Ed Pavlic: The Social Challenge of Physical Distancing


Rob Johnson talks to poet and scholar Ed Pavlic about how the pandemic’s physical distancing requirement forces us to reassess all of our relationships and how racism and inequality intensify the pandemic’s effects

Transcript

Rob Johnson:

I’m here today with my friend, Ed Pavlic. He’s the Distinguished Research Professor of English and African American Studies at the University of Georgia. He’s got a number of just superb books and books of poetry. His latest, which just came out, I think a matter of two or three weeks ago, it’s called, Let It Be Broke. And I will tell you, and I said to him in our background discussion, the first poem in that book almost broke me. It was just so powerful about race in America. We’ll come back to that in a little bit. Ed has also been a major, major scholar, deep dive on the life and mind of James Baldwin. Ed, thanks for joining me today.

Ed Pavlic:

Oh, man, always a pleasure, Robert. Great to be with you.

Rob Johnson:

Well, you… How would I say? I look at your writings and I don’t even know where to begin, but let’s just begin. There’s a pandemic, there’s a world, you’re an artist and you’re a scholar, what do you see in your lens? What do you want to share with the world right now?

Ed Pavlic:

Yeah, yeah. Well, the way it works out, I think is that most of my work, no matter what it’s about, what its focus is, when I was doing it, most of my work is about what goes on in the space between people. And I think situations like this, a pandemic like this, and the various kinds of crises that it enacts, disturbs, creates, it kind of illuminates things that are usually invisible going on in the space between people. And the terrible thing, of course, is that it puts into jeopardy relationships that we take for granted. But the thing that becomes kind of possible in times like these, is that it makes visible relationships that we take for granted and makes them conscious, makes us conscious of those relationships often because they’re in jeopardy.

And so I think about all the people that we depend on weekly or daily, the people that make our kids lunch at schools, the teachers, of course, in those schools, the bus drivers that get them to school, the people who are working in doctor’s offices, dentist’s office, and how life has been impossible without these people or at least life as we knew it or know it, is impossible without them. And I think times like these where we have to think about our relationship with people like that, and many others, as well as deal without those relationships on a temporary basis, we hope, makes their value to us and us to them clearer than it can often be. And so kind of in a long way of saying it, I think this is an opportunity for all of us to reassess our relationships to each other.

And I hope why can’t the future insist that those relationships be right relationships, that I can live my life and the people who are making my life possible can also live their lives. That’s the thing. And I think often in a way our world usually works, those kinds of comings and goings are, like I say, taken for granted. They’re invisible and often they’re not working in equitable fashion at all, to say the least.

Rob Johnson:

Well, the power of what you might call monopolization in superstars and hero systems, et cetera, has dominated our discourse in what we call worship or cherish in economic commerce. But in fact, what you might say, the price and the value may be very different things, the value of these people, what you refer to as labor in the shadows is really the essence. And right now it’s been, particularly in the health realm, put on center stage to illustrate its importance and our under-investment in those things which are… How would I say? There to support everyone.

Ed Pavlic:

That’s right. They make it all happen. Under-investment is a mild way of putting it.

Rob Johnson:

Oh, yeah.

Ed Pavlic:

So tremendous amount of violence that takes place in those relationships between the capital that runs the world and the people that are actually doing the labor that makes the world run. It’s violence and all kinds of levels. And behind all that is actual violence. Because if you want to change those relationships, it’s not too long before. You’re looking at a gun, or police, or the national guard or whatever. So, yeah. And beyond that, I mean, just in our daily lives, like I’m the person that’s almost always in the world looking for a closer relationship to the people around me, at work, in the street, at the gym, in family. That’s what I want to do. I want to get close. I want to know how you’re doing. I want to know what you’re doing, how you’re feeling, and want to know to what extent I can know. What is the quality of other people’s lives?

But at the same time, I often feel like, and sometimes people even tell me in all kinds of ways, not everybody feels that way. There are a lot of people that live their lives kind of in recoil from other people around them, hiding from other people around them. Move to suburbs, move to gated communities, move to the patterns in American life that disperse us from each other. And I think that the social distancing thing now has again made us all newly conscious of how all that works.

