"The point for me is largely pleasure."

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 An Interview with Eric Jarosinski

Whenever Eric Jarosinski ran late for our class (“Nietzsche’s Modernity”) at the University of Pennsylvania, he’d invariably send us mass emails with subject lines like, “Thus was Zarathustra 10-15 mn late.” Or after news of a snow day: “Die Another Day. In Venice.” For an email ominously titled “Krank,” he’d add, “That’s German for sick. Because that’s how bad I’m feeling right now.”

That constant impulse to write playful, incisive, well-punctuated aphorisms has made Jarosinski a Twitter phenomenon. He has almost 88,000 followers, an incredibly large number considering Jarosinski’s favorite topics include hermeneutics (“Another beautiful day for signifying nothing”) and grammar (“An Oxford comma walks into a bar. Orders a gin, and tonic.”) Under the handle Nein Quarterly, a fictional magazine that may soon become real, Jarosinski takes on the persona of “Nein,” a zeppelin-flying alter ego of Theodor W. Adorno that turns a critical, monocled eye on the world.

Jarosinski’s tongue-in-cheek self-identification as a #FailedIntellectual after he decided to leave academia resonates with an audience looking to think outside traditional academic boundaries. His most earnest tweets come when promoting crowd-sourced or free resources for thought, like the avant-garde UbuWeb or the “PDF library” Arg Dot Org.

Our interview took place over email; he responded on various Apple devices.

—Brenda Wang 

I. MAYBE WATCH A WERNER HERZOG DOCUMENTARY

THE BELIEVER: You’ve recently inked a book deal for NEIN. A MANIFESTO, which means you’re moving back to writing books, this time in “small but potent clusters of text.” What does that mean exactly? Is Nein really Nein without Twitter?

ERIC JAROSINKI: Embarrassing. I don’t really know. That’s promotional text I didn’t write myself. I think it means “short but good.” That’s what I’ve been trying to write anyway, with varying degrees of success.

And yes, Nein is still Nein without Twitter, at least in spirit, but not exactly in form. I am trying to write for the book as a medium, just as I’ve tried to learn to write for Twitter as a medium. I know nothing about music, but I’m tempted to say something about tweets being about dissonance and sharp counterpoints, but for print I’m trying to think more in terms of composition, maybe some sort of little textual fugues. Uh, small but potent clusters of, uh, textual fugues.

BLVR: The promotional text on Lebowski Publishers’ website says that the book will, “As good old Horace would have put it, instruct and delight in equal measure.” That seems a little medieval for Nein—what are you hoping to instruct readers about?

EJ: You’ll have to ask my agent. The only thing I’ve ever tried to teach is a type of respectfully irreverent spirit in approaching the authors, thinkers, and ideas that have meant a great deal to me. At my best, I’d like to think I’m helping in some very small way to put the critical back into critical theory—by demystifying thinkers whose very objective was demystification.

BLVR: What is your schedule like now that you’re no longer a professor? Do you find that you have more time to think and write without a defined career, or less?

EJ: Well, it’s summertime, and the damaged life is easy… Though not for much longer, as I just got my last professorial paycheck. I get up relatively early, read a lot of German news, play basketball in a South Philly playground for an hour or so, usually writing some jokes in breaks, then often end up in a favorite dive bar by mid-afternoon to write. In the evening I grill on my front steps, read, maybe watch a Werner Herzog documentary. Most of my writing is done late at night. The uneasy sleep of an ongoing mid-life crisis is good for that.

BLVR: It’s funny that you say you watch a lot of Herzog’s films, because Nein’s tweets often remind me of Herzog’s dramatic voice-overs in his documentaries. What interests you about them?

EJ: I’m fascinated by Herzog’s own fascination, his intensity really. Every time I watch one of his films I’m reminded that I’m wasting my time if I’m not living with some degree of passion. And for a long time I wasn’t. Your question reminds me that I applied for Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School in LA in August. Haven’t heard anything. Probably not good news.

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Various Paradigms

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Various Paradigms is a column by Ann DeWitt about words, art, film, politics and poetics. The title is a tribute to conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner’s typographic texts.  Weiner once wrote, “Bits and Pieces Put Together To Present A Semblance of A Whole.”  This column hopes to follow in that tradition of engagement, intimacy and experiment.

