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Thursday, January 28, 2021

'Moments of visionary enthusiasm' -- Eight questions for Znore

Znore is the author of Death Sweat of the Cluster (pictured above), a collection of pieces selected from his blog, Groupname for Grapejuice. 

I enjoyed the book a great deal, and I thought it would be fun to ask Znore to take a few questions about topics covered in the book. This is one of my favorite interviews that I've published here.

If you like this interview, see my earlier interview with Znore. 

RAW Illumination: When I read your book, it made me want to read or re-read many of the books you mention, i.e. I plan to read the new translation of "The Odyssey" by Emily Wilson and right now I am trying to read the Bible from start to finish, something I've never done, even though I read the New Testament when I was a teenager. I also plan to read more James Joyce, and I just wonder if that's one of the reactions you were hoping for.

Znore: Yes, this is exactly a response I was hoping for. Umberto Eco wrote, to paraphrase, that Finnegans Wake is the paradigm of his idea of the "open work". Essentially this means that there is no fixed and final reading of the text, that it is completely open to chance and novel interpretations, and that it continually urges us to venture outside of itself into the entire field and experience of literature and life in general. Riffing on this idea, I've thought that in the wake of the Wake all books turn into the Wake. All texts become open works; they can all be read as if they are incorporated into the webwork of Finnegans Wake. And with Jacques Derrida -- another thinker who was profoundly affected by the Wake, who said that it singularly did not need to be deconstructed because it is deconstruction itself -- there arrives the idea that there is nothing outside of the text, nothing in experience that cannot be "read". These are ideas that I'm playing with, that I may be misreading but that is also the point. Obviously I cannot rewrite the Wake, or even approach it, but I can try to emulate this aspect of it. These essays, now in my book, were written with the aspiration that they would inspire readers to open other books, to view the opening of books and the linking together of books as being a kind of adventure, and then to further extend this process throughout all media and all moments of perception. Not that humble! I'm happy if this book has provoked you and other readers to read more.

RAW Illumination: I liked your efforts to reclaim Ezra Pound's literary legacy, and I like your approach, i.e. acknowledging his terrible prejudices and not trying to excuse them, but also arguing that they don't invalidate his literary work. The world seems increasingly polarized politically -- do you worry that his reputation will fall? 

Znore: Ezra Pound is a vitally important figure to consider at precisely this time. His influence on poetry is enormous. And his influence on prose -- through Hemingway and others, and through his literary criticism -- is just as immense. And Pound, in his own time, tirelessly promoted other writers and artists and brought them to the attention of the world. Modernism without Pound would undoubtedly have had far less impact. On top of this, Pound's own writing in the Cantos and his earlier poetry is not to be missed. But -- Pound was also a fascist and an antisemite who eventually prodded, on Rome radio during WW2, U.S. and other Allied soldiers to support the Axis powers. Even though towards the end of his life he renounced his former antisemitism, this part of Pound's work and career should not be ignored. U.S. poet and reluctant Pound disciple, Charles Olson likely put it best:

It is not enough to call him a fascist.

He is a fascist, the worst kind, the intellectual fascist, this filthy apologist and mouther of slogans which serve men of power. It was a shame upon all writers when this man of words, this succubus, sold his voice to the enemies of the people.

Second generation Beat poet, Ed Sanders, in his Tales of Beatnik Glory, discusses the "Lb Q" or "Pound Question" that was on the minds of poets in the late '50s and early '60s: Pound is a poetic genius but he's also a complete reactionary; what can we do with him? Certainly his fascist influence has continued to the present day through groups like the CasaPound in Italy and followers of Eustace Mullins in the U.S. I don't think Pound's reputation can be completely redeemed. Without going extensively into it here, his fascist worldview is far too tied up with his thoughts on economics and history, his spirituality and even his poetics to entirely overlook it. Yet, especially by taking the perspective of what Pound called "Eleusis" in his work, there is much that is inspiring and beautiful in Pound also.

