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A Comic, Cosmic Sensibility: A Conversation with Tom Robbins, Part 2

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Tom Robbins, bestselling author of nine perennially popular novels, as well as a book of short writings and a recent memoir, has been called everything from “Mark Twain with an illegal smile” to “the most dangerous writer in the world.” Most recently, he’s collaborated on a musical adaptation of one of his novels (the soundtrack of which was released on October 12, with vocal talent that includes Jon Cryer and Belinda Carlisle, among others). I caught up with him to hear more about this project, and found him as nimble as ever as we wound up in a wide-ranging conversation about storytelling, God, creativity, language, laughter, and politics. What follows is Part 2 of a 2-part interview (Part 1 can be found here).

 

Tony Vigorito: Let’s hear more about this miracle, figuratively or literally. Given the manner in which the ecological noose is tightening apace with the death grip of obsolete economic structures, humanity does seem to be approaching something resembling the sound barrier, with the whole aircraft shuddering and threatening to blow apart. Tremendous forces of greed and egotism are determined to impose ignorance, and weapons of mass mendacity and distraction and more formidable than ever. What way lies hope, or is it just an anthropocentric vanity to believe that we must be something other than an evolutionary cul-de-sac?

Tom Robbins: Were I to claim advance knowledge of the nature of any impending miracle, I’d be justifiably accused of spreading fake news (or deemed worthy of my very own padded cell). What follows, however, is a crumb of conjecture.

In his recent book, How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan reports that a number of extremely reputable institutions (medical and academic, in the U.S. and abroad) are currently engaged in serious psychedelic research. What if there were eventually to be widespread, legal, judicious — even enlightened — use of these natural, mind-changing sacraments, might not that tip the balance in favor of Mother Nature?

Of course, since winged rats will likely be circling Manhattan before that comes to pass, why don’t we conduct an experiment, consider an alternative? Rather than waiting and yearning for it, why don’t those of us concerned just start behaving as if that aforementioned miracle were already here?

 

It’s a comforting crumb of conjecture, and there may be more than a loaf of truth to it. After all, every other social movement from the era known as the Sixties has landed on the right side of history. So why pretend that there was nothing to be discovered on the neurological frontier, or that it was merely a foolhardy caprice? The question I’m driving at is this: Assuming that it’s even possible to describe, what is it that’s contained within these experiences that is so potentially transformative to our manner of being alive?

First, in regard to those “flying rats,” let me shoot down my fantasy that psychedelic usage might someday be “widespread.” As Hermann Hesse so accurately pointed out in Steppenwolf, “the magic theater is not for everyone.”

Apparently, chemicals in these substances activate receptors in our brains that otherwise lie dormant, doubtlessly for good reason as it would be virtually impossible to, say, operate machinery, write reports, wage wars, or bake cakes were they permanently operational.

For those who can accommodate it, the psychedelic experience is both prehistoric and futuristic, creating multiple insights that do not translate readily into language. They provide the imbiber a lens on his or her surroundings that is simultaneously microscopic, kaleidoscopic, and, well, let’s say “cosmo-scopic,” for want of a more scientific term. Certainly, it can (and frequently does) lend itself to spiritual interpretations. And though it dims in time, there remains enough of an imprint to alter (in a largely positive way) the manner in which one perceives so-called “reality.”

For example, when one’s consciousness travels inside the crown of a daisy, as did mine on my first LSD trip (it was like a cathedral made of mathematics and honey in there), one comes away sensing that every daisy in the field has an identity just as substantial as one’s own — and that cannot help but leave one more sensitive to the wonders and deeper meanings of the everyday natural world. That in turn sparks the nasty wish that those who trash our planet for profit might someday be toasting like marshmallows on the campfires of Hell. (Can’t you hear the little demons singing Kum Ba Yah?)

 

Whether meditatively or pharmacologically inspired, the capacity to experience life outside of a cultural description of it (not mistaking the map for the road, as it were) does indeed sound like an evolutionary bonanza with the potential to accelerate humanity out of an obsolete past and into a relevant future.

So, for all its utility and poetry, why do you suppose we are so vehement in our attachment to language, particularly the ideologies, identities, etc. — the “veils,” to use your concept from Skinny Legs and All — that it describes? Or to put it another way, why can’t language be a useful tool rather than an iron rule?

We humans live in language the way a spider lives in its web. Both our mundane daily experiences and our most lofty abstract ideas (often borrowed from other “spiders”) become entangled in the multitudinous strands of that web, some to be slowly digested, others left to shrivel or bloat.

The longer we live, the more tangled the web becomes, although even in our youth we can allow ourselves to gorge on certain “flies” (political ideologies, religious dogmas,  unattainable goals, or exaggerated notions of our abilities) that limit our evolution and distort the web.

Having said that, language remains our first invention (early tools and weapons were found, not made), our most ambitious, and at times our most grandiose. What is less appreciated is that the words themselves, transcending their utilitarian parameters, can be at least as important — and often more arresting — than the things or ideas they represent. Even professional writers frequently fail to recognize that language is not the frosting, it’s the cake.

So rather than there being too many perceptions that are beyond words, it may only be that after all this time there simply aren’t enough of us who, like Molly Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses, can verbally turn something like a sordid seduction into a wild and winsome word-de-o. From my perspective, we, linguistically speaking, may have too many handy tools and not enough magic wands.

