Unsettling Vision

The American Prophet of Delusion: Robert Stone’s Last Major Interview

In one of the last interviews he granted, the late novelist talked about everything from fiction to the varying definitions of faith.


Until he died in his sleep on Saturday, at the age of 77, Robert Stone was my favorite living American author. He wrote dark comedies of American manners that had some of the brightness of Evelyn Waugh layered over with heavy Jimi Hendrix-style emotional distortion and feedback, set among the acid casualties and burnt-out cases who clambered from the shipwreck of the ’60s. Stone was the only one among his literary peers who could feel in an emotional register that allowed him to follow how the divine hopes of transfiguration in which the American Dream showed itself in all its naked beauty had ended in such bleakness and confusion. There was something essentially religious at the heart of his vision, which allowed him to face the dreadful real-world consequences of the human desire for transcendence and not look away.

There was a time, a little more than a decade ago when I lost a thread that I had been following up until that point, and I was left with nothing. So I sat in a house by the ocean in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts and read all the novels that Robert Stone had then written—Hall of Mirrors, Dog Soldiers, A Flag for Sunrise, Children of Light, and Damascus Gate. They were bedtime stories I could trust—the kind that ended badly.

I remember one day that I spent in a bathtub looking out at the ocean and re-reading the end of Outerbridge Reach. An editor called and asked if I was doing anything for his magazine. He was a person I didn’t much like. “I don’t think you’re okay,” he said a little more than halfway through our conversation. “I can hear it in your voice; there’s something wrong with you.” He didn’t say it very nicely, so I told him that what he said wasn’t very polite. I went upstairs, and continued reading Outerbridge Reach, and suddenly I realized that Stone was describing the view I could see out my window. Then he was describing the house next door. I said to myself, “If I completely lost my mind, I would be reading the end of a Robert Stone novel, and he would be describing exactly the thing I was looking at, and in addition to one of his character’s lives being over, my life would also be over.”

I woke up the next morning at sunrise, and I went back to the book, and the same words were still there on the page, and then I went on and lived the rest of my life.

After we met, I came to know some of Stone’s friends, and he and I eventually started exchanging some e-mails. The last line he wrote in that small correspondence was, “I hope for the best and live in hope.” What he was describing, I think, was the place he made inside himself to deal with terrible sadness and social injustice, and his own aggression and guilt and internal disarray—a place from which he could see and feel without minimizing the actual pain of his own life or the lives of others. That place was his gift to his readers. As one of those who took shelter in his books, I am grateful to him, and am sad beyond words that I will never speak with him again.


[This interview originally ran in The Daily Beast on 11/15/2013.]


David Samuels: So, I’ve never known if you were describing the stretch of coastline where I was living then, or not.

Robert Stone: There are things like that about that book that people have told me before, not that the book is other than a novel. It has no properties beyond those of a novel. So, that coastline could be a lot of places, a combination of places that I saw or imagined. But, yes.

DS: I was thinking on the subway ride up here about how I’d describe your work to someone in Central America, or the Balkans, or Iraq, and I was thinking I’d say, ‘he writes bedtime stories for Americans.’ Do you think that’s true?

RS: I think it probably depends on what a person thinks of as a bedtime story. Is it an anodyne? Is it a comfort? Or is it something else altogether? I don’t know. I think I like mine sad.

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DS: I find consolation in your work precisely because you’re willing to say that “this story has exactly the unhappy ending that you feel it’s going to have”—which is the ending that we try to deny that it will have.

RS: The positive thing, the element of service in writing—and I really do believe in writing as service—is insight. And insight pulls you through. Insight is what we live by. This is what we survive by. What I try to put in what I write is the insight that enables survival. That’s how I justify what I do.

DS: There’s a sickening moment in nearly everything that you write where a character has spun themselves up into a state of belief in something big and transcendent, and in their capacities to embrace that calling. And then there’s the next moment, where you hear something like a crack of a tree branch that can’t bear the weight. And in that moment, you go ‘oh, no.’

And even though I know your tricks, every time I come to them I’m surprised and I’m horrified and then also relieved. Are you writing towards those moments of reckoning, or do they happen on the page for you?

RS: They really happen on the page. There really isn’t a lot of premeditation about those moments. It happens for me. And since it happens for me, it happens for the characters.

DS: Do you believe at some moment as you’re writing that maybe the journalist in Dog Soldiers is going to get that heroin back to the States or that the revolution in the mythical Central American state of Tecan is going to succeed, and usher in a more perfect society? Are those live possibilities for you as you write?

