Friday, June 14, 2019

The Art of Celestial Mechanics: Singing in the Dawn with Eric Basso; An Interview by Kirpal Gordon

KP: In perusing your 13 titles published by Asylum Arts Accidental Monsters: Poems & Texts, 1976; Bartholomew Fair: Fiction; The Beak Doctor: Short Fiction, 1972–1976; Catafalques: Poems, 1987–1989; The Catwalk Watch: Poems, 1977–1979; Decompositions: Essays, 1973–1989; Enigmas: Short Plays, 1979–1982; Ghost Light: Poems, 1990–1994; The Golem Triptych: A Dramatic Trilogy; Revagations: A Book of Dreams, 1966-1974; The Sabattier Effect, Plays; The Smoking Mirror: Poems, 1980-1986 I sense there’s some back story between 1966, the earliest date, and 1994, the latest. Take us right up to your latest publications, Umbra, just out from Asylum, and Earthworks, published last year by Six Gal­lery Press.

EB: My seventh collection of poems, Earthworks, took twelve years to complete. I was beginning to burn out when I wrote the first section, “A New Shade of Gray,” then gray went to black. I burnt out completely. Didn’t write a word for five years. I was also taking care of my mother, who’d fallen ill with Parkinson’s disease, twenty-four hours a day for six years. After her death, I began to crawl back into poetry, and finished the rest of the book in three years. I left the poems in chronological order, so the reader can follow my descent into the void and my climb out. Before the burn-out, I’d been prolific. Maybe I’d just run out of words, who knows? In December, I completed a new collection, Barbarous Radiates, which took a little over two and a half years to write. I’m back.

KP: What are you working on now?
EB: A new collection of poems, Palimpsest.
KP: Kirkus Reviews wrote this about your poetry: “A poetry of celestial mechanics, mysteries that are still, and forever, unfolding. Not a barren defiance, Basso's vision becomes a fruitful collaboration with the cosmos in the manner of the Navajo shaman who each dawn helps sing the wondrous into existence.” And Samuel Appelbaum, reviewing the entire body of your poetic work in Rain Taxi, writes, “Eric Basso has reconfirmed the pattern of prodigious visionary accomplishment he began more than twenty-five years ago . . . . through thousands of night shifts, Basso has done the kind of heavy lifting most of our more accessible, celebrated poets never had the courage to do in the first place. . . . Basso explores an eerie, uncharted realm, because that is where those who are absent, and their artifacts, are buried. Having harnessed his compulsiveness in the service of qualitative production, Eric Basso has become prolific in the most useful sense.” Do you have a favorite poem in Earthworks that I might quote, especially one that best represents the thesis/core/heart of the collection?

EB: There are several. Just off the top of my head, “Dark Crawling” comes to mind.
 (reads): 


dark crawling begins
an escape from bad dreams
and an even worse reality
animal warmth remains
but nothing more
just to slip off
all that is needed
you feel the air
tingling the hairs
on your body
the poem hangs in midair
the exercise you take up
at night without wanting to
new routine of an old age
you’ll never learn to live with
a coldness under your fingers
it’s marble from a country
that you will never see
from a torment
yet to be named
drunk or sober you are
committed to the passionless
exploration of what lies
beyond the pillow and
the night sweat
a swelling mud turns
to crust beneath you
the rumpitous monster
grins but tells nothing
of what it knows

still a long space to crawl
across this darkness
a light to imagine
at the very end
that won’t be there

That pretty much takes you into the heart of the process.

KP: What is “rumpitous?” A “rumpitous monster"?
EB: I made it up.
KP: Rhymes with "bumpitous."
EB: I wouldn't want to give the impression that all the poems are this grim. Most are not. The cycle about Mr. Abattoria and his quest for an elusive, mysterious woman is often quite funny, in a twisted way.
KP: Is Mr. Abattoria you?
EB: No. When I wrote the poems, I became Abattoria.

KP: Why not read your favorite Abattoria poem?

EB: It's a bit long.
KP: We have time.