And for people like me, it’s the first time I’ve ever felt, “Okay, am I too close to this person?” You know what I mean? And for others I think maybe in the life of a person who insists on a kind of distance from other people around them in whatever way, racial distance, class distance, just spatial distance, physical distance, emotional distance.

I wonder if people who live with an insistence on those kinds of things, I wonder if this makes them more conscious of the cost of that and how when it really happens to you, when people really can’t come near you. Maybe things aren’t as great. Maybe a lot of people who think they live that way don’t really live that way. You know what I mean?

Rob Johnson:

Yeah.

Ed Pavlic:

So maybe this insistence now here that we have to, which of course we do have to do to be conscious of our spatial proximity to each other. Maybe that can cause some valuable reflection in a lot of different kinds of people. But that won’t happen unless there are voices to focus us on those kinds of things. Leaders who have these things in mind. I’m not so sure that’s all the time the case.

Rob Johnson:

Well, you’re much more sensitive to language than I am, but I resent the phrase social distancing. I think it’s physical distancing and using technology to deepen social connection.

Ed Pavlic:

There you go. Yes. Even in the phrases this stuff gets transmitted and amplified. I admit, when I first heard social distancing I was like, “Well damn, I thought we were socially distanced enough and if we get anymore socially distanced, we won’t know anybody’s out there at all”. So, right.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. Well, Ed, one of the things that you’ve written and explored a lot in both your poetry and writing is what I might call the combination of race and inequality.

Ed Pavlic:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

And your long, long poem at the start of your new book, All Along It Was A Fever, is in my opinion a masterpiece.

Ed Pavlic:

Oh, thanks.

Rob Johnson:

I remember it, I think it was titled because your daughter Suci was singing a song by Rihanna?

Ed Pavlic:

That’s right. Stay. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Rob Johnson:

And that is a lyric from within but-

Ed Pavlic:

That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

… but the way in which you explore what we might call otherness and the false consciousness and the way in which we decide on things like law enforcement and incarceration and professional hierarchies and access to healthcare, and how you wove that through your experience, how the arts move you, how your family experiences their identity, how you experience your identity, the tragedies that you experienced in college. This is an amazing 40 so pages of a long poem and the language is beautiful, because it takes you into that place that you referred to at the outset, that is closer between people.

Ed Pavlic:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

And the ugliness in some manifestations, and I think when you were in Wisconsin there were a number of chapters that you bounced back and forth. It’s kind of like you show us different acts in a Sikh in a mosaic not linearly, but the patterns integrate so well. Does the pandemic… I mean this book was finished before the pandemic became evident.

Ed Pavlic:

Oh yes.

Rob Johnson:

But when I see statistics like in Atlanta they say that 80% of the people-

Ed Pavlic:

Yeah, in Georgia, mm-hmm (affirmative).

Rob Johnson:

Oh, it’s the whole state? Okay.

Ed Pavlic:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Rob Johnson:

80% of the people who have this are black.

Ed Pavlic:

Yeah. Who died from COVID-19. That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

That’s horrible.

Ed Pavlic:

Over 80%. I mean you think about it, who has the opportunity to distance themselves from somebody else physically? Who has that many rooms in their house? Who has a nuclear family? Who has a job that you can go to via computer? And of course all those things break down in class and racial terms. In the south, class and race are so absolutely tightly intertwined, totally inextricably intertwined, that it doesn’t surprise me that much, a statistic like that.

At the same time, too, though, Robert, what I was thinking about this before is that I do think that my inclination toward the presence of other people is about the way I was raised in black cultural spaces and with black families. I don’t think I got that out of the blue, I don’t think it was genetically encoded in me. I think that’s something that’s wired into black culture, and also wired into black power. The black power has come from collective endeavor in a very, very, very important way, in ways that most of American culture in kind of standard mythological terms doesn’t really recognize. But in black culture it’s very, very well recognized.