But I think the main reason why Pound is so relevant today, is that he represents a kind of archetype or figure from the interwar era: an avant-garde and libertarian writer and artist who was somehow seduced by the worst kind of political movement.  And echoes of this process can be heard and felt at this very moment. Just as Pound and other bohemian artists spiraled towards fascism, too many bloggers, artists, occultists, creative people have veered off in a reactionary direction over the past decade or more. (Maybe in response to excessive political correctness, which also had its parallels in Pound's day.) I've seen this happen in real time. The life of Ezra Pound can act as a cautionary tale in this regard.  

RAWIllumination: As I wrote in my blog post today, William Blake apparently is a more influential writer than I realized, and  you write a lot about Blake in your book. What is it about Blake that would particularly appeal to a Robert Anton Wilson fan?

Znore: I think there are many points of contact between William Blake and Robert Anton Wilson. The character Blake Williams in Schrödinger's Cat is an obvious hat tip, but there is a much wider shared understanding of the two writers. Even if RAW was not directly influenced by Blake -- which I'm sure he was -- he would have been affected by the poet's worldview through writers, like Joyce and Pound, who did deeply influence Wilson's thought. Aside from these influences, though, is simply the immense and almost atmospheric presence of Blake within the mid-20th century counterculture that RAW played a vital part within: from Allen Ginsberg's 1948 "Blake Vision" in Harlem, which set Ginsberg off on his career as poet-prophet, to Jim Morrison & the Doors (of perception), to the constant ubiquity of Blake within the pages of the underground press.   

Yet aside from this general influence, there are also quite specific overlappings of the ideas of the two. In Jerusalem, Blake wrote that “I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.” This emphasis on creating one's own system or set of beliefs and not getting "enslaved" or ensnared by someone else's belief system (BS) is at the heart of RAW's thought. A difference between the two might be that, in his prophetic epics and related poetry, Blake did create a vast and complex mythological/theological system, whereas Wilson, while he explored and played with countless ideas and philosophies, was content to take an ironic stance of "transcendental agnosticism" without constructing his own elaborate system (although one could argue that he approaches this in Prometheus Rising). 

What brings the two even closer together, though, is Blake's insistence that literal thought must be avoided altogether. The literal and historical existence of Jesus Christ, for example, was irrelevant to Blake. The thing that matters most is the mythological and symbolic significance of Jesus and his mission. Wilson, on the other hand, was an agnostic, but one that was entirely and quite uniquely open to mystical and visionary experience. The ultimate stress for both writers is the vigilant avoidance of moral dogmatism, be it priestly, governmental or scientific. Blake would have called himself a "Christian," but his Christianity was a non-dogmatic, visionary, life- and body-affirming gospel of the Imagination that RAW would likely have found little to disagree with:

I know of no other Christianity and of no other Gospel than the liberty both of body & mind to exercise the Divine Arts of Imagination.

Blake's affirmation of the desires and delights of the body -- to the point of practicing sex magic, according to certain scholars -- would have also appealed to RAW, as would Blake's insistence that "State Religion" is "the source of all Cruelty," and that the real battle is the "mental fight" between genuine and uncompromised visionaries of the imagination and those that use their creative talents to help justify power. These are just a few of the many points that unite Blake and RAW.

RAWIllumination: Where does the title of Death Sweat of the Cluster come from?

Znore: Well, one thing that the title does not have anything to do with -- contrary to what some have guessed -- is the "clusters" of the infected or of the fevered "death sweats" of COVID-19. This book has been in the making since 2016 and the title was chosen early on, so any connection of the title of the book, and its publication in 2020, to the ongoing pandemic is purely a "coincidance". In fact, the title is the opposite of anything morbid. And it is related to your last question because it's taken directly from the final sections of Blake's The Four Zoas. On one level, the "cluster" is a cluster of grapes and the "death sweat" is the juice or wine. In this way it is related to groupname for grapejuice. But on a deeper level, this is also Blake's culminating vision of the apocalypse; the spilling of the blood of tyrants and also the communion festival for the great harvest of the ascending era. There's a kind of unsettling ambiguity in this symbolism -- at once containing the end and the beginning, tragedy and comedy, night and day -- that I try to probe and linger within throughout the book.

