Saturday, February 19, 2011

Kierkegaard: A Believer's Disdain

I can sum up why I like Kierkegaard in three words: “fear and trembling.”

Each year I revisit a thinker from the past who has influenced me, and Kierkegaard was my guy for 2010. I chose him because I remembered the beautiful, riveting contortions of his thought when I first read him as a college boy, the wild rushes of passion that flowed through even his most obdurate writing, as if his words twisted from the very torques of his soul.

I also chose Kierkegaard because he demands so much of us. He’s a religious thinker, but he wants nothing to do with good Christians—at least in the conventional definition of a good Christian—but only those who live by the dare of their own truth. We all must be challenged.

Hence “fear and trembling.” The words define the gravity, the urgency, and the passion that Kierkegaard brought to his thought. Life isn’t meant to be a restful affair. Anything but. We’re torn apart as a condition of our being, and we reckon with the nature of that congenital fissure in each of our actions and decisions, at least if we’re truly conscious of who we are.

Although Kierkegaard’s “fear and trembling” is the basis of his exploration of faith, I read him as much as artist as philosopher or theologian; he’s fundamentally defining a lonely and terrifying spiritual pursuit, the truth that if recognized, one must stridently and recklessly observe. In redefining what it meant to be a Christian, he redefined the sense of an individual’s place in the world.

“One is tempted to ask whether there is a single man left ready, for once, to commit an outrageous folly,” Kierkegaard wrote.

The words “outrageous folly” are spoken with reverence. His respect for folly, for a life that provokes, flies in the face of reason, is one that he reveres because at the heart of his thought, even though he’s questing to articulate his faith, he’s drawn equally to the kind of folly that makes us most human. The risk we take to feel the truth. Kierkegaard’s risk was religion, or rather, how a person lives inwardly—a bravery greater than such external risks as climbing mountains or going to war.

That inward risk, whether religious or not, is one that we all must reckon with. Interestingly enough, I find that many of his quotes speak directly to our human condition now, even though he died in 1855 at the age of 42:

“A revolutionary age is an age of action; ours is the age of advertisement and publicity. Nothing ever happens but there is immediate publicity everywhere.”

Sound familiar?

“My principal thought was that in our age, because of the great increase of knowledge, we had forgotten what it means to exist, and what inwardness signifies.”

Again, can anyone say that our inwardness isn't in jeopardy these days when so many of us live online in constant outwardness? Information has flooded our sense of self.

Kierkegaard is continually at war for the sake of the personal vs. the impersonal, so it’s easy to apply his thoughts to our contemporary war for self vs. media, advertising, science, etc. He naturally fought against Hegel’s conception of individuality as an illusion, the self moving in tandem with historical movements of thought and principles, determined by evolving group trends and conceptions. To Kierkegaard, the individual was diminished in such a scheme, a mere representative of the groupthink of his or her times.

Although a lot of contemporary scientific and psychological studies continue to show how much our peers influence if not determine us (overweight people tend to live near overweight people, smokers tend to be friends with smokers), Kierkegaard’s emphasis on subjectivity offers a salvation if one is brave enough to step away from the group.

“No man, none, dares say I,” Kierkegaard wrote. He compares people to ventriloquist’s dummies who say the phrases that others have put in their mouths—including Christian principles. Life for most bears no mark of a decision—it’s lived without passion or risk.

Above all he’s against those who live by default (e.g., if you’re born a Christian, you are a Christian). Christianity for him is an active commitment that requires ongoing probing and self-scrutiny. So Kierkegaard asks how we’ve decided our commitments. They should all require fear and trembling, of course—an individual passionate commitment that might even invite punishment, ostracism.

With Kierkegaard’s notion of subjectivity and its urgent focus on the decision modern day existentialism was born.  To say “I” with such a taunt and dare invites a determination of ethics, yet we can never be certain that we’ve chosen “the right values.” Anguish and dread are conditions of our existence—but they can be exciting conditions, right?

This is when Kierkegaard yanks the comfort out of faith. Faith resists elucidation. It’s a matter of passion, after all, not words or dictums or adhering to the behavioral expectations of others. Outrageous folly. Vertiginous thought. Faith requires an act that defies the rational, a sort of absurdity. The suspension of the ethical for religious reasons. A life of inwardness—not as contemplation or reflection, but as a commitment to one’s resolutions, no matter the punishments they entail from others.