And so to ask people who are already mainstream America, whatever you want to call folks, who are already physically and socially distanced from each other, to physically distance from each other is one thing. Okay, fine, we’ve kind of been doing that already. But to ask black folks, especially black folks in the South I think, to do that is really… That’s calling up some really powerful patterns in the culture and families and personal and the way people move their bodies in the world every day, every minute. They need to be now readjusted and in some ways reversed. And even if people have the capacity, the space in their house, the room in their life to do this, there is a culture of togetherness that needs to be readjusted.

Rob Johnson:

Well, just think about gospel music.

Ed Pavlic:

Absolutely.

Rob Johnson:

And the nature of the black church, there’s evidence there. My mother-in-law, my wife, as you know, is African-American.

Ed Pavlic:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

My mother-in-law is just… How would I say? Thank God she’s sophisticated with a computer and can attend church services electronically but it’s not the same. It’s not the fraternity, the comradery, the neutral support of that live interaction and it’s a big hole in a life that’s been nourished by that. Especially been nourished by that while hanging together and inspiring one another to collectively resist the oppression that’s weight hanging over them.

Ed Pavlic:

Because those collectives of people, bodies in the room, bodies and movement in space together are responsible for the survival of black people here. This is not like the cherry on top of the sundae, this is the whole thing. And so that’s key. When we see statistics like that, it’s true that obviously poverty levels and employment levels and the way that careers and professional labor work out, versus manual labor and so forth like that, work out are responsible for that, but I think it’s interesting to think about how this works culturally as well.

I mean I was at the playground because they closed the way, so I was on the basketball court outside again for the first time in a while, so I’m at the playground and even up into mid and late March, I would try and go over there when there was nobody there, which was itself just a totally unprecedented thing in my life and I’m trying to find an empty basketball court.

So I’d get there and then some dudes would show up and they want to play and I’d be like, “Man, we can’t be doing this right now”, and they were looking at me like I was crazy. So they finally had to close the parks and just put a lock on the thing because folks weren’t going to do it.

And I remember, I wrote a couple friends of mine saying, “Yeah, man, these dudes still were playing out there five on five in the middle of this thing”. And I said, “You think when we were 25 and someone told us we couldn’t play basketball because of this thing, you think we would quit?” They were like, “Hell no we wouldn’t quit.”

So it’s a lot, but statistics like that are shocking, and we need leaders to go into communities, who can explain this to people, say, “You, this is not the way we want to live, this is not where we come from, this is not who we are, but for this time, Mom, you’ve got to watch the church online. You’ve got to do it.” Well, we’re doing the same with my mother-in-law a few weeks ago. So, yeah.

Rob Johnson:

Well, and as you’re talking about… How would I say? Music, I remember there was a passage in your poem about Miles Davis talking about how music becomes like part of your… It’s part of your body, it’s not a cerebral detached activity. And he said that black artists came into his body in a way that white music often did not do.

Ed Pavlic:

He said that when he was in an interview talking about his childhood and how he used to listen to the radio, there was a band stand show that would be right before he would have to go off to school in the morning. And he said, “I listened to the radio for 15 minutes, before school every morning I listened to bands”. And he stopped himself, and this was in the ’80s, he stopped himself and he said, “I mean the black band, the white bands wouldn’t come into my body”. And I just thought it was such an interesting statement. Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

Well, I think they’re… How would I say? There are these different nature and structure of different sub-communities within our society. As your poem builds out the kind of, as I call, otherness and the kind of cold legitimacy of otherness, it’s something that one might… I don’t mean it’s legitimate, but the way in which people you might call occlude their observation or curtail their consciousness to appear legitimate, which is probably a way of… which you might call protecting oneself when afraid.

Ed Pavlic:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

But the fear is heightened, and the pressures are great, the risk of despair is greater and obviously I’ve heard a wonderful saying in an argument the other day, we’re not all in the same boat, we’re all in the same sea. People have different qualities of life raft. But we’re all being challenged.

Ed Pavlic:

That’s for sure.

Rob Johnson:

The question and one of the reasons, I mean I knew I would call you to join me in this podcast because you’ve shared so many insights with me and your awareness of, say, how Aretha Franklin changed her singing on the records related to Amazing Grace in relation to what she did with that black church community, live. These kind of insights that you keep excavating are extraordinary.

