April 7, 2011
Greg Baxter Interview
Greg Baxter’s book A Preparation for Death was one of my reading highlights of last year. It’s just been released in what it pleases me to call ‘properback’ format with a dramatic new cover, so I was delighted to have the opportunity to ask Greg Baxter some questions about the book. Thanks to Lee Monks for suggesting some of the questions.
In A Preparation for Death, you say “Traditional autobiography is composed after the experience has passed. I wrote this book in the very panic of the experiences that inspired it.” At the same time the prose is careful and heavily worked. Can you tell us something about the process of writing A Preparation for Death?
The book began without definition or scope. I had no specific plans to write a book, only a furious and happy desire to fix my thoughts into the form of propositions. I sat down whenever I had the time – mostly predawn, sometimes during lunches, or weekends I wasn’t working – and wrote one sentence after the other, which became the particles of essays: studies, as Montaigne said, of my natural, rather than acquired, faculties.
The struggle to find time to write the book is so pervasive that it becomes one subject of the book – and it informs the whole panicked structure. On top of my daytime and nighttime work obligations (journalist by day, teacher by night), I spent a lot of time pursuing a life of epiphanic and violent self-renewal – a kind of renewal that is most certainly not for everybody, and involved behavior that some have dismissed as nihilistic self-destruction fueled by addiction and revenge.
My method involved the embodiment, or acting out, of the natural violence that self-creation necessitates, because nothing less would do. I had no life to bargain with, that is, no life worthy of delineation; I would have to build a world to write about; I would have to create a whole new consciousness out of activity and reflection. And I would send this new consciousness back in time to retrieve and transform the past.
When it became clear to me that these essays were part of something bigger, my immediate assumption was not that they would become a book, but that I would go on writing them forever, in an unending and private phenomenology of self. ‘Satanism’ was the last chapter written under this presumption, for reasons that become obvious in the chapter that follows. After that I knew an end was coming, whether I wanted one or not.
Cioran, one of the central heroes of my book, talks about the lure of disillusion: “There exists, I grant you, a clinical depression, upon which certain remedies occasionally have an effect; but there exists another kind, a melancholy underlying our very outbursts of gaiety and accompanying us everywhere… And there is nothing that can rid of us this lethal omnipresence: the self forever confronting itself.” Who knows himself but the person who forever confronts himself? Who knows what he scorns and despises but the person who first scorns and despises himself? What if this gloominess – the omnipresent gloom of the essayist – were not a sign of decay, depression, or weakness but a sign of intelligence, spirit, and strength?
One thing you find very quickly, simply by observing your surroundings, is that most people consider disillusion a vice and illusion a virtue. Except the community states it thus: vice is disillusion, virtue is hope (where hope equals virtue, i.e., virtue is virtue). Disillusion, or the hunt for and declamation of, is the primordial compulsion for me as a writer.
This compulsion, for me, is built upon learning and influence, not simply a maniacal desire to be free (though that desire is there). I am completely transparent, in the book, about the way learning and reading influence my writing and life. I did not wake up one morning and decide to discard a transparently fictional approach to writing and take up a transparently autobiographical approach (I use the word transparently here to assure everyone that I consider all fiction autobiographical and all autobiography fictional). I spent hundreds of hours reading thousands of pages in order to create for myself a new artistic destiny. I gave up almost everything contemporary. I went as far back in time as I could, in order to reacquaint myself with writing and thinking as a history of method and discourse and truth, rather than limp, entertaining storytelling. I wrestled myself out of the traditions I knew. This was easy, when, after my re-education, I found that the traditions I knew were empty shells being mass-produced by populists, imposters, and idiots: the American short story, the English novel. I suppose I had always suspected it was so; I simply couldn’t prove it to myself.
Lastly there is the process of writing sentences and choosing words, or, as you say, the careful nature of the prose in relation to the panic of compulsion. I came across an interesting quote recently: “One of the chief difficulties of writing consisted in thinking, with the tip of the pen, solely of the word to be written, whilst banishing from one’s mind the reality of what one intends to describe.” When one writes, one learns very early on, if one gives a damn, that the principle agitator in composition is language, that in the most crucial communicative leaps, language steeps the author in metaphor, i.e., we introduce a word the moment our ignorance begins. This agitation is a problem only for the obsolete system-building philosopher, however, since literature – autobiography, essay, theory, fiction, and poetry – is not concerned with reality. A thing that can neither be perceived nor depicted is not worth losing sleep over. I place no realistic demands on the words I choose; I place artistic demands on them. All the great writers I admire have one stylistic attribute in common: for all their voices, and all their truths, there are no superfluous words. Every word is endowed with life and complexity.
