Jay Griffiths

by Jonny Gordon-Farleigh, STIR magazine no.08, Winter 2015
by Frank Estrada

I interviewed Jay Griffiths about the relationship between politics and art, the "eco-pornography" of environmental collapse, and how children need more creative freedom outside of the commodified play of modern life.

Jonny Gordon-Farleigh: In the introduction to I’m with the Bears, a collection of fictional stories about climate change, climate campaigner Bill McKibben says that “science can only go so far…it is the role of artists to make us feel.” You’ve also said, “Humans need things warm to the touch, and writers need to create that temperature.” While not speaking of climate change specifically, there is an obvious coincidence here: scientific reports are often cold and abstract and need to be imagined and enlivened. Could you explain the role that you think literature has in supporting these realisations?

Jay Griffiths: I think what’s really difficult about it is that if you’re an artist, and a good artist, it seems to me that you’ll almost inevitably have a hinterland of politics in your work. I don’t know how it’s possible to be oblivious to what happens in the world, or to be without a sense of some kind of political responsibility. And at the same time, when issues are approached head on, like climate change and the like, the result is often really, really poor and ineffective art. It seems to me that both of these things need to be honoured—but actually what art can do and what art has to do is the thing which is unexpected, the thing which is passionate and the thing which is looking askance. One of my favourite lines is from Emily Dickinson when she says, “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” That’s where you get virtue and the tension of the tangent.

JGF: Dougald Hine recently wrote that the attempts of many British novelists to confront climate change over the last decade, have been “generally disappointing.” He puts this down to traditional literary approaches and their incapacity to ‘tackle’ climate change as a theme in the arts. How does creating new myths and rescuing old ones, as Dark Mountain sets out to do, enable us to reframe and reconnect with the world?

JG: I don’t think I can answer for anyone else. I think it’s one of those things where if you let the information about climate change and issues like that dwell with you, they will come out in your work. But how I might do something is very different to how somebody else will. So it’s quite a hard question to answer. In a sense, in all the language of re-finding, re-discovery, re-connection, I think I stick with the idea that there is something absolutely timeless and eternal in the things that still fascinate people. People are still curious about human emotions, about the human mind, about conflict, about hope, about glory—what is as intoxicating a thousand years ago still is intoxicating now. 

JGF: Literature’s role in political change is often and always contested: Are worst-case scenarios useful in mobilising change or do they paralyse? Or should we present ‘positive’ and possible alternatives to what you call the “eco-pornography’ of environmental apocalypse? As an author concerned with these issues, what approach do you find useful?

JG: I think if anything, it’s grief. A grief for this precious world that we live in. I wouldn’t say something like ‘all civilisations will fall,’ but they will be threatened and significantly weakened. And also it will hit the poorest nations hardest and the poorest people in any nation harder. But it is less a matter of guilt than of grief, because that involves an appreciation of the preciousness of what there is.

JGF: In Kith—an exploration and defence of childhood—you write about the detachment of our lives from nature and the wild and the immiseration it causes. We need to not only rewild the land, but “rewild ourselves” as George Monbiot has argued, and “decolonise our minds” as we decolonise the land as Alastair McIntosh suggests. But how does this ongoing dialectic between ourselves and nature happen?

JG: I really dislike that idea of ‘we humans are not part of nature,’ a view which suggests either we only ever screw it up or that we’ve somehow moved beyond nature into a kind of cultural artifice. I don’t really like either of those. I know the evidence does point to the fact that what humanity has done since the beginning has been very destructive towards the natural world. But we’re also the knowers of the world, the perceivers of the world, the appreciators of the world. It would be a species solipsism to say we’re the only ones who find joy and appreciation in the world. But certainly one of humanity’s greatest skills is to sing the world. And that is less to do with guilt and more to do with positive emotions.

JGF: In your RSA talk on Kith you criticise the “commodified play” of childhood that makes children into the “impoverished beggars of the entertainment industry.” How does this relate to the relentless enclosure of creativity and the continuing separation of art from everyday life?

JG: Children are swamped with pre-fabricated culture: take for example The Wheels on the Bus song. Every time there is a pre-commodified piece of art, it’s teaching a child that they can’t make up a song themselves; that they have to press a button and hear someone sing it. It’s very weakening and it doesn’t give them a sense of their strength. 

There are various people who have written very carefully about the philosophy of children and their sense of willingness to look at the big questions. That’s the sort of thing which I also think is really precious. Children have an enormous world within themselves and they deserve respect for that rather than being treated as ignorant. Obviously children are ignorant of knowledge and facts, but the sort of questions that raise their curiosity are very beautiful and also very deep. 

A woman said to me once that her grandson addressed his first-ever question to her when he was three, and he said, “Granny is my soul in my head or in my heart?” That is a massive question. There’s a richness in questions coming from children, more than anything else.

JGF: You also mention that you can’t teach these concepts to children, they come from their own instincts and experience of the world.

JG: Yes, this is the beauty of it. You have to teach a child racism, but you don’t have to teach a child the meaning of the phrase ‘It’s not fair.’ They understand fairness and they don’t understand racism. That gives me so much hope. Of course children also want to snatch and say ‘It’s mine.’ The power that children feel when they first learn to say ‘It’s mine’ is also part of the picture. In a sense you could call it a very, very essential politics—and a beautiful politics—which seems to be there right from the start.

JGF: In your travels to West Papua to meet those resisting the illegal Indonesian occupation, you write about the potency of music and song in their communities. This reminds me of a musician who grew up on a ‘native reservation’ in the United States and, since no bands would tour there, everyone was a musician. How can we move from this alienation from music—from music as passive entertainment—to expressive collaboration?

JG: I suppose one of the things to ask is what is the context where these sorts of things happen. Some of it is the kind of Dark Mountain stuff—being outside around the fire pit where you don’t have the sense that it’s just all too easy to plug something in and listen to it. It’s also the matter of participation, that what’s beautiful about those kinds of self-created music is that it’s not a spectator sport, and even if people can’t play something people can do some kind of percussion or some kind of humming—even if it’s horribly out of tune! And also the point is not the product but the process. There’s the sense of group harmony, metaphoric if not literal. And the point is not to be judged because actually in a sense the most creative thing is what is happening on the inside of oneself.

Jay Griffiths is the author of Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape (Hamish Hamilton) and A Love Letter from a Stray Moon (Little Toller Books).

What art can do and what art has to do is the thing which is unexpected, the thing which is passionate and the thing which is looking askance.

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Published in STIR magazine no.08, Winter 2015