Take Abraham, whose story of faith required distress. Abraham is required by God to sacrifice his only son, an act without possibility of justification, one that would be ethically condemned by all in his community no matter if he told others that God required it.

So Abraham raises the knife to kill, his passion for God trumping rationality. With our contemporary wariness of religious nuts, we might put Abraham in a similar zany category, but think of his act in a different way for just a moment. Perhaps Kierkegaard is saying that we must sometimes honor the irrational aspects of ourselves in the face of our rational secular selves that are so dedicated to the kind of ethical view that goes unquestioned.

Kierkegaard valued Jesus for his indirect communication. Everything Jesus said was meant to be unbalancing. The listener is forced to confront the paradox rather than simply acknowledge an easy truth (for example, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.”) Kierkegaard’s love of Christianity—hence life—is because of its essential paradox, its resistance to reason. No one gets passionate about 2 + 2 = 4. Religion has to be about passion. So religion (hence life) can’t be about common sense.

Abraham’s dilemma forces such unbalancing. Christianity is not something to be followed. It calls one with severity. His act means that we must trust our belief, our leap of faith as we define it, even if it means a transgression of common ethics.

Again, this brings up Kierkegaard’s essential disdain for the safe decision. Where there is objective certainty, there is safety, the lack of venture, and where there is nothing ventured, there can be no faith.

Sometimes I think of Kierkegaard as one of the only pure Christians. If only because his faith was his art. It was a terrifying affair.

Oddly enough, Kierkegaard displayed a certain discomfort with his own identity—or an acknowledgement of its multiple identities—because he wrote almost all of his works with pseudonyms, and humorous ones at that: “Johannes de silentio,” Johannes Climacus,” and “Nicolaus Notabene.” He makes himself into a fiction and watched the thoughts.

To further the irony, Kierkegaard’s name means cemetery—a joke of sorts, yet representative of the gravity of his thought. He wanted “The Individual” to be inscribed on his tombstone. I wonder if in the end he valued being an individual in disdain of God, despite his wrenching decisions of faith.

His assertion of individuality certainly led other philosophers to do so. In fact, we have Kierkegaard to thank for this interesting quality of disdain that is somehow necessary to be so true to oneself. How can we be ourselves without holding the expectations of others in a certain disdain?

For more existentialist writings, see my pensees on Camus and his embrace of contradiction in the act of falling.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

FRiGG Magazine: Friggin' Good Reading

In the second part of my ongoing series to explore and celebrate online lit mags, Ellen Parker, founder and editor of FRiGG magazine, answers a few questions about spirit and soul of FRiGG.

The first thing you’ll notice about FRiGG is its riveting artwork. In fact, I think of it as much an online art journal as it is a literary journal.

Art flows into stories and poems to provide a sumptuous reading experience. I sometimes forget that I’m reading an online journal because my computer screen becomes suddenly textured, painted—and I’m not annoyed by extraneous links or ads or pulls to lit contests or blogs or, or, or other things.

I can read. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish online. And here’s the kicker: FRiGG’s style of presentation is matched by its quality of writing. Each author writes truth with a slant, as Emily Dickinson recommended.

Just in case you were wondering, Friggis the name of the Norse goddess who was married to Odin. She was the patron of marriage, but in some myths she supposedly had affairs with Odin’s brothers. So I guess this means that FRiGG might be full of love and deception. Or just doesn’t live by the rules.

What was the genesis of FRiGG?

I started FRiGG almost eight years ago with Sean Farragher (the poetry editor) and Al Faraone (the guy who does most of the artwork). I met both of them at the Zoetrope Virtual Studio, an online workshop for writers and artists. In fact, I’ve met a large number of writers, editors, artists, and photographers during my years at Zoetrope. The site has been hugely valuable to me as a place to workshop my own fiction writing, read other fiction writers’ work, and get exposure to the work of poets, artists, and photographers not only from all over the U.S. and Canada, but also from around the world.