EB: (reads): 

the spinach on the grill
he didn’t want to eat it
refused point blank to sink
the tip of a tusk in

this was when he noticed
the waiter had dwindled
the man was slowly sinking
legs puddling out of trousers
Mr Abattoria hadn’t been
in the city for long when
he began to hear rumors
of the intimate herrings
they don’t resemble fish
the night clerk advised him
adding that the management
urged residents to avoid the stairs
spring being slow to come
love was not in bloom
but the promise of love lingered
in expectation of the herrings
Mr Abattoria combed his hair
and plucked his eyebrows waiting
for an intimate herring to appear
it could assume any form
that much he knew from
the lady who changed the bed
its properties were self-refuting yet
no one had witnessed a metamorphosis
what made these herrings intimate
was their overwhelming desire for
close contact with the human body
thus they were impossible to console
prowling the marina Mr Abattoria
wondered how dangerous it would be
to discover himself in the presence
of an intimate herring
the harbor patrol dragged the bay
for bodies but dredged up only
a few small foreign coins
a suitcase and a tub

an engine hummed in the alley
it was still winter and not
a mosquito to be seen as
a cloud dimmed the moon
intimate herrings were
the blind seekers
the dream flesh warmed
the nightmare
KP: Another elusive hunt for love.
EB: Yes!
KP: Any other poem in the collection that you'd say was representative?

EB: (reads) 

it steps out from behind the mirror
politely asks you to climb onto its back
then you’re off at a scampering gallop
riding the tin gorilla past hope and fear
past the lonely place where punishment
peels the glove from its frozen fingers
these shattered bricks cradle
the spume of an aching sky
through dreamless nights
a surrender to false horizons
to gigantic arches of mud and mist
as the tin gorilla gallops past
the clatter of its spiked fur
raises a terrible din and as you cling
to its shoulders you shut your eyes
praying this is not the endless
nightmare of the life after death
but the tin gorilla gallops on

I've spent twenty years riding the tin gorilla.
KP: Family obligations, deaths, illnesses.
EB: Mmmm. It kept me out of the loop.
KP: The literary loop.

EB: I lost touch with everything. The crowning irony is that twelve of my books were published during this time. Books I'd written years, sometimes decades, before. And I had no time to, well, enjoy it. I didn't even have time to read.
KP: So, the poems in Earthworks are, in some sense, a record of this.
EB: Some, like the ones I just read, are. Others carry forward the exploration I'd begun when I was nineteen.
KP: Which brings us to Umbra, your second collection of poems, just out from Asylum Arts Press. Why did it wait so long to see the light of day?

EB: I wanted to hold in reserve at least one of the books I wrote in my twenties to be published when I was in my sixties. Umbra was the most logical choice. It's a large, experimental collection, a revealing transition between my first collection, Accidental Monsters, and my third, The Catwalk Watch.
KP: Those early poems are surprisingly different from your later work. To create context, why not contrast a poem from Umbra with the two poems you read from Earthworks?
EB: (reads from Umbra):

with the last

places a spi-
der would not
want to touch
with its webs

once you have
begun to fall
through a few
black mirages
you let go of
everything in
the room that
might suggest
you are awake
KP: Interesting line breaks, especially the second line with spider cut in half! The whole book is columnar. Though the lines are not syllabic, they chisel a tombstone effect on the page. The lines, “to fall / through a few / black mirages,” might be the theme of Umbra. Throughout the book the historical reflects the personal, mixes with the natural and connects with the mythical.

EB: I began to write poetry relatively late, and I just plunged in. Accidental Monsters, a sizable collection, was written in six months.
KP: Every work is marked at the bottom with a completion date. Many of the events and characters you write about are so terrifically and terrifyingly interworldly that recording the moment you wrote it feels like an ironic touch.
EB: The dates of composition fix a moment in time — an epiphany, if you like. I’ve always included them in my books. I’m far from the first to do it. An awful lot of my poems were dictated into a tape recorder, in the middle of the night, while I was trying to get to sleep. My other writing — fiction, drama, criticism — was always planned out in detail, before composition began. Poems are different. For the most part, you wait for them to come.
KP: I have been reading with great fascination your poetry posts at Facebook. Are these poems new?
EB: They're from Barbarous Radiates, the book I completed in the fall of ’09. You've been reading the “Petroglyphs” section. Poems about, or inspired by, stones.

once you have
begun to fall
through a few
black mirages
you let go of
everything in
the room that
might suggest
you are awake

