Resurrecting a Literature of Revolution

Interview by Cara Hoffman

Derrick Jensen has produced some of the most culturally significant writing about the environment (and about the psychological environment we live in as a result of the dominant philosophy of corporations) of the past decade. His work is filled with a love and rage and hope that few of us could sustain for a week let alone a lifetime of prolific writing.

At the height of the Bush era when I was living in a falling down farm house without reliable heat or hot water, I tore through The Culture of Make Believe, Welcome to the Machine, Strangely Like War, A Language Older than Words, Listening to the Land, and Endgame. And I was entirely absorbed and fascinated by Jensen’s perspective of the world—his ability to illuminate the many different kinds of coercion and brutality that we all take for granted, and his dedication to revealing what Arno Gruen called “the betrayal of the self.” Jensen is also one of the very few men writing today who addresses rape as a part of American culture.

Recently I asked Derrick Jensen what made him take on this kind of work. And as to be expected he didn’t mince words.

“Because the world is being murdered,” he said. “And because, as Berthold Brecht wrote, Art is not a mirror to hold up to life, but a hammer to shape it. It is the responsibility of those of us who have gifts in artistic forms to use those gifts in the service of our community, and in the service of justice, and in the service of life.”

Jensen sees the literary landscape today as divided. “There is a wonderful tradition of overtly political writing,” he said, “from people like Eduardo Galeano, Susan Griffin, and so on. But for the last 50 or 80 years there is another tradition in literature that declares that literature (and especially fiction) should not be overtly political. I find this tradition immoral and boring. And it’s not even in touch with literature’s history. Have they never read Steinbeck, Dickens, Crane, Hugo?”

“A great example of the degradation of much modern literature,” he said, “would be The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which is about a guy who is narcissistic and an asshole who has a stroke and who can then only communicate by blinking. He writes a book, and frankly after the stroke he is just as narcissistic and just as much an asshole. The book was awful and boring, and was well received and called a triumph. But as I read it something kept niggling at me, until I realized what it was: this book has the same plot (although it’s nonfiction) as johnny got his gun, but johnny got his gun is one of the best anti-war novels ever written. This is what has happened to too much literature over the past fifty years. And I will not participate in that degradation. I’m going to maintain and resurrect a literature of justice and revolution.”

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