For over fifty years, through twenty books and one Pulitzer Prize finalist, Susan Griffin has been making unconventional connections between seemingly separate subjects. Whether pairing ecology and gender in her foundational work Woman and Nature, or the private life with the targeting of civilians in A Chorus of Stones, she has shed a new light on countless contemporary issues, including climate change, war, colonialism, the body, democracy, and terrorism.
She answers the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:
- An exploration of the boundaries or “binding” of gender
- The relationship between matter and spirit
- The value of writing, “a sort of miracle, of something being created”
- That “people need meaning… as much as food, water, and air” and that meaning often comes through stories
- Book: Out of Silence, Sound. Out of Nothing, Something by Susan Griffin
Connect with Susan Griffin
Vicki Robin: Hi, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right, a project of the Post Carbon Institute. We interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good; and social artists, people who feel deeply and inspire us.
Today’s guest is Susan Griffin, and our conversation plumbed the inner dimensions of our multiple crises we are facing, in fact that we are in the middle of. She has novel takes on this transition we are in, that we are becoming a web rather than hierarchies.
Susan has written over 20 books, including nonfiction, poetry and plays. Her work addresses many social and political issues: social justice, the oppression of women, ecology, war and peace, economic inequalities, and democracy. Often she approaches her subject at a slant, using and following the music of language metaphors, stories and incidents from her own life to reveal the underside of larger histories and realms.
Her book, A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and a New York Times notable book of the year when it was published. Woman and Nature, considered a classic of environmental writing, is credited for inspiring the eco-feminist movement. The Book of Partisans introduced a hidden chapter in women’s history. Her new book is Out of Silence: Sound Out of Nothing, Something: a Writer’s Guide. And now here’s this wonderful conversation with Susan Griffin.
Vicki Robin: Hello, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right. My guest today is Susan Griffin. Welcome Susan and thank you for agreeing to share your wisdom with all of us. I am such a fan. In your body of work, you consistently weave personal stories of longing and loss with immense issues of war, assault on nature, racism, extraction, sexism, democracy and more. So you do a weave, you plumb your own life courageously, as well as histories and biographies and psychology and scholarship, to show us the basic split that drives us to ruin: the split between nature and human will, masculine and feminine self and other, and body and soul.
I love it. It’s like you paint with ideas and words and stories. You paint a picture, you don’t just march along. Most often people address this crisis by dissecting it, by trying to fix the problem rather than heal the soul. And you do just the opposite. So you are a unique guest for us, you who can shine a light on the soul of the earth and our human presence.
What sense are you making of this time of coming apart? What connections between issues or disparate ideas are you seeing? What metaphors or stories are you drawing on now to understand and respond to these upheavals? And finally, and most importantly, how and where do you see light shining through? Are we in a healing crisis? What is trying to be born now?
So I hope you will muse with us on this invitation. I will ask you now our one question: Amidst all that seems to be going awry, what could possibly go right?
Susan Griffin: Wonderful. Well, you’re probably going to be surprised at my answers. But one of the things that’s going right or has gone right recently, which is really rattled the far right, is that drag queens are very popular now among determinately heterosexual people. Why? Why am I excited by that? Well, of course, there’s a lot of fun, and we all love to laugh. But there’s a deeper message there in what drag queens are doing.
I myself didn’t even get it in the late 70s, early 80s. I told one interviewer, I was a writer then too. I’ve told one interviewer that I thought that I was critical of drag queens because I thought they were satirizing women. That’s what they’re doing. I came soon after to really understand it. And I understand it better and better as I go on, what I’m going to quote here. RuPaul, he’s brilliant, I recommend everybody go to his website or find some place where he holds forth. He’s really quite brilliant.
One of the things he said that’s memorable is, “We’re all in drag”. Meaning, we’re all pretending, we’re all trying to fit into these categories of gender, which are really not very real. They’re based on ideology and power networks of power. They’re not there, they don’t reflect natural gender. Who knows what natural gender really is, but it’s certainly not what society demands of us. Therefore, what’s wonderful about the drag queens is that they’re challenging that whole system of gender, in a way that’s delightful. They’re poking fun, and it’s wonderfully freeing. By the way, women often dress in drag. I mean, and I’m not only talking about lesbians, I’m talking about women in general. Every once in a while, sort of tuxedo style becomes very popular, very fashionable. So it’s a wonderful release to cross over those boundaries.
My work has addressed those boundaries, the boundaries of gender, or the binding of gender might be a better way to put it, for years. I did it in one book called Woman and Nature, in which I associate the idea of gender with nature, and the exploitation of nature. And really, any group that has been devalued historically in the West, women, people of color, people of different nationalities are considered to be closer to nature. That’s usually one of the first justifications for them being treated as inferior, is that they’re closer to nature.
