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Friday, July 12, 2002

Their rubber pliers clamp the valley

Supervisor Matt Gonzalez interviewed by artist Felix Macnee

Felix Macnee, 1977.  Tom Sawyerish. With dada earring.
Matt Gonzalez, 1968.  In Puerto Rico.  Fascinated by German Shepard.

Sunday afternoon, July 7, 2002. San Francisco Supervisor Matt Gonzalez and artist Felix Macnee got together for the second in their ongoing series of interviews. (For the first in this series, see December 17, Their rubber hammer strikes the sea.)

Felix Macnee: How have the dadaists affected your daily life?

Matt Gonzalez: Have you ever noticed how it is easier to have a conversation with someone who does not really listen to you? There's something both appealing and repulsive about that, I think. Appealing because you can actually make progress on whatever it is you're thinking of, and repulsive because it makes a person isolated and undermines the purpose of human relations. I always feel that way when we sit down and talk. That I'm going to make progress because of your inattention, or because of your foolishness. Like how you have decided to weigh me down with such a heavy question. The dadaists, as you know, had their first public event at a place in Zurich called Waag Hall, in about 1916. They were responding to the events of the day. Their absurdity and reliance on the incomprehensible was their method of coming to terms with WWI and some of them, Hugo Ball in particular, eventually pursued mysticism as an antidote. It is hard to take them out of their historical moment. But to answer your question directly, they have not affected me in my daily life.

FM: It's funny that you go into the appealing repulsiveness of "conversation" since I was just looking at a statement by Jean Arp: "Man talks enough to make the very rats sick to their stomach. After a fine speech he feels very hungry and changes his mind. " I think this flexibility toward meaning, context, etc., is essential to forward progress, which has its analog in chess, where one competes for space in a finite conversational realm. Except that in chess, you have to pay attention to the other's statements.

MG: The good player, particularly in chess, doesn't focus on the piece an opposing player moves, but rather, looks at the pieces that were not moved. It took me many years to understand that the landscape is more important than the figure in the foreground. As it relates to a person's speech, be it political or otherwise, it is what is unsaid that reverberates the loudest. I suppose you could call it flexibility, but I would rather cast it as hidden intentionality.

FM: It's interesting how political functioning seems enslaved to minutiae, yet has grandiose pretensions toward the idea of greater effect. How do you think this futility charges against the desire for meaning? Does it ultimately reside in the quiescence of the unmoved pieces?

MG: Are you asking me if the devil is in the detail? Grandiosity, in politics anyway, is about translating the specific, or even ignoring it , what you are calling minutiae, and casting the whole into recognizable and relevant social forms, some would say "sound bites." Grandstanding, which I abhor, has its roots in this transformation and has become the benchmark of the successful politician. It has certain similarities with translation from a foreign language, where one must not allow the details in a particular poem to enslave the translation. Not because you want to hide the original, but because you don't want to lose the romance of the language, or its cadence. Literalness in translation is doomed, just as in politics. The question of how much deviation from the actual is allowed, then, dictates how accurate the political message is – and that would be true of the translated poem too. And as for what you call the "quiescence of the unmoved piece," I would merely say that while an unmoved piece remains untouched, we mustn't forget that it is much looked upon.

FM: It seems you have an almost zen attitude toward the tasks set before you. There can only be what you are doing now, and if it has some positive result then so much the better. But I'm reminded of the Richard Hulsenbeck quote: "The word 'improvement' is in every form unintelligible to the Dadaist, since behind it he sees a hammering and sawing on this life which, though useless, aimless, and vile, represents as such a thoroughly spiritual phenomenon. " Do you see yourself as a translator of other people's desires, then? I don't really want to get into your role as a politician, but it seems inevitable.

MG: I would resist being associated with zen at all costs. Philip Whalen asked to be laid out on a bed of frozen raspberries when he died, and I am happy that he got his wish. But 21st-century politics requires more than a revolution of the mind; it requires movement on the street. Zen rhetoric – its consciousness – is so powerful that it allows immobility to masquerade as action. Yet it is only contemplative revolution and a vague "knowingness" – a complacency if you will – even if unintended. Concerning Hulsenbeck I would say that to the extent that improvement implies imperfection in the natural, I would be more comfortable with using the phrase "progress," as in "moving forward" without the hierarchy of "to make something better." Although perhaps it triggers the same concerns. But improvement in the spiritual realm denotes assumptions I am not prepared to make so I would agree with Hulsenbeck that it is unintelligible.

FM: Didn't I just see a book about zen on your desk at City Hall?

MG: Yes, it's true. Someone anonymously mailed it to me. So, perhaps, I will be changing my opinions in this regard. But I should say that, although I have a certain disdain for the revolutionary components of meditation (or lack thereof), I don't doubt its positive effects on the individual.

FM: You don't have any idea who sent it to you?

MG: No. I imagine that it was a secret admirer who wishes to "improve" my mind.

FM: Nietzsche said, "I have to be unprepared to be master of myself. " Do you think there's anything to that?