RAWIllumination: I have started reading the entire Bible (partially influenced by your book) and it seems to me Finnegans Wake is a kind of modernist Bible, in the sense that reading and understanding Joyce is almost as fundamental to understanding modern literature as reading the Bible has been to understanding older literature for centuries. (At the end of TSOG, RAW remarks that Joyce invented the "New Yorker" story with Dubliners, invented multiple viewpoint novels with Ulysses and invented a new hologrammatic style with Finnegans Wake.)

Znore: Yes, I would agree that Joyce and Finnegans Wake are pretty crucial to understanding modern literature. I notice traces and obvious winks to the Wake in the works of Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, Philip K. Dick, William Gass, Jorge Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, David Foster Wallis, Mark Z. Danielewski and on and on, whether this influence is acknowledged or not. It's actually quite difficult to avoid the vortex. So in that sense Finnegans Wake has this parallel with the Bible. 

The difference, of course, is that it would be very hard to base a religion -- at least a traditional one -- on Finnegans Wake. Like I said before, the Wake is an entirely open book. It is impossible to give just one interpretation of it. It resists any form of dogmatism, any ethical or moral systematizing, completely. And it constantly demands that the reader doubt its own seriousness. We are never really certain if the whole thing might not simply be a colossal practical joke. This would seem to be the exact opposite of what the Bible is. But is it?

In the book, I mention that Norman O. Brown (another influence on RAW) wrote that only after understanding the Wake, could Westerners ever hope to grok the Koran. He meant that the Koran itself is such a rich and "avant-garde" text that it requires a heightened literacy to appreciate it. But could the same be said about the Bible? In other words, is the Bible itself just as much of an open work as the Wake is? Do we only now have the capacity to read it as the open and multi-dimensional text that it truly is? Yet we must always remember that kabbalists, poets and mystics of all sorts have for centuries interpreted the biblical writings in non-reductive, creative and esoteric readings. Finnegans Wake, in actively encouraging these types of readings, is merely a part of this deeper tradition.

RAW is right to say that the Wake has a "hologrammatic style," but it should be remembered that this idea appears in Blake, -- "to see a World in a Grain of Sand" -- in the Hermetic writings -- "that which is above is like to that which is below" -- and back to Plato's Timaeus and earlier. But the Wake, maybe uniquely, captures these ideas in a "style", embodies the living microcosmic-macrocosmic correspondence within its every page. And it not only does this, but it transforms and enables one to read all other books as this also. So if the Wake becomes the Bible, the Bible -- alive to this same tradition --  also becomes the Wake.

RAWIllumination: I'm curious why you decided not to do an ebook of Death Sweat of the Cluster. Do you ever read ebooks, or do they seem like not "real" books to you?

Znore: The main reason for not publishing an ebook is that almost all of this material is still available -- as blog posts -- online. I wanted to shift this writing into a different medium, a printed book. I wanted a tactile object that could be touched, smelt and even tasted if desired. In certain ways, the once dominant and totalizing medium of print has somewhat surprisingly become, in McLuhan's sense, an anti-environment. It at least has the potential to temporarily release the reader from the current tyranny of networked screens. Blog posts, ebooks and even audiobooks do not have the full ability to do this, in my experience, as they remain more or less disposable or interchangeable files within the neverending feed. Physical books, even if they were published and distributed through these networks (as mine is unfortunately by Amazon), can be set apart, and in reading them the reader can -- for a time -- be set apart as well. I'm not opposed to ebooks or audiobooks, but I understand that they are certainly different sorts of media and that their "message" changes accordingly. 

RAWIllumination: Do you have a favorite literary critic whom you read for pleasure or insight?

