Author Jeanette Winterson and rapper and playwright Will Power turn ancient myths into modern-day parables in Bill Moyers on Faith & Reason. “People who do achieve great things are also people who have fatal flaws,” says Winterson. Power asks, “Do we have the power to rule our own destiny, or are we destined to make the same mistakes as our foremothers and our forefathers?” The interviews put viewers in touch with deep truths about the timeless human condition, and raise the age-old question of whether we are trapped by fate or can change it.
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BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers. Welcome once again. In this hour of “Faith & Reason,” you’ll meet two storytellers who take ancient myths and turn them into parables for our time, putting us in touch with deep truths about human experience. First up, Jeanette Winterson.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Myths are interesting, because they allow us a completely different way in which to read our own lives.
BILL MOYERS: At the age of 12, Jeanette Winterson was reciting the Bible by heart and preaching sermons on street corners in the little English mill town where her parents were Pentecostal evangelists. At the age of 23, she wrote, ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT, and became an instant sensation in Britain, winning the coveted Whitbread prize for best first novel. Since then, she’s written nearly a dozen more, most recently, WEIGHT, a daring take on the classical Greek story of Atlas, the titan whose fate is to hold the whole universe on his shoulders for all eternity.
BILL MOYERS: Jeanette Winterson was a big draw at the recent PEN festival of writers on faith and reason. I’ve been eager to talk to her about why myths still matter. But first, I want to know more about her amazing journey.
BILL MOYERS: How is it that a girl raised by fundamentalist Pentecostal parents in a house of utter poverty — no bank account, no phone, no indoor plumbing — who used to write sermons, who drove an ice cream van, and worked at a funeral home. How does this girl go onto Oxford and get high on mythology?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Well, I think children often feel that their own way of life is completely normal because they’re not exposed to anything else. And I thought that everybody had a gospel tent, and went around seaside towns to the northwest trying to convert the heathens.
BILL MOYERS: Is that what your parents did?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: They were itinerate evangelists?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Yeah. My mother used to play the harmonium. And she was a good pianist. And, she had her portable harmonium. And we’d go around and other people would come from the church, and you’d put your tent up. You know, plumbing laws were less strict in those days. You put your tent up, and then you’d have services. And the heathen would come in and either they’d find Jesus or they wouldn’t.
BILL MOYERS: Do you still sing any of those hymns?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Yes. But my mother’s favorite one, it was a chorus called “God Has Blotted Them Out.” You know, you can imagine why she would like that. And it went like this, “God has blotted them out. God has blotted them out. My enemies mocked and scoffed at me. He blotted them out when he set me free. God has blotted them out. God has blotted them out.” As you can see, she wasn’t the kind of forgiving, open-hearted, generous person. If she could have pressed the button she would. You know, she had been there thinking, you know, the sooner we blow up the world the sooner Jesus would come back.
Because, you know, creationism and Armageddon are like the north and south poles of religious fundamentalism, aren’t they? If you can believe those, everything else in the middle is actually quite easy. My mother was a creationist. And, she did believe in Armageddon. She thought that the world would be rolled up into a fire ball. And Jesus would come back. And she’d go off to heaven, and none of her clothes would be second hand.
BILL MOYERS: Those are mighty acts of imagination, in which religion does fire the imagination up.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Yes, it does. And-it asks you to believe things which are completely impossible – like creationism. In any case, you know, why would God want to do it that way? You know, there’s no reason why God wouldn’t do it any other way. I don’t know. I’ve never understood why there’s such a fight over that. But it is an unbending, inflexible kind of religion, that religious fundamentalism. And it is about punishing people. The God of love becomes a God of punishment.
BILL MOYERS: There’s a line in Weight where you say, “The hells we invent are the hells we have known.” Was home a hell?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: No, it wasn’t. You know, it was the craziest place. I mean it was bonkers the way we lived.
BILL MOYERS: During her appearance at the festival, Jeanette Winterson talked about growing up in that fundamentalist family in England.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: My mother was terrified of any secular influences entering our lives. My father is illiterate and every day my mother used to read to us from the King James Bible and only six books were allowed in the house. The Bible was one, and the other five were books about the Bible.
Although in our house books weren’t allowed, because I had a job on the market stool I began to buy books with the money that I was earning and smuggle them in secretly and hide them under the bed. Now anybody with a single bed, standard size, and a collection of paperbacks, standard size, will know that 77 per layer can be accommodated under the mattress. And this is what I did. And over time, my bed began to rise visibly. And it was rather like The Princess & The Pea.
And one night when I was sleeping closer to the ceiling than to the floor, my mother came in, because she had a suspicious nature. And she saw a corner of the book poking out from under the counter pen. And she tugged at it, and this was a disastrous choice, because it was by D.H. Lawrence and it was WOMEN IN LOVE. She knew that Lawrence was a Satanist and a pornographer, because my mother was an intelligent woman. She had simply barricaded books out of her life, and they had to be barricaded out of our lives. And when challenged with her defense, she always used to say, “Well, the trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late.” How true.
The books came tumbling down and me on the top of them onto the floor. Mrs. Winterson gathered up the piles of books, and she threw them out of my bedroom window and into the back yard. And then she went and got the paraffin stove, emptied the contents onto the pile of books and set fire to them.
And I learned then that whatever is on the outside can be taken away. Whatever it is that you think of as precious can be destroyed by somebody else. That none of it is safe. That there is always a moment when the things that we love, the things where we put our trust can be taken away, unless they’re on the inside. And that’s why I still memorize text, because if it’s on the inside, they can’t take it away from you, because nobody knows what’s there.
And I think that one of the reasons that tyrants hate books, ban them, burn them is not simply what they contain though that’s often the obvious reason, but what they represent. Because reading is an act of free will, and it’s a private act. It’s an intimate dialogue between you and the text. And in there is all kinds of possibility.
