Interview with John Harris

Q: I have to ask first of all about the title of your novel. “El Moreno” is Spanish, but… “Vendetta di Dio” is Italian. Why not write, “Venganza de Dios” and keep it all in the same language family?How do you approach cover design?
A: I thought about that, probably more than I care to admit. But I always came back to this: the Italian phrase is lifted directed from Dante and points back to him, and I wanted to keep the allusion to the Inferno. [The book in fact features the three relevant lines of Dante and Harris’s translation of them right after the title page.] Dante actually does similar things all the time in order to show that his Hell embraces all time and all space. If he hadn’t stuck in Genghis Khan or Ulysses and Diomedes, he might have seemed to be creating his underworld only as a place where his enemies in Florence would fry forever. It was important, I decided, to preserve that element of universality. Hell is the ultimately inclusive, multicultural, rainbow-coalition society. People are there from all over the place.
Q: So you really think there’s a Hell, then? Obviously, I guess you do.
A: Well, obviously, I don’t think you go west to Tucson and then turn south. It’s not a place on the map, any more than it’s a stratum between Earth’s core and her mantle.
Q: It’s a state of mind—is that what you mean?
A: Not exactly. I don’t really know how to express it. How would I, if Hell were real? If there is metaphysical torment for wicked souls, then it would be unimaginable and inexpressible to such as we are right now. Because it’s metaphysical. And the torment would not be bodily, of course. My own theory is something like this. I think what evil people get for all eternity is themselves. They’re curled up in a little ball of ego and set to spin on the edge of the universe for the rest of time. In this life, they put themselves at the center of everything. They even killed other people to suit their vision of how things should be. They put themselves in God’s place, and they said, “My plantation would be better if fewer people lived in this spot. So over here, we’ll do some moving, and sterilizing, and pruning. That patch would be better if we damned the river for power, so we’ll put chain gangs to work there. And the people would be better off if they surrendered themselves to my grand vision, so we’ll do away with their teachers and elders and teach them just my vision, from the cradle up. And if they don’t buy in… well, more fertilizer for the farmland. They’ll either love the vision and worship it or they’ll become part of the landscape.” Minds like that… what greater Hell could they have than to be shut in upon themselves forever, listening to their own “genius”?
Q: I noticed two things there. One is that you equate Hell with politics, especially the progressive utopia that is sometimes called dystopia. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Huxley’s Brave New World, that kind of thing. And also… well, I’ve
A: I can say several things about that one thing. Political? Well, sure. What could be more evil than a person who designs other people’s lives as though they were insects living in his little ant farm? That’s not to say that some people aren’t really evil on a more personal basis. I mention in the novel the sickly waifs who drift around the Arroyo de la Columna. They are pretty clearly guilty of what we might call (I hope most of us still call) sexual perversion. They’re pedophiles. But they’re also kidnappers, pimps, and murderers. They’ve made a business out of the children that they “harvest”. El Moreno says that. And a lot of the other spirits among the damned are in the game of financing things. For money, they plunge helpless people into situations from which they know ordinary people cannot emerge in good shape. An example on today’s scene might be the solar-panel industry. Sold as planet-friendly… but how many people have to die in Third World countries mining the rare-earth elements like cadmium, and other carcinogens, that go into those panels? The industry doesn’t care, and the politicians don’t care… and the idiot consumer doesn’t know enough to care. He’s guilty only of ignorance, and maybe complacency in patting himself on the back for caring oh-so-much about the environment. The others are much more guilty for allowing him to wallow in his ignorance. They exploit it for money and votes. The line between sin and evil is crossed at some point as you move from culpable ignorance to deliberate deception. A sinful person does harm through thoughtlessness and self-indulgence that he never puts under the microscope. An evil person knows full well what harm he does, and does it anyway because he enjoys it. Oh, he may make up some kind of ideology to explain why that omelet required some eggs to be broken… but self-delusion on so massive a scale, I think, most often shades into real satisfaction with pulling people’s strings like puppets.
Q: Was it Iguala, in central Mexico?
A: That’s it. And the mayor and his wife were implicated in it somehow, weren’t they? Really incredibly gruesome stuff. Just incredible. School children, completely defenseless. Supposedly they were going to some kind of political protest. And the Boko Haram kidnapping and enslavement of school girls. Are we supposed to look at this stuff in some kind of cultural or psychological context so that we don’t judge it too harshly? Really? That’s sick, my friend! No one should need to reflect upon the moral issues in cases like these—no sane person. Extreme, even sadistic abuse of power, done with cool premeditation, so that the defenseless are brutalized or terrorized for pleasure or profit… there’s no gray area in such cases. If you see gray, then you need to visit the eye doctor.
