When a cultural phenomenon transcends the usual categories, its specialness is often traceable to some individual shaping the character of the whole. The unconventional magazine works & conversations, which emerged in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1991 and whose reputation has long extended beyond the United States, stems directly from the sensibilities of its founder and editor. The magazine acquaints its readers with "works" — of art and other types of creative expression, often idiosyncratic and not widely known — and also explores its heroes through "conversations": both internal monologues and unhurried, in-depth interviews with people whose exceptional qualities place them beyond the common measures and standards of the moment.
The leaven for these conversations is the integral part played by Whittaker, who personally conducts most of the interviews and determines their range of subjects. The editor's thoughtfulness and incisive instincts inform each aspect of the magazine's discourses, whose subject always turns out to be life as such. But what happens in an interview with Richard himself? We get a special glimpse of a twofold calling to the craft of publishing and the art of communication – two converging paths to a space of mutual trust.
Trust in Richard arises easily, and conversations with him tend to touch on topics otherwise seldom broached. Even while chatting just before our interview kicks off, Richard reacts strongly to our mention of a Greek Orthodox priest — the only one serving in a certain city in California. Father John had upheld a custom of celebrating all church services with traditional chanting, often for many hours straight, and had done so whether or not he had even a single parishioner in the church — the company of an "angel at the altar" was enough.
works & conversations has an editorial board and a devoted circle of admirers. But namely the editor gathers them all at the "altar" where he himself continually presides. Subscriptions to the magazine are paid for — if paid for at all — by voluntary donations. According to the publication, "The gift economy...is a whisper in the ear of the collective, a whisper insisting against the odds that there is another way of encountering this world and each other: through generosity."
The spirit of generosity as a guiding practical principle resonates throughout this long interview with Richard Whittaker. —James Manteith and Tatiana Apraksina
So, works & conversations
… The reason we really wanted to talk with you is that we’ve had a sense of there being something special about this magazine, both in the American context and in the world context. We’re coming out of a Russian background and publishing a magazine from within an arts/human community in Russia, and we really resonate with what you’re doing. We feel it’s important that more people in the world, and in different cultures, know about this precedent. It feels like a very personal endeavor on your part—the existence of this magazine and all the people and stories it draws together. We’d like to help tell that story and somehow encapsulate what works & conversations
is about for people on the other side of the world, potentially—and maybe here also, but for those who speak a different language and might be discovering it for the first time.
How would you describe works & conversations
to people who might be encountering it for the first time? What really makes it different, special to you?
Well, thank you for what you’ve said. The magazine’s roots are from a deep place in me, and its beginning was a spontaneous thing. No plan at all. But when I look back on that moment I realize that many strands that were below the surface converged in a way that was so well suited to doing this.
To make a long story short, the spark happened in the context of a little group of artists, of which I was a part. I was 47 and had just completed a master’s degree in clinical psychology and suddenly found myself asking what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I’d had a relationship with art in different ways since I was a teenager, but I’d never said to myself, “I’m an artist.” My relationship with art was always outside of school. Meanwhile, I went through school and eventually got a degree in philosophy back in 1966. But in 1989, after I’d gotten this master’s degree, I was faced with a decision. Did I want to become a psychotherapist? It wasn’t the reason I’d gone through the Master’s program, and that's another story. So I looked at my life and saw that I’d never put my creative life in the center, and I decided to try doing that.
So my wife, Rue Harrison
, and I—she’s an artist and later also became a psychotherapist—pulled together a little group of artist friends. One day, as I looked around at our group, I realized that none of us had a chance of being successful in the art world. I said, “Listen, none of us are rich. None of us have powerful mentors, so we have to do something more than just making our art. If we want to get anywhere, we’ll have to do something more —like starting a magazine or something.”
The words just came out of my mouth. And one of the artists, Dickson Schneider, said, “Okay, Richard. Why don’t you start one?” And the next day, I did. Later on I was surprised to hear from someone I met who studied entrepreneurs that most successful startups begin like this.
