Interview: Mischa

Mischa graduated this week from the American University of Paris. After spending the summer in Helsingborg, Sweden, he’ll continue his literature studies (and production) in Sweden or Paris.

1. What is it about Swedish women?

I was born, in Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, MA (itself already a northern state with chilly winters), facing north. Northerners live in a fight against nature and are in a constant flight inward, the lucky ones to a warm hearthside (my family had a hyper-efficient Benjamin Franklin stove, one of the marvels of early American ingenuity). Northerners must create their own warmth. They are also pale and know the importance of covering up and on the precious, rare exuberance of uncovering.

When I first encountered the Swedish women of Paris I was immediately charmed. First their language. What funny sounds! Like English with all the edges curled, all the vowels frosted and the consonants carved, rune-like out of wood. I liked their music and their fashion. And of course, who could resist their looks: the wide frankness of their features, their brightness of complexion, and that errant unit of succulent swell enlarging now a set of hips, now a set of lips, in ever-novel, ever-delightful combinations.

My trek north ended in Skåne the southernmost tip of Sweden, where I caught my very own Swedish girl, Sofia Viktoria Nilsson Warkander. It’s a good thing, too, because I have reason to believe that farther north lie people for whom the journey inward has perhaps gone a little too far and for whom the ‘in’ may apply to other activities as well, such as the horticultural domains of breeding and growing. I’m kidding. In reality I’m still fascinated by the North, but from now on will explore its icy plains and crystalline languages together with Sofia.

2. You used to keep a very intelligent blog. Why did you stop updating it?

My difficulty was with figuring out to whom and for whom I was actually writing. The blog form can function as a deceptively inviting membrane between the public and the private spheres, offering the freak chance of celebrity while implying no face-to-face encounters with critics. It does so when, for example, troubled youths or not-so-youths publish grotesque details about their personal lives and then get offended when the real humans they know talk about it. For my part, I found myself writing dense, contentious, prescriptively worded, poorly spelled essays on radical philosophy that a few fellow obsessives apparently read and felt compelled to comment on. This in itself would be fine, except that I don’t think I would’ve had the courage to defend in conversation any of the positions I ventured on the blog. I was venting.

It is a matter of becoming comfortable with the act of publication. A paper, essay, short story or poem, can be published and have very few readers. But the fact that it is published, and published with some other person or entity, means that it is open to any and all potential readers, starting with at least one, the editor. Of course there are plenty of texts published by people other than their author (Dmitri Nabokov for his father, Max Brod for Kafka), but in these cases all we can say is that the burden of authorship is in a sense shared by that other agent. To publish is to sacrifice one’s umbilical link with a text, send it off into the world and allow it to take on a life of its own, in short, to allow it to be born.

As long as the blog is used as the gutter into which people pour their frustrations, whether emotional or philosophical, it will be a trap. However, there is nothing inherently wrong with the form. I think that this series of interviews is evidence in itself that you have the right attitude with respect to internet publication: start with those you know, and let those other, faceless entities from Japan and Bulgaria wander their obscure course through the cybersphere.

3. Has a work of art ever changed the world?

I don’t think so, no. Certainly not if we’re talking about one work. What could one point to, Die Triomphe des Wollens? [Since I wrote this the editor has brought to my attention Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line. Touché. ]

The purist in me wants to say that art’s relation to politics is a one-way osmosis: it is bad art that keeps it out, but one shouldn’t expect the effect to be reciprocal. On the other hand, politics is unquestionably guided by rhetorical forces. The contemporary French philosopher Jacques Rancière uses the example of a revolt in Greece where the people were able to have their voices heard by grouping together on a hill: though they were outnumbered by the troops sent to control them, their elevated position gave them an audience by imbuing the events with theatricality. One need only look at Bush’s blunt axes and kiddy-Wagnerian mythology to see that this side of politics is alive and well. Unfortunately, it would appear that one of the prerequisites for art to influence politics is that it be bad.

4. Is it better know many things casually or fewer things intimately?

It is best to know the many things amongst which you dwell intimately. Nabokov would take his son on walks and quiz him on the names of everything they saw: trees, flowers, birds, etc. I was not gifted with this sort of upbringing. I have tried instead to cheat by getting to know literature as intimately as the few short years I’ve taken on the task have allowed. Thus, I can dedicate myself to a monastic study of a specialized subject while all the while employing a whole party-favor bag of knowledges: the recondite charts and graphs of linguistics, titillating scraps of philosophy, the juiciest bits of history, etc. But my hope is that this is not less than mete to my object, since, if I’m not mistaken, writing is nothing other than the knitting together of the most disparate strands of discourse into a resonating whole. In this sense it is invaluable today when the curious among us can have their intellect scattered to the four winds pursuing the ramifications of information into the most obscure capillaries of the internet: writing gives unity.