I didn’t leave home that night. That happened some years later when I fell in love with another girl, and this was clearly not going to happen in 200 Water Street. And my mother gave me the choice. She said, “Leave the girl or leave home.” So I had to leave home. And as I was going, she called me back and she said, “Jeanette, why be happy when you could be normal?”
But she said it to the right person, because I went away weighing those words in my hand. Happy/Normal. Normal/Happy. Were such words always in tension? Were they in perpetual fight? Or, could there be some harmony, some sympathy between them? And beginning to weigh those words, I started to weigh other words too. Words like good and evil, black and white, right and wrong, faith, reason. Were these things always going to be oppositions, dichotomies? Was there a way of healing up these spaces?
And I began to realize that what we must not do is accept false choices, fake realities, imposed on us by other people. And for me, one of the things that books have done, literature’s done, art has done is refuse those false choices, but rather to offer a world where mind and body can be healed, where the heart can be healed, where it is possible to imagine a world constructed differently, a world that we could invent differently, a world that we could live in differently. Thank you.
[BACK TO INTERVIEW]
BILL MOYERS: Are you the kind of person who needs another world?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: I always need another world. I mean, I’m passionately connected to this one. I am. You know, with the world I think you might as well love it or leave it. So I love it. And I want to change it. I’m political. I’m involved. I’m engaged. All of that. But I think there are vast dimensions of which I know nothing. But sometimes I can apprehend them a little bit. So I think that in religious terms that sometimes I think of it as the kick of joy in the universe. It’s the moment when you feel that the whole thing is bigger than you, better than you, and you connect with an energy which is gigantic. And, I think writers and artists do feel that. I hope that people who are not writers and artists feel that. And it is a moment which is absolutely true, and it absolutely cannot be proved by science. But you feel it.
BILL MOYERS: Why when you were invited by your publisher to write about any of the great stories of mythology that you would choose to do so, why did you choose the story of Atlas and Hercules?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Well, it’s a marvelous story. You know, Atlas is punished for rebelling against the gods. And his punishment is that he will have to hold up the cosmos. You know, the great image that we have of him supporting the globe in space. And the name, Atlas, in Greek means “long suffering one”. So, his punishment is in his name, because you know, naming is power. When you unravel the name, you often unravel the meaning of the thing that is named. And Atlas is left there, holding up the cosmos, abandoned by the gods, who go off partying, like the gods always do. And then, of course, one day, Hercules comes along, who’s the second strongest man in the world after Atlas.
BILL MOYERS: Son of Zeus. Bastard son of Zeus.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Bastard son of Zeus. Always a dangerous thing to be a bastard son of Zeus, you know.
BILL MOYERS: Shakespeare tells us that over and again.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Over and over again. And as Hercules says to Atlas. You know Hera, his stepmother, the wife of Zeus, who’s really got it in for Hercules, because she was tricked into suckling him as a baby. And that’s what made him divine, because he had the divine milk of Hera’s breast. So, he’s half a man, half a god.
BILL MOYERS: And he comes to Atlas and says?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: He comes to Atlas, and he says, “Atlas, I’ve got to perform the 12 labors of Hercules that we all know. This is my punishment. Yours is to hold up the globe, mine is to perform the 12 labors. And what I need is to get the three golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides, and I really need you to do it for me. And if you’ll go and do it for me, I’ll hold up the world for awhile.”
And Atlas thinks, “This’ll be great. You know, I could get free just for awhile.” And he decides that he will do it. So, they swap jobs. Hercules takes the weight of the world, and Atlas goes back to the garden, his beautiful garden. Atlas was a gardener. The Hesperides, by the way, are his daughters, and he named the garden after it. And of course, this thing is all gone to wrack and ruin, and it’s over grown, and it’s a mess, and he’s disappointed. He spends all this time making bonfires, and pruning trees, but he does get the three golden apples for Hercules.
You know, but Hercules is no fool. He realizes that Atlas may never come back, so he has to trick him again into taking the weight of the world. You know, it’s a drama between these two men, part god, part human. Atlas is an introverted, thinking type, who really does suffer, and Hercules is just an extroverted, braggart, who’s only ever had two thoughts and only ever asked two questions. And one is, “Which way did he go?” And the other is, “Are you married?”
BILL MOYERS: Bloodthirsty and lustful.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Yeah, yeah. Whenever there’s a problem he uses force or violence to solve it. He never thinks first, because he’s the strongest man in the world, and he just says, “If these guys won’t listen to me, I’m just gonna club ’em to death.” You know, we all know that kind of response.
BILL MOYERS: But, he was the most popular of the Greek heroes.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Yeah, because one of the things that the Greeks offer, is it’s complicated. They don’t try and clean up their heroes. And the heroes are rounded, complex creatures; they’re not kind of squeaky clean like, with Superman, cardboard cutout image of what we would like a hero to be now. The whole package is thrown in and you’re asked to look at it and say, yes this guy is a hero. He’s also a murderer, a thief and a liar and a womanizer.
BILL MOYERS: So Atlas goes off, comes back with the three apples, and then, Atlas decides he doesn’t want the job anymore, right?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Exactly, because he’s had a taste of freedom. He wants to go back into the garden and plant some seeds. There’s no way he wants to take on the weight of the world again.
BILL MOYERS: So, what happens?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Hercules tricks him. He says that he’s having a great time, he’s not in any hurry to give the world back to Atlas. He says it’s marvelous to have some time to be by himself instead of having to run around the place. You know he acts as though he’s gone to some sort of Zen Buddhist camp, and he’s discovering his inner self. But we know Hercules doesn’t have an inner self so we know that there is a problem here. And he just says, “Listen Atlas, you take the apples for me. Go and deliver them. That will be fine, but could you just hold the world up for a few minutes, while I get comfortable?” he says. “Because you know, the Matterhorn’s sticking in the back of my neck. And maybe we could just shift things round a bit.” And then he’s rather ashamed, because Atlas just stoops down, and with infinite grace flicks the weight of the world back on his shoulders – beautifully, and balletically. And Hercules says, “Sorry mate, I’m off. Goodbye.” And walks into the distance. And, once again, Atlas is alone. And he remains in that state in my telling of the story, until something rather surprising happens much, much later.