Anyway, as I said, all of these strands were there below the surface already. My wife was working at the Maritime Museum in San Francisco as their exhibit designer. They had an HP scanner and she showed me how to use it one day. I already had a Mac Plus for writing papers for courses in my M.A. program. And Pagemaker, this early desktop publishing program, was around, and I quickly learned how to scan images and put text together with them. It was kind of a giddy experience seeing that I could do it myself. There’s much more to tell here, but I already had a lot of tools. In the beginning there wasn’t much of a vision of what it might be. That developed in the next three or four years. Maybe that’s at the heart of your question—what was my vision.
I think the connection between the vision and the materials for realizing that vision is, in itself, a very important subject. Perhaps you could talk more about the vision and maybe some of the strands that came into pulling that vision forward.
Okay. By late 1989 when this meeting happened, I’d already discovered photography. In the past, I’d thrown pots and built a couple of kilns. I’d done some painting and sculpture and I’d made some furniture. All that stuff was great, but I hadn’t really found my medium. I discovered photography by accident, and that was what really went deep in my experience—and totally unexpectedly. I’d picked up a camera in 1975 so by 1989, I had 14 years of experience with photography. The question that led me to photography appeared out of a feeling I’d had one afternoon in the presence of beauty. Suddenly I wondered “If I take a photo of this, then later on when I look at the print, will the same feeling come back?" So I got a camera to see if that would happen. And it turned out that sometimes I did get an image that held something of the original magic
So, I began to make prints and take them to galleries. Then I began to discover the realities of the contemporary art world in San Francisco. Ultimately, I was so disappointed that the aim of magazine came into focus: I wanted to make a place for what I found was missing in the art world. During that time I did make some efforts to shape my photography into something I thought was fashionable in order to get the work into galleries. I eventually got over that. But, as a side note, my wife at the time, Karen Alexander, had started a dress business and I’d done some fashion photography for her as well.
So my background in photography helped with the magazine—I do almost all of the photography. When I interview artists I photograph them, and often their artwork, too. And my background in philosophy helped because I wasn’t intimidated by the intellectual climate with its postmodern dismissal of things that I felt were still true. Ultimately, because my actual experiences were so deep, I just felt I had to make a place for what I was seeing.
I have to say this wasn’t an easy thing. I felt a lot of anxiety about it. Like who was I to presume to have something this important to say? But I felt I had to honor my own experience and that tipped the scales in favor of trying. So, in brief, that’s the underpinning of the magazine. Does that makes sense to you?
It makes absolute sense. I'm curious to know whether you see the arts as a really special channel for identifying that type of religious experience?
That’s an interesting question. You may not be old enough, James, to remember it, but back in the ‘60s the phrase “art, philosophy, and religion” was still in use. These were each avenues to the deep reaches of human experience. And, as I said, I knew my experiences were real and true. I had no interest in trying to analyze them. Certainly, they could find a home in the mystical side of religion. One could find a place for them in philosophy, too, I would think—Plato, for instance. Bergson might be an example. I’m sure there are several others. The same problems I had with the art discourse I was reading I could also see in religion and philosophy.
As human beings, it’s hard to imagine finding meaning without having the participation of our deep feeling in some fundamental way. And that seemed to be missing in a lot of philosophy I ran into, as well. So I don’t feel that what I’ve tried to show in the magazine fits exclusively under the word “art.” And that includes all the creative categories—music, dance and so on. I mean, it brings us into the question of creativity, which overflows all of these categories into almost any area of life.
Would it be fair to say that the magazine concerns exploration of the philosophy of creativity in general, the experience of creativity in that broad definition that you’ve stated?
I didn’t have the intention of exploring creativity per se, not as an idea in itself. On the other hand, I get excited when I run into things in the world that spring directly from deep creativity. But I can’t define any parameters here. I wait for something to start vibrating in me. It’s like hearing the sound of a bell in the distance. Some other part of me is the guide there. It’s more in the heart than in the intellect, which is not to say that I don’t think there are great ideas. It raises an interesting question: “How do ideas and experience mesh?” That may not answer your question.
Well, it does. It seems that you’re saying that you’re not necessarily offering your own model or theory, but more trying to hear what others’ creations might be bringing to you, or what is authentic, based upon your intuitive responses.