RS: Live possibilities? Well, no.

But the characters do believe, although their faith in their ability to do it is rather faint. It’s there, they’re determined, it’s what they have to do.

DS: There’s an encounter that Americans have again and again with other people in other places, where they come in with a burst of belief in some grand project. Meanwhile, the natives are sitting there and looking at them like this and wondering, ‘what kind of con is this? Are these people out of their minds? Or maybe they’re supermen.” And then there’s a moment where the Americans are standing there, in whatever strange place they are planning to make over in their own image, and everything starts to vibrate and then they realize that something in the edifice they’ve built in their mind’s eye isn’t solid, and then you hear the crack. And then something awful happens. Eventually, the people living there have to go and sweep up the mess and get on with their lives, which is just another one of the messes that foreigners have made in their yard.

RS: Which is their history.

DS: Is our history based on some kind of belief or ignorance that condemns us to repeat that cycle again and again, in new places?

RS: I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that question. It often seems that way.

In a way, you have to kind of compare revolutions. The French seem to go on insisting that they’re doing what their revolution commands them to do, absolutely regardless of what they do—though it seems to have no connection to what they actually do. When I used to go to Eastern Europe a lot, nobody could tell the truth to each other. At 5 o’clock, they might begin telling the truth, but up until 5 o’clock—between the hours of 9 and 5—no one could speak a word of truth. And this is a very unstable edifice on which to build even a limited verbal machine.

So how it works in America, whether it’s just like that, or whether there is another dimension—an extraordinary dimension—I don’t know. I’m beginning to suspect that it’s just something we do. We pass through countries selling some kind of resolution, and some kind of anodyne, and it won’t work. And they know it won’t work. So we begin to hate them more and more because they know it won’t work, until we finally turn them into enemies.

we’ve had a few successes, though. I think we did rather well by the Japanese at the end of that war, considering what an awful war it was. Considering how fiendish the elements of the Second World War could be, maybe we didn’t do so badly.

But no attempts to reform history succeed, I don’t think. No attempts to adjust history will succeed in the end.

DS: There is the side of belief that leads people to imagine that they can transcend history or fate or whatever you might call it. And then there’s the side of belief that enables people to go on feeling and thinking despite the their foreknowledge of the ways that their own actions will inevitably go awry. You might call that grounded faith, and the other kind ungrounded faith. And there’s a knife’s edge that separates the two.

RS: Well, what faith isn’t is the acceptance of a body of doctrine, the conviction that certain circumstances are objectively true about reality. I think what can we call it—not salvific faith, but faith, the kind of faith by which can be sustained—is the conviction that things, although absolutely not alright in any way, are bearable in the end. Or, are at least bearable. And that this can be seen or can be imagined as a kind of agreement between things and us. I don’t know if that makes any sense.

DS: I thought you were going to say ‘an agreement between people.’ But you said ‘between things and us.’ Explain that.

RS: Well, it isn’t not true that it’s an understanding between people. That is true. But I think there’s some kind of mystery there.

DS: Your work has a religious quality to it that marks it as very different from a host of good work by your contemporaries. Do feel that the world, the physical world, may have some kind of inherent ineffable something to it, which is apart from us and speaks—

RS: May

DS: Yeah, I said May.

RS: You did, I noticed. May. It’s a mystery. It’s a mystery that may be all illusion, because plenty of mysteries can be reduced to illusion—but not necessarily all.

DS: Do you still feel deeply connected to your Catholic schooling and upbringing?

RS: Well, not to the dogma.

DS: Right, but that’s just a way of saying ‘I am not an idiot.’

RS: Well, ok. ‘Yes, but I’m not an idiot.’

DS: I can remember the moment when I was eleven years old where the religious edifice cracked for me. And the rest of the world started coming in through those cracks, and I realized that the joining of the structure wasn’t sound and that there was something big outside of it. Did you have a moment like that?

RS: My moment was more that I mistook it. I really rejoiced in the absurdity of the story, of the mythology, the mythological structure in its absurdity.

DS: You were a young Voltaire.

RS: I got thrown out of school for being a young Voltaire. I was responsible for going around and telling people they were wasting their time, that doing things like going to church was a complete waste of time, that it was an utter folly, and yet, there was something more that I didn’t pay attention to. I was just too delighted with having overcome to my own satisfaction all elements of religious mythology and belief. I was so satisfied in having overcome them that I didn’t pay any attention to what remained to me, and what insists on remaining, and would always remain, and would always be part of me. I didn’t know that would happen. I thought it would be a complete liberation.