One of the reasons I started FRiGG was that I saw some incredible work at Zoetrope and I was like, “My god, this work needs to be showcased.” Also, I liked the idea of displaying each poet and fiction writer with a work of original art that was meant not to distract the reader from the stories and poems displayed, or to overshadow the writing, but instead to function as a lure to bring the reader into the writing itself. Kind of like crooking one’s finger and going, “Oooh, cast your eyes this way.”

What kind of writing are you looking for?

I am looking for writing that I like. I like writing that is so honest that it’s startling—and perhaps, at times, so honest that we might want to look away, we might be a bit put off, but we feel that we must be brave enough to keep listening to the writer. I often like writing that is odd—but without being self-consciously “wacky.” This can be a fine line. I like to see all sorts of human relationships addressed, and perhaps looked at from angles that we’re not used to seeing.

Is FRiGG more for established writers, or are you interested in finding new talent?

I have no preference for “established writers” as opposed to “new talent,” and vice versa. I try to respond only to what’s on the page. I don’t care who the writer is, how old he or she is, how “experienced,” how many degrees he or she has amassed, how many contests he or she has won. Just let me look at the story, or let Sean Farragher look at the poem (and the associate editor Dennis Mahagin is very qualified to look at both poetry and literature), and we will respond honestly to what is on the page.

What literary magazines does FRiGG admire the most?

This is perhaps the hardest question for me to answer. I don’t want to name specific magazines. I admire any literary magazine staff that has the interest and the guts and the determination and the persistence to put together a written and visual product that presents fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, and, in some cases, artwork and photography (or any combination thereof) that they believe should be given a platform.

I feel disheartened when I see some magazines try to use the “cult of personality” among fiction writers and poets (such as it is) in an effort to put their magazine above others, to perhaps imply that their content is worthier because it has been contributed by “famous” or “cool” writers.

Sometimes these magazines hold contests for which they charge reading fees that are not insignificant, and they get “famous” writers to be judges, and they urge submitters to put their work before the eyes of these judges, as if just getting your work in the proximity of one of these writers would be reason enough to submit to the contest (although I often wonder whether these judges even see much of the work that’s submitted; I suspect that most of it is waded through and rejected before it makes it to the judge).

What am I trying to say here? I guess I admire the literary magazines that are not “cool.” They might not hold contests. It’s okay if the writers they publish are not “famous.” They just like putting out a literary magazine. They just like putting up stories and poems in the hope that people might read some of the writing and go, I am lying on the floor after I read that.

In an ideal world, what place will Frigg occupy in 5 years? Do you want it to be a niche mag, an insider's mag, or do you want it to be mainstream and popular with a wide audience?

It will never be an ideal world, but whether it is or is not doesn’t really affect my answer, anyway. In five years, I hope FRiGG will still be FRiGG. As for what it will be, I guess I would ask: What is it now? Who likes it? I hope that the same people who like it now like it in the future, and that we have some more people who like it in the same way.

It will never be “mainstream and popular with a wide audience.” I don’t have any special aspirations for it. Is that terrible to admit? I just want to keep doing it. I love doing FRIGG. I love the writers in FRiGG. I love the stuff these writers say. I love the staff of FRiGG. I’m not saying all that’s in FRiGG and about FRiGG and everything having to do with FRiGG is the greatest shit ever. It’s not. I hate stuff that’s supposed to be the greatest shit ever. You look underneath it, and you go: it’s not.

What do you think the future of the literary magazine is?

I think there will always be a place for the literary magazine as long as we have people who want to read (and to write) writing that is honest, and interesting, and daring, and humane, and beautiful, and ugly, and startling, and mind-altering, and perhaps unclassifiable, and after people read it they go, I just need to lie down for a while.

For more see last week's profile of Monkeybicycle.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Riding the Monkeybicycle: The Art of Literary Miscellany

Just a year ago, Ted Genoways, the once revered editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, wrote one of those incendiary, eschatological articles, The Death of Fiction?, aimed to get every fiction writer’s and editor’s feathers ruffled.

He begins the essay by saying that when he tells people at dinner parties that he edits a literary journal, “the idea of editing a literary magazine seems, to them, only slightly more utilitarian than making buggy whips or telegraph relays. It's the sort of arcane craft they assumed was kept alive only by a lost order of nuns in a remote mountain convent or by the Amish in some print shop in Pennsylvania Dutch Country.”

