David Herrle SubtleTea Interview with Mathias Freese
In an interview with Tracy-Jane Newton you
have said, "I am Talmudic without being an exegete." Care to gab about that
M: All psychotherapy is essentially Talmudic. The response to the question, "Nu?" should also be "Nu?" An answer ends it all; and like a down note in music we just can't wait for that. For real awareness to develop, we need to reasonably frustrate the client. Therapy is not answers, nor advice-giving. I recall a supervisor in training who told me the anecdote about a client she had who began to masturbate in front of her. Granted, there are a plethora of responses to this by a well-trained therapist; however, I found hers, although bathed in Freudian sauce, quite apt. She said to the young man, "Given what you are doing, can you put that into words for me?" I believe the ideal teacher, not to be attained in reality, would finish a dialogue with his students without answering any questions, but would have taken the questions posed and refashioned them into better questions. At the end of questioning we come through a larger window and again more questions are posed about the newer vistas before us. In this culture, frustration has become almost taboo. But if you experience it in reasonable doses, "What larks, Pip! What larks!"
As a writer I beset myself with questions; I have a simple rule of thumb: I need to go through the "layer cake," assuming it is a five-tiered one. Only after I am down to the fifth level do I feel I can unearth a literary geode of some value. I probe with questions, they are my snout. I said it best in an essay: "What I really do know is that fearlessness makes for authenticity in writing." When I am threatened by confrontation, by merciless intellect, when I have to face the world bravely, I switch to a remembrance of my dead wife on a gurney in a hospital morgue; nothing after that can stop me. I know no fear. I am a curmudgeon with a heart. I know that about myself. And I share with Freud, without being grandiose, his passion of the mind. Endless literary chatter I abhor, so exegesis is not of interest, a defense against feeling. I am not a Scholastic counting the number of angels on the head of a pin, theological jerking off. I question which is critically Talmudic. If, in fantasy, Jews gave up the Jewish star as a symbol, I would rush in with a question mark. That is the best symbol of Judaism for me. And I am damn proud of that.
D: Your favorite book(s) and film(s)?
M: Now you've gotten me started. The scintillating and brilliant Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti, surely one of the great works of the 20th century (see his chapter "The Self-Destruction of the Xosas"). Conrad's The Nigger of the Narcissus blew my adolescent mind, worthy of being written by Freud in its depiction of group psychology. Nikos Kazantzakis, who had the temerity to continue the adventures of Ulysses in two more volumes, in verse, and by all accounts equaled Homer. His St. Francis, The Last Temptation of Christ, and his great confessional, Report To Greco, are works of emotional and transcendent passion which have left a mark on my writing, "Overdraw me, Lord, and who cares if I break!" That exclamation point says it all. Stendahl's The Red and the Black, Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, in which "fug" supplants "fuck." The misanthropic masterpiece by Swift, Gulliver's Travels, in which Gulliver refuses to be rescued from his raft, so sickened is he by human nature. I enjoyed Candide before I learned an anti-Semite wrote it. And as dessert, Winesburg, Ohio, a brilliant gem, and I and Thou, by Buber, who cast me into his Talmudic whirlpool for days on end.
As to movies, I saw Citizen Kane as a young boy and I knew I was watching something strange and wonderful. I have written about its Freudian essence: What is the Rosebud in each of us? The skinny is that Hearst had a fit about Rosebud because that was his term of endearment for Marion Davies' genitalia. Imagine that on your lips when you came to die. The greatest film of childhood was the 1940 epic Thief of Bagdad, with Conrad Veidt, June Duprez, John Justin and Sabu: a magnificently mounted and magical film that grasped my soul as a child. It is considered today without all the computer-generated crap as one of the greatest fantasies ever made -- it is! Others crowd my mind: Korda's The Shape of Things to Come, Song of the South, Black Narcissus. I hadn't been moved by films for years until I saw Mann's wonderful The Last of the Mohicans. The musical theme is heart-aching and stirring; some of the dialogue is psychologically intense. The one movie that touched me profoundly as a child starred Monty Clift: Fred Zinneman's The Search. The loss of the mother gnawed at my heart; the search for her presence made me feel very primal; after all, I was only 8 or 9 years after birth. The memory of the womb still was an unconscious caul about my self: think Melanie Klein. Enough! All this is Jujube glut on my tongue.