KP: The poems are written in deceptively-simple language yet, at the same time, the images you invoke are mysterious, enigmatic, often magical.
EB: I try to avoid simile, except in rare instances for musical effect, steering clear of philosophizing and metaphor, and keeping myself in the background. When I say “I” in a poem, I’m almost never speaking of myself. That “I” is the anonymous voice of the poem. I don’t want to “talk at” the reader. It’s not about me. It’s about opening the door, letting the reader in.
KP: What is the meaning of the sentence, “Eric Basso no longer writes”? I read that in Rattle, a poetry journal. The quote not only contradicts the many posts, but these new poems feel like classic Basso, and already seem so entirely connected from one to the next.
EB: “The Nets,” a poem from Earthworks, was published in Rattle during those five years the book's progress was interrupted. I was convinced I would never write again. But, I struggled back. It was almost like starting from scratch. As to the continuity you find in the Barbarous poems with the earlier books, I'm glad to hear it, but can't account for it. I’d to make clearer something I said earlier. My burn-out began two years before my mother fell ill. I was writing less and less. Her illness may, or may not, have prolonged my silence, but wasn't the cause.
KP: A few years ago, Asylum Arts Press published Revagations, the first volume of your book of dreams.
EB: The book begins in 1966. In other words, at the very beginning, when I was nineteen.
KP: And the book itself begins with a preface that begins with an exploration of the very nature of consciousness.
EB: That’s right. The preface, or “Prolegomenon,” is the result of a decade of research and experimentation on the mechanism of passing from the conscious to the unconscious state. Some excellent work was done on this around the turn of the last century by Henri Poincaré and Paul Valéry. I’ve recorded thousands of my dreams, over the last forty-four years. The first volume takes me from the age of nineteen to twenty-seven. All the dreams of that time are included. I held nothing back, no matter how insalubrious. What surprised me, in transcribing the dreams from my journal into book form, was how well the writing had held up. The dreams were scribbled out in haste each day, before I got down to my regular work. The depressing part was in discovering the need to add brief explanations, in brackets, to explain to younger readers who celebrities like Milton Berle were, and political figures who have faded from public memory.
KP: Many of the dreams are incredibly detailed.
EB: And outrageously indecorous. Some are farcical, others lyrical, almost poetic, still others are menacing or mysterious.
KP: There’s a unifying quality to your work, a sense that every book is another look into an intriguing world, starting with the first recorded entry, in the dream book, “Flight”:

"This island-city of rain, where a shower of drops constantly falls; not from the sky, but up from the surrounding sea — a fountain in reverse.

As the drops hit the windows, people look around from making hybernative love. People of the indoor air, who see me through the clear circle on their ground-glass windows.

I fly in the rain."
In the preface you record how writers have shaped dreams into literature, and how messages from dreams have instructed Paul Valéry, Victor Hugo, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, Yeats, Rilke, Coleridge, Stevenson, de Quincy and, most centrally, Gérard de Nerval, for whom you tell us, “the dream became a process of growth toward an occult knowledge.”
EB: With tragic results. They all took what they regarded as significant dreams seriously — composers, painters and scientists, as well. It’s amazing how many writers have kept a journal of their dreams, and later published them. Recording your dreams in detail is excellent training for a young writer.
KP: You were born in 1947 and although many American writers of your generation have had extensive training in grad school, you’ve avoided such an approach. You don't have an MFA degree.
EB: My training as a writer is unaffiliated with any academic institution.
KP: I tend to think of the MFA-ication of English departments — also music, dance, visual art, etc. — as part of a larger social breakdown. The under-enrolled university abuses its alleged value as a vocational training advancement but actually compromises talent and the training of artists in a world in which there is little performance feedback from an audience, or actual support of the art in the community, but advertises instant success for all. That’s sick, and preys upon our hopes, and turns everything to shit.
EB: In my estimation, the best course in creative writing consists of voracious transglobal reading, disrespect for authority, not paying any attention to your teachers, experiencing everything you can to the point of mental and physical damage, and drinking. That’s how most of the greats did it, and how it was meant to be done.

