The Believer’s full interview with Jim Woodring is now online.
Read part IV below.
BLVR: Was there ever a moment or episode in your life when you decided that you needed to start acting normal? Do you ever attempt to make yourself “normal”?
JW: Yeah, in high school. I was having a terrible time of it and I asked my parents to let me see a psychologist. I saw him for half a year and all he did was ask me innocuous questions and drowse with his lower lip stuck out during the many prolonged silences that ensued. He also showed me poetry he had written under the influence of LSD. I guess he was suggesting that I should drop acid, which probably would have put me in the loony bin, I was so messed up at the time. What a jerk. I remember one session he had a gob of mayonnaise on his cheek- at least I hoped it was mayonnaise - and I was too self-conscious to tell him about it. Strange to say, I just saw a film in which that exact scenario occurred. Maybe it’s some standard psychologist ploy. Anyhow, it was a total waste of time and my parents’ money, except that it convinced me that help was not to be had from the outside. And then in my thirties I became aware that there was a chunk of my past that was hidden from conscious memory, and that it probably contained repressed or forgotten events that were too painful to confront. So I went to see a Jungian analyst, but after our initial interview she declined to treat me. That was it as far as getting professional help went. Oh, look, it’s the Sagrada Familia! [Woodring points to the television screen, at some slow moving images of Gaudi’s unfinished Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona.]
BLVR: Yeah, it’s unbelievable. I able was to see it a few years ago.
JW: Really? Lucky you! That’s a real work of art. I wish I had the balls, I wish I had the audacity to do something anywhere near that grand. The books that I do, the stories that I write - I’m glad I’m able to do them, but they will quickly be swallowed up by the sands of time. Sometimes it frustrates me that I’m not able to do bigger, more important, more significant things. I guess you have to be content to do whatever it is you can do.
BLVR: You feel that your books and your Unifactor isn’t enough?
JW: Well, I have to be satisfied with it, and I do sort of feel like I’m building my monument with what I do, BUT it’s pretty small and inconsequential compared to real works of genius like this, which are giving vast inspiration to humanity. But I guess I shouldn’t even say that. It’s ridiculous to say that. You are what you are. My stature suits me.
BLVR: But you just said that comics and cartoons were an inspiration to most people.
JW: Well, yeah, cartoons are perhaps a bigger part of art that is generally realized, and they influence people in ways that are not always recognized. But creating a monumental work of architecture, or writing a great symphony is something else. It’s a higher order of creation. I love Polly and Her Pals, but compared to Beethoven it’s trivial. Then again, they say that on his deathbed, Beethoven pathetically asked a friend, “I did have a certain talent, didn’t I?” so maybe it’s just something artists feel – that they could have done more, whatever they’ve accomplished. Maybe Gaudi at ninety years old, before he got hit by that trolley, felt that he had yet to prove himself.
There’s this spooky little parable I heard somewhere…There’s a young boy who who hears the sound of a horn - maybe he hears Miles Davis - and he realizes that all he wants to do is play the horn. So he looks to the sky and says, “Please, please, please, make me a great horn player.” And the voice of the universe says, “Yes. Become a great trumpet player.” So the guy does that. He plays his horn. He devotes his life to it. He succeeds. He does all the things a usual obsessed person does, all the highs and lows. And at the end of his life he says, “I spent all my time playing the goddamned trumpet. That’s all I did, and I missed so much because of it. What a tragedy.” And the same voice of the universe speaks to him and says, “Yes. What a tragedy.”
BLVR: That reminds of me of the Upanishads.
JW: It makes the hair on my neck stand up. It resonates, but the exact meaning is a little elusive. To me it means you should set your sights as high as you possibly can. When I was setting out to be an artist, I said, If I can just produce one work that some people think is good, if I can become an obscure cult artist, that’s all I want. Well, I attained that. I’m an obscure cult artist, and I think now, Why didn’t I say I want to be another Picasso or something? What other options were open to me? But I was convinced I couldn’t achieve great things because I don’t have a steady-state mind.
BLVR: What do you mean by that?
JW: My mind is a will o’ the wisp. It’s like a runaway horse, and that has caused me untold grief. It’s a serious defect, though some people have a much worse case than I do. You see them sleeping in doorways all the time. Great souls like Swami Vivekananda, or the best artists, like R. Crumb, have great steadiness of mind, tremendous ability to concentrate and retain control. Crumb has a conspicuously steady state mind. If you look at his sketchbooks you can see it. There’s an incredible evenness of quality to all his drawings, even his quick sketches. If you look at my sketchbooks there’s, this fucked-up jumpiness. My mind jumps around like a frog.
BLVR: Is that always a bad thing?
JW: Yes. A mind in control is always better than a mind out of control. For one thing, a controlled mind can learn much better and go much farther than a chaotic one. A person with a steady-state mind has the potential to exit this life with a much greater understanding than someone who is continually learning and forgetting, gaining and misplacing knowledge.
People for whom art is religion can say, “What I love about art is that it points to a higher reality.” Well, fine, but the time comes when the smart thing for such a person to do is let go of the fun of the art and get into the hard work of attaining and understanding of that higher reality unmixed with worldly games.
I think that’s an appropriate goal for anyone, whatever their vocation. I don’t believe in art like I used to. I believe in something beyond it, something that contains art and everything else. But I just don’t quite have the nerve to chuck drawing and painting. Part of it is that I enjoy IT too much, and part is that I don’t have the courage to renounce the world. I don’t want to move out of this nice neighborhood so that I can live in a shed and devote myself to meditating and touching something I can’t feel. I’m addicted to the fun of playing in the world.