Bad Thoughts & The Politics Of The Polysyllabic: An Interview With Mark Dery
R.U. SIRIUS: Among the things that are evidenced in your writing is a fascination with some of the more perverse, sometimes morbid aspects of human behavior and the human condition combined with a fairly strong sense of moral outrage. Is there a sort of intellectual or literary legacy for this sort of thing that influenced you? Do these interests integrate sort of seamlessly for you or is there a bit of a Jekyll/Hyde thing going on?
MARK DERY: Funny thing: at dinner, the other night, a friend turned to me and pointedly asked, apropos of nothing, if I was Jewish. (She’s Jewish, so we shouldn’t assume any anti-semitic subtext, I suppose.) Perhaps she was struck by the table-thumping zeal of my philippic about Whatever It Was. (When I’m in my cups, I do tend toward the Menckenesque — sardonic critiques of something or other that veer at times into gonzo kvetch: Alvy Singer channeling Swift.) Or maybe she found my hermeneutics of pop culture, my close readings of even the most seemingly throwaway social texts, so Talmudic that I merited honorary membership in that tribe that occasionally refers to itself as the People of the Book.
But my guess is that my dinner table fulminations were kindled by some sort of moral outrage, as you call it, and that my friend lept to the assumption that anyone possessed of such “moral seriousness,” to quote Sontag, must be Jewish. (As it happens, I’m the usual Anglo-Irish-Scottish mongrel, with a stunted French branch or two struggling for life on the far side of the family tree.) Truth to tell, I’ve always bridled instinctively at the first proposition in Sontag’s thesis, in “Notes on Camp,” that “the two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.” Not only does it imply that Jewish intellectuals hold the copyright on moral gravitas, the essentialist implications of which I find odious, but I believe Jewish thought and culture are ill-served by the sort of humorless rectitude Sontag insists on.