BILL MOYERS: Well, I’m not gonna give the end away,
JEANETTE WINTERSON: No, we’ll keep it a secret, then.
BILL MOYERS: But it is intriguing to me. I mean, the old story is pretty good.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: It’s a great story.
BILL MOYERS: But you were presumptuous enough to change it.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Yes, I mean, as a writer, you’re always something of a vandal. You know, you’re a tomb raider. You’re gonna go in there and take the things that already exist – drag ’em out again, and dress them up differently. There is a sense in which, you know, you are a thief. You know, it’s no wonder that writers are ruled by Mercury, god of thieves and liars, and Mercury of the double tongue. And so, there is the sense in which you will always steal, and take for yourself, the things that you need. But then you also bring them back into the light. You dust them down, and then you put them out again for people to find in a different way. I mean, the whole thing about myths, is that they need to stay fluid, they need to keep moving, and they need to be dynamic. And that’s why we can go on retelling them, so that, what is valuable is passed on from generation to generation, across time, through cultures.
BILL MOYERS: What intrigues me about the Greek gods, Romans too, is that they do great deeds. But also they get drunk, and as you say, they womanize, they lie, they negotiate with the Gods of the underworld. It’s true, isn’t it, that if you find the hero in mythology, you also discover the monster?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Always, yes. The thing is double faced. It’s as though these people are hinged in the center, and that the good and the bad have folded back, touching each other in each person. But you know, that’s what so strikingly true, isn’t it, about the human condition? That we’re not one or the other, or very rarely. Often, the people who do achieve great things, are also people who have fatal flaws. All heroes have fatal flaws as well as reprehensible conduct. But never the less, they are in the story that surrounds them, the only person who can do what is needed, either to save the —
BILL MOYERS: And what is that?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: It depends. Each hero will have a task that nobody else can accomplish. And that hero’s task is to accomplish the job. And in doing that they manage to free up a whole set of circumstances, which otherwise, would have remained completely locked in, impossible to shift.
BILL MOYERS: In order to be a hero, they have to do something big for other people that people couldn’t do for themselves?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Always. Always, the fashion now, we won’t bother to do anything for society, or for the collective. We’ll only do things for ourselves. That’s not the hero’s job. The hero is always however he goes about it, doing something for the bigger picture, for the world outside himself, and that’s important. You know, think of Prometheus. We all know about stealing fire —
BILL MOYERS: — the fire —
JEANETTE WINTERSON: — from the gods for mankind. So, suddenly mankind can light a fire, and be warm, and cook food. And Prometheus’s punishment, as you know, which is horrific, is to be chained to a rock, and have his liver ripped out by an eagle. And everyday the liver grows back, and is renewed, and everyday the eagle comes. And in my story, I have the eagle perching on his hipbone, to get a perch, and then just ramming it’s beak into the soft tissue. And the skin on his stomach is always pale, like a child, although the rest of him is sunburned beyond recognition, because he’s chained to the rock. But everyday he suffers this punishment. And so, there is a sense that, you know, if we– if we push outside of our limits, if we transgress what is the property of the gods, let’s say– there will be suffering, there will be punishment. And that’s what happens to Atlas.
BILL MOYERS: Why do you think we’re so fascinated with the stories of heroes and gods, brought down by sex? I mean, do you think Bill Clinton wished he had known his mythology, when he got into the White House?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: I wish somebody had told him. I wish somebody had told Kenneth Starr. It was a Greek myth being played out in front of our eyes. You know, that was a modern Greek drama.
BILL MOYERS: In what sense?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: In the sense that, here was this guy. You know, Clinton, I think, is a great politician, somebody who was capable of really achieving things in the world who wanted to transform things, wanted to make a difference. Until, you know, he fancied a pretty girl. That should not be the thing that brings him down. But you know, when you read the hero myths, the things that brings them down are always very trivial. It’s always the thing in themselves that they can’t control. And there is also a truth about the hero, that they can never be killed, or destroyed by anything simply from the outside. They have somewhere to collude in their own death or destruction.
BILL MOYERS: Well, many of them experience death by female.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Death by female, yeah, it’s a worry. I think it’s because there is, often, in the Greek myths, a very one-sided aspect to the hero. He is the ultra-masculine figure, who denies in himself, any femininity, any softness. You know, this is now much clearer to us since Freud and Jung have begun to unravel psychology. They talk about the shadow side, in particular. The thing the part of you which is repressed in some way. A sense of yourself which you don’t acknowledge, which you can’t acknowledge; and it’s often a weakness. It’s often the fatal flaw. It’s often the failing. The thing that you do not want to know about yourself. Hercules believes that he can do anything, and he can. Nobody will ever be able to touch him. And that of course, goes wrong, because he is destroyed by a woman.
BILL MOYERS: So, it’s a continuing theme, I mean, Siegfried is told, not to–
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: — turn his back on his enemy.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Yep.
BILL MOYERS: He does. Sampson is told not to reveal the secret of his strength. He does. Caesar is told not to go to the Forum, because danger lurks, but he goes. What is it? Is this pride, arrogance, what?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: It’s huge pride. It is what the Greeks called hubris, this self belief in your own strength, and immortality. You know, Achilles is told always to keep his Achilles’ heel, his ankle covered, because that’s the only place anybody can destroy him. And of course, he dies with an arrow straight through his Achilles’ tendon.
They always do it. And it is a warning. It’s a warning not to collude in your own death, and into your own destruction. Not to become so arrogant, that you really believe that you are invincible. Because outside forces will always try to destroy the heroes. Because actually, heroes are objects of envy, as well as, suspicion. But they simply aren’t able to, unless the hero, in some way, colludes in the act.