Znore: Ezra Pound cautioned that readers should avoid critics who have not published any notable creative work themselves. I get where Pound is coming from -- there should be some proof that the critics really know their business -- but I've also found that certain literary criticism can be inspired and inspiring in itself. The work of Northrop Frye on Blake I'd include in this, and Frye himself is a fascinating foil and "rival" to his University of Toronto English department colleague, Marshall McLuhan. In fact, McLuhan's work can be viewed as "extended" literary criticism, and I certainly value his insights. Kathleen Raine, an accomplished poet who would handily pass Pound's test, is an excellent literary scholar of Blake, Yeats, Shelley, etc. I also enjoy Marsha Keith Schuchard's work on Blake's possible sexual magic. Frances Yates' many books on Renaissance esotericism -- though I'm not sure if these can be classed as literary criticism -- are always exciting.

In general, I'm not that interested in criticism that tends to emphasize the merely formal or stylistic elements of writing. Yet these elements can be fascinating if they are related, as they often are, with the visionary architecture of the work. I think what I'm looking for in lit crit are "clues," explanations of signs, cyphers and symbols that I may have overlooked, a kind of solidarity of enthusiasm with someone more dedicated than myself; guides that make the way clearer and point outside of the text to the greater and endless weaving of influences and pulses that holds and runs through all lasting verse and prose. Emerson, another inspired poet and critic, wrote that often critics are too much concerned with the "material" side of literature -- what the writer "does" over what he/she "says". In contrast, he states that poets know that they are expressing themselves "adequately" when speaking "somewhat wildly." 

This, even though far from poetry, is essentially the "method" in Death Sweat. The book is not meant to be academic literary criticism or even to resemble it. I have too much respect for real criticism to pretend otherwise. So it's not criticism and it's not journalism. It's loose, it's "wild" -- even silly and embarrassing at times -- and it's primarily concerned with burrowing into moments of visionary enthusiasm in books & films & pop culture & current events & in my own experiences, moments of "bust thru". It's a flawed and stumbling ode to that sort of gibberish and doggerel which somehow captures a glimpse of the eternal. And that's also the category of both lit and lit crit that I find most attractive.

RAW Illumination: I am generally up for reading difficult or demanding books and authors, but to tell you the truth, whenever I read a passage from Finnegans Wake, I am worried about actually being able to read it from start to finish. What can you tell me (if you wish to) to assuage my anxiety?

Znore: Just a short answer for this. I remember RAW somewhere saying that the Wake should be read out loud, and if at all possible read with other people while drinking Irish stout (weed would also do). I heartily agree. I read Finnegans Wake as music, as a sort of unhinged free jazz with Celtic instruments. If you read and listen to it as music, you will quickly notice repeating or "rhyming" themes and motifs and eventually these will take on meaning and then constellate into greater patterns of meaning. Yet attaining the precise or "correct" meaning is secondary. When Joyce was asked about the accuracy of the French translation of the Wake, he replied that the sound was most important. As long as the sound (in French or whatever) carried the reader along it's "message" had been successfully transmitted. Of course the many existing guidebooks help, too. I think RAW also said that FW was the funniest and sexiest book he'd ever read. I wouldn't argue with that either. Nothing to be intimidated by!


Van Scott said...

I just finished Znore’s book Tuesday night and I loved it. Like you I found myself wanting to read many of the works he talks about. In my case it has involved a dive back into the Cantos, and into McLuhan. My only complaint about the book is the formatting. I don’t know how you feel about it but I found myself increasingly annoyed by the passages in all caps, or worse, in boldfaced all caps. It seems to me that anyone reading that particular book will be intelligent enough to figure out what is most important and doesn’t need to be shouted at. I know it’s a matter of personal taste, but I also find it aesthetically ugly. That aside, I would recommend it to anyone who follows this blog.

BFHN said...

Thank you for sharing with us another great interview Tom !
Your hyping up of Znore and his book has really been turning me on to his work, and I am now trying to get my hands on a copy.

Manic The Doodler said...

I also just finished Death Sweat of the Cluster. I'm glad these blog posts were made into a book & think they fit together very nicely as a book. Lots of great artwork as well as many other books & links to explore. A win, win for me at least.

Oz Fritz said...

Great interview, makes me want to read the book.