DECEMBER 17, 2019
GREG GERKE HAS USED a number of genres to share his distinct voice and sensibility: the critical and hybrid essay, the short story, the novel, and the memoir. Whatever he happens to be writing about — Stanley Kubrick, Gertrude Stein, honeymooning in Paris, Dutch Baroque painting, or the smell of Combos — the prose conveys immense intelligence, sensitivity, learning, and wit, as well as an intense love affair with language and art. Every sentence stakes out its own peculiar, shining life, and this makes reading his work a pleasure. We took some time to discuss his latest book of essays, See What I See (Splice, 323 pages, paper).
HUGH SHEEHY: As titles go, See What I See’s is striking, bold, and complex. It suits a book of critical essays, but your writing transcends conventional expectations by getting personal. Still, the autobiographical material in the section “Real Life” is dwarfed by the literary and film criticism in the sections “The Writing Life” and “The Silver Screen.” Could you share your thoughts about blending the critical with the essay and how or whether this relates to the book’s organization?
GREG GERKE: It’s hard to say if the book was made in the editing or in my changing stance toward writing about art. I believe the latter dictated the former, to a degree, because I kept adding more memoir pieces that I’d initially withheld. But, for me, they are the heart of the book. More and more, I see the experience of art being much more about how the content reflects or diffuses events, people, and places in our own lives — that is, the magical time-travel element through our history. The poet-critics who most influenced this stance — William Gass, Guy Davenport, Elizabeth Hardwick, et cetera — might not adhere to it in those terms, but that is what I’ve taken from them. Davenport says it best: “I am not writing for scholars or fellow critics, but for people who like to read, to look at pictures, and to know things.”
So there is a more conversational approach — meaning the art, which is not at all about itself, pays service to our life and how a person’s experience of it makes it sane. If I’m going to talk about art, I’m going to have to talk about my life. For instance, one sees The Shining, and the father, mother, and child in the story, and I think a good many people start to see their fathers and mothers and think about their childhoods, even if they have nothing to do with the sickness on screen. But these judderings happen lightning fast; suddenly you aren’t in the Overlook Hotel, you are on a bike on the block where you had an accident. Then, as suddenly, you are back gliding through the hotel, care of the Steadicam. All of that happens in one second. It’s the profound miracle of art.
There are some doses of memoir in the opening “Writing Life” section: where I live, what I do, where I came from. But the books of William Gass and William Gaddis are just as important, and, seemingly, as I see it now with some distance, more part of the running theme of memoir by looking at art — the art somehow made the life, but I wouldn’t want to say how or why.
This ekphrastic view of the essay differs from some of the more conventional ways of describing the form. You’re not saying the essay is “a try” or “a test” so much as putting forward experiences of art even as you construct interpretations, opinions, little stories, and other articulations which are themselves concerned with creating poetic experiences. It’s simultaneously a branching out from a bibliographic network and a metacritical self-study; it’s process disguised as criticism and poetry. One of my favorite instances occurs in “Doses of Medicine,” in which you recount reading Louise Glück’s “First Memory” to a bored, Instagram-trolling co-worker while in the middle of a homeless outreach shift in Hell’s Kitchen:
I read the poem to my co-worker slowly, in a voice I thought the speaker of the poem would adopt if the speaker’s voice could be heard. After I finished, [my coworker] immediately popped up, turned the car light on, and told me to hold the book still. She took a picture of “First Memory” with her phone and then shared it.
This brief, beautiful account illustrates how your reading mind powers on, creates a moving portrait of human connection (complete with a literal-and-metaphoric light coming on), and produces a fleeting sense of a powerful gesture ringing out mystically into the world, multiplying as it spreads. And of course the gesture touches the reader.
“Metacritical self-study” — that’s a great way to describe it. I certainly shouldn’t try to, otherwise it would take the form of an arch artist’s statement next to the painting. Why else did Woolf and Gass write all those pieces on writers and biographies of writers, and the works themselves? I think they were trying to get into the fabric of their own writing, passing any judgment being low on the pole. They took their impressions and waxed about in the prose sublime. It seems the spirit of Walter Pater’s words in the conclusion to The Renaissance — they are quoted throughout the book — are an offshoot for this impressionism, especially “art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” This has been set up by his saying experience itself is the end, but it all builds into “that strange, perpetual, weaving and unweaving of ourselves.” So, the art is for the viewer and the reader, the public. The artist is done, awards are frivolous, but the art lives on in their name. That section that you highlight is the perfect Paterian example. The poem strikes powerfully and then, one wants to share it, to connect people. In his day, one would have read it out loud to someone, as I did.