5. What’s the difference between going out in New York and going out in Paris?

There’s much more to do in New York until much later with people whose cultural sensibility (music, clothes, humor) is much closer to mine. And yet, I always seem to have more fun in Paris. Maybe it’s the cheap wine, maybe it’s because you can drink outside, or maybe there are just more people I like here.

6. Respond to this remark in John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist: ‘For some novelists, as for most poets and many short story writers, the main accuracy required by their art has to do with self-understanding. Novelists of this kind–Beckett, Proust, many writers who favor first-person narration–specialize in private vision. What they need to see clearly and document well is their own feelings, experience, prejudice. Such a novelist may hate nearly all of humanity, as Céline does, or large groups of people, as does Nabokov. What counts in this case is not that we believe the private vision to be right, but that we are so convinced by and interested in the person who does the seeing that we are willing to follow him around.’ (p. 28)

I feel compelled to reject this claim not once but three times.

First, I have not read Céline, but as far as Nabokov is concerned, I think it is a misreading to say he hates ‘large groups of people.’ At most one could say he hated communists, and considering he was permanently exiled from his home country by them, he did so with good reason. For the rest, even for the psychoanalysts, his attitude was one of mocking, sometimes scornful, fascination. The value he place aboved all others was tenderness, and the obsession in his oeuvre with cruelty, human and otherwise, was not driven by complicity with it but a will to render it palpable, to make it into good writing.

Second, it is a mistake that seems unnecessary to go over to confuse the author and the narrator. To take the example of Nabokov again, he said about his own work that he considered the task of the author one of invention rather than expression. Just because he plunges into the deepest intimacies of perception doesn’t mean that it’s he who’s doing the perceiving: authors invent people. In some of Nabokov’s works he even performs the trick of de-inventing them as well, cf. Pale Fire.

Third, even if we were to admit that writers are so generous as to give the reader front-row tickets to the theater of their mind for the low cost of a paperback book, it is wrong to make the task of literature that of presenting a ‘vision’ if by vision we understand something like consciousness or mind. Many critics and readers are tempted to try to find some external referent for which to exchange the written text: a philosophical or religious truth, a formal perfection, or, in Gardner’s case, a likeable personality, an ego. However, an act of writing cannot be substituted for by anything else. Repeat: an act of writing cannot be substituted for by anything else. Emotions, ideas, personalities, phonetic patterns, etc., are only of value in a literary text in the rhythm of their relations to each other, that is to say, in terms of the text’s ‘style.’ Thus writing is not the presentation of a ‘vision’ but merely the stringing together of a series of words in an irreplaceable order. Only two activities exist when it comes to a literary text: writing and reading, the raveling and the unraveling of a linguistic construction, as banal as that. No revelation, just the ‘spinal thrill’ of reading.

Finally, I will temper a bit my vitriol in saying that I do agree with one point in Gardner’s statement, that which concerns ‘accuracy.’ He mentions ‘the main accuracy required by [the writer’s] art’ and this to me seems a very just way of phrasing the standard to which good writing can be held, that it be accurate. Accurate with respect to what goal, you might ask? Certainly not reality, or private vision, or what have you. Internal accuracy: no word stands in for a category of things, every statement accords with every other on every level, no sound is lost. Nabokov wrote an early story in which someone puts out a cigarette in a glass of ice and then later, pages later, drinks from it. He claimed that that was the last time that ever happened. I can easily imagine a version of the story by a more mature Nabokov in which the character would’ve put the cigarette out and then far later brought the glass to his lips and then stopped, leaving the reader to fill in the accuracy.

7. Why is baseball better than soccer?

Probably because I was brought up with it. However, there are some fundamental differences between baseball and other sports in terms of how time is structured. Baseball is a game of explosive instants. Many people, those not attuned to the rhythm of baseball, complain that there is too much time when nothing is going on. In reality, this downtime is necessary buildup for the intense speed and energy that is released from the moment the ball hits the bat and everyone has to start sprinting. No amount of fast-breaks and consecutive goals can rival the grand-slam home run (or, for that matter, the bases-loaded strike out) for convulsive, spastic glee (or crushing disappointment). It is a sports orgasm.

Baseball is not a continuous block of chronometric time, as it is in soccer, but a series of self-contained moments. What’s more, since there are no ties in baseball, these moments don’t play out according to a set number of instances, but according to a set of events that must occur: someone must win and play will continue as long as need be for this to occur, thus making it not ‘set time’ but ‘event time’ according to Richard Schechner’s analysis of the uses of time in performance. This makes baseball closer to what we would consider traditional theater (the play is over when Romeo and Juliet are both dead, not after a set amount of time).

What I do admire about soccer, and the same could be said about basketball, is its physical simplicity. It is an egalitarian sport. The tools needed to play soccer (a round, kickable object, a flat space, something delineating a goal) are so easy to fabricate that its equipment is somewhere between a technology and a technique, a set of physical instruments and a way of disposing bodies and objects in space. In that it is a bit like chess, for which you need pieces only as a prop to aid the feeble imagination, the game itself being merely the disposition of a set of elements whose motion is restricted by a set of rules. Baseball tends to require a whole lot more kit and caboodle: bats, gloves, special balls, catcher’s protection, bases, etc. and this is probably the reason it has caught on less feverishly across the globe than soccer and basketball have.