It’s an insightful article, but as I read it, I shook my head in disappointment and depression. At that point, I was beholden to lit mags like The Paris Review or the Georgia Review, not to mention the Allegheny Review and the Iowa Review (many Reviews!)—my daddy’s, if not my grandaddy’s lit mags, you might say.

Strangely enough, I hadn’t experienced the trail blazing, wild west of online lit mags. Neither had Ted Genoways, evidently.

Fiction is anything but dying online—more people are getting published in more different journals—and more people are reading their stories because of the broad access of the Web and the fact that Twitter and Facebook can instantaneously reach thousands of readers (more, say, than that dusty back shelf in your favorite bookstore).

So, this is all a long lead-in for a new series I’m doing to raise awareness of the many great online lit mags, starting with Monkeybicycle, one of my favorites. Here's what Steven Seighman, the founder and editor of Monkeybicycle, has to say about biking in the online lit space.

What was the genesis of Monkeybicycle?

Monkeybicycle is something that started in 2002 in Seattle when I was doing a bit of my own writing, but thought it would be more fun to provide some sort of vehicle for other, real writers. There were only a handful of small journals out then—McSweeney's, Pindeldyboz, Eyeshot, 3 A.M. Magazine, Little Engines, and probably a couple more—so it wasn't yet the crowded field that it's become over the past nine years.

We ran a local monthly reading series, put out an early print issue, and just tried to keep it going as best we could. Seeing those other places do it was really inspiring.

Why did you name it Monkeybicycle?

The name just kind of came out of thin air. I think it was inspired by an exterminator in the movie Schitzopolis, who just spouted off random words as his own language.

What separates Monkeybicycle from the other lit mags out there?

At this point, it's tough to separate from the masses since there are so many journals out there. Maybe the fact that we've been around for so long is what separates us. Many of those journals who inspired us in the beginning have closed their doors. I guess we're sort of like elder statesmen in the online lit journal world.

Is Monkeybicycle more for established writers, or are you interested in finding new talent?

We look for all kinds of writing. If it's good, we'll consider it. One of the things that we try not to do is paint ourselves into a corner by focusing on one specific type of work. We go through phases where we'll publish a lot of humor, and then we'll be relatively serious for a while. The print issues have at least ten poems in them each time, and we have a running series of one-sentence stories on the site. So, we're kind of all over the place because we like a lot of different things.

And as to new writers vs. more established ones: we've always tried to have close to an equal amount of both. Bigger names are going to sell books (or get web hits), but our hopes are that by putting newer voices alongside those folks, readers will stick around and discover some great new names that we think deserve just as much of an audience.

What literary magazines does Monkeybicycle admire the most and why?

Gosh, that's a tough one. Early on we were heavily influenced by Pindeldyboz and McSweeney's, but over the years so many great ones have shown up that it's nearly impossible to narrow down. Personally, I like journals that provide a lot of variety. The Collagist is a good example of that. So is Guernica. Those are the first two that come to mind, but there are dozens more.

If you could choose five contemporary writers to publish in your next issue, who would they be?

Again, a tough one. There are so many great writers doing amazing work out there right now. My quick answer (though my co-editors would surely have different folks in mind) would be: Jim Shepard, Matt Bell, Laura van den Berg, Stephen Elliott, and Benjamin Percy.

In an ideal world, what place will Monkeybicycle occupy in 5 years?

It's always been a goal of ours to make Monkeybicycle accessible to as many people as possible. That's part of why we try to diversify our content. We believe the more people we can get our books into the hands of (or the more visitors we can get to our site), the better off our contributors will be. Essentially, for us, it's all about the contributors. If we can turn new people onto their work and get them some fans, then our job is done. And if we can entertain as many people as possible, that's awesome too.

What do you think the future of the literary magazine is ?

I think literary magazines are just getting started. I'm a graphic designer at Dzanc Books and each year I work on their Best of the Web anthology. In that book is always an index of online journals in the back, and with each book we've done over the past four years, that index has grown and grown.