I’ll never forget, in I think it was in the 60s or 70s, when there was a California Senator, I can’t remember his name now; George Murphy maybe, he was inaccurate also. He said, Mexicans are better at doing farm work because they’re closer to the ground. Can you imagine? I mean, I hate to laugh at racism, but it is when you get down to brass tacks, it’s pretty stupid. But it’s anything that’s closer to the ground – by the way, the ground is inferior, even though it’s the ground we walk on, and the ground that has given birth to us, and the ground that establishes everything we know, every capacity we have to know, is considered inferior and beneath us.
There’s this illusion, which is furthered or codified and enforced through gender, that some people are more of the spirit. I’m not talking about spirituality, which is a wonderful thing. But I’m talking about the idea of spirit and matter being separate, and spirit being superior. So it becomes actually the opposite of true spirituality, because it’s a method of controlling and power and exerting power over other people who are defined as a class inferior.
We have this complex and America’s becoming even more oriented, although not in the general population. That’s something that I feel is we have to pay attention to. The majority of people don’t think this way anymore, but those in power do. They think that there is a kind of scale of superiority, inferiority and superiority, that can be measured; and not only measured, but that society can be stratified based on that and should be. So people who are doing service jobs, waiting on tables or secretaries or working in factories, are considered inferior and they’re there to be paid less.
We know that’s not the case. Any of us who have done that work, any of us who have family that have done that work, they’re paid less, but no less is oftentimes the workers are much more knowledgeable about what should be done in industrial sites than the people who own and manage it, because they’re away from the material reality of it.
So part of the system is to create a class that is separated from material reality. They don’t cook their own meals, they don’t clean the toilets. They can have the illusion that they don’t eat and defecate, they sort of live in a cloud. It’s interesting that we talk about the cloud in cyberspace, but they live in a cloud that doesn’t touch anything material, and matter is considered inferior. So that’s the major theme of woman in nature, that woman is associated with matter, matter is inferior, and spirit is superior.
Now, the great, great insight that Einstein had, and that several other physicists came to about the same time in the 20th century, was that matter and spirit are not separate. Of course, the scientific terms through that would be matter and energy, the word for energy, and light, and spirit in Greek is all the same word. And the concept of spirit became the concept of energy, it evolved into the concept of energy and science. When the atom was investigated, they realized, at the heart of the atom is energy.
But what do we do? What did we do about that? We split the atom, and created terrible destruction and death in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And still death. Tyrants such as Putin are still threatening the world with the power of this weapon. The United States did so over many, many years, many decades and even one century. So what we’re doing when we split matter from energies, we’re splitting ourselves.
One of the ways we’ve split ourselves is to create these concepts of gender that are completely false. Masculine, having the power to do things, and feminine, having emotions and feelings. What happens if you separate power from feelings is that you separate compassion from action, and empathy from action. The basic material principle of connectedness – material and spiritual principle – principle of connectedness, if I do anything to anything on this earth, it’s going to come back to me because it affects the whole; that understanding of how we’re woven into and part of a whole.
When we don’t have that understanding, death is really fearsome. If we have that understanding, death is always frightening. Come on, let’s go. I don’t, but I am going to, it’ll happen. It happens to us all. But we can’t come to terms with death in this culture, and therefore we create more death. The reason we can’t come to terms with it, is that we are so alienated from natural process.
So I want to talk to you a little bit about it, a new book I’ve written called Out of Silence, Sound. I’ve marked it, it doesn’t have these little yellow things coming out of it. Out of Silence, Sound. Out of Nothing, Something. It’s a writer’s guide. It’s a book on how to write. I’ve taught writing for over 50 years. I love teaching it because I get to witness this sort of miracle of something being created from time to something new, and we all have new things that are new to the culture in us in some way or another.
Let me read you from the second chapter. The chapters are all very short, because I wanted a lot of space in this book, there’s a lot of blank space. You can see in this one, there’s all this space here. You can see that you want that blank space because that’s what you need when you want to write, if you want to really mine your own depths, which are the same as the depths of the universe. Oh, the title of this chapter is Mystery:
There is an inexpressible magic by which something comes from nothing, a miracle creation that happens all over the world, not just once, but again and again. As frequently as this conjuring act occurs, it never seems commonplace. This is not a predictable process. To produce anything of value, you must travel over a narrow bridge between resolve and acceptance. Whether it’s a few words and image or turn in the plot, the manner in which the narrative speaks, you cannot control exactly what will come to you. After all, if you knew exactly what was coming, it would not be new.