Every word, therefore, is evidence of thinking, and if it is not it is just a sound. No, worse – every word is an act of original thought or it is a cliché. You may argue that one will never write a page if he watches words like this. I agree. You have to be like this.
You’ve said that you hope the book “represents the secularisation of the premise that honesty is the highest virtue.” Why does it matter that the book is honest? And why do you think some readers balk at the contents because they cannot get past their distaste for the author/narrator?
Honesty is the highest virtue because it creates the greatest art. It also often creates the least superficially likeable art. In my book I go on at length about my abandonment of art. But what I say about honesty now, in this Q&A, is not a contradiction: my indictment of art begins with an indictment of my own life. From time immemorial, says Nietzsche, we are accustomed to lying, or to put it more virtuously and hypocritically, more pleasantly: one is much more of an artist than one knows.
My indictment of art is also an indictment of those who have an instinctual faith in the purpose of art, and who, by producing art, recreate and maintain our wider faith in a type of virtue that is comfortable and stupid and poisonous to the imagination. When a reader encounters a book that upsets his understanding of his world and of himself, he has two choices. The first is to consider the possibility that his faith has been shaken. The second is to find a way to insert that book, by any means necessary, even by completely misreading every sentence, into the superstructure of that faith, in order to neutralize it – to cripple passion and imagination before passion and imagination can cripple the community.
The standards by which readers judge the literature of human suffering or easy redemption or heroes and anti-heroes or straightforward narratives do not apply to me, or to my book. I find myself totally bewildered in the presence of readers who luxuriate in this kind of debasement – likeable literature. It makes absolutely no demands on them, and obliterates their judgement like a disease that eats the brain. Is this happiness?
I, in my twenties, abandoned my own nature as a writer, or tried to, because it seemed reasonable and praiseworthy to be successful. But I have learned that it is neither reasonable nor praiseworthy to abandon one’s nature, even if it leads you into illiberalism and decreases your popularity.
Thomas Bernhard, in an interview, talks about the quest for perfection, or what inspires an artist to produce art. “If someone is a great pianist then you can clear out the room where he’s sitting with the piano, fill it with dust, and then start throwing buckets of water at him, but he’ll stay put and keep on playing. Even if the house falls down around him, he’ll carry on playing. And with writing it’s the same thing.” For me, this defines artistic honesty as a personal urge to improve one’s art. The concern that someone might not like what you create, or might not like you, never occurs to you.
Why is the memoir (of the non-famous) such a nascent form at the moment? Is it an interesting way to deal with issues of authorial solipsism or is it simply a good way of throwing off the shackles of literary baggage that you wrestle with in the book?
I consider the straight memoir – the diaristic and largely fabricated narratives of famous or unfamous lives – to be below the grocery list, so far as literature is concerned. You will say, perhaps, ‘But you wrote a memoir’. Not true. To write a memoir, I feel certain, one would have to read a memoir. And before writing A Preparation for Death, I never read a memoir. I read essays. I read one ‘autobiography’: St Augustine’s. I also read – though I have always been drawn to the stuff – philosophy and theory, deranged manifestoes (on more than just writing), etc. I’m interested in writing as thinking, and the essay, and its thinking nature, was the most suited to this process. I also owe a great deal, more than I could ever measure, to my editor, Brendan Barrington, for taking twelve essays and finding a way to create an eleven-chapter book from them.
It was, I think, an unnegotiated decision to refer to A Preparation for Death as a memoir on the jacket of the book, and I was fine with it at the time, or I might have even suggested it because it seemed like the least pretentious thing to call it, though increasingly I’d be just as happy to call it a book, and let the reader decide, or better yet, not decide. Autobiography is a method, not a form, so it does not matter what my book is called; I wrote it the way it had to be written. Since publication, I have learned of a several inaccuracies and factual errors in the book – my mother never shot a bunch of dogs, for instance (the story is much worse). But error is the language of memory, and it makes the book no less true.