The one change I do see happening now is that web publication is becoming as sought after as print used to be. When we started Monkeybicycle everyone wanted to see their work in print. But now, with so many online journals appearing, I think it's validated the medium. And also, as technology grows, I think there are a lot of clever editors out there that are going to take advantage of new ways to get their publications to people.

It's actually a very exciting time for literature in my mind. Of course, as a book designer, the idea of print going away is kind of scary though. Not that it ever will completely.

Do your editors still manage to write their own stuff?

Just about everyone writes except me. My co-editor, Shya Scanlon, just released his first novel, Forecast. Our web editor, Jessa Marsh, has been in school while working with us, but still manages to turn out great stories whenever she can. Our poetry editor, Jacob Smith, is in grad school studying acting, so that's more of what he's focusing on. I imagine he's writing as well though. And Laura Carney, our copyeditor, is a full-time journalist and also writes personal essays.

As for me, I just try to find as much graphic design work as I can and update my blog on occasion.

I bet you make a lot of money and throw extravagant parties, right?

You have no idea. Our last issue made so much money that we rented a penthouse in SoHo and bought two white tigers. Which reminds me, I need to update our mailing address inside the next issue.

For more articles on lit mags, see The Used Furniture Review, Literary Magazines on the Make?, and The death of more time.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Reading as Pausing: James Salter

One exercise I'm doing in order to pause is to identify passages I like and write them down. It's a good thing to do--especially by hand--in order to pay attention to each word and consider the author's approach.

Here's a selection from James Salter's story Dusk, which I'm rereading after discovering the book and Salter in 1988.

"The small neon sign was very bright in the greyness, there was the cemetery across the street and her own car, a foreign one, kept very clean, parked near the door, facing in the wrong direction. She always did that. She was a woman who lived a certain life. She knew how to give dinner parties, take care of dogs, enter restaurants. She had her way of answering invitations, of dressing, of being herself. Incomparable habits, you might call them. She was a woman who had read books, played golf, gone to weddings, whose legs were good, who had weathered storms, a fine woman whom no one now wanted."

This passage is a typical way that Salter characterizes people--in one simple paragraph at the beginning of a story or novel--and it includes nearly everything I like about Salter's way of writing. It's a list of sorts, and you feel like you're getting the particulars of a person's life, except it's actually without precise details. It's more about the flow, the accents of a person's life, as if he's skating over life's essences. He seems to be saying that the flow is what matters more than the specifics to understand who a person is.

She knows how to give dinner parties, enter restaurants--what mystery those phrases have. I have to stop and imagine a person who knows how to enter a restaurant. Is she someone who knows how to command attention when she enters a room, or just someone acquainted with the finer things and at ease with herself, or both? She's confident, refined, knows beauty, in herself and probably in others. Incomparable habits. We know that she's unique, perhaps even special, but other than knowing that she parks her car in the wrong direction, Salter won't provide specifics.

Despite the lack of anything that would qualify as a fine detail in our era of fulsome and microscopic writerly details (many contemporary writers would end up laboriously telling how she gives a dog a bath to show just how she knew how to take care of dogs, a "fetishization of detail," as James Wood calls it), each phrase is evocative, surprising. I see the arc of her life, this tragic patrician woman who's been abandoned to a memory and knowledge of beauty more than the practice of beauty.

I still find few men who can write about women, but Salter is among the few, I think because he adores them so much, is obsessed by the ways they do things (like Fitzgerald in this regard). As a result, he's able to capture something deeper and more fundamental with many of his female characters.

Interestingly enough, I read the story imagining this woman in her 60s or so, only to find out that she's 46 in the end. I wonder if that was intentional on his part--to throw the last bits of her "youth" into the stark relief of an older age, place her there prematurely. I don't think Salter is a feminist in this regard. He just understands the tragedy of how age can treat a woman unfairly, leave her at loose ends and alone in the dusk of her life.

As with many writers who have influenced me, I've tried to imitate Salter and failed. He writes with a simple elegance, sensual and erotic even when he's not writing about sex, that's difficult to match. This excerpt is not an easy thing to write.

For more, read James Salter: A Sport and a Pastime and James Salter: Burning the Days. For more of my diatribes on the "fetishization of detail," read Writerliness gone mad, the fetishization of detail.