Douglas A. Martin in Conversation with Darcey Steinke

“She was my teacher,” I say happily of Darcey Steinke.  That was 1999, and she had published three novels (Up Through the Water, Suicide Blonde, and Jesus Saves). In the time since then and that we have been a part of each other’s lives, she has produced three more books (Milk, the memoir Easter Everywhere, the forthcoming Sister Golden Hair).

Our first night of class, she said simply, clear-eyed, how you never knew what work of yours was going to take off. Later in the semester, just as frankly to someone’s objection to a story on grounds of “too sad,” she countered how if you couldn’t come to terms with the fact that life sometimes is, you might as well just pack it in. I remember, too, a fortuitous encounter with her in Chelsea, her daughter still in a stroller, and helping Darcey carry her up the steps of an art gallery. This year that same daughter starts Bard College.

Darcey has been connected in some way to almost everything good in my life.  She has blurbed me three times, and when asked if I would interview her on the occasion of her new novel out this October from Tin House Books, I rose to the occasion. Sister Golden Hair is her masterpiece.

In the spirit of Various Paradigms, what follows are “bits and pieces put together to create the semblance of a whole.” The topics following were suggested through both an excising and selecting of a many hours conversation (four? plus a stretch of a half-hour or so of recording discussing her desk’s origin, spirituality, and ritual in writing and the raising of a child, ex’s, etc., lost due to my fingers hitting the wrong button a martini or so in) and digressions on the back porch of Matthew’s on Main, Sullivan County, NY.

Thanks to Ann DeWitt for hosting this exchange.

—Douglas A. Martin

I.  THE FEMALE NUMINOUS

DOUGLAS MARTIN: Say it again?

DARCEY STEINKE: In a perfect world, it would be incorporated with religion more. The sort of moment filled with grace.

DM: A moment of coming into your power as a woman?

DS: It’s not a full gorgeous feeling but these little tiny feelings. You have to track them down.  That would be what my work is basically.

DM: Where have you been at in your life for each of your books?

DS: With my first book (Up Through the Water), I was trying to figure out how my desires for everything—for life, for sex—seemed so oversized.  Cooking, you’re getting turned on. Just walking, you’re getting turned on.  A woman’s desires versus the concerns of family, that continues throughout my books.  It was the year after my MFA.  I was twenty-six.

DM: You were still living in Roanoke? 

DS: And on the island in North Carolina where the book is set. Then I came to New York, and Suicide Blonde was my experience of how weird and creepy it seemed in ways.  I met my first husband. I was reading all the Semiotext(e) books.  I started to read more widely. I discovered Kathy Acker. I was reading Foucault. It seems embarrassing to say.

DM: No. The Care of the Self

DS: Yeah, I went through all that like a maniac. Leslie Dick, Tropic of Cancer, Genet.

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To celebrate the NYRB Classics reprint of John Williams’ Augustus, we’re excerpting a section from the book: a letter from the poet Gaius Maecenas to the historian Livy. See more about the book here.

IX. Letter: Gaius Cilnius Maecenas 

To Titus Livius (13 B.C.)

Some years ago my friend Horace described to me the way he made a poem. We had had some wine and were talking seriously, and I believe that his description then was a more accurate one than that contained more recently in the so-called Letter to the Pisos—a poem upon the art of poetry which, I must confess, I am not particularly fond. He said: “I decide to make a poem when I am compelled by some strong feeling to do so—but I wait until the feeling hardens into a resolve; then I conceive an end, as simple as I can make it, toward which that feeling might progress, though often I cannot see how it will do so. And then I compose my poem, using whatever means are at my command. I borrow from others if I have to—no matter. I invent if I have to—no matter. I use the language that I know, and I work within its limits. But the point is this: the end that I discover at last is not the end that I conceived at first. For every solution entails new choices, and ever choice made poses new problems to which solutions must be found, and so on and on. Deep in his heart, the poet is always surprised at where his poem has gone.”

I thought of that conversation this morning when I sat down to write you once again of those early days; and it occurred to me that Horace’s description of the making of a poem had certain striking parallels to our own working out of our destinies in the world itself (though if Horace heard this, and recalled what he said, he would no doubt scowl dourly and say that it was all nonsense, that you made a poem by discovering a topic, disposing the topic properly, by playing this figure against that, by this disposition of the meter against that sense of the language, and so forth and so on).