DS: Was there a time in your life where you suddenly realized, ‘oh God, this awful thing is still chained to my leg,’ or ‘it’s still in my bones’?

RS: A time when I was almost driven to admit it. But during those times I would always, I think, try to deny it. If I put it to myself or someone put it to me, ‘are you still wearing those chains,’ I would say, ‘absolutely not.’

DS: ‘I am a free man!’

RS: I would insist that my chains were imaginary.

DS: You love those women, who serve the church, at the bottom, in Latin America, or in New Haven, as in your latest novel, because they want to do good in a fallen world.

RS: I do love them.

DS: Were they figures in your childhood, in your adult life?

RS: Well, in both, to some extent. They are, in a way, a want that I respond to. If I were looking for the church of the numinous, I would go down, because that’s where that’s where it is at. It’s not overhead, and it’s not in a beautiful valley. It’s way, way down. And if I was ever going to find it, if I was ever going to be united with anything that could be called that, it would be a result of a trip down and inside, because that’s where those sparks are.

DS: I have a similar feeling that there’s something that I can feel but can’t touch, and I identify that as a freak of my unstable brain chemistry. But by definition, I can’t really know that either. But my girlfriend is a determined rationalist, so this woozy part of my thinking makes her think I’m crazy. She’s just like, ‘you smoked too much dope back in the day.’ But I see the world religions as these vast narrative and emotional and instructional engines that have powered the psyches and social arrangements of hundreds and hundreds of millions of people. Catholicism, from the outside, carries a deep knowledge of human suffering and pain. Is that what you get from it?

RS: I have a character in this most recent book say that people want their suffering to mean something. And I mean a great deal by that. I mean that people really, really do want it to mean something. The whole mythological structure is in a way salvific—it falls apart in a way on the idea of a human sacrifice, which becomes unacceptable. But in the question of pain meaning something, of pain having some kind of meaning, being some kind of remittance, having some kind of salvific nature, there is something in there that persists. It isn’t a sacrilization of pain, but something about suffering that if it’s understood, can possibly balance the world, remedy the imbalance of the world.

DS: What’s so fascinating about humans, and the way that they escape from every materialist scheme, is that they live in their heads, looking for salvation and meaning. And then they make these leaps with these ladders, which are built out of narratives, and they try to scale the heavens, and then they fall off. But then something of that effort sticks to our collective understanding of reality. That’s the definition of the supposed benefit of psychoanalysis, right—those little bits of dew that are caught on the spider’s web. It’s not anything big. But it’s all you’ve got. And there is an absolute, binary difference between that tiny drop of knowledge or insight, and nothing.

Your respect for those drops of dew, and how much suffering it takes it gather them, is part of the extraordinary gentleness towards people that I find in your work, even when you’re making these awful things happen to them. I remember reading Damascus Gate during the second Intifada in Jerusalem, where you’d see human body parts on the street and people screaming with shrapnel in them. They were manufacturing suicide bombers in houses in the West Bank, where they were having them visualize their ascent into heaven by exploding themselves, which was like the most evil kind of ashram you can imagine. And then you have your modern Shabbatai Tzvi and his messianic jazz kabala in Jerusalem. I would read that book and think, ‘what a gentle telling of this city and its madness this is.’

There is a way in which you look for inner truths in the margins of these bigger manly adventure stories. And half the time the jacket copy of your books says something like ‘an explosive thriller from the biggest conflict of our times.’ And I’m always like, ‘well, I know that’s a lie because he doesn’t write those kinds of stories at all.’ It feels like you delight in the atmospherics, but you want to stay away from the violence.

RS: Well, I’m afraid of it. I mean, I won’t say that I’m not afraid of it. No, it certainly reflects fear and repellence. But it’s an examination of people’s relationship to violence. So it isn’t exactly that I like it, but that I feel like I have to deal with it.

DS: You have a complex relationship with Freudian explanation. If I had to sum up that complex relationship in a few words, I’d say you don’t like it.

RS: No, I don’t. I think it’s a pseudo-science. Every once in a while, I go by one of the side streets here there’s a little plaque that says something like the ‘Society for the Eternal Sustenance of the Doctrines of Sigmund Freud,’ may they live forever. It’s really impassioned, a little plaque with such passion on it. They’re really annoyed at the fall of Freudian psychology, and they’re determined to somehow continue it.