Yes. That’s it. I'm responding to my intuition. It’s not coming through my ego. I’m inspired by feeling and seeing something authentic in someone else, and I’m moved to help share such things with others. It gives me hope to see someone else doing something that’s both authentic and that speaks to something we might hope to find in life, if that makes sense.
It does, and Tatiana, this really resonates with some of the questions, I think, you had for Richard, in terms of how much the magazine is a personal statement. Given that, on the surface, someone might look at the contents and say, okay, these are all conversations with so many various people. How can it be necessarily a personal statement or a personal journey, even through an editorial sensibility? But yet, is selectivity taking place? There’s almost a sense—Tatiana and I were discussing, or wondering, if sometimes the people you speak with are articulating ideas that you could almost could feel could come from you; it’s as if they’re saying things almost on your own behalf.
Well, that’s a very astute observation. There’s something to that, yes. I look for things that are, in some way, connected with what feels most true to my own experience. I feel uncomfortable saying that I’m serving something larger, but I hope there’s some way in which that’s true. Another thing I've discovered is that when I talk of my own experiences with artists, over and over again, they know what I'm talking about. I don’t feel alone in this. It feels like there’s a lot that artists have in common. And I've been careful not to get involved in something that I don’t feel this kind of connection with. It’s not what I'm interested in.
Do you have a sense in following this path of
discourse with various artists, that you maybe help them to discover themselves in a certain way?
That does happen, I think. It’s not unusual for an artist to say to me, “This is the stuff that’s really important for me, but my artist friends and I don’t talk about these things.” Artists often are isolated, they’re struggling, and it’s easy to get confused because of conflicting challenges and wishes. People need recognition and may be tempted to turn themselves into pretzels in order to get recognized. So, the kind of affirmation I can give by featuring an artist is very supportive, especially for an artist who isn’t being noticed. When I see art that touches me in this certain way – or even other things out there that touch me - and I can give someone a little help by putting them in the magazine, or on the website, it’s very rewarding. I know it helps, because most of us are hungry to be seen. So yes, I do think that sometimes I help other artists, maybe not to find themselves, but in verifying something for them. It’s not an explicit mission. It just goes with the territory and often is quite wonderful.
Well, in your interviews, the kind of qualities you’re recognizing may be be emblematic of a broader human quest that an artist is part of.
I hope so, yes. It makes me think of Agnes Martin. She’s now gone, an American artist, who wrote about art in a way I find inspiring. She said all art is about beauty. She said it wasn’t personal. It’s from something deeper and much broader than a personal thing. That’s true of real beauty, real authenticity, real truth. Those things really connect us because it’s from a deeper layers of ourselves which we share with others.
I mean, I could get sidetracked into philosophical issues here. I'm not a deep student of the postmodern critique. There’s a kind of total focus on cultural relativity and it’s too fundamental in its critique of epistemology, saying issues of Truth are always corrupted by the influence of power, et cetera. Some of that may well be true, I'm sure. But if you can get deep enough—and this is where a spiritual practice comes in—if you can enter into a deep enough state of silence, what one can encounter there is shared by all humans, I believe.
Would you say that the practice of conversation, in your mind, enters into the demand of spiritual discipline that can be helpful for nourishing that other form of authentic art?
That’s a beautiful question, James. I appreciate your questions. I think that to really listen to another person, and really have a conversation, is a deep thing. It’s something that’s mostly missing in ordinary discourse among people. To really listen to someone is a form of love, I think. And it can be powerful. Many people, maybe most of us, are very hungry to be listened to. What do you think? Do you think that’s true?
I think it is very, very important, and in talking with you, I'm reflecting on maybe how much human intellectual, spiritual energy often is diverted onto paths away from conversation, as a form of maybe identifying value.
Tatiana and I, in looking at your work with the magazine and talking with you now, have been reflecting on how each piece in an issue—and the issue as a whole, really—comes to constitute a statement of value that’s not fabricated, that actually comes as the result of actual experience, which can’t be discounted. So much of our lives, it seems, constitute experiences that we’re not necessarily able to validate or re-create and use as the basis for something. We might look at say, Surrealism, with its insistence on the existence of the subconscious. On the other hand, it seems that so much of even our conscious existence and experience is treated as relative, and potentially unreal, and not a subject for art. So, I’m very curious how that work of creating value and rendering experience can create fields for you, and really what human discourse means for you.