KP: The term avant-garde suggests something elitist, military, forward moving and ahead of its time. Your work, by contrast, strikes me as universal, something we already know but don’t know that we do until we read your words, an eye that moves forward as well as back in time but unites rather than divides our consciousness. In other words any human who can read imaginatively is your reader.
EB: I think of writers like us as the next stage in the long tradition, running from Homer to Beckett and beyond.

KP: A quality you have in common with those European writers is a more elastic sense of literature, one not so driven by the narrow categories of our mega-book stores. Your work makes me think of a remark Yusef Lateef, who was inducted into the NEA Jazz Masters last month, made when asked about musical genres, “It’s segregation and has nothing to do with the music.” Stephen-Paul Martin remarked in “Bashing the Mainstream,” “[Eric Basso] remains one of the most interesting writers in the country, someone whose work does not fit conveniently into categories like metafiction or language-centered po≠etry, but whose poetry, fiction and dramatic writing extend our sense of what terms like modernism and postmodernism mean.” Blessing or a curse?
EB: Both. You know, I’m only first-and-a half generation American, and grew up around older relatives who were bilingual, so I’ve always felt at home with the European tradition in literature. I realize that sounds a little crazy, but it’s the only way I can explain how I took to it when I was young while a great part of the Anglo-American tradition left me cold. I found its relative insularity and parochialism of little interest. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about the great works — like The Waste Land, Nightwood, To the Lighthouse, Ulysses, Under the Volcano and others like them, speaking of the 20th century alone. But England, and particularly America, has had a long tradition of insularity, of the narrow focus, that has isolated it from the broader tradition.
KP: Very few independent presses in American publishing remain standing after thirty years. You’ve been there from when Greg Boyd started it and since Jordan Jones has taken it over. What’s the ride been like? What’s the future look like?
EB: Greg Boyd began publishing Asylum magazine in the spring of 1985. I was a regular contributor from the first issue. A few years later, he branched out into book publishing. The first of my books he published was the big drama trilogy, The Golem Triptych. Over the next seven years, nine more of my books came out under the Asylum Arts imprint. As we both know, small press publishing is seldom a money-making proposition. Greg’s integrity, as both a publisher and author, resided in his willingness to take chances by publishing, and creating, literary works that were, shall we say, not “the usual.” He kept things going as long as he could. When Greg was no longer financially able to continue, Asylum Arts passed to Jordan Jones who, for years, had been publishing a fine magazine of his own, Bakunin, from 1989 through 1996, and who had started Leaping Dog Press in 1999. What I’ve said about Greg’s integrity can also be said of Jordan. He had already begun Leaping Dog Press when he took over Asylum Arts’ backlist, and has kept those books in print. Jordan has added three of my books to the Asylum Arts’ list: Revagations, Decompositions and, most recently, Umbra. As a way to limit expenses and expand markets in creative ways, Jordan is in the process of shifting from reliance on the standard distribution channels, to newer “long tail” publishing strategies such as print-on-demand and eBooks. The fact is that independent publishers have many challenges fitting into the increasingly commoditized world of publishing. But the problem is not new. New Directions publisher, James Laughlin, carried many of his authors for years until their books finally began to connect. Our generation cut its teeth on those paperbacks published by New Directions and Grove Press in the ’50s and ’60s.
KP: Those books were indispensable. But Laughlin had inherited a fortune. It was a lot easier for him to keep his backlist in print.
EB: Which makes Greg and Jordan’s accomplishment more admirable.
KP: Back to your poems on Facebook. Regarding your time away from the lit scene, if I’d gone Rip Van Winkle for twenty years and saw those poetry posts for the first time, I think I’d be amazed at how the technology has put reader and writer together with no middle player controlling the means of production and distribution of your literature.
EB: I didn’t think Facebook would be for me. Social networking isn’t really my style. My publisher urged me to join and post my poems to as many people as possible. Soon I was posting to multiple lists. The number of lists grew. After a year and a half, I found myself posting poems to around three hundred people. Jordan [the publisher] realized that I’d blundered onto something more effective than a personal Web site. I’ll paraphrase his words: “You’re bring it to them instead of waiting for them to come to you.”