Q: To change the subject slightly… you stopped short of saying that homosexuality is wrong when you mentioned the Arroyo de la Columna—hope I said that right—but you’ll probably be charged with so-called “homophobia”, all the same. Did that occur to
A: I don’t care. I really don’t. And a gay guy who identifies with pedophiles enough to make the charge… shame on him. Frankly, the person who would make such a charge would be someone entirely different who simply hated the religious implications of the book—sanitizing bigotry by counter-charging bigotry, you might say. These days, we are all charged with everything vile if we speak the least bit out of step with our utopian re-programmers. As a matter of fact, I believe that sex outside the context of marriage is wrong, for anyone; but that’s not really an issue that pertains to this book. And such people are certainly not those represented as condemned to Hell. All of us struggle with our impulses. Sometimes I struggle with anger, which is an impulse. I’m not going to say that anger is okay because I don’t want to admit that I have problems and make mistakes—we shouldn’t let ourselves off the hook that way. But I also doubt that I’ll burn in Hell because some politically-correct sanctimonious ass says that I have say “firefighter” instead of “fireman”… and then I go to my office and break a chair. Now, if my anger leads me to wire a pipe bomb to the car of the campus PC officer, then I’m straying into premeditation, and my objective is to cut short another human being’s opportunities to grow and learn. I am playing God. That’s pretty wicked.
Q: I’m starting to get the point. But speaking of PC… you do know, I’m sure, that the novel will also be blasted for celebrating gun violence.
A: Yes, and if it were a Hollywood movie, it would be celebrated AS gun violence—because the bad guys would be capitalist bankers and Hitleresque generals running off-budget black-ops programs. It all depends on who’s getting shot, if you’re part of the anti-gun crusade. I might well be on their hit list.
Q: I hope not. But I’m just saying… I mean, did it occur to you that having a kind of Clint Eastwood tenor to the plot would maybe rub some people the wrong way?
A: Again, in this PC climate, you’re always rubbing somebody the wrong way. I can’t allow myself to be hemmed in by that. But it’s interesting that you mention Clint. I was actually riveted by his spaghetti Westerns with Sergio Leone when I was a kid, I think because I was being surrounded by all the “love, peace, give me free sex and don’t make me work” hypocrisy of the late Sixties. There was no dignity in any of it—not a speck. It disgusted me. It was just a lie, a series of lies. Everybody hooking up and lighting up, but nobody caring about the consequences of his actions. Rampant selfishness in an incredibly flattering guise. And then came the Man with No Name in his serape and low-brimmed hat. There was a kind of insulation against feeling in him, and I needed that, because feelings were being manipulated all over the place. As students, we were manipulated by teachers who wanted to be our “gurus”. And as relatively conservative students, we—the one or two of us—were badgered and bullied by other students… you know, those other “peaceful” students.
Q: So is there a little of the spaghetti Western in your novel? Is that what you’re saying?
A: I’m sure that there’s a lot of the Eastwood bounty-hunter in El Moreno. Only years later, when I was in college, did I learn that so much about that character—his run-down appearance, his namelessness, his speechlessness—belonged as well to the Other World Traveler. Look at Gilgamesh, or the mysterious knight in so many Arthurian tales. My adolescence in the Sixties was itself a kind of passage through the Underworld, and the myth helped to give me some reference points to stay on course.
I like Westerns generally, but the ones before the Sixties were broadcasting a very upbeat myth that was overly optimistic, in my opinion. And then after the Sixties, when teachers and bosses everywhere were rounding up their minions to have sensitivity sessions, the Western died. No one could be bad any more, and no one could get hurt any more. As for the movies and TV shows before the Sixties, TV was always very wholesome back then. Nothing dark. It was heavily censored, you know. And only a few very early movies in the Fifties suggested a journey to the Underworld: mostly B-Westerns like A Man Alone and The Last of the Fast Guns. The public expected the genre to be optimistic!
Q: Wow! You’ve made quite a study of it!
A: As I said, I love Westerns. Always have. That should be pretty clear from the novel. But I’ll tell you one more thing. When Sergio Leone made Fistful of Dollars, he ripped off Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and was later successfully sued for plagiarism in the far-eastern market. And Kurosawa, in turn, was tapping into the ancient mythic cycle to express the lonely nobility of the ronín, the samurai without a master to serve. That was a figure that spoke to a generation of Japanese who thought they had fought for a worthy cause, only to see too late that the Emperor and his entourage had shamelessly exploited them. And that’s where we are today, culturally: we’re being exploited again. Christians who have striven to lead principled lives find that their leaders have lied over and over to them, either for the egotistical satisfaction of always being superior to everyone else or, perhaps in the worst cases, for political or financial profit in getting society to lie down as it’s overrun. I think some of us now are demanding that the boundary lines be drawn again. We’re saying, “Wait a minute! Don’t tell us not to pass judgment when children are being enslaved and murdered. There’s a difference between judging behavior according to transcending principles of fairness and decency, for which we’re all merely a humble conduit, and judging someone according to your own little system that always puts you on top.” And I want to say to these self-styled spiritual leaders, “You are judging me when you say that I sinfully judge. My judgment is on behalf of the persecuted, while yours is only on behalf of yourselves and the lofty poses you strike. You whited sepulchers!”
Q: I really got you going there! And, of course, the Man in the Moon, to get back to the novel, is the kind of quietist cleric you’re talking about.