I feel that part of the project of the book, though I only see this now (again it encompasses the title), is to show how literature and film work in tandem with our daily lives, how maybe it is not as remote as many people might think. To touch back on the first question, on more skeptical days, I sometimes feel I’m writing for people who live in their parents’ basements (who cares about reading The Cantos?), but then I’ll remember how I’ve read Pound Canto XIII to people who could give a hoot about poetry, and when they hear this line, “And if a man have not order within him / His family will not act with due order”; they know how hot truth can sear.
The nod to Pound gives me an opportunity to ask about one of the collection’s more provocative claims, that “sentences come to us giving nothing but the beauty of their words — more than enough.” This statement appears, fittingly, near the end of an essay about William Gass’s emphasis on sound in writing, and in a way it upends a seriocomic claim from earlier in the piece: “[T]he form equals content dispute […] may have more interest to diagnosticians of art than artists themselves since so much of art is the unconscious gaberdined as order.” Psychoanalysis pops up here and there in this collection, and you favor the psychoanalytic view that an unconscious supplies the raw stuff of art, especially in writing and cinema. Would it be fair to say that you see content in sentences (and film), but that the content is beside the point, because, as you wager elsewhere, agreeing with the Buddhist monk Thich Nacht Than, that “the personal outweighs the historical or political in almost every instance”?
I think the tussle between the personality of the artist and art is what you are getting at, with the ghost of T. S. Eliot’s famous proclamation in neon, “[Art] is not an expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” It’s unfortunate that I wrote a piece on Korean director Hong Sang-Soo just as we finalized the manuscript, because I think it’s very in line with the book and expands more on these notions. He makes films for very little money, as Cassavetes did, with a small crew and a few actors, and I write, “It’s incredible that artistic filmmaking can really have little to do with the story or the form employed, but all to do with the biography of the person in charge — the ‘what the artist has to say’ bromide.” Eliot counsels how a poet’s creation is “a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something more valuable.”
So it seems the artist escapes his or her personality only to transform it into the material of art — and I don’t mean autobiographical material, but into the actual tools of the art; the frames (or sentences) of the film “carry the very personal thoughts, fears, and feelings translated to where to put the camera, what the actors should say, what the audience should see.” The subject of the art is often a red herring. In other words, as Beckett might have said, it’s not what is said, but how it is said. What is more valuable is the unconscious or The Muse. However outdated that concept is, I fully adhere to it. We are so tied to biography at the present moment, and content before form, as well as that diabolical charge, what is relevant. We base so much on the surface temple of personality, but the true artists have let go — their personality has no meaning, only the art — and people are left grasping at a phantom.
The moment does feel ripe for something new to come along and sweep aside the widgets. Maybe it always feels that way (it also feels ripe for a scary new epidemic!). I feel we could go on discussing the contents of any one of these extremely rich, always challenging and thoughtful, and frequently moving and funny compositions. Instead I’ll ask about your writing. Back when you and I were college-aged, in the ’90s, people worried movies were displacing writing, especially fiction, as a form of entertainment. As with many aspects of that period, this concern looks quaint now. But your essays about the cinema, especially the ones about Fincher and Dreyer and Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, left me wondering whether writing about film provides an unusually sturdy platform for writing about a wide array of subjects.
Cinema was my first love — I went to film school and left it, just as I started reading more seriously and widely. As Don DeLillo says, when writers get together they talk about movies. I know there has been a spate of recent books taking film or TV as a jumping-off point — Michelle Orange’s essay collection This Is Running for Your Life and Gabriel Blackwell’s Madeleine E., a novel consumed with [Hitchcock’s] Vertigo, stand out for me. It seems we are at this point where everyone knows and accepts how film and TV are the dominant modes of culture, with social media being the propaganda machine for what we “like.” We use what we worship in the art and the chaff of those two modes as tattoos to signal how we will relate to other human beings and how they should to us — the politics of taste.
For me, cinema and literature have a very close relationship. The editing of sentences is like the cutting of sequences of film. The lighting, the setting, the positioning of actors in the frame are tantamount to the author’s use of vocabulary and punctuation, the overall syntax. Kurosawa counseled one should read Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky to find out how to write a screenplay — Kubrick sat in on Lionel Trilling’s classes at Columbia. There’s a rich confluence of the two arts that I don’t think we’ve come close to exhausting. Remember novelizations of movies? I read The Jewel of the Nile (1986) because I couldn’t see it in the theater — the next best thing. I’m working on a novel where one of the main characters, a female film critic, imagines a sequence in Antonioni’s Blow-Up while having to sit through an inane Hollywood film. The imagination of such a strong work of art overlaps and eats the weaker product. At some level, I’m trying to duplicate or even better the experience of this in the essays.