KP: Many poems posted on Facebook receive little more than a generic thumbs-up or a word of wow, but your respondents are quite articulate in their praise. What do you make of the technology? As to your posts, am I right that you’ve only chosen poems from the “Petroglyphs” section of Barbarous Radiates? These are poems about, or inspired by, stones?
EB: For years I wanted to write a cycle of poems about stones. “Petroglyphs” is the second section of Barbarous Radiates. The response on Facebook has been incredible, detailed responses from all over the world. I was surprised. They get it. They really get it. Many have told me they’ve become obsessed by my poems. I’ve also posted poems from Earthworks, which was published by Six Gallery Press in 2008.
KP: And the technology?
EB: That’s a different story. Anyone who’s on Facebook knows that the interface can be very clunky.
KP: Reading the “Shoals” and “Petroglyphs” section of Barbarous Radiates caused me to reflect on the Kirkus Review description: “A poetry of celestial mechanics, mysteries that are still, and forever, unfolding.” This sense of co-participating with unfolding mystery might also be said of your fiction, yes?
EB: Also my plays and even, to a certain extent, my literary and art criticism. My work, in general, avoids the timely in favor of the timeless. For me, it’s an exploration of both the possible and the impossible. The language of my poetry is fairly simple. There’s also the dark side, which is very dark with me, a theme that runs — or, rather, zigzags — through most of my work: the sense that a story, novel, poem or play is completed by the very thing that destroys it. So, that “unfolding mystery” ultimately perishes before it can be solved or explained. A short, concrete illustration of this would be the climax of my drama trilogy, The Golem Triptych. the Creature, as the Golem is called, demands its own death because its existence as a living (but not human) being is a blasphemy of sacred law. The trilogy ends with the fall of Prague, a tragic dissolution, a desolation.
KP: There’s also a sense that you are “inventing” your predecessors. In a 1971 lecture Borges gave in London, just published by Obscure Publications, he states that a writer of importance creates his own forerunners. For example, he sees Kafka in Hawthorne’s “Wakefield,” the story of a man who goes into voluntary loneliness, and in Melville’s “Bartleby,” a tale Borges argues is “far more Kafka than Kafka perhaps.”
EB: Ah, Bartleby. One of my American lit professors didn’t agree with me that the more alarming figure in the story is Bartleby’s employer, who seems paralyzed to take action by simply firing him. And it was Kafka’s The Castle that brought me to this conclusion. The castle officials are terrified of the so-called land surveyor, K., who, far from being a passive “victim” is the aggressor, in much the same way Bartleby was before him.
KP: I’m reminded of Mike Begnall’s review of your book of essays, Decompositions, in which he wrote, “Basso occasionally verges into the philosophical, as in his discussion of Mallarmé’s courting of ‘Void’: ‘Thus we have the conscious mind, always at one remove from its core of being, able to conceive an idea of — but unable to know — itself, and, by such ignorance, reducing all notions of personal identity (which implies consistency) to a nebulous comedy of ever-changing masks.’ But it is not always this . . . rarefied, and of course it was Mallarmé who became obsessed with nullity before his descendant Basso.” As if to further a response to the Begnall review (which had not yet been written), Marie-José Fortis in wrote in Collages & Bricolages, “Is The Golem Triptych confusing? Not if you let yourself in on the phantasmal world of reality, or into the reality of dreams/nightmares; not if you defy time conventions and decide to travel forward into the past, trying to grasp . . . ‘the memory of the future.’”
EB: I’d call my proposition “anti-philosophical.” I prefer that term because some have called the essays “existential.” Maybe they were thinking of Sartre’s incomprehensible Being and Nothingness. But, in The Golem Triptych, we do travel forward from the 20th century to the turn of the 17th century, and enter “the memory of the future.” And in my play, The Sabattier Effect, the memory of a past the characters can no longer control threatens to engulf and annihilate an already-ambiguous present. I like presenting ambiguous situations. It seems to me a great part of our inner and outer lives are ambiguous, if were honest about it. Maybe I’m a realist, in that respect.
KP: Do you think some would find your essays incomprehensible?
EB: I’m certain of that. But they’re really studies of the incomprehensible. Mike Begnall’s terminology might differ a little from mine, but he gets it, as does Marie-José Fortis by focusing on “the memory of the future,” where conventional notions of time and space can fall like a veil from our eyes. Did I just use a simile or a metaphor?