D: I often say that the world reverts to popular antisemitism (a term I only apply to Jews) quite regularly throughout history. It seems to hardwired into our peculiar human drama, woven into time.
I'm not focusing on rather stupid instances and relatively innocuous such as Mel Gibson's drunken wars-blame, mind you. This goes for the more recent Michael Richards' disgusting, racist-worded freak-out on two rude, black hecklers at a comedy club. (The two men are seeking financial settlement now, acting worse than hotheaded Richards by profiting from racism.) I think the public/media court demands apology too much, preferring externals to internals. Grovel is the name of the game in the PC Neo-Puritan court, as if apology is a magical absolution and the pop-culture masses are spotless sentinels of propriety. Our own foibles and secret sins are projected into the convenient scapegoats who are spotlighted to suffer and die for our own iniquity. We pretend mirrors are windows, and we peek through them at the horrible, "hateful", dehumanized culprit of the week, saying, "See? WE are more righteous! WE would never say such things (at least not in public)! OUR sins are dwarfed by HIS!"
Your thoughts on public apologies of this sort? What's your take on resurgent and popular Jew hatred? I don't pretend that Jews, Israel, and so-called Zionists are blameless, but do you feel, as I do, that there is a media bias in favor of disgruntled Muslim theocrat-warriors against Jews and Israel? Feel free to expand the focus.
M: I chuckle over an anecdote in which a grandfather is asked to comment about Hanukah by his young grandson. In effect, he says, "They tried to kill us, they didn't kill us; so let's eat." Oh, yes! Are you laughing, David? So much cultural savvy in that response. Your question is a difficult one, so I begin with humor to defuse it for myself. And now I'll deal with it. Hold my hand, as we go through the layer cake.
I feel (note that verb) that in some unconscious construct the Jews have come to represent in Western civilization a nether, dire and collective memory that is reprehensible on several levels. Let me struggle with this, which I am doing right now. I think that intelligence, of any kind, goodness of any kind - I associate to Reich who wrote a book whose title escapes me in which he posited the thought that in each generation there are the murderers of Christ - that human beings seek to destroy that which is good. I believe the Jew, for whatever fractal reasons, has come to signify that. Jews threaten by their very existence and so they must be eradicated. Do I have proof for this? Oh, I can go on and on, but for the moment, now down to my own layer cake level #4, I feel it to be so. Thus, everything else flows from this perception, intuition or conception. If you see Borat's film, he scratches the surface ever so slightly and there it rears its scabrous head. In Tucson, where I live, he went into a bar wearing cowboy gear and began to sing a "western" song, "Throw the Jew into the well." In 10 minutes the whole crowd was singing it. In the Borat movie he asks a gun dealer what gun would kill Jews best and without a blink of an eye, the dealer says this one, and gives it to him. On and on.
The Jew is an unconscious pariah now made conscious, the gift of the United Nations, fellow Semites in the Middle East and a media that takes sides; it is uncomfortable for the world to observe the people of the book become warriors, yet my reading of the Hebrew Bible was replete with battles waged by Jews. Two thousand years of encrusted stereotyping hinders us all. Of course, I do feel there is much wisdom Oedipally in that Christianity, a son religion, rises up and overthrows, the father, Judaism. On his desk in his Victorian office, Freud had dozens upon dozens of pieces of statuary that he collected from his trips to Rome over the years. He understood full well that Moses was an Egyptian prince, and that that culture modified in so many ways how Moses behaved and acted. (Freud also did not know what a menorah was.) He was a secular Jew, but he well-reasoned he could not escape being a Jew in anti-Semitic Vienna, and so he wanted Jung to represent psychoanalysis to the world as a Protestant because he knew how revolutionary it was. Jews have had to adjust, assimilate, change, alter, amend and emend their behaviors for centuries. And what we have learned from all this psychic and arduous effort is "to eat."
D: You said in an interview with Norm Goldman: "I believe that chaos itself has order to it." Though this was in reference to how you didn't obsess over structuring your novel, it seems to refer to an overall concept. If so, can you explain?