You know, if Siegfried hadn’t turned his back, he couldn’t have been stabbed in the back. If Achilles had kept his boots on, he couldn’t have been shot through the heel. You know, and so you see, always, the kind of folly, which is part of the arrogance of these people. That they allow themselves to be brought down by outsiders who are Pygmies in comparison to them. Moral Pygmies.
I think in our society, we are quite uncomfortable now with the hero figure because we’re told we live in a democracy, and everybody’s the same, and everybody’s got to be treated equally. But it doesn’t really seem to work like that, because it’s always an individual of some kind, who then pushes things forward. Things don’t happen in mass movements, they happen because somebody has a vision, or an idea, or a brainwave, and that changes things for the rest of us. It’s always about the individual. It’s never about the collective in that sense.
I mean, Superman, Spiderman, Tom Cruise, you know, they are meant to be hero figures, but they’re all woefully two-dimensional. And they give a false perception of what a hero should be like. So that, when we meet real hero figures in our own world, we’re uncomfortable with the fact that they are flawed, that they do have weaknesses, and that they need forgiveness like the rest of us.
BILL MOYERS: How do you compare the gods of Greek mythology, with the God of the Old Testament?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Well, of course, it’s monotheism. The God of the Old Testament, Yahweh is one God. And the Greek gods were many. They were a pantheon of playboys and dodgy actors. But you know, they worked for the Greek people. And Yahweh is something which is much more, somebody much more intense, much more poetic, much more terrifying. I mean, the Old Testament is a terrifying book, because you never know what Yahweh is going to do next. And what’s really scary, is that Yahweh doesn’t know what Yahweh is going to do next. Again, it is a figure, a huge figure, full of inconsistencies.
You know, in the Book of Job, for instance, God actually has to hide people from himself, under His throne, because if he doesn’t, he’ll get so cross he’ll destroy them. So, it’s almost as though, this God splits Himself in two, and thinks, “On the one hand, I’m a merciful God, and on the other hand, I’m a vengeful God. And I’m both of these gods in one God. So, I’m gonna hide you in case I get too vengeful before I get merciful.”
I think one of the pleasures of the Old Testament, is these contradictions, because the Right Wing fundamentalists won’t have any of this. They make God completely in their own image, much as the Greeks made the Olympians in their own image. The mystery of the Jewish God, who became the Christian God; is you can’t really make that force in your own image. Because there’s nothing in the sacred text, which would really allow you to do that. And if God says, that He, She is made us in His image, then we are the ones who are full of contradictions. So, that might suggest, that God also, is full of contradictions. And if you look at the texts, that seems to bear it out.
BILL MOYERS: You spoke here, at the PEN Festival of logos and mythos. Words I remember from my years of studying Greek at the university and seminary. Why did you raise those to, in the context of a conference on faith and reason?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Because they are different ways of arriving at truth. And since the Enlightenment in the 18th Century, we have privileged reason, logos, the empirical sense, finding proofs for things, discovering things that can be touched, and tested in the universe. Absolute rationality has seemed to be the key to our advancements. And in many ways this Enlightenment, this rationality, this dependency on logic and reason, has freed us from many cruel superstitions, many nameless terrors. It also brought us technological advancements, of civilized advancements. But it’s not sufficient.
And the Greeks, for instance, who were a very rational set of people, still knew that there were two ways of arriving at truth. And it’s Plato who makes the distinction between mythos and logos. That there is a mythic truth, which is an imaginative truth, and emotional truth, a way of understanding the world which is not about the facts and the figures, but which is never the less, valid. And we need to have kind of a balance. So, things need to be held in balance. And you wouldn’t want to use mythic truth to tell you how to mend your washing machine, for instance. You probably just get the —
BILL MOYERS: I’ve tried that. Don’t go there.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: You tried? Did it not work?
BILL MOYERS: What I loved about the Greek idea of logos, was you know, they did have this sense of god as the unifying principle of the universe. And therefore, respect and reverence for god, was a logical act —
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: — in their spectrum of examination, right?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Yes, that’s true. It was. It was an extension of belief. So, belief and rationality were not separate in that way. But at the same time, you know because they invented philosophy – moral philosophy – they invented geometry. They were aware that there were different ways of approaching the world, and they didn’t confuse them. You know, they held them together, as you say, with a certain reverence. Which is often the feeling that you need, to join things which seem incompatible.
BILL MOYERS: And at about the same time, the ancient Hebrews, you mentioned, they had this notion, you’ll find it in some chapters in the Old Testament of the Wisdom of God. Capital W. The Wisdom of God, also translated sometimes as the word of God. Phylo, the great Greek stoic said, “You know, this guy can’t be knowable. God needs to be mediated.” The Christians come along. They say, “We’ve got the mediator.” And they go back to the Greek, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was made flesh.”
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Fabulous.
BILL MOYERS: Religion evolves, doesn’t it?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: It does evolve. It needs to go on evolving. Because, I think, one of the things that happens, is when a myth gets fixed, it becomes an idol. That’s what idolatry really is. It’s when you fix something, and you won’t let it evolve, or change, or grow anymore. You get stuck with the thing, and you say, “No, this is the truth, and only this is the truth. And this will always be the truth.” And so people evolve, society evolves, and there’s your idol, slap-bang in the middle, which is the thing that is now completely out of date. You know, but when Jesus was talking about putting new wine in old wine skins; you can’t do it. The thing has to keep alive. And one of the ways we keep it alive, is by retelling it.
BILL MOYERS: See, but I used the word religion evolving. You used the word myth evolving. Now, a lot of people are gonna say, “Wait a minute, mythology and religion are not the same.”
JEANETTE WINTERSON: They will. And if they are devout that they may feel offended by it. I think it would be fair to say, that a great deal of religion is based on a great deal of mythology, i.e. it’s about events that, in some sense, happened once. For instance, we know there was a historical personage called Jesus. We know that this person was crucified. And we know that he was a preacher. So, that story is true. Beyond that then, all of the other things come into play, and other stories are made up around it. But what we’re really not trying to do, is say, you know, is this absolute historical, verifiable fact? When we talk about religion, we’re talking about some emotional truths, and we’re talking about the response of the individual to the ineffable. So, it doesn’t lend itself to those sort of scientific criteria.