DS: What motivates people in your fiction is the desire to find meaning in the inevitable portion of suffering that they’ve been granted?

RS: Maybe it would be going too far to say that. But it’s true, though, that one of the things that motivates them is that. And a hope that somehow, some kind of revelation, however partial, will follow, and they will understand it, in part.

DS: You have an obvious interest in myth, and you like bringing it down to human scale. In your new book, which is still settling in my head, I felt, this is a story about the sacrifice of a child. The story in the bible about the sacrifice of a child is when Abraham goes to sacrifice his son, which is one of those terrible biblical moments that I always come back to again and again without knowing exactly how I am supposed to feel about it. This crazed person actually goes to do this crazy thing. And then the ram is caught by its horns in the bush and is sacrificed instead. You can turn it over 17 times in your head and not really get a clear bead on what all that craziness means. So I was wondering if that was at all what was in your head.

RS: Oh it was, absolutely. Absolutely. The sort of priest who was either there or not there, who calls himself the mourner, and the idea of people wanting their suffering to mean something.

DS: The black-haired girl, born of a working class family in New York, has been offered up to the gods of Yale, and is then sacrificed on that altar. The things that happen to her are par for the course in elite American higher education. And then you have her father, the ex-NYPD cop, who has made this offering and is in pain, even though this was the sacrifice that motivated his entire life.

RS: He’d been making the sacrifice his whole life, and then he actually got called on it. This is in a way a religious tragedy, and so in large part this is his story.

DS: There are ordinary people all around the country who are offering up their children for a shot at that, whether its Yale or sending your kid to the Marines, with the consequence being that they will come home for Thanksgiving and look at your house and think ‘this place is a fucking mess and you dumb civilians live like pigs.’ The inevitable consequence being that they will see you as a fool. It’s a form of human sacrifice for a parent to do that.

RS: It has to be offered up. They have to pay the price, and the kid has to pay the price, and everybody has to suffer.

DS: Was that a perception that came out of your teaching these past few years at Yale and elsewhere?

RS: I think so. Ten years or so looking at those kids, I think it came out of that. It was a very interesting period. I had some remarkable students at Yale.

DS: What did you make of the flower of today’s youth, as compared with the flower of Sixties youth?

RS: Oh, very different. I wasn’t a student in the 60s. In the late 50s, I was in the navy. But as for the students of the early 21st century, one of the surprising things about them was what they didn’t know. They simply didn’t know much about what had happened in the world before their own existence. History, a lot of literature, was just not open to them

DS: How do they understand America?

RS: I think they took it absolutely for granted in some ways, and let’s say that their attitudes were extremely simplistic. They saw it as behaving dreadfully or behaving with transcendent virtue. And they didn’t seem to be able to figure out that there were these many problems, that there were these fine gradations. I was surprised by their inability to reason closely as to motive.

DS: Do you tend to spend real time in the places you write about, whether it’s Haiti or—

RS: Yeah, yeah I’ve been to Haiti a number of times and to the Middle East. I see myself as a writer of novels. But between fiction and nonfiction there’s no line, really.

DS: The world that supported literary nonfiction has been very badly damaged. First the newspapers collapsed and now the magazines are collapsing, and most of them are just printing junk on their way to the scrap-heap, which is a shame. I loved the collision of the writer’s sensibility with a new landscape in which you’d have to find characters and narrative fast, and someone was holding a stopwatch.

RS: It seemed to be thriving for a little while, with Dexter Filkins, and Jon Lee Anderson, and George Packer, in that one moment, when they were all writing from Iraq.

DS: I think that moment was the last gasp of the old culture, because 9/11 was a shock. So even if you had no money left to pay the copy-editors, because of all the dumb decisions that were made in the 1990s, you still had to put 3 or 4 people in the field to see what was really going on. The moment where the dinosaurs really started to go extinct was the 2008-2009 crash. Because by that point, the advertising market had died, and the web culture had truly taken over and fully established this meme that content is free. Now there’s a novel to be written about the stringers, who are getting paid internet rates of 300 bucks a pop to go to Syria to report on a war that no one cares about and be put in a bag by some crazed jihadi.

RS: Yeah, well, they gotta go on, so they will keep getting kids to go over and risk being put in bags. But that story ends badly.

DS: If you look at the people who are seen as literary novelists, these are people who by definition do not get on an airplane or sit in a village in Haiti.