For our feeling—or, rather, Octavius’s feeling, in which we were caught up as the reader is caught in a poem—was occasioned by the incredible murder of Julius Caesar, an event which seemed more and more to have simply destroyed the world; and the end that we conceived was to have revenge upon the murderers, for the sake of our honor and the state’s. It was as simple as that, or it appeared to be. But the gods of the world and the gods of poetry are wise, indeed; for how often they save us from the ends toward which we think we strive!

My dear Livy, I do not wish to play the father with you; but you did not even come to Rome until our Emperor had fulfilled his destiny and was master of the world. Let me tell you a little of those days, so that you might reconstruct, these many years later, the chaos that we confronted in Rome.

Caesar was dead—by the “will of the people,” the murderers said; yet the murderers had to barricade themselves in the Capitol against those very people who had “commanded” the act. Two days later, the Senate gave its thanks to the assassins; and in the next breath approved and made law those very acts of Caesar for the proposal of which he had been killed. However terrible the deed, the conspirators had acted with bravery and force; and then they scattered like frightened women after they had taken their first step. Antonius, as Caesar’s friend, roused the people against the assassins; yet the night before the Ides of March he had entertained the murderers at dinner, was seen speaking intimately with one of them (Trebonius) at the instant of the murder, and dined again with those same men two nights later! He aroused the populace again to burn and loot in protest against the murder; and then approved their arrest and execution for that lawlessness. He made Caesar’s will to be read publicly; and then opposed it enactment with all his power.

Above all, we knew that we could not trust Antonius, and we knew him to be a formidable foe—not because of his shrewdness and skill, but because of his thoughtlessness and reckless force. For despite the sentimental regard in which some of the young now hold him, he was not a very intelligent man; he had no real purpose beyond the moment of his will; and he was not exceptionally brave. He did not even perform his own suicide well, and he did it long after his situation was hopeless, so that it was too late for it to be done with dignity.

How do you oppose a foe who is wholly irrational and unpredictable—and yet who, out of animal energy and the accident of circumstance, has attained a most frightening power? (Looking back on it it is odd to remember that once we construed Antonius to be our foe rather than the Senate, though our most obvious enemies were there; I suppose instinctively we felt that if such a bungler as Antonius could manage them, we should not have that much trouble with him either, when the time came.) I do not know how you oppose him; I only know what we did. Let me tell you of that.

We had seen Antonius and had been brusquely dismissed by him. He was the most powerful personage in Rome; we had nothing except a name. We determined that our first necessity was to get recognition from him. We had not been able to get that by overtures of friendship; thus we had to try the overtures of enmity.

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"Despair strikes me as eminently reasonable and boring."

The following is an excerpt from a new conversation between Tao Lin and Ben Lerner. Read the full piece on Believermag.com

BLVR: Where are you now?

BL: Seattle, visiting my brother and his family.

BLVR: Have you seen fireflies?

BL: I don’t think so. Are there are fireflies on the West Coast? I never saw any when I lived in California.

BLVR: I wonder why that is.

BL: I just googled it and according to firefly.org “almost no species of fireflies are found west of Kansas—although there are warm and humid areas to the west. Nobody is sure why this is.” I just remembered I used to have a crazy dream about fireflies.

BLVR: What was it?

BL: When I was a kid and we played baseball we used to use that “eye black” stuff sometimes—that kind of grease you put under your eyes to reduce glare or something. We only used it, of course, to look cool; it’s not like we were any better prepubescent athletes for reducing glare. But I remember I had this recurring dream that we were playing a night game and instead of eye black we had mashed up the glowing bodies of fireflies and put that under our eyes. So our faces were glowing—a kind of night vision.

BLVR: You have a line about that in your first book of poemsThe Lichtenberg Figures.

BL: I do?

BLVR: “…we mash the effervescent abdomens of fireflies / into mascara for the long-lashed corpse.”

BL: Wow, weird. That’s right. I even use “mash.”

BLVR: But back to the future. The epigraph to 10:04 is a Hassidic story about how the “world to come”—the redeemed world—will be just like this one, only a little different: where our baby sleeps now, there too it will sleep in the other world. And the clothes we wear in this world, those too we will wear there. This idea occurs on many levels throughout your book—when the narrator holds a can of instant coffee on the eve of a storm, when he considers time in Christian Marclay’s The Clock, when he looks at a piece of “totaled art,” he evokes this idea of a world that’s just slightly different, but somehow totally transformed. What thoughts do you have about this parable?