A: I don’t really want to get into explaining allegories, like the Man in the Moon and the Professor. If it isn’t fairly obvious what they’re intended to represent, then I’ve failed artistically, and my adding an explanation will do nothing to help the novel. Then, too, the Man in the Moon doesn’t have to be only a cleric, despite his cassock. His artistic value allows him to remain somewhat indefinite. He’s a kind of person whose fecklessness in critical situations just happens to be highly visible among our clergy at this time.
Q: I have to ask about the capitalizing words like Sun and Earth while the traveler is in Hell. It feels almost like that certain natural objects became like gods in the Other World.
A: Of course, I wasn’t trying to promote a polytheistic view of the world… but you’re kind of getting it, I think. Certain major natural objects or forces—sun, moon, earth, the four directions, and I almost included the stars (but they are so plural, you know)—are no longer, in the Other World, just objects. To us among the living, as we style ourselves, they’re phenomena of the material world. Our science has reduced them to impersonal assemblages of atoms or forms of energy. But in the Other World, they soak up more of God’s intention. They participate in Hell’s undertaking, doing the work of the place. They understand, and collaborate… and their nobility, you know, is also a constant reminder of the grand higher reality that the damned denied throughout life by putting themselves at the center of everything. Their very beauty is an added torment to those who are forever cut off from beauty and truth. So they have character. You might say, they ARE characters.
Q: And then, when the traveler returns…
A: Then they shrink back into their scientific envelopes for him and become, in a sense, less real. Not that he wants them to… but part of the price you pay for living in this world is that things are reduced to mere thingness. You can’t really see much sign of purpose behind them. Science, in that respect, has greatly undermined our spirituality. I admire science. I admire its discipline of thought, its lessons of objectivity that teach people to keep things in perspective. But science can also open the door for certain kinds of people to extend it where it was never meant to go. You can use science to paint a purely mechanical, deterministic, ultimately futile picture of life and the cosmos. You can mock all of our higher motives—our moral inspiration, our reverence for beauty—as silly, subjective fabrications. And then, inevitably, this kind of person thrusts himself and his own self-serving, usually hedonistic values into the void he has created. Since we’re just apes that wear clothes, he argues for the life of an ape, at least insofar as it pertains to his personal wants and pleasures. Now you have subjectivity leaking in again all over the place, and science was the key that opened the Pandora’s Box.
I know I’m wandering again. Only to say that when the Sun and the Moon (capitalized) become just little sun and moon again, it means that the traveler is back in a fallen world, where the ultimate purpose of things becomes much more reduced and cloudy to his vision.
Q: Last question. You’ve made clear your detestation of the utopian progressive state… but there are also plenty of capitalists and financiers in your Hell. Are you trying to say that all people of all persuasions run the risk of Hell?
A: I don’t really like that formulation. Look, a person doesn’t run the risk of Hell if he subscribes and puts into practice a political ideology that requires others to do his will like trained dogs. He IS Hell: he MAKES Hell. No risk about it, as far as his own spiritual state’s concerned. We are here to sprout and blossom spiritually, and there’s no growth where one is shot for getting off the program or for even asking a question. That behavior is categorically, irredeemably evil. To stifle free will and deny the soul its destiny is evil. It isn’t a careless mistake: it’s horribly arrogant and hubristic.
Now, are capitalists denying people their chance to grow merely in the pursuit of a profit? We all have to eat, don’t we? Wow… I don’t want to get involved in an hour answer here. Certainly people have a right to the fruits of their labor. And to some extent, even if that fruit is unhealthy to the consumer or is overpriced, I think the consumer has a right—though he may not want it—to make bad choices. That, too, is part of growth. We fail or screw up. I don’t think gambling should be illegal just because it ruins people’s lives. People, at some point, cease being children. They may need to fall hard so that they can learn to put their foot in a better place. The problems come when you misrepresent the risks of gambling, represent a high risk as no gamble at all, or leave a person no choice but to gamble. The people grubbing cadmium out of the ground in Third World “cancer villages” don’t really have much choice: there’s no other paying work around. And the industry that is building its empire on their corpses isn’t reducing their risk or, on the other side, informing the consumer that solar panels come at such a cost. It’s another of these cases where a No Man’s Land of moral uncertainty exists, but where any sane adult ought to know when he’s crawled over to the wrong side. I think it’s probably much easier for business today to grow “hellacious”, if I may so express it, because now we so seldom see the faces of our customers. Orders are filled online: there’s no more community of warm-blooded patrons, or of laborers, either. We’ve made it shockingly easy to forget all about the humanity of those whose lives may be destroyed by our deliberately sloppy production or distorted advertising.
I don’t see that situation getting any better, either. El Moreno may have to take on some new hires!
Q: A lot of people going to Hell, eh?
A: Well, seriously… yes, it’s harder now to keep our eyes fixed upon moral reality. And for that very reason, it’s never been so important to do so. But instead, you tend to get lumped into one political camp or another, as you’ve suggested, and then dismissed as a mouthpiece for this or that faction. Everything’s assumed to be mere propaganda. No truth anywhere. That is NOT a good place to be!
Published 2016-09-05.
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