Earlier this year, I reviewed Christopher Bernard’s new collection of short stories, In the American Night. In this interview, we talk about the writing process, feminism, and pop culture.
When I was a very young writer I realized I had developed, without planning to, two very different styles. A literary style, for me, is not just a way to express oneself; it’s also a tool for exploring both language and the world. There was my “straight” style – clear, transparent, expressing the useful, rational, orderly. It was, however, hopeless at dealing with the wilderness of the irrational, the paradoxes of passion, the mystical, the freedom of language to create its own world bounded only by the rules of syntax and grammar.
Then there was my “crazy” style. That seemed far more capable of doing all of that.
In the American Night collects many of my short fictional pieces written since that time – both the “straight” and the “crazy.”
The collection’s earliest piece, from 1974, was my first attempt to write a piece completely in the “crazy” style – in this case, multi-vocal stream-of-consciousness. It was severely rejected by the little writer’s group I belonged to – this was my first realization I might have difficulty making headway in the American literary scene if I was going to write what interested me. And I have not been disappointed. Just as there is an entire subculture in America devoted to denying the existence of evolution, so we have a literary subculture that denies – though a better word might be, resents – the formal and linguistic discoveries made by the modernists. There has always been a powerful strain of anti-modernism, of cultural reaction against the great European innovators since the late 19th century, in the American literary establishment – this strain condemns artistic innovation as “artsy-fartsy,” “gimmicky,” “pretentious”; it detests “intellectualism” and has an abhorrence of philosophical questioning. The radical subjectivism of the modernist thrust is met with with a kind of jejune horror. There are American literati who still do not accept “The Waste Land” or Ulysses or the Cantos as benchmarks of modern writing. They still don’t fully accept upstarts like Picasso or Duchamp. And they’re not even sure about Stravinsky. They breathed a sigh of relief when the postmodernists made it OK to take popular culture seriously.
All in all, the pieces in In the American Night, like much of my writing, are intended as acts of a kind of deep politics – acts of intellectual sabotage, little Molotov cocktails, bursts of mental liberation from the bonds of American culture – which today is synonymous with “popular culture.”
“In the American Night” is a vitriolic tirade that slowly mutates into an ill-fated romance, can you explain the genesis and challenges of writing this story?
A personal experience kicked off the story with an emotional explosion, and the story was a way of working off some personal bitterness – it’s a kind of emotional homeopathy.
But other factors drove it. Now, a writer can inform, entertain, advise, console – be your best friend or a kind of surrogate parent. Or a writer can be a devil’s advocate: provoke, question, attack – fashionable prejudices, political shibboleths, unexamined assumptions, even his own – above all, his own. This can make writing as liberating for the writer as it is painful and unnerving for both writer and reader.
One of the philosophical roots of the story “In the American Night” is just such a provocation, caused by my long love-hate affair with feminism – a word I have long been uncomfortable with, because of its obvious sexism, but an idea that I favor – the idea, that is, that there should no unfair discrimination based on gender. I prefer to use a more accurate, if more cumbersome, term, such as “non-gender-bias” or, more generally, “opposition to unfair, irrational and irrelevant discrimination of any kind.”
I have had a long quarrel with the more extreme forms of feminism – the “all straight white males are oppressors” school, since, as an unrepentant straight white male with European roots, who believes that no one should be unfairly discriminated against, I have, perhaps oddly, a strong drive toward self-preservation.
In my writing, I often take some issue I have strong but mixed feelings about, choose a provocative position, take it to an extreme and then debate it, at least by implication. Thus I’m able to examine positions I may not myself agree with. In the story we’re discussing, I do something similar through my nameless character – a resentful, bitter “nice guy” (a “straight white male” indeed, with an insecure streak and sense of entitlement a mile wide and a thousand feet deep) who is full of hatred for his world. He’s someone who, despite representing a side of me that, thankfully, never developed, both intrigues and worries me, for the simple reason that it is becoming increasingly common (witness the recent mass-shooting suicide by a young man who “blamed” women for not being attracted to him, or other young men who claim that “feminism ruined their lives”). What made him doubly intriguing , however, was that he is not entirely wrong – he is on to something that needs to be addressed: how do we civilize males in a culture that, on the one hand, demonizes them and, on the other, gives their most immature elements unwonted power and a kind of grotesque dominance?
Add to all of this the fact that I have also, for a long time, wanted to write an updating of Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from the Underground,” and you get this story.
What can writers and critics do to prevent the Karl Kraus-like venom attacking the status quo from becoming nothing more than yet another pose?
A writer can escape that tempting form of complacency when he or she risks something – a livelihood, status, recognition, being published, getting reviewed, finding an agent, being invited to writing conferences – in other words, risks a position in the literary establishment, or sub-establishments (for example, poetry has its own establishments you risk being ostracized from if you are not “politically and poetically correct”). When your skin is in the game, you know it – the pain is not something you are likely to ignore or forget.
Is the term “authenticity” overused and devalued?
I don’t find it an altogether useful term – the quest for “authenticity” has been an attempt to create an existentialist basis for ethics and moral judgment, but it’s too easy to use the idea to justify harming others out of a misguided sense of “being authentic.” Heidegger’s idea of “authenticity” seemed to mean joining the Nazis, and never repenting it – not an edifying precedent! Sartre’s version of “authenticity,” despite his turn to Marxism, seems to hinge on a subtle form of self-centeredness that translates, I believe, too easily into Ayn Randian “selfishness is a virtue” to be a basis for ethics.
On the other hand, “authenticity” as a literary trope I find hugely compelling, an excellent instrument, like a sterilized scalpel – it’s just the sort of plausible exaggeration that makes for good storytelling. It’s what makes existentialism one of the philosophical schools that continue to be useful for writers.