Wow, that’s beautiful. Just the very exchange we’re having is a demonstration to me of something that can come from a conversation. I couldn’t create this by myself and maybe you couldn’t create it from yourself, either. But between us, something is appearing. My experience is that I'm being given something by your articulation of what you’re seeing here, and the questions you’re asking.
My own experience is that the unconscious is at work in the creation of every issue of the magazine. When I look back at an issue, I'm often amazed by how I’ve placed images or structured the flow of content. Sometimes afterwards, I look and see that, “Wow, some intelligence greater than my ordinary intelligence took part in this.” And I have to say that sometimes someone else recognizes something I’ve done that I wasn’t even aware of. I just follow some sort of feeling of what to do here and what to put over there.
Often, when I’m interviewing someone they will recount some experience and then apologetically refer to it as of little consequence and move on. I’ll often call them back and say, “Wait a minute. Wait. That’s something important what you’ve just said. Can we look at that?” I mean, some of the deepest things can be so easily missed.
As a matter of fact, I just interviewed a remarkable artist (Pat Benincasa
). I hadn’t met her before. She’s someone who speaks very frankly and from real authenticity. She was talking and used the phrase, “when you come down that cosmic baby chute into existence,” just in the middle of a sentence and kept on talking. I had to interrupt her “a cosmic baby chute
”? That was a great phrase and showed her deep sense of the mystery of life. We had a great dialogue.
I'm grateful for these questions, James, because you’re seeing things I don’t often hear from others. I hope you don’t mind my putting it this way, that it’s a treat to hear such questions, such observations.
Thank you very much. It’s a privilege to be able to ask the questions directly to you. So often, in encountering a work of art, or a work that’s obviously borne of love like this magazine, we have a sense that there are other forces at work, but we don’t necessarily have a chance to come closer and understand what those forces might be. Are they truly present? And what is the overriding spirit that informs the project as a whole—its muse, its angel, if you will—as a whole? —Tatiana, I know you had some questions. We talked about the idea of a hero…
Richard, are there certain qualities you look for in a person? Is there’s sort of an archetypal hero of your magazine? We were talking about the most recent issue with Davis
(Dimock) and Petra
(Wolf) and how very different they are! Davis wants to be with his rocks and doesn’t want to go anywhere, whereas Petra, never wants to stop.
Yes. She wants to go everywhere.
But there’s a sense in which they are both your heroes.
True. That’s a lovely comparison, because they’re each following a deep truth in themselves, you know. Perhaps everyone’s deep truth is its own particular journey. I love both of those stories because they’re both so true to themselves, and there’s something inspiring in that. The overarching exemplar is that they’re both following some deep truth, and it’s a search. It’s a search. It’s very mysterious that we exist, that we’re alive.
Someone I talked to not long ago, Doctor Rachel Naomi Remen
, a remarkable woman, speaking about contemporary Western culture, said “We’ve traded mystery for mastery.
” She said that’s not a good deal, and I resonate with that.
If a person has the capacity to remain in some kind of relationship with that part of themselves that’s still called to search for something deep and mysterious, I find it inspiring. Doesn’t everybody hunger for a deep sense of meaning? And where does meaning come from? That’s a difficult question, but Petra and Davis are exemplars of something like that.
Do you feel inspired by people who demonstrate openness to change that’s driven by an inner impulse perhaps? Maybe not prescriptive change, but almost an inexplicable change?
Well, I haven’t thought about it in exactly those terms, but I intuitively agree with what your premise is. But there’s a difference between being blown about by every wind—I mean, we’re all are subject to suggestibility. But this other thing, what would it be? What is the basis of your question—the kind of change that you’re thinking of?
Well, change that isn’t necessarily motivated by an obvious goal. As you spoke of ambition, not necessarily believing that there’s going to be a concrete reward, or that, from the outside, would appear sensible. It might not even appear sensible to one’s own self at that moment, but simply having made that choice and somehow projecting a different value system, or tying into a different value system, through that simple act.
