David Schiffman and “Acts of Courage”

In your interview with David Schiffman [Issue 138], I found myself again and again troubled by his responses to your questions. Why? Was I envious? Here was a man exactly my own age, who, by his own self­-portrait, had evolved a life of personal power, intensity, prestige, property, and obvious self-assurance far beyond mine. Since, in your introductory remarks, you clearly indicated that your doubts had been overcome in your personal interaction with him and in watching him work, I read the interview again and tried to give him his due. Quite to the contrary, something didn’t ring true. My heart remained closed and distrustful throughout, my mind argumentative.

Again, why? I’m not always envious of people with considerable personal power. But, in Schiffman’s case, there were simply too many statements which were self-justifying, self-flattering, and which oversimplified issues that are complex. I missed the element of doubt. There were many statements of how hard he had to struggle to get where he is, but nothing indicating current struggle, current conflict.

Here are some examples of statements which kept me at a distance: ” … I have perspectives that are worth a certain amount of money….” ” … By its nature, Esalen is a white, middle-class type of operation….” (What does “by its nature” explain?) ” … I live a decent life, and I have to pay for it. I have many mouths to feed: forty animals, two men who look after things, and me and my wife and the children….” (What are the “things” the two men he “has” look after? And do any of these mouths feed themselves?) ” … How hard-put people are to give up their ideals! The greater challenge is to surrender your high-mindedness….”

Concerning this last remark, it seems to me that ideals and high-mindedness are not necessarily the same thing. Certainly, idealism can cast the dark shadow of high-mindedness. One needs to be aware of a false or shallow investment in one’s ideals, and of the temptation to use one’s ideals to avoid acknowledgement of one’s reality. But I’m not so sure the solution here is to give them up. And isn’t even the desire to give up ideals also an ideal? “I do my best not to be anything but an ordinary man doing some useful work ….” Do I detect a note of pride in this humble statement?

The need for more doubt in David Schiffman’s self-presentation became most clear to me in his attempt to accommodate his wild man side with domestic loyalty. He says he’s learned to embrace the sexual luster in everything he does, and yet not “personalize” it, except with his wife. I understand the fine line he is trying to discern here, but I mistrust his confidence, the ease he has with it all. To me, he is saying that he can symbolize his wild side (” … How much I value and need this wildness, which is not going to be domesticated for anybody … “) without having to act on it, or, as he puts it, “without having to fuck anybody about it.” Perhaps. But isn’t there always a need for doubt when we symbolize instead of act? The title of the interview is “Acts of Courage,” not “Symbols of Courage.”

Schiffman says of his wife and marriage: “If there’s a climate of uncertainty in terms of loyalty, that can be an irksome matter, but Elisa has been a loyal wife. She’s made that very evident to me a variety of times. She doesn’t strain me. That’s not a part of the structure of our relationship. I can be peaceful about that.” Does this mean he can be peaceful that his wife can also symbolize the wild woman in her (” … the gang of [women] that live in [her] that [also] all love to fuck … “) without having to act?

This all begins to strike me, possibly, as big talk. At least is it not possible that there are some unworked-out areas here? Schiffman says of his own wayward temptations: “How much trouble do I want to make for myself? Not much! I mean, what’s a couple of squirts….” OK, put in those terms, what are a couple of squirts, one way or the other? If they are potential disaster, or even trouble, doesn’t that trouble still underlie the relationship, even if one avoids the temptation and symbolizes the wild energy by fixing trucks, raising animals, wearing a boar’s tooth around one’s neck, shooting arrows, or doing other “wild” things?

In the end I am far less sure of David Schiffman’s answers than he seems to be. And I am reminded again of the dangers of calling anything one’s own, be it perspectives, or wife, or children, or animals, or job, or hired men, lest one drift into a kind of attitude that one deserves what one has, that one has earned it. When this attitude is carried to an extreme, we see modern-day TV evangelists justifying their million-­dollar homes, salaried, bonuses, etc. as being simply their just desserts for doing God’s work. Certainly I don’t accuse Schiffman of such blatant hypocrisy, but in such a statement as “I have perspectives that are worth a certain amount of money,” I see a seed that is deserving of some serious questioning, before it sprouts into a root system.

Jim Ralston
Petersburg, West Virginia

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