But you can prepare the ground and I talk about how to do that. Yeah, so that’s why I find a new appreciation of drag, very promising, a very good sign. Even though there are those attacking it, even the fact that some are attacking it, shows how significant it is that the fear of drag, which also goes along with people who are against abortion, who are for private citizens being able to purchase weapons of war without being checked in their background, allowing weapons of war at all to be on our streets.
You know, it’s this group. They have a coherent philosophy, and that coherent philosophy, which seems to us to be utterly incoherent, but you can understand it as a defense against nature, against the material world, which is also the spiritual world, but they don’t understand that they’re split. They are themselves severely divided. So it’s really a kind of mental illness. We see it as such, I think, more clearly now, with the sort of madness surrounding Trump, how crazy it is. But it’s the craziness of the West, and we’ve all suffered from it, and we are still in some way or another suffering from it.
Vicki Robin: Yeah, I agree that we’re getting to understand better and better the insanity of the worldview, that’s woven into our flesh, that we’ve been soaked in. So it takes constant effort to open up your mind and see. Like, wait a second, that thought that I’m having is not real. It comes out of culture, a society comes out of programming.
I’m interested in so much of what you said, and thank you for sharing your new book. I plan as a writer to read it. Yeah, you bring up drag, and I think that’s wonderful. I’ve loved RuPaul for a long time ever since I first saw him, he’s amazing. I think there’s a lot of gender issues that are being raised right now, and that young people are doing it. They’re insisting. I have a friend who says, I’m queer. It’s just like, I’m what I am, I’m not a gender, and sometimes I like to wear frilly things and sometimes I like to wear serious things.
We were talking about LGBTQIA+, we were talking about the contribution to society it is that young people are unpacking gender. And there’s resistance, I mean, the resistance is growing, in the right, because it’s getting more and more visible. So I loved that observation. Do you have anything else to say about how gender issues in general are emerging in our society?
Susan Griffin: Well, I think they’re emerging in all kinds of ways. I mean, the resurgence of feminism, and that a lot of men have joined the feminist movement, which is a really very good sign, because the gender system harms men as much as it does women. Because they’re offered positions of power, but most men don’t sit in positions of power, they’re oppressed by men in power.
There’s sort of the offer that poor white people were given. After reconstruction in the south, there was a very powerful coalition between poor white farmers and sharecroppers, and black people, African American people who had been freed from bondage. Very consciously, the slave owners, former slave owners, kept promising, kept selling to the poor, white farmers: You are part of the superior class, your whiteness makes you superior. And they fell for it. But now, I think that that old bond is starting to reassert itself. It’s being made again in the South.
Vicki Robin: Yeah. You also indicated that in terms of drag but also other things that most people use and most people are not with that extreme right wing program. So is that your sense? Because you sit in Berkeley, which is such a hub of consciousness, politics and consciousness. What are you seeing about how these ideas are seeping in, beyond the power holders being able to stop it?
Susan Griffin: Well, I just remember, you know, just not that many years ago. I mean, I’m 80 years old now. So you know, but maybe 10 years ago, I couldn’t bear to listen to the news, because there was hardly anybody who would tell the truth. And now MSNBC is on, 24 hours a day most days. They’re telling a lot of truth, and we have the internet and, you know, the internet is problematic, but it also is bringing news that didn’t reach people before to many people.
So one of our problems now is there’s no kind of Walter Cronkite. There’s nobody that everybody trusts. But I think we can’t have that until we are able to trust ourselves. Our own perceptions were passed, having a white haired grandfather tell us what’s true. We’ve come past that. And this is very rocky terrain that we’re in now. It’s in between having a wise old authority tell us what’s true, and learning to discern the truth ourselves, do our own fact checking, believe our own eyes and ears.
There’s a passage in The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, I’ve quoted from many times, because it seemed to me to be so important; still seems to me that that is very important. She talks about how Goebbels, who was the minister of propaganda basically, in the Third Reich, would give these radio broadcasts and when the allies were bombing Germany, he would say they’re not able to, because of our air defense, they’re not able to really do very much harm to our cities. There would be people who were sitting with rubble all around them, instead of saying Goebbels is lying, or Goebbels doesn’t know the truth; they said, he must know something we don’t.
So, authoritarian psychology, and I think that that’s what we are trying to get past us. It’s a hard birth. It’s very hard to get past that because, particularly in this world with so many unnatural, dangerous, atomic nuclear weapons, do not constitute a natural danger. Radioactivity, when it’s in the ground, is not a danger to us. Hasn’t been in on a wide scale. But we produced weapons that made it very dangerous.
