The Interrogative Mood: Questions with Jason S Polley

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


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

I have two answers. Cantonese, both as a means to develop a deeper solidarity with the majority of my fellow Hong Kong residents and as a means of protest, or dissidence even. And, yes, I consider Cantonese a language, not a mere dialect. The difference, for me, between a language and a dialect in this case is ideological. The other language is Hindi. Hindi would enable me better to communicate with people who speak Punjabi, Urdu, Nepalese, Bengali, and some Persian-influenced languages, like Farsi, Turkish, and Arabic. And if I could read Hindi, or Hindustani, in the Devanagari script, I could access tens of other languages in the Indian subcontinent. Moreover, Devanagari would allow me to understand myriad post-colonial Sanskrit texts in India. Were I to put my shoulder to the wheel, this modern Sanskrit could furnish me the beginnings of an understanding of classical Vedic Sanskrit, the liturgical language of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. I would love to look at everything from The Mahabharata to The Ramayana to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras to The Atharvaveda in Sanskrit. Plus, I could access, and begin to understand, however minutely, the epic tomes that one finds on the top floors of bookstores in Kathmandu, Nepal. Bookstores where the more stairs one climbs, the more rare, the more aged, and the more large texts become. I’ve seen books as big as myself, and seemingly as old as Abelard and Guru Ghobind Sing. Moreover, there is a link, however tenuous, between Sanskrit and Greek, thereby opening the door to Western epics as well. You see. Hindi makes me crazily optimistic.

If you could have a famous writer, dead or alive, write an obituary for you and really puff you up to have been something you weren’t perhaps, or otherwise take liberties with your memory, what writer would you choose?

Two answers again. David Foster Wallace because he is (I try to avoid the past tense; he’s still very much alive to me) my favorite writer and he is reputed to have once sent a girlfriend an 87-page break-up letter. I’ve a feeling DFW would sabotage the whole genre, not as a means of belittling it in any way, but as a means of redefining the genre, of personalizing it, of removing the cant, and inserting some real honesty. And Jacques Derrida—not least because of another apocryphal story. Derrida once putatively hijacked an academic conference by turning what was supposed to be his short introduction of a keynote speaker into a two-hour-plus lecture, or harangue. And even if that anecdote is counterfeit, I testify that the following is by no means a hoax or embellishment. I saw Derrida speak at the SPEP conference held at Penn State in Fall 2000. At the wine and cheese thereafter (just before my shoulder almost brushed up against Derrida’s, and it would have if he wasn’t a full foot shorter than me) a kowtowing hyper-enthusiastic and –nervous pretty, young woman expressed her love of everything Derridean to the man himself. She then asked him to autograph a book, a book that happened to be written by Levinas, and not Derrida, as she needlessly explained and apologized. Derrida simply looked at her and said “Levinas? No” and walked away. That’s when he became my hero. I’d love for my hero to write my obituary—even if the obit contains no bits about me it will still be about me.

Do you recall the last time you wept?

Two again. At the Anna Karenina-inspired conclusion of Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. I read the novel in the last days of September 1998. When I closed it I was actually sobbing. Sobbing, including near hyperventilation and a bountifully running nose, sobbing like I hadn’t since I landed on my tailbone on our asphalt driveway after riding up from the grass ditch and unwisely mis-timed my first (and only, so far, at least) attempt at a backflip on my BMX bike when I was six. I also wept, but a little more gracefully, about an hour after I came to the sudden conclusion that Lolita is Nabokov’s rewriting of King Lear, that Lolita is a contemporary version of Cordelia, a contemporary version who refuses to utter the tragic “No” of her precursor.  “Undo this button,” indeed. (The weeping was tactically belated because my realization arrived in the middle of Michael Bristol’s PhD seminar “Shakespeare and the Problem of Moral Agency” in October 2000.)

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

39 years, four months, and 15 days as I compose this response. But is my I really my I? Is anyone’s?

