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THE HUMAN DIMENSION An Interview with Writer-Philosopher Charles Johnson CHARLES MUDEDE Ch a r l e s J o h n s o n i s one of the most prominent writers living in America today. He has published three novels, twenty screenplays, and dozens of essays and reviews. In 1990 his novel Middle Passage earned him the National Book Award; last year he was named a MacArthur fellow by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. His latest novel is Dreamer, a fictionalized account of the last year in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. This month sees the publication of I Call Myself an Artist: Writings by and about Charles Johnson (from Indiana University Press, edited by Rudolph Byrd). Charles Johnson, who is the Pollock Professor of English at the University of Washington, is a philosopher by training and, as in Sartre’s fiction, this is reflected in his books, which med236 Reprinted from Real Change (1 June 1999), with permission. itate on questions of being and race (which happens to be the title of one of his books). As a thinker, Johnson has clear and useful ideas about art and society. He is a humanist, meaning his point of reference, the area which absorbs him most, is that which involves the human condition, and how that condition can be improved and better understood. I met this great writer in his office on the UW campus. He has a very warm personality, and this warmness permeates his office. Or was it, perhaps, the slanted late-winter sunlight streaming through the window behind him that made him and his room feel so warm? Whatever it was, I felt very comfortable in his presence; I didn’t feel intimidated or uneasy, but just there, a warm being sitting in the sunlight. MUDEDE: I wanted to start off with a discussion of how you became a philosopher, considering that philosophers think about society and life and how the world works. How has philosophy brought you to becoming a writer? JOHNSON: You know, philosophers are writers. Traditionally , you look at Plato, who writes dialogues, which are both a philosophical form and also a dramatic form. The dialogues are dramatic settings, right? Some of my favorite writers among philosophers were also very literary people as well. George Santayana comes to mind; Sartre comes to mind; Camus has the equivalent of our master’s degree in philosophy. In Germany and France there is an intellectual tradition that both of those countries have that we really don’t have in America. Americans seem to be very anti-intellectual. There’s always been interplay between philosophers and literature. Then there are some magnificent prose stylists in philosophy like Arthur Schopenhauer . TheWorld asWill and Representation, I think, is gorgeous. It’s gorgeous writing. Even in translation it comes across. Then you have some people who can’t write at all, like Hegel. His is a really turgid and impossible style. But I started out when I was a philosopher as a cartoonist, The Human Dimension (1999) 237 for fun, on the side. Cartooning led me to journalism, because I’d publish my drawings and also write at the same time, which was again fun for me. I never seriously intended to become a writer until 1970, when a novel occurred to me that I really wanted to do. I looked at black American literature and I didn’t see many philosophical writers. I saw three, principally: Wright, Ellison, and Toomer. So there was this void, not only in America in terms of the philosophical novel, but also in black American literature. With my background in philosophy, I thought that I could fill that void. So I wrote the first novel. That’s really why I showed up to be a writer, to write a specific kind of novel. Not a novel of ideas, so to speak, but really the philosophical novel. A novel that explores the dimension of thought and feeling that you just don’t get in most American literary traditions. That’s why I became a writer. Now, I did a lot of other things for reasons like they are fun to write and they make money, such as screenplays and literary journalism. I write everything and anything because it will all improve your skills, whatever it is. There is no assignment that I feel is too humble in terms of developing mastery. So actually I started...


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