That’s an interesting question. We could almost be talking about two people meeting each other, and let’s say I don’t like this other person. Now, I've had the experience of being around somebody I don’t like long enough that, through a certain circumstance, I saw something that changed my attitude about that person. Suddenly I understood something I hadn’t understand before. Suddenly, I could no longer dislike that person. In fact, I could even love that person. That kind of transformation is a shock and kind of priceless. So how does one discriminate? What do you trust in yourself? I mean, there’s something in me that I pretty much trust.
And the question perhaps of discipline, what are you going to serve with great discipline, having made a certain choice? Like with your magazine?
That’s very good, because this is like a spiritual path, and for that discipline is required. Many people don’t have a spiritual discipline and perhaps hunger for something like that. Spiritual paths all have practices which require discipline. It’s difficult to get up at 4:30 every morning, have a cold bath, sit for an hour or two, and then do this and that. If you’re in a Zen monastery, that’s what you do. And the story you told earlier of the Greek Orthodox priest in Salinas who was praying every service, even with an empty church—that’s a powerful example of an inner discipline. I must say, I've never heard such a story, and it really touches me. But sometimes, people are zealous and maybe intolerant of others, and that’s another problem. All these things are… discrimination is needed. There are some people who have great discipline for very bad purposes. You know?
(Chuckles.) So, could you say that perhaps, with the magazine, as much as you’re drawn to things you do understand and feel an affinity for, that you’re also drawn to things that you feel challenged by, and do not understand—at least immediately? Do you feel a desire to go beyond a certain opacity in your cognition of the moment?
Well, that’s a nice question. But before answering that let me ask you, is that question formed from something in your own life? Would that be a fair hypothesis?
I think so, and it comes also from reflecting on my own cultural background having been born in the United States and thinking about what it means to be a citizen of this country or a citizen of the world. Certainly, much of what has drawn me to linguistics, for example, and various, more challenging cultural practices, even if I'm not a master of any of them, is just to simply recognize the presence of this higher standard that’s there to feel reverence toward. I'm curious—and Tatiana and I have been discussing this as well—whether you have a similar sense of wanting to face intellectual challenges or allude to their existence—intellectual, cultural challenges within this American context. Is that necessarily how you would frame the context of the magazine’s existence?
I don’t frame it in those terms, explicitly. But I relate to your question on a personal level. Perhaps there’s something I want to do; I feel called, but I'm scared about it. I am
interested in a practice of trying not to let my fears stop me, so this is a personal thing. I haven’t been attracted to political-cultural issues per se. I’m not saying they’re not important, it just hasn’t been my path. But the question of how one lives involves the question of to what extent does one obey one’s fears, and to what extent does one decide to proceed in spite of one’s fears? I think that’s an essential question and it certainly is a living one for me.
I ran across a wonderful conversation today between Jacob Needleman
and Angeles Arrien. Arrien was speaking of certain questions she considered very valuable for putting to oneself on a regular basis. One of them was, when was the last time you did something courageous? I thought, “Well, when’s the last time I did something courageous
?” Now it's not every time I interview someone, but sometimes, I do have some anxieties about it— especially if it’s a public event. It takes some kind of courage. So, this is sort of how I'm responding to your question.
So, do you feel that there is a societal source of fear that we need to perhaps overcome? Do you sense that the fears we need to overcome as having both societal and personal dimensions?
I'm sure that’s true. I don’t doubt that.
In much of our conversation, we’ve alluded to some of the pressures for success, measured in terms of prestige, perhaps in commercial terms. Would you say that the magazine is significantly attempting to create a non-commercial space for discourse and understanding?
I haven’t made any special effort to create a non-commercial space. It is
a non-commercial space—very uncommercial. I've never made a dollar. I mean, if I looked at the money I put into it and what’s come my way, I'm still in the red. I didn’t intend to be non-commercial, but it turned out I didn't have much interest in playing that game. I didn’t have much skill, either. So, it’s an accident that the magazine is not commercial, but it’s an accident that’s slowly leading me toward a revelation of a certain kind of value that is not much recognized in this culture.