Ed Pavlic:

Yeah, and they’re all related to the same thing. Well, in a way they’re all kind of linked. Even Aretha, in those moments there in ‘72 between when she had those performances in January, when that album was released in the summer. Even she, having performed in that embodied, collective space of the church in live fashion with James Cleveland and the band and the choir and the audience or the church and her father, and just the way she was totally immersed and she immersed in them and they immersed in her voice.

Rob Johnson:

Yes.

Ed Pavlic:

Everybody together, kind of flesh of each other’s flesh. Even after that, to have her go back to the studio in New York, and become a pop soul superstar again, outside the church now in the studio in the secular space, and to reassert her own voice over and above all of that interrelation, it’s just so moving to experience. It’s confounding but you understand it because of course the market world is real and Aretha was professionally ambitious just like everybody else is. But to have such a clear example of the self in communion on one hand, and the self in kind of individual aspiration on the other hand, both performing like the identical music, but in discernibly different way.

Just the difference between those recordings are as vivid an account of the kind of mechanisms of communion on one hand and individuation on another. As moving an encounter as that, as I’ve ever run into. I was so surprised because I really didn’t know that when I went into first listening to those different recordings of that material, of course all of that instigated by the appearance of the great Amazing Grace film in 2018, or ‘19? I don’t know, was it ‘18, yeah?

Rob Johnson:

Yeah, ‘18 December. Yeah.

Ed Pavlic:

Well I was just… I hadn’t listened to all of that that closely but when I started to listen closely the differences in those terms were so interesting and so moving and in some ways so disturbing.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. I remember the way you dissected for the Boston review, the song Holy Holy, the Marvin Gaye song and how it was transformed. But what we’re really talking about here generically is the difference between art and what you might call refractory commodification of art, when you gave him the market. I remember one man who was a mentor to me in my youngest days in Detroit, John Sinclair, he contributed with another writer to a volume called music and politics. And he said the difference between what you might call the rather violent racially polarized community of Detroit and the Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson airplane world of San Francisco at the same time in the sixties, produced very different musics. But he feared at that time and said this consciously in the early 1970s, he feared that when people started composing music for a national or international market, the songs would be gaming the audience, not reflecting the conditions of life.

Ed Pavlic:

Yeah. That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

And I think that… How would I say? Aretha was carrying a lot of responsibility and when she rerecorded those vocals to be, say, perhaps less threatening to some of the audiences that were outside that church, she was probably always, say, carrying a responsibility.

Ed Pavlic:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

I don’t think she was unmindful. I think she was quite aware and deliberate.

Ed Pavlic:

Yes, very aware. Aware in ways conscious and not conscious.

Rob Johnson:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ed Pavlic:

Now, I think there’s just, in the life of a performer like Aretha, just when you get into a certain space, like a church, you will operate in a certain way whether you want to or not. Say with the studio. You know what I mean? It’s an atmosphere you enter and she had been so much in all those different venues that there’s almost a self waiting for her when she walks in.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. Yeah.

Ed Pavlic:

Then she occupies and it plays out. It’s a version of herself. Really amazing. And this is true of all us but as with everything else, the way this plays out in the repertoire of one of the great genius performers ever makes these things more vivid and more incredible than they are just in our own kind of mundane and daily activities where we’re doing these same things all the time.

Rob Johnson:

And those almost invisible forces when they impact a great artistic performance, make you shutter as to how pervasive they are and how that correspondence we were talking about between the nature of work, between value and reward is quite haunting, I would think.

Ed Pavlic:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

Now there’s… We can bridge from Aretha because when you and I first met, you had written this magnificent book around the life and consciousness and strategy of James Baldwin. And I remember very clearly that Baldwin, and you’ve described to me, envisioned himself in his correspondence with his family and so forth, is having different, what I’ll call modules of personality.

Ed Pavlic:

Sure.

Rob Johnson:

But one of the things about Baldwin was he was very aware that that public, what I will call martial artist of the word, the stiletto debater, began to feel that he could win the debate and lose on the change in the issue that were dear to his heart.

Ed Pavlic:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

And you described in your book the song, I wonder from Aretha arrives and how he had an epiphany where he, I believe Baldwin said something to the effect that, she speaks both to the people and the person at the same time.

