Inventing Arcadia: An Interview with Frederick Turner
O'Sullivan, Gerry, Pletsch, Carl, The Humanist
In describing the work of Frederick Turner, it may help to borrow a line from the introduction to his 1985 book, Natural Classicism: "That whole of which I speak is, like a solid as opposed to a plane or a curve, not easily scanned, expounded, or even described by a single line of argument." He has been called a universal scholar-a rare find in a world of over-specialization-whose work transects and borrows from several rather disparate fields. Turner is as comfortable trafficking in the language of theoretical physics and evolutionary biology as he is discussing the sonnet form.
Frederick Turner is Founders Professor of Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas. He was raised in Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States, his itinerant life due to the chosen professional fields of his parents, cultural anthropologists Victor Turner and Mary Douglas.
Turner trained as a Renaissance scholar, writing on Shakespeare's history plays. He is also a widely published poet, former editor of the Kenyon Review, and a recipient of the Levinson Poetry Prize. He has published 11 books, including works on criticism and fiction, and has advised projects as diverse and various as the Journal of Social and Biological Structures, the St. Louis Museum of Art, the Djerassi Foundation, and the Cleveland Radio Project. He is a regular contributor to Harper's magazine and has also appeared on the television series "Smithsonian World."
Frederick Turner is also one of a very few contemporary writers able to say that he has written not one but two full-length epic poems in his lifetime: The New World, published by Princeton University Press in 1985, and Genesis, which tells a tale of the future terraformmg of Mars. Late this past summer, we had the opportunity to discuss Genesis with its author, who is also one of the leading thinkers and spokespersons for the emerging restoration ecology movement (a movement which Turner now prefers to call inventionist ecology, echoing his own interest in the theme of Arcadia restored).
As he looks to the future, Turner sees the hope of a new coherence, a new "and much more decentralized world," one where, in the words of his 1983 essay, "Such Stuff As Dreams: Technology and the Future of Imagination," life will be "more personal, warm, custom-made, organic, untidy, decorated. Our music will be full of enchanting melody again, though it would sound strangely foreign to the ears of Brahms or Beethoven; more dark,skinned, more rhythmic, with an Oriental quaver, more incantatory, with more improvisation in performance. Our visual arts will be mainly representational, with abstraction usually reserved for decorative function, but there will be a rich play of modes of representation; it will once more seek after beauty, nobility, truth, and the sense of wonder. Our architecture will recapitulate the pan-human village clutter, with all functions, domestic, religious, retail, industrial, educational, horticultural, political, jumbled in together; no zoning; and it will be splendidly and comfortably decorated. Our poetry will be as all human poetry was until 70 years ago, richly metrical and rhetorical, full of stories, ideas, moral energy, public statement, scientific speculation, theology, drama, history. Indeed, many of these changes have already begun, though an entrenched rearguard of Modernist reactionaries still holds much of the political and economic power, and middlebrow taste will need decades of deprogramming from its masochistic preferences."
The Humanist interviewed Turner in late July 1993.
O'SULLIVAN: What is restoration ecology-or, to use a more recent term of yours, inventionist ecology?
TURNER: Well, I would make a distinction between restorationist and inventionist ecology. What restoration essentially does is more like a performing art. It seeks to recreate, both as faithfully as possible and in a contemporary context, a past entity-an entity which is valuable in itself-in the way that a violinist or an orchestra might re-create a Mozart concerto. …