One of the things that can happen is that help may just appear. That happened when I met Nipun Mehta
who founded ServiceSpace
. This is another amazing story that could take up hours. Nipun and ServiceSpace are shining exception to this culture of getting and coming out on top. Of course, I'm enculturated with these values, too. So, in part, the magazine is a slow journey toward another set of values like serving and not being so grasping.
I have a long ways to go, but the non-commercial fact of the magazine is actually giving me unexpected gifts. I'm slowly discovering the joy of giving—yes, that’s a good way to put it. I don’t know how that answers your question.
It does, and I think these aspects of society that you’ve identified are perhaps familiar enough to anyone, that they need to further explanation. Another aspect of your work that comes across, perhaps could be a willingness to go deeper than the current moment of time. You referred to disenchantment with postmodern discourse, for example, and perhaps that’s a trait of commerciality demanding to be very much of the moment, very fashionable. Do you seek out opportunities to find older or timeless reference points?
It’s not that I explicitly seek out something like that; I don’t worry about it per se. If I find something that touches a sort of feeling, I go with it and this kind of takes care of itself. Say again your question. I mean, I may be sort of responding to it, but do you want to put a finer point on it?
Sure. If you could talk more about how you seek maybe older value traditions, older spiritual traditions, perhaps within your conversations with artists, with people of the arts? I think you’re saying that you make no special effort to discover that, but somehow it comes out on its own. I'm often just pleasantly surprised when reading the magazine. It turns out that all of these individuals are thinking very much about the past. They might appear to be in the present moment, living in the present, as we’re told to do for our greater happiness, but there’s a constant reference to things that have been and things that might be, thinking about ancient civilizations and scriptures, and that maybe you helped to define that. Does that give you joy as well, thinking that you’re sort of moving outside of time, outside of linear time when working with the magazine?
Well, it reflects my life, really. It’s just a reflection of my life—where I've been, and what’s been meaningful for me. And yes, I’ve had an interest in wisdom traditions, let’s put it that way. I've done a lot of reading. I've been involved in my own spiritual work, you might say, and I do believe that a great deal of wisdom has been part of past cultures, much of which has probably been lost.
When I look at Christianity, for instance, I'm really struck by the desert fathers, for instance, the contemplatives out in the deserts of Egypt in the fourth century. These anchorite-monks had these lives of contemplation, and all that seems quite wonderful to me. And you see this in Buddhism. I don’t know the Judaic tradition that well, but there are things one can look back to historically, where one feels—I feel—that there was great wisdom there.
Now we’re in such a mind-boggling time. One’s hard-pressed to know what to make of it. I'm lucky enough to be in touch with a lot of younger people who deeply feel the importance of serving, the importance of kindness, of generosity. I'm touched by that. But anyway, it’s such a big question about what may have existed in the past, and where we are today, and where to turn.
It’s a huge question about what can help without creating more division and more conflict. I don’t know if that’s getting at it very well.
It does and I think it will be helpful, perhaps for our readers, many of whom have their own conceptions of what is important to life and what they may think of us in the progressive United States, or in California, the West Coast—as you’re the West Coast editor for Parabola
, too. And all that that symbolizes as a progressive, perhaps more technologically oriented, society currently—despite all of the spiritual aspects that are symbolized by the West Coast and California. I'm curious how you perceive the tension between those forms of progressive drive?
It brings to mind an experience I had meeting a young man, Manuel Klarmann
. He’s from Switzerland. He was out here in Silicon Valley for a couple of years, because he was forming his own company. Manuel was probably in his 30s. He had an intense desire to be of service to the world; he felt that we’re in a very difficult time, a dangerous time. He was very carefully collecting data on energy use, on carbon footprints in the food sector. He was spending a huge amount of time collecting data on the carbon cost for creating a hamburger, or a salad, and other specific meals. He was tracking this beginning with the carbon costs of the farmers in cultivation— the plowing, the irrigation, the weeding, the harvesting and then the transportation. All of this, and then the cooking. I mean, this was a very thorough, careful, energy audit, and was very time-consuming.
He’d gathered a lot of data very carefully and was putting together ways of producing meals that could be done with smaller carbon footprints. There would be recipes in very specific ways showing savings in terms of carbon costs, and so forth. He figured he had the best database in the world on these things. He’d started a company called Eaternity. I met him through ServiceSpace, this group I mentioned earlier, that I've been involved with for the last 13 or 14 years.