Ed Pavlic:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

And he confided in other artists in particular, Ray Charles, and they conducted experiments about the relationship between poetics for healing and which you might call logic in debate.

Ed Pavlic:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Rob Johnson:

Tell us a little bit about what you learned in how Baldwin transformed his strategy for making a difference.

Ed Pavlic:

Wow. I mean, he had so many strategies and was out to make so many differences. It’s hard down. But in the big picture, I think any reader who goes, you could pick any James Baldwin essay or any chapter of a novel and start reading it and there’s an intimacy in the address that there’s a way that Baldwin, the way Baldwin is using language when you read it, just feels closer to you than it is when you read the language with someone else working with it. Okay. Where’s that come from?

Well, I think at the bottom it comes from Baldwin who was experienced in the church too. And with the music, especially as a young kid growing up in Harlem, in a Pentecostal church where you had people trying to create on a Wednesday night or a Sunday afternoon, they tried to recreate the sensation of being of one body, trying to take people coming from all kinds of different places in their lives and rhythms of the day and put them in that room and bring them into one being. Baldwin experiences were very, very, very intensely for the first 15 years of his life or so because of his family and afterwards, because he wasn’t going to be… He was going to live his life as a preacher or a choir member.

He wanted to be a writer. So in order to be a writer, he had to leave that world in a very abruptly and in some ways go very far from that world to function. But I think at the same time he needed the space clearly to work as a writer and to think and feel and move. But he also was every word, every phrase really trying to recreate that sense of connection and the link between his work as a writer and his early say, work, his early life in that and with the experience of that connection in the church with music.

Because it could operate in the life of a writer and in the life of the church. And so when he came across Aretha when she started to sing, when he came across her work pretty much in the mid sixties and the later sixties, 1967 or so, when she has started to record with Atlanta records, he could hear, now, here’s a person doing like both what I want to do as a writer and also what those churches were there to do at the time. Now between the time when Baldwin was in the church as a kid and as a writer in the sixties, you had the black church mobilizing the civil rights movement in explicitly political fashion, which Baldwin was there to observe closely along the way. And so I think that makes a certain kind of structural sense how it is that he came to have such a great regard for Aretha, but not only Aretha, many, many other singers.

The Edwin Hawkins Singers and then, Oh Happy, this song, Baldwin took that song with him to Turkey and listened to it again and again and again. He told these guys at this underground, [inaudible 00:29:50] nightclub in Turkey, “Play it whenever I come into club”. They played it whenever he came in the club. And so, he lived very close to that music. And it makes sense to me both in his life, social life, but as well as in his work as a writer. And then, Baldwin had another career as a performer and a speaker as well, and he tried to make that happen and those venues as well. Yeah.

Ray Charles along for all of that. Of course, all along the way, long before Aretha was in James Baldwin’s mind or anybody else’s, Ray Charles was out there doing it kind of inventing the genre. So in the mid fifties and Baldwin and he got into connection with each other in the sixties and in the seventies and actually performed, as you know Robert, they performed together in the early 1970s and the summer of 1973 in Carnegie Hall which was quite an occasion that sadly was lost to history until I kind of uncovered it, which is interesting. Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. And as I recall, Baldwin did a proportion of this presentation as spoken word.

Ed Pavlic:

Yes.

Rob Johnson:

Ray Charles obviously did musical and lyrical metaphors around the same theme.

Ed Pavlic:

That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

The reviewers criticized and were very hostile towards Baldwin and affirmed Ray Charles.

Ed Pavlic:

Yeah. Definitely because of course the reviewers of that performance, which is called the Hallelujah Chorus, and it was part of the Newport Jazz Festival, which had venues in New York city that year as well. The reviewers were mainly music people, so they knew Ray Charles very well and respected him and loved him very dearly in their own minds especially and Baldwin as someone they knew of, but who knows what they thought of James Baldwin. One thing that was clear about the reception of that performance was however, that no musical reviewer had any taste for Baldwin’s politics in connection to Ray Charles music. They wanted people to understand these things as totally separate from each other. These guys were totally different. They came from different worlds. They had nothing in common.