RS: They sit in a faculty room, or in a cottage on Cape Cod.

DS: Say you have 30 or 40 really good story-tellers that a society produces at any given moment. Society needs those people to tell stories that mean something. That’s their job, right?

RS: Because it requires stories. Because it vitally requires stories.

DS: What happens when you put those people in rooms by themselves? That seems like a dangerous thing to do to storytellers, no?

RS: It’s a devolution. It’s putting them back in the caves and not letting them out to where the woolly mammoths are. They have to invent the woolly mammoth in their own heads. And you can’t do that. What you end up with is kind of a little bit like the Soviets, who had a totally fictional world where you know that nothing anybody says to anybody is particularly true about anything. You fail.

Whatever it is you’re trying to do, whatever it your concept of society is, it will not be achieved. You will fail. You will fail as an individual, and your society will fail as a society. This will become apparent to others who are not fond of you, and they will replace you.

DS: There is a feeling that the task of the novel, to use a weird cardboard phrase from a different decade, is not to represent social reality, it’s to talk to other books in increasingly abstruse ways.

RS: It certainly can be said, it could have been said of David Foster Wallace, certainly I think.

DS: Yeah, I mean, I liked him. I thought he had a very specific gift that was original and lots of people loved to copy the way those sentences moved. The work of his that I liked best were always those random Harper’s assignments that he got where someone said ‘David why don’t you go to a fair or get on a cruise ship’ because he was actually forced into some relation to a reality that was not a meta-reality in his head but was actually on a cruise ship. And then you saw this ferocious anxious thing inside of him, with all these tentacles kind of reaching out and pawing and touching everything. He had a polarity in his work where, on one side the sentences were these frantic, ecstatic run-on things but with very precise carpentry. And on the other hand he was obviously—and you felt it in the work—incredibly isolated and anxious. And that was all very real, and it ended with him dying, which is the ultimate mark of authenticity in that line of work.

RS: That, alas, that’s a hard statement, but it’s true all right. I published one of his first things he ever published in Best Short Stories, I can’t remember of what year. But this is just something about books addressing other books. Who do you like? That’s always a very difficult question. I’m just wondering.

DS: It’s a weird moment right now, you know. David Foster Wallace felt like an older peer that I could learn from and I respected that the thing he was doing felt honest. He was the last person that I felt got any real traction, not just because David was very talented but also because he made his push at what feels like the last moment before the internet blew the rest of culture away, and imposed its own limited attention span. And at the same time as it did that, it destroyed an ecosystem that once supported a different kind of endeavor.

When I look for good storytelling now that has social breadth and emotional depth, I find it on TV, which makes me sad, because my imagination lives on the page, and I hate actors. I look at them and feel annoyed.

RS: What you’re saying is very interesting, because I can really share it. Yes, I hate looking at actors, and I hate seeing actors in the role and acting out these long shadowed figures who should really be in a book, and cannot possibly be rendered by actors who look like actors, because all actors look the same. I definitely share that with you.

That these serials, these shows, are really providing something that books are somehow failing to provide because they can’t, because I don’t know why, because it’s not their purpose—I agree. We have in a way destroyed the environment that we require. That’s true.

DS: I also wanted to talk to you about your mother.

RS: As I get older, I realize what a mysterious figure my mother was. I don’t know a lot about my mother or about her life. All I know that I really believe about what she told me about her life was that her father was the captain of a tugboat in New York. That’s true.

Otherwise, she had a job as a schoolteacher. She was not, as far as I knew, married. She had a boyfriend who was a Trotskyist, and as a result, the party faction of the teacher’s union, which was controlled by the communist party, which hated the Trotskyists, wanted him thrown out. And because she was his girlfriend, they wanted her thrown out too.

When they did fire her, which they finally did—the state fired her, really for being crazy, that was the official reason—I don’t know what she did with herself during the day. She had a job hand addressing envelopes, because she had a nice hand, an attractive handwriting. That was the easy part of the job.

The hard part was inserting paper into the envelopes, which cut her hands to pieces and bloodied them. She was educated in a kind of erratic almost autodidact way, although I think she did go to college somewhere—Hunter, I think she said sometimes.

I think there was a bipolar rating for what she was. Bipolar 1 or 2 or 3 or 4, but she was certainly borderline, and beyond borderline. Today, it’s called manic depression.

That’s what I know about my own mother, which is amazingly little.

DS: When did you lose sustained contact with her?