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

My “yogic” answer is none. One ought not to form attachments, whether they be purportedly positive or negative, period. Attachment is suffering, experience is life. But my “critic” answer is yes. Yes, yes. I have hundreds of regrets, regrets I can’t let go off, regrets that weigh me down and threaten to paralyze me unless I simply repeat them, which, of course, only compounds the aforementioned regrets, the things I ought to have done differently. But this is simply textbook sinister repetition compulsion.

Whom do you regard as a bona fide intellectual, and have you known personally anyone you regard as a bona fide intellectual?

Leonardo Da Vinci. A polymath and actual Renaissance man from the Renaissance period. Is he not the source of the qualification “Renaissance man?” Aristotle and Plato, too, are Renaissance men, albeit the term is big-time anachronistic when applied to them. Post-Freud, post the move into interiority, post the evermore specialized disciplining of all forms of epistemology that was essential to the colonial projects, it is no longer feasible/possible to do or know everything—not that it ever has been, since Babel anyway! But, still, here are some of my favorite more recent intellectual and anarchic minds, a list that of course exposes my own ethnocentrism and provincialism: Friedrich Nietzsche, James Joyce, Mohandis K Gandhi, Gertrude Stein, Jorge Luis Borges, Marcel Duchamp, Aldous Huxley, Andy Warhol, Muhammad Ali, Michel Foucault, Gita Mehta, Joan Didion, John Banville, Gayatri Spivak, Mike Davis, Judith Butler, Christopher Hitchens, David Foster Wallace, Neal Stephenson, and Wee Lian-Hee. I know one of these people personally. And he’s the closest to being a genuine renaissance man whom I’ve knowingly come across.

Do you have any impulse to wish that everything you own could somehow without overmuch trauma be made to disappear?

Institutionalized Buddhism has it that desire is suffering. The Buddha here is intentionally misinterpreted as a means of controlling the masses, which is what organized religion is about. Control, control, control. Guilt governs Catholics to the same end. Again, it is not desire that is suffering, but rather attachment that is. So, yes, of course, I do have this impulse to wish for the loss of all the commodities I’ve surrounded myself with. As Tyler Durden has it in Palahniuk’s Fight Club, “the things you own end up owning you.”

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

The sea. The sun. A particular hand to hold.

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 fear a long death through lingering disease. I’d like, at all costs, to go out with a measure of dignity, perhaps a big inhale sans regulator at 60-plus metres below the sea. But that would be too too selfish. There’d be hell to pay for the divemaster and the company employing her or him. I wonder if I’d ever have the resources successfully to accomplish what Javier Bardem’s character does in the film Mar adentro?

Have you been to India and seen lingam coming out of the ground, and if you have, do you recall if they are only in holy places or are they also in secular places?

The lingams are everywhere in Hindu locations. Every spot is sacred, whether the dashboard of a car or lorry or bus or rickshaw or the dirt or cement walkway leading to a shop. I’ve seen the same throughout India, in Siem Reap, Cambodia, in Bali and Jogyakarta, Indonesia, on Hindoo Street in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and so on, and so on. “Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an angel!” as Ginsberg has it. And, pace T S Eliot’s indispensable pacing, “Shantih…..shantih  shantih.”

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

I flirted with this semi-seriously when I was 19. I took it upon myself always to order Manhattans when people of quality, meaning my friends’ parents, offered to make me a drink from their stacked living-room bars. I wanted to be known, and even be remembered as, the guy who really liked his Manhattans. “Ah that Polley, he sure loved his Manhattans!” The problem is I never actually truly enjoyed Manhattans, no matter the variety. And then I got carried away on a 26-hour Air Malaysia flight from Ottawa, Canada, to Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, via Dubai and Kuala Lumpur in February 1999. I don’t know what prompted me to drink Vermouth exclusively. Well, I was trying to look dignified for the other lone traveler a couple seats next to me. She was returning to Australia for her second stint as a helicopter something something. And she kept stressing the fact that we need to be whimsical. Actually, she only said it once, but it resounded, for whatever reason. But all whimsy got me was a two-week hangover. At least I was dignified in the air up there.