It was kind of a weird folly to put them on stage together in the first place. And Ray did his ready to go with the music of course, because Ray is always going to go with the music, especially according to the music writers. But Baldwins there was regrettable in the whole thing that didn’t work. In hindsight clearly that’s not any objective way the case or from other subjective points of view. Absolutely not the case. But I think the way that performance was reviewed and read at the time it was instructive historically speaking. In that way.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah.

Ed Pavlic:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Rob Johnson:

I also remember, you talked about the sensitivity of Baldwin and there was a book that you turned me on to, I think it was called Nothing Personal.

Ed Pavlic:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

It involved Richard Avedon’s photography.

Ed Pavlic:

Right. And he had gone to high school with Baldwin.

Rob Johnson:

I’m sorry, say again?

Ed Pavlic:

Baldwin and Richard Avedon were in high school together.

Rob Johnson:

Oh, that’s right. That’s right. I don’t remember that. But there was this tenderness, this depth that you have alluded to in Baldwin where he’s talking about in a time of great anxiety, in great despair, not unlike what many of us are living now, that kind of, you realize that you won’t be there forever.

Ed Pavlic:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

And he says sometimes at 4:00 A.M. this knowledge is almost enough to force a reconciliation between one self and all one’s pain and error, since anyway it will end one day, why not try it life one more time?

Ed Pavlic:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

And as I look at where the world sits now, many of the crutches, many of the false consciousness elements and rules and modes of behavior are in tatters, they’ve been unmasked as inadequate by the pandemic.

Ed Pavlic:

Right.

Rob Johnson:

And that creates kind of a void that creates a very, very anxious time. Not unlike Baldwins description of 4:00 A.M. but it’s his poetics in my view. It’s that insight about reaching the heart. It’s insights that you say that come from the church in his formative years where I think there are clues to the kind of healing and restructuring of society that we must embark on at this juncture. We face daunting challenges of hostility across nations. I was reading today about all the penalties that Donald Trump says he wants to inflict on the Chinese. And you can see the Indians in India worrying about their ability to handle health and development and energy transformation and given the size, they’re almost 20% of the world’s population.

Ed Pavlic:

Right.

Rob Johnson:

And we all on earth benefit from a transformation of energy in India and to say it’s not our problem as wealthy economies it’s their problem, when we will benefit from them, which I might call retarding their pure economic development to be responsible with regard to carbon emissions, we’ve got so much coordination and so much challenge to do. To me, I mean Baldwin’s sense of the poetics, speaking to the people in the person touching the heart. It’s just got to play a role. I mean you’re a poet, so I’m speaking to the converted, but working papers and statistics have their place, but that’s not all that we need in the storytelling that allows us to rise to this occasion.

Ed Pavlic:

True. And where does that sense of each other going to come from? They come from the artists, us too.

Rob Johnson:

Well, in some of the clues, I think in work that you’ve shared with me that you haven’t yet published about how Baldwin fortified himself to go into the dungeon of creativity and find the inspiration and how much he depended upon the nourishment of others, family, friends, professional communities, different aspects of his… How would I say? Composite personality, but it was all about where does the creativity, where does the courage, where does the insight come from? It involved interpersonal-

Ed Pavlic:

That’s right.

Rob Johnson:

… interaction like you focused on in your new book.

Ed Pavlic:

Yes.

Rob Johnson:

Like you focus on in your life’s work, I should say.

Ed Pavlic:

Yeah. I mean that’s what it’s all about. I mean, consider it this way, Robert, like not only where does it come from, but where does it go to? Imagine if you had to create a picture of yourself, would you create only use things that other people would say about you? Introspection was off the table. Would you think about yourself is meaningless? The only thing important is the sense of yourself that you could gain from other people in the world.

How would our actions be if… Just personally as well as professionally in our lives and in our work, how different would how we expend our energy be if we were trying to author ourselves and eyes of other people in a way that we could tolerate, in a way that we can respect? And Baldwin, that’s kind of what he was in a way out to do. He understood that what he thought about himself was besides the point. It was other people thought. Not that he wanted to conform to the vision of other people but he just wanted to author that sense of himself in the world by works, and that’s what teachers do. And that’s what nurses do. And that’s what bus drivers do. That’s what carpenters do. That’s what a pizza maker does.