BILL MOYERS: Interesting, you bring up Jesus. Because probably no life has effected the world the way that life has. Jesus’ life —
JEANETTE WINTERSON: I think not. No. I mean, Jung once said, that he wasn’t really interested in whether or not there was a God. But he was interested in the fact that human beings always wanted to believe in a God. And that was worth talking about. And that’s why he did all his investigations into religious matters. And indeed, wrote “Answer to the Book of Job”, which is a fantastic piece of work, about the contradictions of the Yahweh figure. And we are interested in God. We are interested in religion. I don’t think it’s enough to dismiss it to superstition, and the comfort zone. It appears in every culture across time. As far as we can see, human beings have a need to worship. They have a need to make a God for themselves, of one kind, or another. And that is interesting, because it’s about us.
BILL MOYERS: Which gets us closer to the truth? Faith, reason or mythology?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: I think they’re all connected. And I think I would not want to live a life that did not have mystery in it. I don’t need to know everything. I don’t need everything explained to me. I do need to have an imaginative connection with the world I live in, which contains elements of wonder, there’s elements of the unknown, elements of the fully mysterious that fires me forward. And I look there to arrive at truth about the human condition, about myself.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think William Blake meant when he talked about the doors of perception. Do you think one door was marked faith, and one door was marked reason?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Yes, I do. I think because we love to have things in polar oppositions, don’t we? Black, white. Good, evil. Male, female. And reason, myth. And somewhere there has to be a way of bringing them together again. And it’s probably, if you accept both as genuine ways at arriving at truth, but you don’t privilege one above the other. Previously to the enlightenment, before the 18th century, there was much less of an anxiety about things which belonged to the realm of the magical or the miraculous. And the things which belonged to the realm of the mundane or the everyday. So they would just come together.
So, you know, Shakespeare writing the WINTER’S TALE. Doesn’t ask us to have a problem with the fact that, at the end, Hermione, who’s supposed to have been dead for 16 years, is a statue which comes to life and comes back to Leontes. It is the most wonderful and moving moment. And surely no scientist could sit there and say that this can’t happen. Look at the Arabian Nights, look at anything that happens before the great split in the way that we think. And the things just tumble over each other together. It’s not a problem. It’s accepted that the miraculous and the mundane live in the same place. That they’re not separate, and they’re not figments of people’s imagination.
BILL MOYERS: As you talk, one gets the sense of the feast of opportunity that is awaiting the good writer. And yet you said at the PEN festival, this is a dark time for —
JEANETTE WINTERSON: It is a dark time. It may be that, in some ways, I think. I do think of it that we might be going into a cultural dark ages. And we might have to be like the great Abbeys of Cluny and Fontainebleau and simply keep the culture alive for the future. Because people will come along and they’ll want it, and they’ll need it.
BILL MOYERS: And will you keep writing because maybe one day somebody will read it.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: You never know for sure.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: You never know for sure. You never know. I may never know how long things will last. That’s why you have to have the burning belief in the now and in the moment. And the thing is valid. And that it’s worth doing. And it’s worth doing with everything you’ve got, and for your whole life. You know, it can’t be a hobby. It can’t be a thought experiment. Much depends upon it.
BILL MOYERS: I believe that. But what is your Achilles’ heel?
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Well, I’ve got so many; I think I’m covered in Achilles’ heels from top to bottom.
BILL MOYERS: I’ll tell you what I think it is, and I’m gonna have you read the concluding words —
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Oh no.
BILL MOYERS: — of your book Weight.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: “Atlas looked around at the jigsaw of the earth. The pieces were continually cut and re-cut. But the picture stayed the same. A diamond blue planet, ice capped, swirled in space, nothing was as beautiful. Not fiery Mars. Not clouded Venus. Not the comets with their tails blown by solar winds. And then Atlas had a strange thought. Why not put it down?”
BILL MOYERS: So your Achilles’ heel could be that you can’t put the weight of the world down.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Jeanette Winterson, thank you very much for joining me.
JEANETTE WINTERSON: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: In the audience as Jeanette Winterson spoke to the festival of writers, i noticed a young American actor, composer, playwright, and rapper — yes, rapper — whose talents are said to be helping transform modern theater. Will Power is his name. There he is, listening to Winterson, the very week he won three big awards, including best musical, for his off-Broadway play that is also based on ancient Greek myth. It’s the continuing saga of the sons of Oedipus, as told by the great dramatist, Aeschylus, in SEVEN AGAINST THEBES. Here’s Power with his troupe in rehearsal for the awards ceremony.
[POWER AND TROUPE REHEARSING]
BILL MOYERS: Like Winterson, Power grew up in humble circumstances, the son of activist parents in San Francisco’s famous Fillmore District. Once upon a time, the Fillmore was known as “The Harlem of the West,” a cultural and musical frontier noted for jazz greats, rhythm and blues, the beat, zen, the Black Panthers, and the Grateful Dead. Will Power came east with the sounds of the Fillmore in his soul, determined to tell the story of Oedipus so his old neighborhood would dig it.
[POWER’S TROUPE REHEARSING]
BILL MOYERS: Oedipus, you’ll remember, was the king of Thebes found guilty of murder and incest, forced to abdicate and leave his kingdom to his two sons, only to watch them become rivals and kill each other.
BILL MOYERS: What in the world possessed you to take a 3,000-year-old Greek play and turn it into a racy, modern riff?
WILL POWER: Well, there are a few things. I mean, in hip-hop-culture, one of the things about hip hop is, how you take something old, and what we call, “flippin’ it.” How do you flip it?
BILL MOYERS: “Flipping” means you turn it?
