RH: Let's talk about how Evil Sisters builds upon your
previous book, which dealt with fin de siècle culture, and takes it
into the twentieth century.
BD: It's a direct extension, really. In the earlier book, I dealt
with the academic art of the late nineteenth century, what was
considered high art before the arrival of modernism, and I showed
how an increasingly anti-feminine concept of women became popular
after the introduction of theories of evolution, and created what I
called an iconography of misogyny. That inconography became the
basis for a lot of the twentieth century's popular culture, and
towards the end of the earlier book, I showed how anti-feminine
thought began to link up with anti-Semitic thought. People would
claim, for example, that Jews are inferior because they are somehow
effeminate, because it was easier to hate Jews than it was to hate
women, who were always around and biologically necessary. So
instead of gynocide, we launched a genocide.
When the book came out, some critics felt that I had gone too far
with that statement, that it was somehow extreme or stretching the
truth. So I decided to write this book and take these viewpoints into
the twentieth century, to show how these ideas from high culture
and science become the foundation of anti-Semitic theory, especially
in Nazi Germany.
RH: That's a very important point -- this is a book about popular
culture, but the ideas in pulp novels and silent films are more often
than not just popularizations of what the leading minds of the period
BD: That is something that we really have to focus on more
than we have in the past. In the universities, there's a striking fear
of low culture or pop culture, a sense that high culture could be
contaminated by low culture and lose some of its real value. But
what is very clear to me from working on these books is that it's high
culture that creates the context for pop culture, and that they have a
much more symbiotic relationship.
Many cultural studies departments today are dealing with pop
culture, treating it as somehow more representative of a culture's
general attitudes. But if you accept the connection between high and
low culture, that opens up some very dramatic realizations, namely
that what we consider high culture may not be as high in its thinking
as we thought it was. That's what I deal with people such as
Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner. They're three of the brightest
stars of twentieth century high literature, but if we look at their
work closely, we can see that they express all the same attitudes
found in pop culture novels, and often their work is more dangerous,
or perhaps insinuating, because they're better writers and can 'cover
their tracks' a little better, to make these ideas seem more
RH: And high cultural critics have often been willing to act as
apologists for these moments, by saying, "Well, they're just
accurately portraying the times," or, "He's tapping into universal,
archetypal images here." But that's just obfuscation.
BD: One of the big movements in high culture, starting in the
1940s and '50s, was New Criticism, which made it a point not to
study a work in its historical context because that would take away
from its value as art. This artistic focus became predominant in post-
WWII culture and has created an environment in which high culture
becomes privileged from historical analysis. But if you do start to
look at that historical context, you can see how even literary writers
were responding to the immediate circumstances and attitudes of
their time. You cannot take artists out of their culture; in fact, dealing
with the artist within his culture makes our appreciation of the work
richer, but in a more complex way. In other words, you have to start
a dialogue with writers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway on the level
of ideology as well as literary merit. What they are saying is not the
expression of universal archetypes, but a reflection of very specific
political movements of the time, and if that's the case, then the way
they portray humanity is ideological rather than universal, and that
means that you have to start developing opinions about the validity
of what they're saying. Most people don't want to do that, because
they want to read a 'great work of literature' without the burden of
criticizing the author's point of view.
RH: "Oh, The Sun Also Rises is such a wonderful book, the
dialogue's so crisp..." as opposed to "Jesus, this is an awfully anti-Semitic, misogynist piece of work."
BD: That's exactly it. And what you find is that in so-called
modernist criticism, you find a lot of emphasis on what is wonderful
in certain works and absolutely none on what is outrageous. D. W.
Griffith's Birth of a Nation is one of the most outrageously
racist, evil films ever created. The story is absolutely carried by
hatred, but because it's surrounded with stylistic innovations
developed by others but used more effectively here, we talk about
the film by discussing his camerawork and closeups and so on,
liberating ourselves from the responsibility of having an opinion
about the film's content.
One of the intentions of Evil Sisters was to show how essential
it is for us to go back into history and understand what the popular
understanding of science was at a given time. The scientists
themselves may had a very complex understanding of certain
concepts, but in trying to communicate that understanding to a large
public, they used metaphors and simplifications that come across to
the public as, "Women are praying mantises, they're black widow
spiders...they steal the male's vital essence." The dangers in history
are on the level of popular culture as well as high culture; both of
them are important only as they exist within the general culture.
RH: In the period that Evil Sisters covers, you spend a lot of
time on film, a medium which is able to convey ideology very
effectively and very subtly.
BD: That works just as much today as it worked in 1915. We
don't always recognize it in older films simply because we don't have
the historical background to make connections that were obvious to
viewers when the film was new, but we still get some vague sense of
the message they're trying to convey. The deemphasis of historical
knowledge of art in our culture is a convenient ideological structure
that makes it easy to ignore the manipulativeness of these works. By
not knowing history, most of us find ourselves having to relive
cultural misrepresentations all over again. It's only by going back
into history, showing how various cultural elements -- economic,
social, scientific and so on -- all link together and interact that we
can understand what the cultural images that survive really
So-called universal patterns are not universal, they are structures
created for specific historical contexts. In the early twentieth
century, that historical context included the justification of
imperialism, which further included the fear of socialist tendencies
or any form of collectivist organizing or action. It also included the
fear of the feminine. That fear has existed throughout history; what
I focus on is the cultural mechanisms by which it was channeled into
the propagation of a very specific ideology.
