George Oppen talks of his tireless ear; that he believes he has it and then looks for the words for it, through hundreds of drafts (think about that!) and then the interviewer asks whether this quality of "ear" is the reason why, when we read early and later Oppen, we don't hear 'influence'. We then enter the interview, though we would have liked to have heard the earlier parts (which we may never).
George Oppen: I think the thing's said it to me. My secret belief is that the thing finally says it to me. As if it's shone out - that's what 'phenomena' means: a shining out. What I'm talking about is consciousness.... But I have this point to make about consciousness, that, like Descartes' proof about the cogito, you know your own consciousness exists, and your own consciousness is actual and therefore consciousness in itself and by itself creates, affirms, the fact of actualness. And we are plunging into this miracle of actualness. That's why the little objects mean so much to me. I'm not playing with little objects....
‘The primary elements can only be named.’ [Plato's Theaetetus.] I'm not naive about the object and I think they (the artists of The Art of the Real exhibition, about whom Oppen had been asked) are. What I'm talking about is consciousness.
Interviewer: But we had a long conversation before about George Eliot, the way that she uses consciousness, ethics, sympathy, to work upon her readers in a very didactic way. She's got an ideal of human behaviour in mind, doesn't she? Do you?
George Oppen (answering two questions at once): Her's - yes, I do, - her's is (an art of the real). It tests morals against what really happens to people and what people really want. That girl in the flood runs back to her brother. There is no popular moral point in that. She's just telling what - (smiling) you'll excuse me - a heart (says). And she thinks an ethic in society must be, you know, based on what you want. It's nice once in a while for somebody ever to mention that, aside from theories.
Interviewer: But George Eliot wanted sympathy. She wanted her readers to break down the barriers of class and consciousness and the barriers of selfishness, and to feel with other people. I think that, for her, was the highest state of consciousness.
George Oppen: I do too. Her morality can be attacked, and will be attacked now by a great many people, and it's absolutely non-political. It doesn't put forward a programme. And as to women, it seems to accept how women are at the moment.... The point about this ... this. This is a little bit difficult.... There's a metaphysic of morality, and I don't know if George Eliot covered that. I mentioned it somewhere. You see, this is a question ‘of being numerous’, that is, of the concept of mankind. Now, again, I'm not moralising, I didn't invent this; I just say it exists and we can't be happy without it. I pointed out, people of a certain age (a certain age I might well say!): the length of time we might possibly live is not an unimaginable length of time, in terms of one's memory. It's less than one has experienced.
If they had, say, twenty years before the world was going to end, they would probably not bother to live it out. The end of one's own life is by no means equivalent to the end of the world. There is something called humanity which makes it possible for us to live. It's a metaphysical concept. The old men in the Indian tribe in my poem were dancing for the return of the sun. They're not going to be alive very long. They care.
There's a metaphysic of morality which absolutely must be taken - and I'm talking about a pure hedonism: what we want. But the metaphysic is there; it's in us. We can't disregard this little factor. Socrates tried to, you know. It's a tragic and touching scene....
Interviewer: But so much contemporary writing ...
George Oppen: Oh, indeed it does!
Interveiwer: ... does totally ...
George Oppen: Oh, indeed it does!
Interveiwer: ... ignore the fundamental humanism of what you're describing.
George Oppen: This metaphysical humanism: there's something we believe. There's something we want mankind to be or to become, and that's all we care about, actually. And where we use the word ‘moral’, it's one of those funny words. It 's very hard, and I believe particularly, it's hard to make a word mean what it didn't mean to start with. We think we did and we don't. Moralis means the common practice around us, the manners. We find we use the word morality where we think something involves the destiny of mankind. I'm sorry for the pretensions... but that's where we use the word ‘moral’.
(Interview transcribed and made available by Andrew and Natalia Brighton during the Norwich years)