RS: We were living in these cheaper hotels over on the West Side. I was 16 years old, and we were living in the same room. So at 17 I joined the Navy, just to sort of put an end to this strange life. I was not getting along in school anyway. I was being Voltaire. And so I joined the navy, and really, that was when our relationship ended, except that we would borrow money from each other from time to time. I was mostly trying to lose her. And she had nobody, really nobody else.

DS: Was she trying to hold on to you?

RS: Yeah, in a certain way. And I was busy hanging out. I started at NYU downtown, and I was hanging out in Washington Square, hanging out in the Village, in the late 50s. I moved in with the woman I married, there was a place on East 4th Street, east of 1st Avenue. The real fun part of the 60s for me was the really early part. And then I got the scholarship to Stanford, and that changed everything because we went west and everything was completely different. It was a different planet.

DS: There’s a darkness in your depiction of California in the Sixties.

RS: Well, it was a garden, but it was a garden with snakes in it. I look on it with great fondness. There was something askew. There was a feeling of something for free. It couldn’t have possibly have been for free. There had to be a payoff somewhere.

And it was also ridiculous that those of us were at Stanford in the writing workshops at Stanford, we thought that the entire technological revolution was all about us. We thought that it was something that we were doing. I mean we thought that we were causing all this change—

DS: With your minds.

RS: With our minds! Yeah, I mean we really thought something close to that. It was total goofiness.

DS: How close there did you get to that Northern California drug culture?

RS: Real close.

DS: Yeah, that’s what I always felt in your work.

RS: Yeah. My wife was the key-punch operator for the Bank of America. She learned to key-punch, which was the prototype of computers. And she was rewarded for her key punching skills by an outfit called the Society for Internal Freedom with an acid trip, in exchange for doing their key punches. And so she was one of the earliest trippers of all time. That must have been 1961, 62.

DS: Having spent a decade in and out of that world, one of the things I’ve always appreciated in your work I was the feeling that you have been in those apartments, and know exactly how a dealer’s mind can flip on you. There was one story that you wrote in your first collection that I loved so much, because it was so goofy and yet it sums up the two sides of the counterculture so well. I’m talking about the moment where a woman goes to the aquarium and has an interaction with the dolphin, which turns out to be this fascist aquatic figure, a Hitler dolphin.

RS: I mean, that was the point. I really enjoyed writing that story. It was about the time that all my friends were being Maoists. And I kind of had had enough of the cultural revolution.

DS: The, when you look back at that moment, do you see it as another goofy American experiment, or do you see that as a moment when Americans lost a narrative thread that they had been following for some number of decades.

RS: Well it’s both. It’s both, because the goofy experience is never far away from the thread. And the thread is never far away from the goofy experience. So this is the double burden. You know, the goofy experience and the thread.

DS: “The goofy experience and the thread.” It’s like “The wound and the bow.”

RS: My encapsulation of American history: The goofy experience and the thread.

DS: I feel like when the kids today imagine backwards in time, history starts with the Sixties now. If you’re on the left, the 60s were good, and if you’re on the right, the 60s were bad, but either way, the 60s were the birth moment of this present consciousness. The techie people can connect to it in one way and the hardcore right-wingers can connect to it in a different way. And everything behind that is too distant, they can’t push through that wall and connect.

RS: It’s true. History becomes unreachable at a certain point, and a special period of history become unavailable to other special periods of history. I think that there are periods of history that are compatible; they have insight into each other. There are also those that fail to understand each other completely.

DS: Now that we talked about your mother and acid and the Sixties, I want to close with one of my favorite Melville quotes. It’s from one of his poems, “The Conflict of Convictions”: “I know a wind in purpose strong, it spins against the way it drives.”

RS: It spins against the way it drives. Oh, that’s history alright.

DS: I always thought it was about America, or writing good sentences. I was wondering if Melville was someone you found much in.

RS: Oh yeah. I mean certainly I do, the long narrative poem that I haven’t read in a long time about the pilgrims in the Middle East, I remember well. But Moby-Dick is the explanation of America. It’s not just a novel. It is a book of prophecy. It is the book. It is the book of America.

These American men, who are trying to destroy what is pure, or otherwise, if you prefer, trying to rid the world of what is evil, in order to industrialize this rising country, in order to rid the planet of beautiful creatures by industrializing the world, it’s prophecy. It’s unbelievable that whole Starbuck conversation. You know, ‘Talk not to me of blasphemy, man. I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.’ He is the American Shakespeare. I agree absolutely.