Global warming is something that we have created. It has not happened naturally. So we’ve created these outsize dangers that feel overwhelming. So it’s a very hard birth to get past authoritarianism, when there’s so many fearsome realities out there. But it’s the only way that we’re going to be able to get to be able to answer climate change, with getting rid of fossil fuel fuels.
I think one thing we really need to do is to begin to understand the psychology behind what we’re doing now. That our desire to have someone who knows all who tells us what to do, is understandable. It’s human, but it’s at this point, not very productive. It’s going to get us all killed, basically.
Vicki Robin: So talk about that transition, some talk about this birth. My friend Hazel Henderson, passed away about a year ago. And she, in her final conversation with me, she said, I’m going to use a bad word. She said, the next five years are going to be a shitshow. So just take a step, strap in and have fun, basically. And so, is this a birth? Is this so? Are we in a birth canal?
Susan Griffin: Oh! And of course, we know that things can go wrong in the birth canal. You know, the fetus can be suffocated though. The mother can bleed to death. So we are in a very delicate period. We have to remain as conscious as we can and as aware of our inner life if we can, the more we learn about our own inner lives, our own fears with a kind of tolerance and empathy, the more we can understand what’s going on in others, even those we disagree with, and can help the situation.
I have to say, I get very angry at right wing people, like certain representatives, especially right now, Jim Jordan drives me crazy. I’d love to just swear at him, but that’s not productive, right? He’s used to that. He knows how to handle that. He’s probably had that all his life. Somebody probably yelled at him when he was a kid, you know? So how do we untangle ourselves from this terrible mental illness with which we’ve all been afflicted? That’s the question. It’s only one side of it. I’m not saying this is all that we do. It’s not. But it’s a side that can’t be ignored.
Vicki Robin: Do you see that? You know, you’ve taught writing for 50 years. Do you see that shift happening in, I assume, the young people that you teach, that now young people are actually further along in that process of understanding the inner dimension of the outer problems?
Susan Griffin: Oh yes, I definitely see that. Yes. I see it in the literature that’s being produced. I’m just reading a book now called After Sappho. It is very, very daring in its form, and marvelous. I read a book called Memorial Drive. She’s a wonderful writer, really wonderful. And she’s also a poet. Natasha Trethewey. Just as an astonishing account of the death of her mother. So there’s really a lot of awareness that’s coming out available to us now.
Vicki Robin: Right. So talk to us a little bit about… There’s a fear that if we go within, if we just create this as a personal healing crisis, that we have to work on ourselves. I mean, this is a split in my generation. There were those who got political and those who went on the spirituality route. So, what are you doing? What are you doing on the outer level? Or what do you see happening on the outer level that is an integrated something, that has integrated the inner awareness, and is an expression of, whether you call it activism or addressing frontally the destructive forces of, you know, fascistic forces?
Susan Griffin: There’s a lot happening. I love all the work done at 350.org now. What is it called? Third act. Very creative. They don’t sort of have to prove themselves as revolutionaries. I know, there was a feeling I grew up in this. I came of age in the 60s, I was part of what preceded the Free Speech Movement at Cal at UC Berkeley, and we were often very combative in our manner, even though we used peaceful methods of protest.
This 350.org has a different feel to it. Many do now, and one of the things that has been demonized by the right but which is so unfair and distorting to demonize; it is Black Lives Matter. Can you think of another name for a movement that is so moving?
And you know, Black Lives Matter, I mean, when I think about that, that a people have to say my life matters, proves everything. But you have to say in a slogan, my life matters, black lives matter. They don’t have to argue that racism exists. The very fact that they feel compelled to say this and that they need to say this is proof of how lethal racism is in our country. And it’s a beautiful, beautiful slogan.
So, the young people are very creative right now, in how they’re protesting under conditions, which are terrible. They’re worse than we were facing. We were coming out of McCarthyism, McCarthyism was pretty bad. But this is really worse, because it’s existential.
Vicki Robin: That’s right. I mean, I know that every generation, or maybe every other generation has a threat that they consider existential, but this one is, because we could shut down the natural cycles or we could affect them in such a way that it’s irremediable.
Susan Griffin: Yeah. Hundreds of thousands of years. And that’s already happened on some levels. I mean, it’s not like we’re gonna be able to turn things back. Maybe in a couple hundred years we will, but right now I live in a zone that’s famous for being temperate. And it certainly hasn’t been temperate.
This year it got very cold. We had this rain that produced a lot of flooding and these very strong winds that knocked trees down and power out and we were suffering from the least of it. We didn’t have hurricanes and tornadoes.