MG: Nietzsche's remark is interesting because to be unprepared for something you would have to either purposefully or accidentally place yourself in a situation that you had not anticipated properly. If it were the latter, and merely an accident, then Nietzsche is remarking how the master of oneself would be quick on his or her feet: he in essence elevates extemporaneous skills above other traits. The former possibility, that of choosing purposefully to lack preparedness, suggests that only risk takers can live, can truly know themselves. Have I examined myself carefully enough to answer this question? Well, I would say that while it is true that I have placed myself in situations that were uncertain in my life, in politics, or in the practice of law, I did it only because I wanted to live properly, and because I was willing to risk the outcome on principle. Was I unprepared? I cannot be certain now. But I could never, as Ball said, "bid chaos welcome, throw bombs, blow up bridges, and do away with ideas." I do not have a contempt for laws, so I am certain that I am not an anarchist. Hugo Ball was the first to accuse the anarchists, like Kropotkin and Bakunin, of all having been baptized Catholics and being landowners, but now I digress…

FM: You may not be an anarchist, but you are a gambler, I believe. Is there a sort of trust in fate? Has luck been good to you?

MG: I would say that I have certainly been lucky, but not that luck has been good to me. I want to resist giving "luck" person-like characteristics and acting as if "luck" could do things for me – like drive my car, or bring me breakfast…

FM: You have an assuredness which privileges you to think and feel as freely as you do. This is why you have something of value, and something which will ultimately triumph, not only in the narrow world of politics, but somewhere more important. But to contrast that, I wonder if you gamble in order to lose. That is to say, in order to safely lose. Is there a nobility in losing?

MG: I need another glass of wine if you are going to be this heavy with me. I would say that I gamble because I like to guess if the metal ball is going to find my favorite black numbers in roulette, the number 8 or 13, for instance. It helps me to pass the time while my friends play poker and think they are controlling the outcome. Gambling is pure chance, that I accept it is because I have been educated, have a college degree, and can count my losses. But no, I don't do anything because I want to lose. Nobility in losing? I don't know, but I think you either have nobility or you don't. Winners can certainly lack nobility, don't you think?

FM: Yes, but I wonder if that is just the point of view of an underdog . To win nobly is to do a great service. To lose nobly is not to do a disservice. Sometimes non-action is better than action. But why the fascination with chance? What is embedded in chance that has more mystery for you?

MG: But I am not fascinated with chance any more than I am fascinated by the fact that I wake up in the morning and step out of my house.

FM: Then what can possibly interest you in the fall of a silver ball onto either a red or a black slot?

MG: I am not interested in it if it lands on red, only if it lands on the black slot. But really, Felix, you are making it seem as if all I do is gamble. That I may have acquired this vice, which I do not even engage in once a year, is hardly a relevant matter. And I absolutely refuse to continue with these silly questions unless you open that bottle of merlot, over there.

FM: What's your favorite color?

MG: But green, of course.

FM: What book would you bring with you to a desert island?

MG: Don Quixote or Jacques the Fatalist.

FM: Who was your favorite Marx brother?

MG: Finally, some real questions! Karl or Groucho, I guess.

FM: How long until we have a female president?

MG: I would have to consult the cards…

FM: You've been a staunch supporter of artists and writers, such as Jack Micheline and Jack Hirschman. You're one of the most well-read people I know. What about literature, and particularly somewhat ignored or obscure literature, resonates with you?

MG: I liked Micheline because he sang songs and whistled at pretty girls as he walked down the street. Hirschman's work combines lyricism and politics, which is not an easy thing to accomplish. But I would not say that I prefer obscure literature. If you read a lot, you will inevitably deviate from the canon and find obscure works. That I like many of them shouldn't mask that I also dislike many of them.

FM: Is there one overarching idea or ideal that you aim for, in your job and in your life, or do you move from act to act, trusting the result will come of itself?

MG: Are you kidding?

FM: Yeah.

MG: Felix, seriously, where would it all lead if everyone wanted to delve deeply into everyone else's heart? We are, thank heaven, not yet so shameless as to sing litanies in the fish market. And with that I believe we should end this silly thing, which I hesitate to call an interview.

FM: Good luck in your race for mayor of Baltimore. I understand you'll be needing some new campaign posters, and you can count on me.

MG: I think we could probably recycle the old ones. But I'll let you know.

FM: Are you going to attribute that Hulsenbeck quotation?

MG: What? The one about singing litanies in the fish market? That's Hugo Ball. Everybody knows that!

FM: I think it was Eisenhower who said it. After the fish market comment he went on to say, "Generations will learn new songs about fruits and vegetables."

MG: "… green vegetables."

FM: I hope you can make it to the "dada" performance coming up. I'll be painting my left leg blue and roller skating around the stage with a roast beef strapped to my head.

MG: I hope that you consider performing under a pseudonym, so that no one will associate you with me. I wouldn't want it to damage me politically. And well, as you know, that is all I ever think about…

FM: Okay, I'll use the name "Matt Gonzalez."

MG: Perfect!