WILL POWER: Flippin’ means you turn it into something that’s relevant and powerful for today. And a lot of people outside of hip hop, of course, they don’t realize this, but a lot of hip hop is based on flippin’. And so, you might take an old record. You might take a Barry White record or a Stevie Wonder record. Or I may take some of Bill Moyers’ voice. Well, you know, people have done it. You take it, and you might reverse it. Play it slower, chop it up, you know. Add your own baseline. And you create something new.
And so, really, what hip hop is is paying homage to elders, paying homage to ancestors. It’s having the conversation with music and cultural styles that have come before and updating them. That’s really what a lot of hip hop is. So, for me, how do I take something that’s an old story and that’s still relevant today? Because a lot of these Greek tragedies dealt with these human themes I feel that we’re still struggling with. But how do I make that bridge over in today’s society, so that someone like myself, or someone younger, will be able to connect with it?
BILL MOYERS: You performed an extreme makeover on Aeschylus’ play. You came from this stately cadence of ancient Greek, to doowop, and blues, and rhythm, and then rap. And that was not just borrowing here and there. You really made it over.
WILL POWER: I made it over. But I did try to stick to the original themes. And I just tried to imagine, if these characters, these heroic and tragic figures were alive today, what would they look like? And who would Oedipus be in my community?
BILL MOYERS: Who would he be?
WILL POWER: Well, that’s the thing. Oedipus in the original thing — he’s just, he was this bitter guy. He feels like he’s been done wrong. He used to be of a high stature. He had a fall from grace. So, for me, that’d be someone like an old hustler from the 70s who used to be kind of hip, but now he’s kind of old school. In my community, a lot of the old hustlers from the 70s that used to be, what we call, “high-rolling,” are now kind of, you know, of lower stature. They weren’t able to make that transition. So that’s what Oedipus was for me.
There’s a character by the name of Eteocles, and he’s a warrior. And in the original, he’s described as one of the seven warriors that rides a horse. You know, he’s really into a horse. He has tons of horses. So what would that be in my world? And I’m from California. For me, that warrior would be a policeman on a horse. You know what I mean? That’s what that would be. So as different as these characters ended up being in my version, I like to think that I tried to stick to the original, in terms of the vibration of it.
BILL MOYERS: And instead of the Greek chorus, you have a disc jockey.
WILL POWER: Yeah, I have a DJ. In contemporary hip hop culture, a lot of the times, the DJ is the storyteller. When you go to a party; you go to a hip hop club depending on what kind of records the DJ plays, they’re telling you a certain story, or a certain series of stories that have a connection. And a DJ is the one that can take a record from the 1950’s, for example, or the 1970’s, take a Stevie Wonder record, and take the hip hop record that sampled from the Stevie Wonder record, and play them both together, mix them. So, it makes sense that the DJ can take this ancient old text and mix it with contemporary text. And I kind of approach it that way. I actually took some of the ancient text and put it, like you said, with the record’s voice. And put it into the modern text.
BILL MOYERS: What appealed to you about this particular play?
WILL POWER: Well, I think, for me, there are a number of things. It’s the question of, “Do we, as individuals; do we, as a community; and do we, as a nation, really, and as a world, do we have the power to make changes? Do we have the power to rule our own destiny? Or, are we destined to make the same mistakes as our foremothers and our forefathers?” And I know that question is posed in the original SEVEN AGAINST THEBES, by Aeschylus. And that question is really personal to me. I’ve had a lot of drama in my family. With my fathers, a lot of drug abuse. A lot of violence; a lot of drama, in my family; in the community.
So, the question was: “Am I destined to make those same mistakes? Or can I re-imagine myself?” And I think those are the same questions that Oedipus’ sons were asking. “Are we destined to fulfill this curse that our father put on us? This curse; this weight; this pain. Or can we break it?”
The sons of Oedipus that are kind of like the central characters here, they’re constantly wrestling back and forth. And initially they’re like, “God is on our side,” you know, which everyone’s always saying now. Bush is like “God’s on our side.” And al-Qaeda’s like, “God’s on our side.” Everyone says God’s on their side. And so, the brothers are like, “God’s on our side,” and then they’re like, “Well, maybe God’s not on our side.” “Well, God’s on my side. He’s not on my brother’s side.”
Again, I don’t have any answers. I know what I believe personally. But I feel like that issue of fate, of what does God want me to do is something that has always been very prominent in our psyche as human beings and will continue to be, because we’re always wondering about that. “Who is God? What is God? What am I supposed to do? Is this right? Is this wrong?
BILL MOYERS: How do you experience God?”
WILL POWER: I experience God in my meditation. I experience God with my wife. But I think a lot of it is also just in the moment of writing or in the moment of performing. There’s an energy that happens. And if you look at any artist that you’re really attracted to, there’s something else going on there. There’s this energy happening. And so I feel like that’s God. That’s God. And I’ve been blessed to be doing this for a while now. And that’s God. God is creativity and the possibility of what’s possible.
BILL MOYERS: How would the people in your world of hip hop, how would they resonate with the theme in Oedipus, of the fact that his father was cursed, he is cursed, he curses his sons.
WILL POWER: Uh-huh.
BILL MOYERS: And fate is fate. And there’s nothing to do about it. Would they feel that in the hip hop world?
WILL POWER: Absolutely. And I feel like a lot of my friends, a lot of my contemporaries, we wrestle with some of those issues. We wrestle with some of those issues and we try to do the best. Like Oedipus didn’t want to do that. He didn’t want to marry his mother and murder his father. He didn’t even know it. And then when he found out, he left the other kingdom, because he thought he was leaving his parents. But they were really his adoptive parents. So, a lot of times, we don’t want to do that. But sometimes, we make these mistakes anyway, in spite of ourselves.
I feel like it’s something that we definitely wrestle with in the community. And I feel like a lot of cultures do wrestle with that, even beyond hip hop culture. The whole question of what will we take from our fathers and our mothers, the beautiful things, the essence of the culture? And what will we try to leave behind? And I feel like every generation has to question that, and look at that.