Have you come over time to think that you know more now than you did when young, know less now than when young, know now there is so much more to know than you know there was to know when young that it is moot whether you think you knew more than now or less, or do you now know that you never knew anything at all and never will and only the bluster of youth persuaded you that you did or would?

A great word bluster is. Reading teaches us that the more we know the more we know that we don’t know. Every novel leads us to ten more, an endless revealing of an ever deeper ignorance, like a Chinese water torture that multiplies its contact points in geometric progression without ever killing the willing masochistic subject.

Are you satisfied with your intellect? With your body?

Sadly, and predictably, I’m never satisfied with me, assuming, of course, that “I” can even say that about “me” and be reasonably confident that it is I who is in fact (rhetorically) speaking.

Do you breathe correctly, as, say, you are wont to be taught in yoga environs, or do you just breathe any which old way?

I did not learn how to breathe correctly until the first two weeks of July 2010. I was in McLeod Ganj, India, undergoing an intensive four-week yoga teacher-training certification. It took me the first fortnight, a course that was 12-hours a day and six-days a week. Even on Tuesdays, guru day, the day that we did not do collective asana practice or attend a lecture and meditate and chant in order to lengthen our exhales, we were assigned five to ten questions, questions it would take about 15 hours in total satisfactorily to answer. Midway through the course I finally managed to do an entire two-hour Ashtanga class, which is at once aerobic and anaerobic, you sweat like mad and your heart screams at you as your lungs burn (as I can imagine “Sugar” Ray Leonard’s did in round 14 of his first fight with Thomas “The Motor City Cobra” Hearns in 1981. Leonard never stopped punching, he launched salvo after salvo until the referee stopped the fight) without once opening my mouth. Since then I’ve predominantly been a nose, and not a mouth, breather. But we can always breathe more deeply, can always stop the slow asphyxiation of our hearts, with mindfulness, the thoracic diaphragm contracting, the heartbeat slowing.

Was there ever enough time?

I quite dislike the expression, or the idea of, “killing time.” But perhaps “my” “I” (though ostensibly (and originally) Catholic!) is totally determined by Weber’s The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. But time, really, is relative. It can fly; it can worm. Maybe I need to reinterpret my capitalist reading of the disliked expression. “Killing time”: the time at which Buddhist monks immolated themselves in protest against (i) the persecution of monks by the South Vietnamese government and (ii) the occupation of Vietnam by US military forces (I won’t say “The Vietnamese War” without using quotation marks given that the Vietnamese tend to call said war the American War in Vietnam (no quotation marks required)). As a matter of fact, a 67-year young Vietnamese woman set fire to herself in May 2014 to protest the deployment of a Chinese oil rig in what Hanoi had so far had no reason, which I know of, to see as anything but Vietnamese waters. Speaking of monks, I wonder if the wandering nocturnal “monks” of TST and Central, HK, and Manhattan, NY, will ever immolate themselves? They are a rather aggressive holy bunch, no? “Killing time”: the recognition that we are all just killing time as soon as we reluctantly and screamingly exit the womb en route to our inevitable deaths. This makes me think of those giant countdown/doomsday clocks peppering HK before the Olympics in Beijing. Only four-months, four days, four hours, four minutes, and four seconds until extinction. “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near!” “Killing time”: the recognition, as my guru Yogi Sivadas explained, that any day, that any hour, could be your last—and the acceptance of the joy and freedom from attachment this understanding provides. I have lived. I have left nothing undone. The readiness is all.

Is there anything you’d like to ask me?

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time reflecting on the select questions I wished to address. Is this thoroughness an expression of selfishness (self-indulgence) or selflessness (generosity)? Or is there even a difference?

Tammy Ho: I was told that, yes, there’s essentially a difference between selfishness and selflessness: selfishness is doing something for oneself, whilst selflessness is doing something for others. But how can I call you selfish when you have indulged me so much with these wonderful, wonderful answers? Your self-indulgence is entirely overshadowed by your generosity, to me, and to the readers of Agora.


jspJason S Polley is Associate Professor at the Department of English Language and Literature. [Click here to read all entries by JSP.] [“Interrogative”]

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