And that’s to say that it’s very healthy to think of ourselves as real, primarily or at least fundamentally as a result of our relations to other people and how those go rather than run away from all that into some borough where every night we retell the story to ourselves in a way that makes us the hero and says everybody else is wrong and so forth and so on. And again, that’s the kind of labor that we depend on every day and times like this make us very conscious of that dependence.

Rob Johnson:

Well, Ed, do you know I have a large group called The Young Scholars Initiative-

Ed Pavlic:

Right.

Rob Johnson:

We’re about 11000 strong in terms of membership now. And one of the things that I try to impart to them is that when you’re on this path of trying to create a purposeful and meaningful life, introspection plays an enormous role because you have to go into yourself critically and understand your own neediness, because if you don’t, you’re kind of bandied about trying to get metaphorically in front of parades that other people are running.

Ed Pavlic:

Yeah. Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

But if you can detach yourself, and I don’t mean to eliminate, but detach yourself so that you can understand your needs, it may free you to define your purpose and come back and not be pulled of course and be able to stick to your resolve and realize that purpose and have a more satisfying life.

Ed Pavlic:

Right. No, no. You need both. You need both.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah.

Ed Pavlic:

But too often I think, do we think of the creative art or the work of the artist as the solitary detached, secluded, isolated endeavor. And certainly privacy and solitude have their roles, but they’re not the only thing.

Rob Johnson:

That’s right.

Ed Pavlic:

And I’m sure often we have a sense of a creative life that… Or even a successful life or an enjoyable life which can be… I don’t know, overdetermined by solitude. Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ed Pavlic:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

And there’s a false consciousness in pretending to solitude.

Ed Pavlic:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

I’ll take this back to economics. Pretending you’re a dispassionate, objective scientist, when you exist in the context of peer review journals-

Ed Pavlic:

Well, right. Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

… promotions, government positions, consulting contracts, prestige, tenure, the… I can’t remember, H.L. Mencken I think in 1922 wrote this essay called the Dismal Science.

Ed Pavlic:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

And he started by saying the only people I trust less than theologians might be economists. Because when they think they are not free.

Ed Pavlic:

Right.

Rob Johnson:

And what he meant by that was when they think they understand how powerful people will react. And so they’re not free to take, which I might call the other side of the argument.

Ed Pavlic:

Right.

Rob Johnson:

And that perhaps unconsciously they are shaped in the direction of affirming power-

Ed Pavlic:

Right.

Rob Johnson:

… Securing their position in front of trustees and tenure committees and what have you-

Ed Pavlic:

Right. Sure. Of course.

Rob Johnson:

And this reflects the public good nature of expertise.

Ed Pavlic:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Rob Johnson:

We live in a time where, which you might call the credibility, faith and trust in the integrity of expertise, appears to be in tatters.

Ed Pavlic:

That’s true.

Rob Johnson:

And it’s exploited by fake news, but watch the President of the United States go after experts. And I’m not saying it’s all healthy, I think we need expertise. But when expertise ceases to be for the public good and starts to have a private agenda, like a magnetic field pulling it of course, it becomes compromised and people are right to be skeptical or suspicious. So that… How would I say? You could see people becoming an economist, getting involved in conformity, missing the punchline entirely and now looking in tatters at where we are, and I’m not saying that economists caused the pandemic, but it’s like you said at the outset, a whole lot of things that are now revealed to matter an awful lot weren’t valued very highly before this time.

Ed Pavlic:

Yeah. Yeah. We’re thinking it now.

Rob Johnson:

But we’re not just in the business of diagnosis and criticism. We’ve got to be in the embrace the task of filling the void with that future that, what you might call we might be more proud to hand to our children than what was on the platter as of Christmas time last year.

Ed Pavlic:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

But James Baldwin is a beacon of how to struggle. And I think you are the person, at least in my mind, who in addition to his own work, has interpreted that beacon in a way that’s helped me greatly to understand.

Ed Pavlic:

Me too. Me too. That’s the effort.