KP: Bettina L. Knapp, author of Theatre and Alchemy, wrote: “. . . the atemporal time scheme used by Basso serves to integrate past modalities into contemporary actualities. Gone is the world of pseudo certainties relied upon by many today to keep body and soul afloat. Gone as well is the dividing line between life and death; conscious and unconscious; dream and reality. Instead, presides the infinite unknown with all of its wondrous and terrifying possibilities — both human and divine.” There’s an invocational quality running through The Golem Triptych as well. There’s the golem, for sure, with a four-letter Hebraic word emet (truth) marked on his forehead, but erase the first letter and it’s met (death). The gaining or erasing a letter is fascinatingly paralleled in the human characters as they “undie” by embodying new roles and names throughout the trilogy. One thinks of William Butler Yeats’ grand scheme in A Vision with its widening gyres and ever-turning phases. There are other echoes and threads: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” a story in which a mesmerist hypnotizes a dying man at the instant of his death and keeps him in a trance, Borges’ elliptical “The Circular Ruins,” the flavor of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus in your blank verse, Carl Jung’s Red Book of psychic visitations from mytho-historic personae and Nietzsche’s Cycle of Eternal Return mixed up with historical events like the Black Death that plagued Prague under Emperor Rudolf II. While enfleshing a non-Christian identity of self, one outside the wrathful reach of a jealous theocrat, you’ve woven in a web of rarified Renaissance elements charged with Faustian energy: necromancy, astronomy, alchemy, sexual bewitchment, magic and mirrors to make a trilogy scary and hilarious at the same time.
EB: When Stephen-Paul Martin wrote about the Tryptych in his piece, “Bashing the Mainstream,” he pointed out that, as the characters change in identity from play to play, their previous identities lend a strange, unexpected depth of complexity to the later identities they assume. In the third play [The Fall of Prague], the mob boss, Canamine, of the second play [Joseph in the Underground], becomes the flamboyant astronomer, Tycho Brahe. The historical Brahe is known to have been a man of violent temper, gargantuan scientific ambition and gross appetites. Martin understands that Tycho, who often behaves like a thug or a mob boss, carries his previous incarnation within him. And this enhances the ambiguity of identity that runs through the three plays. Is this really Tycho? Or are we in some parallel universe as we plunge into that “memory of the future,” and 20th-century characters suddenly find themselves in Prague at the turn of the 17th century — the historical past, ambiguous at best, having become their future? The only character who remains constant is the old man, Joseph Golem, but he ages backward from play to play! And, in the final play, he is forced, by a bizarre turn of events, to assume the identity of the missing Rabbi Loew, the fabled creator of a golem, with both hilarious, and ultimately tragic, consequences.
KP: Another discovery is the music you composed.
EB: I was classically trained for six years, as a child. The Golem Triptych was the first of my dramatic works for which I composed and orchestrated incidental music. I never dreamed that early training would someday come in handy. Music runs on my father’s side of the family. It practically gallops.
KP: The incidental music is essential to the overall effect of The Golem Triptych.
EB: Absolutely.
KP: You’ve written the whole thing in British English and the last play, The Fall of Prague, in Elizabethan English. Were there reasons?
EB: A number of reasons led me to write the last ten of my twenty-one plays in British English. It began with the Triptych. I realized that a dramatic work of such large dimensions would require the forces of the Royal Shakespeare Company or the National Theatre, and actors trained to perform Elizabethan drama. So, I learned a foreign language, British. It’s a lot more complicated than some would think. There are both subtle, and dramatic, differences between British and American English, to say nothing of British regional idioms and slang. I immersed myself in it. My novel, Bartholomew Fair, was set in London, and entirely written in British, both high and low British. It was written between the second and third plays of The Golem Triptych.
KP: The last act is in Elizabethan English.