BILL MOYERS: There’s that moment in your play, when Oedipus looks up and says in effect, I’m paraphrasing: “God made me the way I am.”
WILL POWER: Right.
BILL MOYERS: “It’s not my fault,” in a way.
WILL POWER: Right. Well, that’s the question. Are we made and are we destined to just fail? If we’re destined to fail, do we have the power to break it? And I think that Oedipus, by the end of the play, that’s how he feels, as a character. He feels like, “You know what? There’s nothing I could have done. This is it. This is what it is.” But, the DJ, after Oedipus says that, the DJ comes out and asks the audience, “When are we gonna flip the record? When are we gonna remix this record?” This old record has been playing for thousands of years. This record of wars, record of destruction. When are we going to flip the record? For me, it’s all about flipping it. It reminds me of THE WIZ, for example. It’s a very different piece.
BILL MOYERS: THE WIZ.
WILL POWER: Yeah. It’s a different piece. But THE WIZ, you know, it took this American classic, THE WIZARD OF OZ, but they flipped it into something at that time that was very current. Soul, funk. They made The Wizard of Oz, “The Wiz,” you know? They brought this classic to them. I think that’s a sign of empowerment really. To take an old story that you’re not in and really make it yours.
BILL MOYERS: Well, Aeschylus did that. Euripides did that. Homer did that. All of the great classics were taken from figments and fragments of the past.
WILL POWER: Right. Before their time.
BILL MOYERS: But I think Aeschylus would be turning over in his grave right now, if he had seen your play, don’t you?
WILL POWER: I don’t know. I’d like to think that he would dig it, but I don’t know. You have to remember these stories are from myths that are three, four, five hundred years older than Aeschylus. So, these myths are not even from Aeschylus’ time. They’re from older times that he took and flipped for his time. Now whether his spirit would see the connection or not, I can’t say.
BILL MOYERS: I think he probably would have been applauding if he could have imagined his characters in modern guise today. How did you get interested in mythology?
WILL POWER: You know, what is mythology to me? A myth is a story that holds in it the values and the culture and the rhythm and the vibrations of a people. So for me a lot of my work has been mythological in a sense. Not in terms of the Western classics, but in terms of my own neighborhood, my own community. There’s a whole mythology that has grown up around me in that area; characters that you see, people, real life. But there are some stories about them that are true; some stories that aren’t. They get blown into fantastical proportions. So I feel like I’ve always been moved into myth, the heroics, into to the largeness of it, into the drama of it. And also, not all myths, but a lot of myths are rhythmic. They have rhythms, you know what I mean? They’re in verse. And I feel like hip hop is natural to that. Hip hop is all about rhythms and pop.
BILL MOYERS: The Greek choruses were chanted.
WILL POWER: Exactly. And you know, it’s a trip, because I just think of hip hop lyrics or song lyrics from R&B, or country, or anything. If you took away how they sounded, how much would we lose, you know? I feel like as much as a blessing it is to have these ancient texts, I’m sure we’re not getting the full “umph” of them, because they were chanted. They were supposed to be all sung. They were danced. And it was supposed to be, I don’t want to say primal, but a real guttural type thing. And I feel like in some ways we over-intellectualize these myths and put them in this category of high art. But really these stories were originally stories that the common people told, right?
I mean, look at Homer. Supposedly we don’t even know if Homer could read or write. There’s debate about that. But he was an oral poet, that’s what we think, in the so-called Greek Dark Ages, and he told these stories. And this was the way that the people kept their history alive. I feel like that’s what hip hop is. It’s oral-based. And it comes from the base of the community, and these are stories that are told that keep the community alive. Some of these stories are violent. Some of these stories are peaceful. Some of these stories are uplifting. Some of these stories are about this girl that I like. Some of these stories are real deep. Some of the stories are shallow, but they’re lyrical stories. They’re sonic, lyrical stories.
BILL MOYERS: Who is your favorite character in Aeschylus?
WILL POWER: I would say Oedipus.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
WILL POWER: It’s that whole question of a man who is trying to do right. But for whatever reason, he doesn’t, he can’t do it. Now whether that’s because fate is against him, or it’s because he really could have made better decisions. That’s the question. But he’s trying to do right. Oedipus, as evil as a cat as he is, you know, he puts this curse on his sons, as bad as he is, it comes from a place of feeling disrespected. His sons disrespected him. but he’s like, “Wait a minute, but I tried. I tried. Don’t disrespect me.” And I think I’m just fascinated by that kind of character.
BILL MOYERS: Well, you remind me of when Aeschylus has the chorus at the end say, “You don’t have to kill each other. You don’t have to kill each other.” And the sons say, “Yes, we do. Yes, we do.”
WILL POWER: Right, right.
BILL MOYERS: And it is a Greek tragedy, so they wind up killing each other.
WILL POWER: Right. And I hope that people will see the production and think of tragedy as a healing process. It was supposed to be a warning, and it was supposed to be used not to depress people or to be like, “You know, everything’s going to hell.” It was supposed to be in a way an uplifting thing, and say, “We are determined to take the challenge of this play, and we’re going to do better.”
BILL MOYERS: What’s the moment of truth for you in Seven Against Thebes? When you really think something breaks through and you appropriate it and take it into your own life?
WILL POWER: I think because it’s a tragedy, the moment of truth occurs when the brothers lose faith in each other. The older brother loses faith in the younger brother, and the younger brother loses faith in the older brother. “He’s gonna mess it up, so I need to take care of this myself,” or “He’s gonna cheat me. He’s gonna manipulate me, so I don’t trust him.”
And I feel like that’s the moment of truth. And I think it’s a metaphor for the bigger problem, what’s going on. There’s a lack of faith. We have a lack of faith in our brothers, you know, in our sisters, whether that means one country to another. We have a lack of faith. And I think that lack of faith is really destroying us. That doesn’t mean blind hope. That doesn’t mean, “I’ll let you do anything you want to me.” But it’s like we don’t have faith in each other.
