‘Anything Can Happen’
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GWEN IFILL: Arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown has our conversation with NewsHour regular Roger Rosenblatt about
JEFFREY BROWN: Roger Rosenblatt is well known to NewsHour viewers for his essays on a wide range of subjects. He’s also the author of ten books on a wide range of subjects. The most recent is “Anything Can Happen: Notes on my Inadequate Life and Yours.” Roger Rosenblatt joins us now. Welcome, Roger.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Thank you.
JEFFREY BROWN: This book is a collection of short essays, thoughts, ideas– some funny, some very serious. What were you after?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: I was after poetry. When I was a student, that’s what I wanted to be, and either for lack of talent or lack of stamina or lack of will, or maybe a combination of all the three, I didn’t pursue it. But it was always in my mind as the ideal form, and then, for a variety of reasons, last summer I started to think in a different way, think about subjects in a different way, and I would start to write to find out what I thought, to find out what I felt– in other words, chase the rabbit, as Alice does, down whatever hole the rabbit chose to go in. And then sometimes I would discover at the end of the piece what I was thinking and what I was feeling, and so they looked quite different from the things I had been doing before.
JEFFREY BROWN: So I was curious about the short form. What is it that you like about that? Is it the poetic, condensing ideas?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Absolutely, just that, and the fact that you feel a kind of breath when you write, and it’s going to go and it’s going to go. And then you just feel that you’ve come to the end of your speech or your monologue or your poem, and it’s there. Each one ended exactly where I felt it ought to end.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the book is a little hard to classify. When I went to my local chain bookstore and I asked at the information counter, I was directed to the humor section.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Right.
JEFFREY BROWN: And then when I read it, I thought, “well, they had that about half right.”
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Right, exactly. Well, there is no dark and humorous section, I guess. But the publisher, as you can see from the cover, wanted to play to the humor, and my publisher, Harcourt, has been wonderful with me, and I’m very happy to have it happen, but I know that it’s potentially misleading at least in half the pieces. And the pieces, too, tried to be at least funny and serious, sometimes within the same piece.
JEFFREY BROWN: Why don’t you read one for us?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: With pleasure. This will give you an idea of a piece that started in one way, and I had no idea where I was going. I thought it would be interesting to write instructions about living in the world, so this piece, “How to Live in the World.” “These instructions come in French and Japanese as well, and in other languages, but don’t let that throw you. Don’t let anything about the enterprise throw you. You can do it. Anyone can do it. Because one doesn’t really live in the world when it comes down to it, and it always comes down to it. Rather, one waits for the world to live in you, as a composer waits for rapture and then becomes the life he seeks. But if that sounds a bit abstract to you, a little hoity- toity, read that part of ‘Specimen Days’ in which nurse Walt Whitman is attending the union fallen and near dead in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C., which doubled as a hospital during the Civil War, where, he notes with barely a critical remark, that the same species capable of coming up with the most dazzling inventions made of wood and brass was just as capable of blowing off one another’s limbs. The hall was filled with bright machines, side by side with men on cots, massaging their new stumps. It is the way you feel when listening to national politicians speak of our great power and of our powerful greatness, while in your heart you recall that still an airless afternoon in Africa when you held an 11-year-old in your arms shortly after he died of starvation, light as a feather. His last breath went out of him like a drop from a vial. So, how to live in the world? Wait until the end of the day when the family of swans has sequestered itself under the drawbridge near the “no wake” sign, and the light is stalled above the open mouth of the creek so that the sun burns like a coal in ash, and the wind is a rumor on your face, your limbs, and you are filled with wonder and remorse. Then go treat the wounded.”
JEFFREY BROWN: When I first saw the title “Anything Can Happen,” I thought of the fatalistic view of the world: “Anything bad can happen, and will.”
ROGER ROSENBLATT: I think that’s right. I thought of it actually when I saw the phrase as the kind of thing that a comedian could use, “anything can happen,” as if he were sort of selling… pitching a sitcom. In the darkest way, which is the way John Guare uses it in the play “Lydie Breeze,” by a woman, Lydie Breeze, who almost kills her two children, and explains to the person to whom she is talking, “anything can happen.” One can do anything. People are capable of anything. So the light and the dark in this book.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, I thought it might interest our viewers to know how this kind of writing differs from what you do regularly for the “NewsHour,” where you’re tied more to the news.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Once you are tied to the news– and believe me, the tie is so loose and so encouraging on the “NewsHour” that it hardly feels like a confinement– but still, you are aware of your responsibility in the context of the news, and therefore to explain something. These pieces, as you know, don’t really explain anything. They just follow a thought, you know. I get a notion, and I follow the notion.
JEFFREY BROWN: Is that how they start? They just… a notion comes into your head?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Right. They start usually with an image. I wrote a piece in here you may remember called “My Bear,” which is just a dream of somebody living with a bear who represents certain frightful things in his life, and then I just followed the thought of where the bear would go and what the bear would mean. It’s a polar bear, and I make the joke of it being a bipolar bear, and then I just keep moving until I discover what the bear means. And most of the pieces are that way.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the subtitle is “Notes on my Inadequate Life and Yours.” What is inadequate about our lives?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Nearly everything, I would guess, at least in our own presentation of our lives to ourselves. We’re always trying to do something better, smarter, wiser, kinder, more fulfilling, more ambitious and so forth. And so, I just played with the idea of inadequacy as something that is wonderful and, as you put it, full of remorse, full of regret.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, most of us probably see our lives as fairly proscribed– work, home life. And you’re saying anything can happen.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Anything can happen.
JEFFREY BROWN: Can anything happen?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Yes, and we know it. And we know it. I mean, here is outside the context of this particular book, but in the news, how many times have you or I or anyone associated with the news just been shocked after ten, 20, 30 years of seeing the repetitive aspects of the news, and suddenly somebody does something so horrific or so marvelous that you think “Anything Can Happen.”
JEFFREY BROWN: The book is called “Anything Can Happen,” by Roger Rosenblatt. Roger, thanks for joining us.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Pleasure.