Jacob Bray migrated to San Francisco, as did I and many others, in the late 60s, and he and his wife Jeanine, who came with him, have remained
there ever since. They have a son, who also lives in the City.
Having known Jacob for several decades, I can attest to his being a man of many parts, as they say. His
interests are varied and surprising. Rather, however, than try to describe Bray's multifaceted mind and personality, I will rely on the interview to make these revelations.
The following interview was conducted in May of 2017.
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You have been a student of classical literature since childhood, and although you have read a lot of modern literature, you seem to be partial to the ancients. It shows a lot in your work. Do you think the modern world has much to learn from the classical?
JB: The reason to study the classics is to get perspective.
To see how people in the past responded to their problems, which are the same problems of today
since human nature does not change. People who are caught up in the present moment rarely understand beyond the present moment, and the present moment generally includes hysteria.
Seeing it in perspective makes it less hysterical, and keeps the fools from scaring you. Not that real danger does not exist, just that other things are happening at the same time.
In addition, the ancient philosophers asked about first principles, such as if man is good or bad by nature or whether the universe can be improved. All modern philosophy has been
called a footnote to Plato. It is better to read the original than the footnotes. Perspective is all, the more you see, the better you see.
In the Comrade Yakob columns, you appear to be satirizing several things at the same time, often with hilarious results. First you are satirizing the idealistic brainwashing of the Soviet Era, then political ideologies in general, and advice columns in general as well, especially those marked by questionable amateur psychology. Comrade Yakob reminds me a little of Mark Twain, it's something he would have liked. It shows a side of yourself that isn't in the other writings. Someone said that the artist lives in a prism of constantly expanding facets, we are always discovering new sides to ourselves. This seems to be true of your written work. And, of course, in the Polar Bear Stories, you use a somewhat mystical method to explore yourself as deeply as possible. I want to ask you about those stories later, but for now, do you think writers have an obligation to discover as much as they can about themselves, and then attempt to reveal it?
JB: Writers, and other artists, are essentially people who are seeking answers to who they are and where they belong. It can be argued that all art is created by
unhappiness, by a desire to recreate the world in a form more pleasing to the artist. Then there is the pure desire to understand the universe and oneself, which is the basic drive
of human existence, which is the highest function of the artist. And since all art is a form of self-expression, the artist by nature must explore and describe themselves in their
art. The ballet is a good example. People don't just walk into a ballet studio by accident, they are looking for something. And the great ballet dancers both find and lose
themselves in the ballet. You can spot them immediately, when they discover the self-knowledge the ballet offers, they never want to leave the studio. As such, self-discovery is
not an obligation for the artist, it is their purpose. Before self-expression, there must be self discovery.
DW: In your book on Ambrose Bierce and the Mexican
Revolution, A Death in Chihuahua, you show a more serious side of yourself. It resembles in some ways the existential writing of the fifties. The main difference is that,
through the main character, Ambrose Bierce, you bring out your fascination with the follies, delusions, absurdities, and hypocrisies of mankind throughout history. This is
something of a recurring theme in your work, as is the subject of revolution. What do you consider the main themes or purposes of your writing overall?
I find it fascinating how people and their individual lives are caught up in historical upheaval. Samuel Johnson didn't believe politics had much to do with private life, but if you were born in Poland in 1920, politics was going to be profound in your life. Revolutions in particular provide a rich background for literature, because all the old rules have been thrown out and people return to the first principles and fundamental questions about the meaning of human life.
I think my work is essentially about that struggle, to find meaning in the absurdity of human folly and misery. Peter Ustinov said that, "Once you discover that you
are condemned to live in the solitary confinement of your own mind, your only purpose is to decorate it as well as possible." I think my work is about making the right
decoration choices. Just how to sort it all our and make the right choices. Refining one's esthete, so the decorations are beautiful.
That is one reason why I study the
ballet, for the beauty of the refined esthete.
DW: In your first book, The Wisdom of the Species, you use an eccentric format which I think is very appealing.
Your other books have an unusual format as well. But in The Wisdom of the Species you are laying before your reader a feast, a table laden with all sorts of tasty things. Are you using the unusual format, like the numerous but relatively short chapters of Thermidor,
to create a certain effect, or is it just a natural way for you to write?
My work is very dependent on research, and just reading in general, to give me historical perspective on what I am writing about. I like the Greek and Roman historians, and Szuma Chien, the great Ch'in dynasty historian, a lot, and they use a lot of stories and quotes to make their points. I write for the writers who were important to me, kind of to pay them back for what they gave me and just because it is my turn to produce. If someone invites you to their house for dinner, you are expected to bring something as well. You can't just receive all your life, you have to give back. If you are repaying people like Plutarch, Homer, Melville, you better come up with a good story. You just want to show them that you can do it too, and the quality of one's work is how you show the lessons were learned. It's like being a musician or a dancer, you want to give the audience good stuff, and be as good an artist as you can. Actually, in my case it's more like the Athenian festival of Pallas Athena, the Goddess of knowledge and wisdom, where the playwrights would stage their works to show their reverence for the goddess and for wisdom. It just doesn't do to give shoddy work to the Gods, they punish you for it.
DW: In Polar Bear Stories, you explore your depths by creating a dialogue with yourself, or the animal spirit that represents certain aspects of yourself.
Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Are these stories a means for you of examining your life?
The Polar Bear Stories are more about Polar Bear examining my life, and then telling me what she sees in it. She is curious about humans, which is why she is interested in me. The Polar Bear Stories are almost unconscious writing, they come from somewhere deep inside me I don't really understand. I never know what is going to happen when I go see her. Polar Bear Came to teach me to trust, and eventually to teach me to love. After she had made me strong enough and secure enough to trust I learned to love. The lessons of Polar Bear are that if you hide from life, you miss life. Helen Keller said that "Security is mostly an illusion, the fearful get caught just as quickly as the brave. Life is either a great adventure, or it is nothing at all." That is what Polar Bear is about, destroying the walls only you can see, the ones only you have created. They are about becoming fully alive.
DW: In your recently finished book, Thermidor, we are given a refreshingly insightful look into the French Revolution, and the events leading up to it. You
use both historical characters and fictional figures, but it isn't like other historical novels. Have you invented a new genre?
I don't care about Genre, that kind of speculation is for critics. It is just looking at life in context, in this case the context of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, because we think in context. If you ask people to define themselves they will say things like race, religion, sex, education, language, political beliefs, where they were born, all these are context. There is free will, but it is somewhat defined by those parameters. Most people never think enough to escape from their context. My work is contextual, it is about what educated, sophisticated people chose to surround themselves with. I just choose a historical period I was interested in and put my life in it. I wanted to write an eighteenth century novel, so I did. Then I put my life and what I wanted to say in it. There is no intent to play with genres. I can't imagine what genre Comrade Yakob would fit in.
At an age many people would consider a little too ripe, you took up ballet, and in spite of a couple of injuries, you have stayed with it. Now as I understand, you take ten classes a week in spite of a busy schedule. What induced you to become a ballet dancer, and why do you love it?
I always followed ballet, simply because when I was young I only had two TV channels, NPTV which showed classical programs like symphony and ballet, and a local channel that showed wrestling and religious programs. I was a wrestler for a while, and now I have come full circle and am a ballet dancer. I started studying it to choreograph a 12th century Chinese opera I was writing, and within five minutes fell in love with it. I like the challenge, at my age, 68, ballet is very difficult. I like the classical tradition, the discipline, the formality, but it is just beautiful. Ballet is about being elegant and graceful as one moves through life, it is training your whole body and spirit to be harmonious with the perfected forms of the classical moves. You make your body, and your mind into a sort of mystical Greek temple. The music the tough dancers' bodies, the shared passion for the art, the ability to lose yourself in the music and movement and fly through the air, these things can be found nowhere else. It is something you give your life to, and I only regret I didn't discover it earlier so I could have given more of my life to it. You just want to be in it all of the time. I would give up everything else for it.
DW: You are in the process of writing a new novel, The Fall of the Eastern Han. This promises to show yet another side of yourself. This one is a love story,
set in ancient China?
It is set at the turn of the twentieth century during the Q'ing Dynasty, just when it was disintegrating due to assaults from the West. One of the protagonists is a high government diplomat and the other is a half French, half Chinese woman who runs a western ballet company in Beijing. I wanted to write a Chinese novel, because I love China, and my protagonist is a ballet dancer, because I am studying the ballet. I just personified my love of the ballet into the love of the woman ballet school director. It is about the arrogance of the technically superior European powers and their relations with the culturally superior Chinese, whom they are destroying. It ends with the Boxer Rebellion. It is a Taoist fable of a man leaving the transitory world of government and human politics to enter the higher world of art and theater. It reflects the temporary world of crisis politics, which always exists and distracts the unwise and unwary. When someone says "The sky is falling!" the correct response is not to say it isn't falling, it is to say it has always been falling. It is a book about China, with lots of Chinese poetry, culture, and philosophy. It's a love story, but of my love for China and the ballet. It's about becoming a dancer. The woman is modeled after my female ballet master.
You have a fascination for the Arctic regions, and not long ago drove all the way north to Yellowknife in Canada. How did you acquire an interest in the far north?
I was studying the age of exploration, and that led me to the Arctic explorers. The English, who prided themselves on being the best explorers, were in reality quite incompetent. They starved to death while ignoring the lessons of the natives, who were living quite well in the same conditions. In his great book of geological poetry, The Ice,
Steven J. Pine writes about Antarctica and what the ice means. He postulates that it is like a mirror, it only reflects what you bring to it. Somewhat like life itself. It has no
heat source, food, culture, or ideas, and the people who went there and perished died not of starvation or of scurvy but of ignorance and a lack of imagination. I personally
started going to the ice because I was in darkness, and the darkness and cold of the far north reflected the darkness and cold I felt inside me. Only there did I feel sane, as only
there did the interior and exterior landscapes match up. That is where I met Polar Bear. Now that I found the ballet, I am no longer frozen, but I still like to go up there each
DW: You’re a gourmet cook. What are you fixing for dinner tonight?
An Italian dish, linguini with blue cheese sauce garnished with shredded prosciutto and green onions. I cook for everyone at work every Wednesday night and that is the menu tomorrow.
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The following books by Jacob Bray may be found on
Wisdom of the Species
A Death in Chihuahua
Comrade Yakob Columns
Polar Bear Stories