We have such little trust and it permeates in the local neighborhood. It permeates in the society, in America, throughout the country. So I think that’s the moment of truth in the play. It doesn’t mean that it has to always be the truth. But that’s the moment of truth. When these brothers start off with good intentions and they lose faith in each other.
BILL MOYERS: Do you see life yourself as a tragedy?
WILL POWER: No! In fact, this play was very difficult for me to develop, to work on, because I’m kind of optimistic. I feel like I’m a pretty optimistic guy. Most of my plays are very optimistic and have more happy endings in a way. So, I feel like that’s why in some ways I was drawn to this, because what would it be to put myself within this world of a tragedy? And even I tried to like make it “un-tragic” at the end. But it doesn’t work. I even tried to change it.
BILL MOYERS: What did you try to do?
WILL POWER: Well, I tried for a while to see how I could make it that the two brothers wouldn’t kill each other at the end. Does a DJ come in and stop the record at the end, you know? Does Oedipus say, “I made a mistake.” I tried all those different ways. The sound designer on the production, Darron West, he said that he feels that some plays have DNA. There’s a DNA in the play. And so even though you can change it and you can flip it and you can make the characters vastly different, there’s a certain deep, intrinsic fabric of the play. And so when you try to deviate too much from it, I don’t mean in form or style, but I mean the meat, the content of it, then the play is going to pull you. So, every time I tried to do that, it wasn’t hones. These two brothers were going to kill each other in this show. Now some people might have said, “Well, you’re the playwright and you have all the power in this play.”
BILL MOYERS: You’re God.
WILL POWER: Yeah, you’re God. You should have just had the DJ come, a deus ex machina. You should have just brought the machine and just did it. But it just didn’t feel right. And there’s nothing worse I think than being in the audience and having a play and you’re really moved, and you’re like, “Oh, that’s so corny.”
BILL MOYERS: But you attracted people to the play. People who would never have read the original Aeschylus, right?
WILL POWER: Yeah. That’s one of the joys of it. And that’s one reason why I had to try to keep the themes the same, but pull them into a contemporary context, because I feel, again, remember these ancient plays, they were sung, they were danced, and that’s a different way than the way they’re presented now within a classroom environment for the most part in a kind of academic setting. Because I think it’s really hard for a lot of young people to dig them, because they’re not presented the way they used to be, and it’s kind of a rigid way. So I was really trying to bring them in and have people be like, “I know Oedipus. That’s a cat in my neighborhood. I know Eteocles. I know Thaddeus. I know those characters.”
And hopefully they’ll get the themes. I definitely got that. I got a lot of young people being, “I’m gonna go back and read some of these scripts with a different eye and not be so prejudiced.” And I got it from the other side. I got old people in their 70’s and 80’s being like, “I thought I hated hip hop, but I actually could follow the story. And now I’m gonna go back and maybe you know pick up a Tupac CD.” I actually got that. “And see what this is really about, instead of writing the whole thing off.”
BILL MOYERS: What inspires you?
WILL POWER: What inspires me?
BILL MOYERS: What’s your source of inspiration?
WILL POWER: Again, my inspiration is the creative spirit, God and the magic in life and my ancestors and my family. My family includes my wife, my mother, my father, my sisters, and my community. I live in Beacon, New York now.
BILL MOYERS: Little town up on the Hudson.
WILL POWER: Little town up on the Hudson, yeah.
BILL MOYERS: By Pete Seeger’s home.
WILL POWER: That’s right. Pete Seeger’s right on the hill. He’s like the guru. We always look up. He’s up there somewhere. He’s doing his thing. But that’s where I live now. But I’m originally from the Fillmore which is in San Francisco. And in San Francisco and in the Bay Area, there’s such a rich culture there. It’s so diverse, everything from an amazingly strong Asian presence, amazingly strong Latino presence. You know the Black Panthers were started there. There’s such amazing culture there. And since I’m from there, there are so many different stories and things that inspire me, you know. The Fillmore inspires me. And Beacon inspires me. That’s my new home now.
So I get inspiration by everything, all over the place. And I try to do it a little better. I’m not going to be perfect. I used to try to be perfect. I’d say, “I’m gonna try to be perfect.” I’m not. You can’t try to be perfect. Just try to be a little better. Maybe I won’t make as many mistakes as my father made, you know, and my mother made. I’m not better than them. Maybe I’ll just make less mistakes. And hopefully my children will make less mistakes. And hopefully every generation will just get more and more progressive.
BILL MOYERS: Well, Aeschylus is not very optimistic about that.
WILL POWER: No, he’s not.
BILL MOYERS: He says we keep repeating the same thing.
WILL POWER: No, he’s not. But in SEVEN AGAINST THEBES, in Aeschylus’s play, he had the chorus really questioning the king which was one of the brothers and saying, “You don’t have to make this mistake. You don’t have to do that.” And supposedly that was very revolutionary in Aeschylus’ time, even though the main king still ends up going out and killing his brother and being killed. But supposedly just the fact of having the chorus question the king like that was very revolutionary and a big risk for Aeschylus to take. So, I feel like even though he was a pessimist in the sense of working that genre, that was a very optimistic thing to do in that time. Just have the chorus be like, “You don’t have to do this. Don’t do it.” A lot of the play is devoted towards the chorus really urging the king, “You don’t have to do it. God won’t look down on you.” You know, I mean, they go back and forth.
BILL MOYERS: Where’s our chorus today?
WILL POWER: Where’s our chorus today? It’s in me, man. It’s in you! It’s in the people. It’s in the common people, you know, that are telling these stories. I mean, I feel like the leaders come and go. But it’s the stories that will continue, you know? We’re the chorus. We are the chorus.
BILL MOYERS: Will Power, thank you very much.
WILL POWER: Thank you so much, Bill. Thank you.