I don’t know anything about contemporary memoirs. I suspect – without any evidence to stand behind – that mostly they are like interviews on daytime television, where ‘good’ people who have done ‘bad’ things or ‘wounded’ people who have survived ‘horrors’ offer up their dignity, in the form of a scripted confession, as a sacrifice to the community – a community that requires narratives of passion as sin and dullness as salvation in order to starve its members of hope – in order to become briefly famous while receiving pity or acceptance.
The essayist, born an outsider, never looks for pity or acceptance. He has no need for empty plot convulsions like climax or redemption. Rather than redeem himself, he reiterates his hatred for redemption by declaring, as he strolls off the last page: the war of who I am is not over.
You wrote A Preparation for Death in part because you had to learn to write “without ambition”. Yet the whole process of publication, promotion and sales challenges this ‘purity’. How do you balance the need “not to compromise” with the usual authorial desires for sales, praise, a new contract?
Well, I wonder, is this Q&A a form of publicity? One could say, Of course it is. But if this is supposed to be an act of self-promotion, I suspect I am doing a bad job of it. To me these are fun questions to answer. When the book was first published, I saw the opportunity to talk about it less as a compromise and more an opportunity to continue the process of provocation I imagined it might start. I went out into the world of interviews in the hopes that the things I would say, such as the above, would generate some discussion about the state of literature (this is not why I wrote the book; this is how I would honour the book), and that I might also defend it from those who, by virtue of their inability to see what makes it unique – or unrecognizable according to the rules of standard forms – place it into the category of narrative that most reflected their mood on a certain day.
Nobody who interviewed me, however, seemed to care about literary provocation – perhaps the idea is outdated. (Has Freud’s influence really been so profound? Was it ever going to be less profound?) The journalists wanted to get to know the real me (and by that time the circumstances of my life had changed considerably, so what they actually wanted was the fake me), or ask if I regretted publishing stuff about my unmentionables, or the unmentionables of others.
At a literary festival I was invited to, I read the chapter ‘Satanism’ to a crowd of pleasant book enthusiasts. One asked me afterwards, ‘Is there anything you would not write about?’ ‘Satanism’ is an essay about Milton’s Paradise Lost. Is it scandalous to write about epic poetry? I can’t remember what I said. About an hour later I thought of the answer: I wouldn’t write about anything that didn’t matter. One journalist asked me what self-help book I’d recommend. About six months later the answer came to me: The Antichrist, by Friedrich Nietzsche.
Wittgenstein looms large over A Preparation for Death. But if “Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death”, what can you say about the act of writing yourself out, and finally leaving your former self in Vienna? What next? Are you no longer “sick of your own fiction”?
I wanted to get a glimpse of that dead self, a self wandering around Vienna as a ghost, pleased to have committed one act of integrity before dying, happy only for the book’s completion, a completion unassociated with any further accolades, so I imagined it onto the page. The process of self-creation had reached, momentarily, a stopping point, before a new and more drastic one would begin, and to fix that recreated self in a condition of permanence, to abandon his perfection – I mean his perfect failure – seemed right.
I keep writing, and I hope I’m not betraying that ghost in Vienna. My experience in autobiography has changed my writing forever, and terms like fiction and autobiography and criticism and theory and philosophy and essay and story have started to blend, I think, in interesting ways, or perhaps ways that are inevitable. But I am still committed to hatred of the formulaic, because I think the formulaic is inhumane, and adds nothing but cruelty and dishonour to the world. And the scary thing is not that the four-hundred page novel about the most absolutely mundane people in the most predictable situations feeling the most obvious emotions is on the verge of death; the scary thing is that it seems unstoppable, indestructible as a commodity.
Perhaps this is a superfluous question when your book contains so many unregarded literary stars, but can you recommend an overlooked book or author for readers of this blog?
I finished recently and loved A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, by Danilo Kiš – a novel composed of seven true stories, rendered as art, of neglected historical figures who either damned their own legacies or had their legacies damned for them. I’m also reading, at the moment, Alban Berg, by Theodor Adorno, a critical study and personal reminisence of the great composer. It’s apocryphal Adorno, and that’s probably why I like it so much. Of Berg, Adorno writes: “No music of our time was as humane as his; that distances it from humankind.”