Sometimes, when a wand is sparking and our muse is smiling on us like a hot buttered croissant, we can use words to light up a page. Or a room. Even a mind — although admittedly not as brilliantly as those verbally transcendent entities that reside ever so humbly in certain mushrooms, cacti, or the scummy ergot that infects wheat and rye. But, we’ve already waddled through that minefield and it’s not even our home turf. Let’s count our toes and fingers and move on. 

 

The best relief from the self-serious web we too-often weave, it seems to me, is the anarchic domain of laughter. The anthropologist Margaret Mead even observed that laughter is humankind’s most distinctive emotional expression (and never mind hyenas, by the way, that’s just the sound they make). What are your thoughts on this most riotous of emotions?

While much laughter is of no more consequence than the braying of a jackass, some is indicative of a special understanding, even a kind of wisdom. Often enough, such laughter may strike onlookers as inappropriate — but that reaction itself is worth a good laugh.

Humor can be both a form of wisdom and a means of survival. A comic sensibility is often a cosmic sensibility, for it can open doors in consciousness that are closed to the sober and prudent. Within the realm of laughter, light and darkness often merge, leaving the laugher free of life’s perplexing dualities.

When Rama Krishna, supposedly the last known human to actually reach Nirvana and return, was asked what it was like there in the zone of ultimate consciousness, that which-of-which-there-is-no-whicher, he answered, “Laughter.” It’s challenging to wrap one’s mind around that, but doesn’t it sound more appealing than “pearly gates and streets paved with gold?” I’m a wee bit concerned, however, that so few visions of the absolute Absolute fail to mention jelly donuts.

 

It occurs to me that language and laughter share a good deal in common. Like laughter, much language “is of no more consequence than the braying of a jackass” (contemporary American politics springs to mind), while some language may paradoxically reveal an ineffable wisdom seeking to express itself. In both cases, however — whether it’s motivated by the jackass of narcissism or the cosmic laughter of ultimate consciousness — language seeks to create reality.

That said, what is the world you’re seeking to create with your use of language? And what is the most common misconception you encounter around your work?

You are correct, of course. While in the circus of human expression, laughter is customarily the red-nosed clown, language the daring aerialist on the high wire or flying trapeze, the roles are often reversed or even performed by the same entity, especially when imagination gets in the act. In fact, in the very best “shows,” comic genius and poetic genius are usually directed by imagination, the ultimate ringmaster.

Many — if not most — authors employ language to describe experience. My own goal is to actually provide an experience. I’d like to think that I write to twine ideas and images into big subversive pretzels of life, death, and goofiness on the chance that like the Trickster figure in tribal myths, they might help keep the world lively and give it the flexibility to endure. And I suspect that you may have a somewhat similar approach.

Among the ranks of the stuffy and clueless are a few wantwits who insist on tarring me with the old Day-Glo Sixties brush, never mind that only one of my nine novels (the first) is set in the 1960s. My second, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, does take place in the Seventies during fallout from the counterculture revolution, but its themes (including sexual preying on women) are as relevant today as then — and the rest of my oeuvre covers many eras (including ancient Greece) and many locales (including the Afterlife). Well, as another writer once responded to misplaced criticism, “Let the jackals howl, the caravan rolls on.”

 

Indeed, it’s a howling sort of ignorance that would reduce the complexity of an artwork to a simple-minded category. Rolling on, then, I’m wondering if you can articulate how the spiritual reality we’ve discussed (the cosmic laughter of ultimate consciousness) meshes with active participation in, say, political reality, if at all?

Politics, even much liberal politics, is all wrapped up in ego the way a pig is wrapped in a blanket. Should the pig poot so hard it billows the blanket, children and halfwits will snicker. Otherwise, the political impulse (the desire to preside over property and make other people’s decisions for them) is only occasionally a source of mirth, and never ever ever invokes the sort of “cosmic” amusement of which you speak: a response to existence that in Zen is sometimes called the “god laugh.”

Almost daily there is existential folly so absurd that it invites a dismissive guffaw. Then there is the abrupt laugh of appreciation when we suddenly are reminded of all the wonder there is in the world. Such recognition usually occurs when we’ve followed an impulse to temporarily remove the mask that most of us wear every day. Alas, rarely does a politician (or the politically inclined) dare to take off that mask.

The party that would surely get my vote (and maybe even a contribution) is the one whose slogan is, “We’re making it all up.” Which, of course, they are. And where politics and religion are concerned, so is everybody else. 

 

Given the agonizing farce of American politics of late, I wonder if you have any words of wisdom to whisper? The herd is stirring, there’s a nervous shifting of hooves afoot. Is something happening here, or are we staring at our belly buttons instead of the sunrise?

Well, it’s a short trip from the belly button to the “clear light,” so one’s navel (as opposed to one’s lover’s navel) is a good place to start. Meditation, umbilical or mandala, can lead to elation, and elation can foster realization: specifically the realization that ultimately it’s all cosmic (there’s that word again) theater, all of it, and each of us should work on perfecting his or her role, on playing it with honesty, humor, and if possible, pizzaz.  

Meanwhile, if one’s role includes “voter,” then one must vote for the candidate with the fewest ties to corporate fascism (the current direction of government in the U.S.), the one with the least dorky haircut.

Me, I’m keeping an eye on the latest discoveries in astro-physics (gravitational waves, for example), lending moral support to young protesters in the streets — and sending out for jelly donuts.

* * *

Tony Vigorito is the author of three well-received novels, including his most recent Love and Other Pranks, which Tom Robbins called “the single wildest novel I’ve ever read.” Visit www.TonyVigorito.com.

 

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