One of the great unresolved problems of modernity (and why it seems so morally helpless against religious fundamentalism) is that ethics means finding a higher value than the individual, than “myself,” however the scientific worldview (largely thanks to Darwin, Dawkins, et al.) has undermined almost every philosophical – and, above all, theological – basis for behavior that is not based in satisfying the needs and desires of the self (or the “selfish gene,” as in Dawkins’ work). And the attempt to base morality on reason is a hopeless enterprise, as modern ethical philosophers have discovered time and again, because reason has no morality: in the eyes of reason there is neither good nor evil; there is no “value,” there is only what is.
Yet every intelligent and sensitive human being cannot accept a completely amoral universe. Therefore, there seems to be something in the scientific worldview that must ultimately be rejected. And yet, being committed to reason, we cannot accept non-rational authorities either. We are stuck in a dilemma.
We nevertheless continue to seek some basis for moral judgment and action, as well as for feeling ourselves to be part of something greater and more significant than our small, limited, mortal selves – even if this leads to a Darwinian morality of the worst possible kind. (I just learned recently, and very disillusioningly, that Charles Darwin believed, openly, in what we today would call “genocide”; that is, wiping out “inferior races.” This is “Darwinism’s” dirty little secret, and it is something many “liberal secularists” do not want to deal with. A case can be made that Darwinism was the most potent single ingredient in the lethal mix of theories that led to the death camps – one more example of the toxic “dialectic of enlightenment” analyzed by the Frankfurt School.)
However problematic the idea of “authenticity” is, “inauthenticity” is illuminating, in life as in writing, as it points to a kind of profound, all-involving dishonesty that I think one must reject on intuitive moral grounds that do not depend on a conventionally religious view of the world. In this case, Kant’s moral rationalism does seem to work.
Is the specific form of a story a pre-meditated thing, or is the writing more improvisatory?
It can happen either way, though there is always an element of improvisation when I write – I often have no idea what I’ll write before I draw letters on paper or click on a keyboard – I often “think with my fingers.” My writing is often as much a discovery for me as it is for the reader. The shortest stories in In the American Night were all drafted “fast and furious,” sometimes on the spur of the moment, without preparation of any kind – though parts here and there were tweaked endlessly later on. (For me, rewriting is usually at least half of what writing is all about; if drafting is improvising, revising is getting to improvise all over again – like an acrobat getting to jump on a higher trampoline.) Even a longer story can come fairly quickly and not require extensive reworking – “Wallenda Descending” for example. Or a piece can take endless rewriting before it seems even close to right (“Stendhal’s Copyist”).
What is really odd is how ideas for stories come – why they demand to be worked out, and only in just this way – but these are questions I can’t answer. I need the full force of such inspiration to write a piece – need to be struck by an idea, with some of the fire of a first-time romance; and it must generate other ideas that have a similar power – in this sense, it’s like being in love, with the romance staying alive when the two people fall madly in love over and over and over again. In a sense, the idea must choose me. One of the reasons my work can seem so varied is that I feel obligated to follow the behest of the work rather than wrestle the work into a preordained shape.
A story’s form can hit me all at once or slowly reveal itself over time. Though the form for each story is unique, naturally, as one writes, one develops templates over time, though this is something I like to watch out for.
Of course, when grappling with a story’s demands, I can be stubborn, too. Sometimes the story is the record of that struggle – and sometimes of my defeat!
One thing I do know: without a swept-up passion, writing is a burden, a chore, and I’ll spend the day going to the movies instead, or loafing around the city, or – horror of horrors! – working for a living.
Is the failure of postmodernism similar to the failures we see with corporate malfeasance, government corruption, and organized religion’s sexual shenanigans?
I’m not certain it has failed – like any cultural moment, it came and went, and yet, like a cultural moment of any significance, it remained, and remains, partly alive long afterward. Postmodernism was, to an extent, modernism by other means, just as modernism was a resuscitation of romanticism, which remains one of the pillars of modernity. I don’t see that strain in modern culture – what one might call the imposition of our psychological needs on a triumphant materialist world view, which romanticism, symbolism, modernism and all of its cognates, postmodernism, etc., etc., all have in common – as going away any time soon. The use of electricity will probably end sooner.
Does America need more artaholics?
Ah, now you’re talkin’! But you’re asking the wrong person. Of course I’ll say yes. “Let’s all get drunk!” as Baudelaire said. “We all need to get drunk!” Intoxication, in all its forms – from sexual, to artistic (“Stendhal syndrome”), to the garden-variety chemical and distilled versions – is the secular version of paradise – “un paradis – si artificiel ou pas!” The beauty of artistic experience is that you can have your intoxication and your lucidity at the same time – you can be, at once, both perfectly crazy and absolutely sane. This is an “artaholism” we need more of – the indulged insanities of art can help to inoculate us against the lethal insanities of things like politics.
Utopia and/or Apocalypse?
With the climate crisis looming, and our nation having almost perfected, I sometimes think, the fine art of denial, the apocalypse seems a good deal more likely than utopia. And utopia has never had more than a ghost of a chance – though we need it so we can face our distance from it, measure our progress toward it, and judge ourselves accordingly.
I just saw a biopic about Stephen Hawking, and now I’ll never be able to whine self-pityingly with abandon ever again. I’ll keep remembering Eddie Redmayne’s impish smile on the face of a man paralyzed, crippled, stuck in a wheelchair and tied to a clicker to communicate his simplest, and profoundest, thoughts for the rest of his life. So, utopia is unlikely, but with hope, determination, good will – and a sense of humor that, defying fate, logic and physics itself, refuses to give up, ever – we might survive even our homemade apocalypse. Art like that is like a rope thrown to a drowning man in a stormy sea – it might not save us, but it can keep us from drowning.