The Interrogative Mood: Questions with Douglas Robinson

The following questions are taken from Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood


What are the top three things in your life you wish you had not done, or done differently from the way you did them?

I wish I hadn’t had so many regrets.

… let us say then on an island all by your own self with nothing to read except one kind of poetry, would you select metaphysical, lyric, language, gift-card, or cowboy poetry?

Modernist poetry in Finnish. I don’t really enjoy reading poetry. I only enjoy translating it.

What broke your heart?

When my six-year-old daughter told me that she loves her best friend more than me. That other little girl doesn’t deserve my daughter’s love. She’s a cad and a bounder, and a wretched opportunist, and I hate her.

Can you list the things you are afraid of, or is it easier to list the things you are not afraid of, or are you afraid of nothing, or are you essentially afraid of everything?

I am afraid of losing my loved ones. I am afraid of pain. I am afraid of shame. I am afraid of boredo—

No, that’s not true: I’m not afraid of anything.

And I’m not in denial.

Do you want something said of you, or nothing said of you, when you go?

I just want my eulogists to tell the simple truth about my greatness as a human being, a husband, a father, a scholar, a writer, a translator, and a breakfast cook.

What are three basic things you need to be content in life?

Work, work, and work.

No, that’s not true:

Love, love, and love.

The fact is, I love my work, and love is work.

If you could be instantly fluent in a language you do not now speak, what language would it be?

Every language on earth, beginning with Cantonese.

Was there ever enough time?

I actually almost never run out of time. I tend to take on any task offered to me that sounds at all interesting, and sometimes they pile up, and I worry that I won’t have time to do them all—but I almost always do. There have only been two or three times in my life when I didn’t.

And those panic attacks that resulted weren’t really panic attacks.

In what endeavors would you say you have talent, and in what endeavors would you say you have no talent?

I have certain talents in a very small collection of endeavors, mostly writing and talking, reading and listening. The endeavors in which I have no talent are legion.

What for you are the characteristics that make a person extremely likable?

A wicked sense of humor combined with an exuberant love of life.

If you were now thirteen again, what would you do that you did not do when you were thirteen the first time, and what would you not do that you did?

1. Be James Bond.
2. Have acrobatic sex with supermodels.
3. Be able to fly.

Right now, what is the thing or situation in your life that most confuses or baffles or paralyses you?

Two-faced pusillanimous back-stabbing trickery.

At what age would you say your character was set—that is, when do you think you were you?

Yesterday, for an hour or two.

Would you like to send a love letter to anyone?

Kenneth Burke.

Did you get Hegel?

I once set my mind on reading Hegel, and understanding him. I found the System of Ethical Life in German and English translation online, scrolled through till I found a section that looked useful to my project at the time, and copied and pasted it to a Word document, with spaces between paragraphs. Then I started reading paragraph by paragraph, comparing the translation with the original, then writing a summary in each space between paragraphs. In almost every case my paragraph summary was longer than the original. When I’d gone through the whole section that way, I went back through and expanded on each summary. Gradually the summaries began to flow together and turned into a chapter. I think I got him.

Is all of life clueless, or is most of it clueless with momentary bursts of clueness, or is it a spectrum of cluelessness to clueness on which people reside on the spectrum of cluelessness fixed or variable?

I don’t have a clue.

Have you ever lied to a child, and, if you have, do you find you regret it more or less than lying to an adult?

Of course I have: I’m a father. Lying is an indispensable parenting tool, along with blackmail and extortion. But then lying is an indispensable social skill for conversations with all ages. The kind of lying Oscar Wilde defends in “The Decay of Lying”—story-telling—is the source of all human culture, all morality, all friendship.

Have you read as much Samuel Johnson as you should have?

Probably not. But then he hasn’t read as much of me as he should have either.

Is there anything you’d like to ask me?

Do people have enough shoulders?

Tammy Ho: Atlas could certainly have used another pair.


RobinsonDouglas Robinson is Chair Professor of English and Dean of the Arts Faculty. [Click here to read all entries by Douglas.]  [The “Interrogative” series]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s