EB: Each day, before writing, I read parts of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays at random for around twenty minutes, to get myself into the rhythm, the music, of the language. I used mainly Marlowe and Shakespeare. The Fall of Prague gradually eases itself into the language. It begins with prose. The plan was to ease it into full-blown blank verse, which I was dreading. I figured that would be really difficult. It turned out that the verse meter made it easier to reproduce the idiom, as if it were built in. You mentioned Doctor Faustus. Quite a few people have told me that my Elizabethan reminded them more of Marlowe than Shakespeare.
KP: It ties in with what Marie-José Fortis has written: “There is deep mysticism in atheism. With Basso . . . this translates into a poetic absurdism, a feast for the lyric intellect. . . . The Golem Triptych makes madness and civilization, being and nothingness cohabit, be one.” For the Veda, Advaita, Buddha, Tantra, Jain, Sufi, Tao, Zen and Shinto lineages, mysticism is the act of erasing the separation between being and nothingness, madness and civilization, perceiver and perceived. In these atheistic/non-theistic traditions, cohering opposites and returning to an original integrity is what art-literature-meditation-moksha-enlightenment-satori-samadhi is all about: a standing-under/under-standing often expressed in deep laughter and re-cognition. Your eye to human identity as a trick of the mind has much resonance with these non-theological liberation methodologies. Like protagonist Joseph Golem, the way out starts with the question, who is the self?
EB: Marlowe was a professed atheist who exhibited a staggering gift for the epic image. In spite of his personal convictions, he depicts Mephistophilis’ inconsolable sorrow at the loss of heaven in a moving, and entirely convincing, way. He does the same with Faustus’ despairing panic toward the climax of the play. And, of course, Marlowe was no stranger to mysticism and the occult. As to questions of “the self,” I’ve always thought you can learn a great deal more about what people are through immediate experience and a close reading of historical biography than any speculations philosophy can come up with. And it’s not a pretty picture. It’s complicated and disordered. Why look for order where none exists?
KP: Stepping into a fuller rapport with the mysteries of existence is the outcome of the play. It makes the search for an abstract salvation from a sinful human nature through an invisible mediator seem like a sad charade. What could reveal a sinful nature more than out-hustling other sinners for entrance into a select paradise filled with the most selfish?
EB: True. The Golem Triptych is a work of tragic loss on an epic scale. In the end, it’s more about the forest than the trees. Everything falls to ruins. The very act that completes the drama as a structured whole is also its annihilation. Everything is lost. There has been betrayal, murder and mayhem, dissolution, the Holy Roman Emperor has gone insane, and Joseph — whose identity has become hopelessy confused with Rabbi Loew’s and the golem’s — is destroyed at the very moment he complies with the golem’s wish to be destroyed. They go out in a blaze together because Joseph Golem and the Rabbi’s creature are mirror images of each other. Which is why, when the creature tells Joseph to look deeply into its eyes, instead of his own distorted reflection, he sees the creature’s!
KP: Continuing on with this notion of identity as fraud, masquerade or social construct, Rosette Lamont wrote regarding Enigmas, your trilogy of one-acts, “Taken together, the plays in this handsome volume raise the question of a person’s identity, the manner in which the Other sees the One, and even questions as to the nature of the One.”
EB: What we call “civilization” — the social contract— stands on dangerously thin ice, and is easily undermined by the legion of intangibles, and tangibles, that come at it from every direction. The frightening thing is that, on the much smaller scale of the individual, it doesn’t take all that much for the comfortable, delusional conventions in which we live to break down. And this, too, can set off a chain reaction that can cause mayhem, and destroy more than one’s sense of identity. I’m saying it’s all up for grabs, that order is nothing more than an agreed-upon fiction, a social contract that can be torn to shreds at any time.

Eric Basso was born in Baltimore in 1947. His work has appeared in Bakunin, The Chicago Review, Central Park, Collages & Bricolages, Fiction International, Exquisite Corpse, and many other publications. His novel, Bartholomew Fair, is available from Asylum Arts. He is the author of twenty-one plays. His critically-acclaimed drama trilogy, The Golem Triptych; the complete short plays, Enigmas; his play, The Sabattier Effect; a book of short fiction, The Beak Doctor; and five collections of poetry, Accidental Monsters, Umbra, the Catwalk Watch, The Smoking Mirror, Catafalques and Ghost Light, are available from Asylum Arts, along with Decompositions: Essays on Art & Literature 1973 –1989 and Revagaions: 1966 –1974, the first volume of his book of dreams.
Basso’s seventh collection of poems, Earthworks, was published by Six Gallery Press in 2008.


No comments:

Post a Comment