Manuel said that he’d decided to give his data away when someone asked for it in spite of how it might hurt his own company. The greater good was more important to him. And I was very touched, so I asked if he’d be willing to be interviewed and he accepted. I said, “Manuel, you’ve been here in Silicon Valley in the heart of the digital revolution deeply connecting with the tech companies here. (He’d made presentations at Google and at Apple, for instance.) Do you feel there’s any hope for the world that’s going to come out of Silicon Valley? Do you feel there’s any hope for us that will be strictly from technology?”
His response was, “I don’t know, but I suspect that what comes out of Silicon Valley will either save us or destroy us.”
To me, that’s really to the point. It’s an open question, and what is my attitude? I don’t know. Some of it scares the hell out of me. I don’t know how much you’ve read about ideas like “the singularity,” about silicon life, going to other planets to live and all that stuff. It’s such a strange fantasy world.
Which very much excites some people.
Many people are very pumped up about it.
Do you feel that you’re maybe wishing to support a different anthropological truth than as represented by Silicon Valley, for example?
I don’t think I have the wisdom or the knowledge to go that far. Silicon Valley is a manifestation of life. I'm heartened by some of the people I know and what many of their responses are. They’re trying to use technology as a way to help people come closer to their own humanity, and how to use technology to help bring about a greater relationship among people for service and help. This is so imponderable, this territory. Do you have particular ideas about it yourself, James?
Well, I do—and trepidation, as does Tatiana. I know some of what you were describing in the story of Manuel and his data collection and then his giving it as a gift. That aspect of the gift being somehow redemptive, somehow turning the exercise of metrics into something that has more of that intuitive balance inherent in it. I'm concerned about our capacity for say, unmotivated action, the irrationally motivated action pursuit of excellence, of joy—for its own sake. So in the example of the Orthodox priest, I wouldn’t even want to know how many hours he spends alone versus how many hours he spends with the congregation, and what is the exact productivity that you would get out of that. I wouldn’t want to think in anything remotely like those terms.
I’d want to think in purely musical terms, and it almost seems like we’re forced into having a very scientific approach to how we feel, to how we learn, in a way, that almost negates the experience of learning and feeling, potentially, unless we take very serious mitigating actions to the contrary, so to speak.
I resonate to what you’re saying. What keeps getting left out in all this “progress” is the intelligence of the heart. I mean I'm so deeply touched by the story of this Greek Orthodox priest. I’m happy to have heard this story and hope this story can be spread. This story shows something so needed and so valuable, and it’s beyond quantification. It’s much deeper.
I’m reminded of something Gandhi said, “there’s enough for everybody’s need, but not enough for everybody’s greed.”
All the religious traditions warn us against this sort of thing. And many indigenous stories tell of how original peoples were given instructions at the beginning of their world —and then how the instruction slowly got forgotten. Then the world fell down and collapsed.
So, what have we forgotten? Maybe it goes back to trading mystery for mastery. And in all of the getting, the guidance of the heart has been forgotten.
Well, this is our last question: what can we look forward to in your next issue?
Well, you’ll see an interview with the artist I mentioned earlioer, Pat Benincasa, for one thing. There will also be an interview with Rosalyn White who does all of the Nyingma Institute’s thanka paintings and illustrations for their publishing. It’s really an amazing story. And I certainly want to get down here to your studio, Tatiana, to photograph some of your work. And there will be a poem from Robert Lax. Have you ever heard of him?
I think, you had a piece on him?
Yes. It was the interview with Steve Georgiou
who visited Robert Lax on the Greek island of Patmos and then went back several times. Georgiou wrote a book about Lax, who was important in Thomas Merton’s life. Lax was a beautiful, beautiful example of someone not motivated by getting. I'm reminded of that Greek Orthodox priest. Robert Lax, I think, had something of that quality. There will be other things, too. It’s always a mystery to me, what the next issue will be.
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On Sep 7, 2022 MaryAnne Caleo wrote:Marvellously thoughtful and generous.