RH: In the last chapter, you point out how our ignorance of this
history has led us to treat the Nazi culture as an aberration, to say
"We're not really like this." You're saying that Hitler was able to rise
to power precisely because these ideas were so pervasive.
BD: What you find in books like Mein Kampf isn't
groundbreaking original thought. Hitler popularized ideas that were
swirling around throughout Western Europe and the United States.
He was a scavenger, picking up ideas that served his own
manipulative purposes, and in doing that, he picked up as much from
American race theorists as he did from German race theorists. He
knew very well the power of propaganda; he knew how to take ideas
that people already believed and make them more easily identifiable
in dualistic structures. What he did was distill existing racism and
use it for a political end.
So in the European theater of World War II, you have a clash
between what are basically two racist societies, and when one of
them, the United States, defeats the other, it then turns around and
applies the same imagery to demonize its other enemies, the
communists and socialists. But one of the things that 'saved' the
United States from following the Nazi path was the important
influence of new immigrants -- precisely those 'aliens' whom the
'Aryan Americans' feared. The immigrants, with their sense of their
community and humane relationships, created a counterbalance
within our society. It's precisely America's diversity, or
multiculturalism if you will, that kept this nation from being "all of a
kind" as Nazi Germany was.
RH: And it's that multiculturalism that keeps us from going that
way today, even though these racist, anti-feminine attitudes still
BD: The scary thing is to see how little they've changed,
especially with the return of the millenial fears we're seeing now.
Look at the end of the nineteenth century, and the publication of
Dracula; Dracula is clearly an alien, an Eastern European,
described by Stoker as effeminate and Semitic, who contaminates
modern civilization. Today the aliens have been moved to outer
space, but the themes of films like Species are the same: an
alien takes on the guise of a beautiful woman to destroy the
manhood of the nation, deplete a society's male energy.
RH: It's very convenient to take these tropes and simply apply to
them to a new enemy, a new "Other."
BD: And once you have the metaphors in place, it doesn't take
that big of a leap from the fantasy of killing the monster to the
fantasy of killing the monster who happens to be a Jew or an Asian
to actually doing it. We have to be very careful with our enthusiasm
for using metaphors. Metaphor is in itself a neutral device, but one
which can be used for positive or negative ends, for genocide as well
RH: At the end of the book you say that we're surrounded by
fetishized gender imagery -- "to fantasize about warlocks and
witches, about vampires and werewolves, about Mars, Venus, and
the caveman within, is to perpetuate the fantasies of a world eager
for war and to remain complicit in the fetishization of others as evil,
as alien, as inferior, and to do so is to see difference as a disease..." I
agree with you, but it's difficult to snap out of those fantasies..
BD: It's more difficult if we don't have a knowledge of our
history. If we know that these things we feel within ourselves -- and
we all have some vestiges of them within us -- can be traced through
clear historical indications, if we understand how they start, how
they develop, and for what reasons, we can refuse to be completely
subject to them. Individualism is a reaction to the elements of
indoctrination that you've already undergone.
RH: I know that there's a book waiting to be written which points
out how guys like John Gray and Robert Bly are perpetuating this
imagery. Are you thinking about writing that book?
BD: I would say that I've already written it with Evil
Sisters, because by reading it, you see how they're recycling stuff
that has gone before. They play on the culturally created
subconscious of the audiences they have. As we come into the world,
we have several potentialities for development, but culture closes in
on us from the moment we're born and starts indoctrinating us with
certain assumptions. If one takes on the assumptions of the
twentieth century -- which is pretty much what will happen -- then
it's very easy,a nd much more lucrative, for others to simply exploit
those assumptions than to suggest that it's time to change the
I have grave reservations about books and authors like the ones
you've mentioned; I don't particularly want to get into a debate
about it because there are more interesting and important things to
write about, but we have to realize that many of these authors, such
as Robert Bly and Clarissa Pinkola Estes (the author of Women
Who Run With the Wolves) are Jungians. And as I point out in the
book, Jung's part of the problem; he organizes and normalizes a lot of
prejudice into what he calls archetypal structures.
RH: So where is your continuing research taking you?
BD: I'm going to continue with this material, bring it into the
1940s and 1950s, and the dramatic reoccurences you find of these
attitudes, particularly in the visual arts and high culture in general.
I'm exploring the link between high culture and modernism with the
antihumanist philosophies of the twentieth century. Much of the
post-WWII high modernism in America and the rest of the western
world is antihumanist, hostile to notions of community, of any form
of humanism. It becomes about the lack of meaning, the need to
create our own significance out of nothing. The highest level of
significance, that of the elite, becomes abstraction. So the concept of
the evolutionary elite arises again, deliberately excluding those who