Rob Johnson:

So they’re, as I think you once called one of your drafts you shared with me, there’s no time to rest.

Ed Pavlic:

No time to rest.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah and I haven’t seen you rest since I’ve known you.

Ed Pavlic:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

You’ve been prolific and you just keep on going.

Ed Pavlic:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

What would you tell young people today of any discipline? What comes to your mind? What advice would you share with them about their… How would I say? The mission that they will be on in their life going forward.

Ed Pavlic:

Yeah. Figure out. The challenge for me was to figure out the way… Like what is there to do in the world, it allows you to be in the relationship to people that you want to be in. What can you do for people? What do you want to be around people doing and where in the world does that become possible? Because I think at the end of the day, if you’re not involved in relationships with people that are worthwhile, that are worth struggling for, not that it always makes you feel good, but something you can… At 4:00 AM in the morning like Baldwin is saying, you can kind of face what you’re about and what you’re about is measured in the way you relate to other people.

That’s the challenge because this world is kind of never sleeps in its efforts to put us at odds with each other and to make us salesmen for somebody else’s interests and make other people victims in those arrangement. So the great challenge is how to be, how to situate one’s life and one’s work in such a way that we can do some good for people. And then the people involved in the lines of work that do good for other people, they need to be in contact with each other so they can make what they do and its value known to the world.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah.

Ed Pavlic:

I was talking to a student a few months ago in my office and she was like, “Well, I want to be a teacher”. I was like, “Well, where do you want to work?” She said, “I don’t know”. I was like, well if you looked into like what cities, what states have teacher’s unions? She had never thought of it. It’s important because part of the work is about doing the work and part of it is about advocating for the work you do, which is also the work other people are doing. And so I think, it’s always that was both those things going on at the same time.

Rob Johnson:

While I’m on a group from your poem to bring us to a conclusion because you articulate in sample Baldwin in 1968 because people are always in great danger when they know what they should do and refuse to act upon the knowledge, there’s a call to action, but as I listened to you today and many days and read your work, it’s this, it’s Adrienne Rich who I believe was a very big influence in your life, who said there must be ways and we will be finding out more about them in which the energy of creation and the energy of relation can be united.

Ed Pavlic:

Absolutely.

Rob Johnson:

That comes pretty close.

Ed Pavlic:

Absolutely. That’s all about. Right.

Rob Johnson:

That’s how I understand Ed Pavlic.

Ed Pavlic:

Absolutely.

Rob Johnson:

And I will say to you in a personal tribute as you know, as we were in the Aspen Ideas Festival last year together and talked about this-

Ed Pavlic:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

My dearest friend of 47 years had passed away on December 1st, 2018 and he used to hang around in Aspen, had a bakery there for some time, his name was Rob K. Barry.

Ed Pavlic:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Rob Johnson:

And when the void opened up in my life and I’ve got lots of good friends and family, but the void of the everyday conversation I had with him and learning from… He was a Baker but very powerful, artistic and sophisticated politically, when that void opened up, probably the person I would say as of right now, who has most helped me fill that void in missing him is you.

Ed Pavlic:

Oh, man, yeah. Well, I’ve been there. I know how that is. Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah, but you just… How would I say? You got so much to say and it’s nice that you would come and join me and share it with us today.

Ed Pavlic:

It was a pleasure, man.

Rob Johnson:

Thanks for being here.

Ed Pavlic:

Absolutely. Love to do it.

Rob Johnson:

We’ll do it again soon.

Ed Pavlic:

Absolutely. Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

Bye. Bye.

Ed Pavlic:

Great.

About the Host

ROB JOHNSON serves as President of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

Johnson is an international investor and consultant to investment funds on issues of portfolio strategy. He recently served on the United Nations Commission of Experts on International Monetary Reform under the Chairmanship of Joseph Stiglitz.

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About the Guest

ED PAVLIC is the Distinguished Research Professor of English, African American Studies, and Creative Writing at University of Georgia. His most recent work is Another Kind of Madness: A Novel. Pavlic has written nine other books, including: Who Can Afford to Improvise?: James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listener; Let’s Let That Are Not Yet: Inferno; and Visiting Hours at the Color Line.

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