BL: I think the parable is a peculiar way of saying that redemption is immanent whether or not it’s imminent, that the world to come is in a sense always already here, if still unavailable. I find this idea powerful for several reasons. For one thing, it’s an antidote to despair. Many of the left thinkers that really matter to me—that formed a big part of my thinking about politics and art—emphasize how capitalism is a totality, how there’s no escape from it, no outside. We all know what they mean: every relationship can feel saturated by market logic or at best purchased at the price of the immiseration of others. But I’m increasingly on the side of thinkers like David Graeber who are talking back to this notion of totality and emphasizing how there are all kinds of moments in our daily lives that break—or at least could break—from the logic of profit and the modes of domination it entails. Zones of freedom, even if it’s never pure. And I like to think—knowing that it’s an enabling fiction—of those moments as fragments from a world to come, a world where price isn’t the only measure of value.

BLVR: I like how your book avoids the kind of despair you mentioned—the emphasis by certain left thinkers on how there’s no escape from capitalism.

BL: Despair strikes me as eminently reasonable and boring. I have no patience for artists whose primary function is to articulate their art’s impossibility, who in a sense commodify melancholy—just as I have no interest in artists who are purely affirmative, who’ve made a commercialized fetish of the culture’s stupidity. Balloon dogs, etc. I think that sexual pleasure and the weird color of the sky after a storm or the stream of tail lights across the bridge or the way silence can thin or thicken before music starts—all these things have to be harnessed by the political. The libidinal has to be harnessed by the political.

BLVR: What would you view as literature that despairs?

BL: Well, I think the anti-intellectualism of a lot of contemporary fiction is a kind of despairing of literature’s ability to be anything more than perfectly bound blog posts or transcribed sitcoms. But that goes without saying. Anyway I read more contemporary poetry than contemporary fiction so my mind goes first to a kind of crass “conceptualism” that repeats vanguard gestures of the past minus the politics and historical context. That kind of art despairs both of the poem—the big claim for such writing is that you don’t even have to read the words—and it despairs even of the critical force of that despairing, since it’s only point seems to be that everything is exhausted. Why produce more examples of exhaustion? But I’m also talking about a tendency in my own work—I don’t want to write poems that are just really clear about how I’m aware of all the traps involved in writing poetry; I don’t want to write fiction that’s about the irresponsibility of writing fiction and I’ve thrown out a lot of writing that I think was ultimately tainted by that kind of self-awareness. Writing by Maggie Nelson and Dana Ward and Ariana Reines and Simone White has proved to be a strong countermeasure to that kind of despair for me lately.

BLVR: I sensed the presence in 10:04 of a kind of alien yet familiar “other.” I’m thinking of the multiple mentions of octopus, “an animal that decorates its lair,” in the beginning of the book—when also the narrator, watching traffic from the High Line, intuits “an alien intelligence”—and, later, when he’s in Marfa and there’s talk of “the Marfa Lights” which “people have ascribed to ghosts, UFOS, or ignis fatuus.” The narrator says, “I saw no spheres, but I loved the idea of them—the idea that our worldly light could be reflected back to us and mistaken as supernatural.” Does this feeling of the supernatural relate to the idea of “a world to come” to you?

BL: Yes, absolutely, but the other is the collective. He’s having a kind of Feuerbach moment there—admiring the lights as a fiction, the way Feuerbach reinterpreted God as a projection of the essence of our species. So the other is alien in the sense that it’s the form of our collective alienation. It’s the transpersonal mistaken for the supernatural but the transpersonal is more awe-inspiring, more exciting than the thing we confuse it for. When the narrator feels like an octopus, when he says his limbs are starting to multiply, he means he has inklings of orders of perception beyond his individual body. The personal starts to dissolve, get emptied out. You’re right to link it to the epigraph because it’s a way of saying: there’s a sense in which community is already here. It’s already here in the Marfa lights and the circuits of global capital (that moves a baby octopus from Portuguese waters to a Chelsea restaurant) and even if those are deeply perverted forms of interconnectedness they nevertheless have a utopian glimmer.

Read the full interview.