8. I’ve prepared a chart of my impression of your taste. Does it seem accurate?

I’m assuming you mean my taste in music? In any case, the subculture nestled in the always ‘gentrifying’ (like some large-scale public works project charged with cultural, rather than physical, sanitation) regions of a number of US cities plays a kind of game with taste. To play the game well is to belong to the subculture. The game involves taking the lowest culture and elevating it to the highest. This action must be constantly repeated, for as soon as something is elevated it becomes immediately suspect again. Thus, if rap, once considered uncool, becomes cool, then soon people will have to start only start liking dumber, simpler, poppier rap that was still snubbed in the first reversal. I have certainly tried my hand at this game. It is, after all, not entirely uncreative in that it makes an awareness of the sociological stratification of music an active element in the experience of listening. However, if it’s used just to exclude, as the sort of polar extremism you indicated on the chart would seem to do, it’s no good.

9. In chess, how early should you bring out your queen?

The rule of thumb is that the queen is not a part of your development; you do not actively try to bring her out in the beginning. However, there is a reason the most common opening is the king pawn: if you see that your opponent has made an inaccurate move, particularly if the king has been left exposed, the queen can swing out by the diagonal d1-h5, and show herself for the wasp she is, stinging repeatedly and venomously, sometimes fatally. Take the following example game, found in Xavier Tartakover, Bréviare des échecs (the book, being French, uses the ‘algebraic’ notation. My apologies if this causes confusion):

We can stop here and note how far White has already forced Black’s King to flee, and the strength of White’s threat: 9. h5 +, Kh6; 10. d4 +disc., g5; 11. h5 X g6 (e.p.) K X g6; 12. Qh5+ followed by 13. Qf7X. Though this threat can be parried, Black is at a severe disadvantage and will lose the game.

10. You’ve written a short story. What are your hopes for it?

Well, in keeping with my remarks above, I suppose I will look for some editing body to put its stamp on it. And what better editor than the one one drinks with? That is to say, Krapp himself. I may also look to the American University of Paris’s literary journal to give it material form. Be easy on it: it really is my first try.


~ by ohkrapp on May 24, 2008.

7 Responses to “Interview: Mischa”

  1. i know i conducted this interview, but i keep re-reading it. response #4 blew my mind! sebastian said something related when we were walking through a garden in paris. we couldn’t identify a single species of flora or fauna in the whole damn garden (except a magpie, i think) and sebastian said, ‘how can you consider yourself a writer and not know what any of this is called?!’

    maybe we need to move out of the city for a while. i love writing that features ‘gear;’ i don’t know what else to call it. like, hemingway calibrating his pistol or melville jigging the rigging or any cormac mccarthy narrator. nabokov’s knowledge of butterflies sticks out as an essential part of understanding his writing; he knows his characters comprehensively (physically, psychologically) like specimen whose every feature he’s been able to magnify.. it’s been years since i read Lolita, but there’s a phrase where HH is pulling down her underwear and he kisses the ‘crenelated imprint left by the band of her shorts.’ ! ! ! how else could you describe it? it’s so accurate (so imagé) that it’s hardly still a metaphor!

    anyway, yea: nabokov.

  2. [shaking my head in sadness]

    reference Inherit the Wind if you want a preview of how I will justify my distension of ‘interview week.’

  3. which one of you is clarence darrow in this scenario?

  4. […] Although I’ve encountered many a benevolent French Person and even some in all ways attractive French Men, I’ve never experienced a basic sense of cultural cohesion with them. Having lived in a different country when I was young, I acquired a persona that can’t be attributed to Swedish culture. I’ve forgotten about it for long periods at a time, but I think that one of the fundamental reasons I was attracted to Mischa (other ones being his height and that he was wearing a most handsome blazer at the time) was because he offered me a possibility of accessing that part of myself, a part that was absent from my life and which I had almost forgotten about. The combination of proximity and distance to me was enticing, since I’d spent my more adult years almost completely without what I internalized from that culture. My particular American also has a wonderful understanding of Swedish women, as can be read in the answer to his question. […]

  5. […] Dreams 11.01.09 Jon Stewart is the referee a mutant league football game. One of the players commits a foul and Jon gets in his face. The player slaps Jon twice and Jon looks dumfounded. I ask to see a replay and I’m shown a clip of Zero from the Megaman series teleporting in front of the camera the scene and yelling in Finnish. I think, ‘I should really send this to Mischa.’ […]

  6. […] Mischa is waiting for your challenge !! […]

  7. […] check out this thoughtful article on the release of the first volume of Beckett’s letters. Mischa actually got me a job doing research for the project (one of the editors is a professor at the […]

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