Give and Take with Norman Fischer

Contributing editor Andrew Cooper chats with Zen teacher and poet Norman Fischer.

What was the last book you read that really excited you? Martha Nussbaum’s Upheavals Of Thought. Nussbaum is a terrific thinker—thorough, exhaustively so, which I admire because I find I can barely think at all!

What was the last thing you read that really ticked you off? I can’t remember anything I read lately that ticked me off—if a book ticks me off, it means I don’t have any regard for it, so I stop reading after the first sentence or two. I read for enjoyment and edification. Some of the utterances of our government officials tick me off because they are so often a bending of the truth—but I don’t read these; I usually hear them on the radio (I don’t listen to the radio for edification and enjoyment).

What is it about a great essay? Borges once said that most things worthwhile can be said briefly. A good essay tells you something new about the world that you can tell immediately is manifestly true.

Take your pick: Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky? Pound or Eliot? Eliot got to be too boring after a while—all that Anglican conservatism. But I am a great fan of The Four Quartets. Pound is a bit dotty, always was, but you can appreciate the Cantosas the work of a true madman. Tolstoy: romantic and overblown. Way too idealistic. That leaves Dosty, who writes not with his head or his heart but through his passion, his compulsion, his gut. A truer Christian than Tolstoy. He is the best.

Name a favorite literary guilty pleasure. Why would you be guilty about literature? Writing is always worthwhile. Feel guilty if you steal someone’s money or spouse or kill someone. Turn yourself in right away.

Whom would you rather have as a student, Hamlet or Sherlock Holmes? Holmes. Hamlet would quit and then call up to talk about it. This would be repeated time after time. Holmes would see the point and pursue it.

Philip Roth or Woody Allen?  Both of them could sure use some dharma, but I am afraid there would be little hope for either. Art redeems human confusion, justifies it, and makes it worthwhile. These two guys are living examples of that. Actually, I’m not so sure it would be good for them to calm down and learn compassion and wisdom.

What are you reading now? The Collected Books of Jack Spicer. Spicer makes Pound look like the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.

Zoketsu Norman Fischer’s most recent book of poetry is Slowly But Dearly. From 1995 to 2000 he was abbot of San Francisco Zen Center.

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