turning Cows into Ideas: an interview with Roger Scruton, philosopher and farmer

Very few farms are profitable, and ours exists more…as a rural consultancy and ideas factory. Our neighbors turn grass into milk and make a loss; we turn grass into ideas and make a profit. We keep horses of our own, which we look after, and allow our neighbors to use the pasture for their cows: cows too, viewed from the window, can easily be made into ideas. We also keep chickens, and occasionally pigs, which we turn into sausages, after their brief time as ideas.

To read the whole interview:

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