Vicki Robin: In a way, what I’m hearing from you is that if we wanna know where to apply ourselves to remedy whatever remedy there might be, you just look at the right wing talking points and you understand that that’s an expression of the fear. It’s sort of like they’re the indicator species of the kind of emergence that’s happening now.
Was there more that you wanted to say about any topic? And if you say something that I’m interested in, I’ll send us back into it.
Susan Griffin: Right. Well, I think we have to start taking our culture more seriously, and I’m not talking about or advocating in any way censorship here, but just appealing to those who are the creators of culture.
They make a lot of money off superheroes. And some of them are fun and slightly satiric and making parodies, and some of them are quite serious. But in addition to allowing AK 15 combat weapons into our cities and streets, we’re also releasing this image of masculinity and then now also femininity. There’s superman and superwoman, as invulnerable, as violent. And you know, as long as your violence is in what’s called the good, it’s all right. You can just murder people with impunity. So we are wondering about folks who in a mental crisis, pick up a gun and go and shoot people.
When we create these mythologies that are very powerful – and cinematic form is extremely powerful on the psyche – and bombard the majority of our young people with these images and without other images that show how we’re all connected, how nobody has that degree of power, because that’s just how it works. Power comes from coalitions and webs and connections. I think we need to start to be more conscious about the culture we create. Even those who wanna make a lot of money, you can find a way to make money off of connection. Believe me.
Vicki Robin: Yeah. Make a career out of connection. What I hear you saying is that systems thinking or connectivity or understanding the interrelationship between things is the essential step out of the old story. Being able to see how things weave together. I see that in your writing, that you weave personal stories and history and you weave all these things together so that we can see that all is connected. And so resisting disconnection is disconnected.
So, yeah, I guess we just are gonna be inventive about how we embody connection and to do it in a way that’s connected that isn’t othering. You know, I have a great passion for healing the divide in the community I live in, but I don’t think it’s totally from a connected consciousness. I’m trying to, to see how we can connect on a soul level or somehow with people who are frightened and are placing themselves as opposition to us.
How did we get through what, I mean, if we write this literature about connectivity, these beautiful stories, and they never show up in the venues where people who are hostile to diversity show up. I mean, how does this bleed out? How do you do the weave in real time in this life right now?
Susan Griffin: I think that’s a creative question. It’s a question that requires creativity. I mean, you have to be patient and there’s not a single answer. There’s no single answer. Right?
Vicki Robin: So, okay. Susan, is there more that you know – culture, gender, climate?
Susan Griffin: Well, the only thing I would add is that I find it extremely compelling and interesting that people need meaning. They need meaning as much as food, water, and air. And we don’t address that. Instead of the dietary equivalent of feeding sugar rather than looking for real nutrients. And we don’t teach people to search for the meaning in themselves. So that’s one path I would suggest. And meaning often comes through stories, that you read and that you tell.
Vicki Robin: So, if you wanna mention your book again, that’s back around to you trying to give us this gift of how to be storytellers.
Susan Griffin: Yeah. It’s called Out of Silence, Sound. Out of Nothing, Something – a writer’s guide.
Vicki Robin: It’s beautiful. I know. I shock myself when I show up to the page and you know what tumbles out. So, yeah. May we all learn to tell our stories with compassion and humility and die for the truth, which is what you do in your literature.
Susan Griffin: Yes. And let your stories tell you also.
Vicki Robin: Right. And as you said, it’s gonna be messy. It’s gonna take a while. Not everything is gonna work even though you hope it will. So that’s the nature of the time that we’re in; if you’re in the birth canal, there’s nothing predictable. You’ve entered, you’ve left the predictable space. Yes. It’s dark. You can’t see ahead. So we have to learn to tolerate the dark.
Susan Griffin: Yes, we do. And there’s also though this experience where I experienced it more than once first with the McCarthy movement, and I know that people in my generation, everybody I knew was against McCarthyism, but suddenly McCarthyism started to disappear, but we didn’t really know that that was gonna happen.
It did. And the same thing happened with the women’s movement. Everybody was saying, oh, well that was back in the 19th century with Susan Anthony, when we got the vote in 1920 and now women are fine. And then suddenly this awareness started and then there was this huge wave. It happened, it was called the second wave. I think that’s happening now with ecology, with the climate change movement and the movement for democracy. And the wave hasn’t crested yet. But we can be part of it.
Vicki Robin: Yes. Yeah, we can be part of it. Thank you so much, Susan, for taking this time with us and, and helping us to see the inner dimensions of the, you know, the poly crisis there. The inner dimension, what’s really happening here. So I really appreciate it.
Susan Griffin: It was lovely to talk with you. Thank you.