M: When I look into the heavens at a Tucson night sky relatively free of earthshine because of local ordinances, I cower for a nanosecond. The immensity of it, the chaos, unnerves me. When I observe this phenomenon free of labeling, free of conditioning, I sense something that eludes me. I tire of religious and spiritual associations, because these are tethered to mind sets; as Krishnamurti suggested, can I look as if it were for the first time. I used to try that with clients...who is this sitting before me? It is murderously difficult, but sometimes there is a glimmer. I would use a metaphor to help. This client is a tree, that one a crashing car, that one a mouse and so on. It helped and it didn't help. But one tries to encapsulate this presence before one self. So it is with the chaos within me, without me and the chaos in the heavens. If I can keep myself free from postulates, axioms, mental geometries, the teeth-chattering of the mind, perhaps I will come into an understanding...perhaps. I have felt as a child that there was more to me before I was born and that there will more to me after I am gone, that truly this present existence is a dream. I feel this deeply down and deeply so, without evidence. However, I give it no connotation or denotation. I will discover that. Last night about 5 a.m., no pun intended, I was dead asleep. In that state we have no sense of self; it is as if we are dead. Perhaps the real horror of dying is not so much the dying process but the fearful conception of having no awareness. Well, each of us will get our bowl of porridge. The chaos signifies to me that patterns do not apply nor hold; that chaos may very well be, by definition, a pattern. I feel this is like a man trying to lasso a steer, to rein him in. However, at moments, I feel it would be braver of me if I could give up the desire to give order to chaos. That is human hubris.
D: In Aeschylus' AGAMEMNON, Cassandra wails (as translated by Philip Vellacott, 1956): "Alas for human destiny! Man's happiest hours/Are pictures drawn in shadow. Then ill fortune comes,/And with two strokes the wet sponge wipes the drawing out." Humanity is in deep, blinding despair to this day: more deeply because intellectual search and hope for a unified knowledge is abandoned or mocked, and this despair entails relegating spiritual, poetic, God-acquaintance, and real love to La-La Land rather than actuality and human reach. Dostoyevsky's Father Zossima says as much: "[The worldly] have science; but in science there is nothing but what is the object of sense. The spiritual world, the higher part of man's being is rejected altogether, dismissed with a sort of triumph, even with hatred." In an apparent loss or absence of God and reliable Love survival becomes the only (temporary) good: avoiding evils and scrambling to fill bellies. So death-camp imprisonment, torture, etc., are stark disappointments in human dignity. But Stepan Trofimovich cries in Dostoyevsky's Devils:"The infinite and the eternal are as essential to man as this small planet where we live...long live the Great Idea!"
Doubting God because of bloody, unfair evidence is far from preposterous. In fact, it's a strongly moral indignation. And despair easily happens. Did it not happen to Christ on the crucifix? Chesterton shows that "God was forsaken of God" and cried the righteously angry atheists' cry. Christ was "the only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation" and Christianity is the "only one religion in which God for an instant [was] an atheist". Dostoyevsky's Ivan Karamazov rejected God for a very good reason: perpetual suffering. We wonder why a God doesn't prevent suffering and evil for creatures' sakes. Utopians mistake the erasure of suffering as achieving the ultimate good. "Bread alone" living is preached as salvation. Our failure to vanquish evil breeds dangerous disappointment that degenerates into spiteful, "liberal" ruthlessness: war against disorder through despotism and mind/environment control. However, outrage against the good/bad dichotomy and blaming it or a faulty or a non-existent God for human error is itself an appeal to a "good," an acknowledgement of a "better," a remedy (which presupposes an ailment). A question you've asked, "What is to be done," can't be asked in a valueless system. Disappointment comes from a deeper knowledge, a hardwired valuation - valuation impossible without meaning, without true measurement.
In Reflections On The Psalms, C.S. Lewis writes about the nihilistic passages in Ecclesiastes: "We get there a clear, cold picture of man's life without God...We need to have heard it." And in reference to the negative passages in Psalms, he writes: "The shadows have indicated...something more about the light." Christ on the cross felt the shadows. We know the sinful depths of the death camps from the glorious heights of charity, love, and Grace.
In The i Tetralogy, you expertly show the finality and hopelessness of the death camp. Eventually the main inmate character, i, concludes that he is "rectum", dirt, a nobody, a nothing within an insurmountable, absurd toilet: "I scream but it is unheard, except by me. I scream and I scream. I cannot make sense of what I experience. I cannot digest it. It is outside of me, it is not within me." In ostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, Dmitri exclaims (as translated by Constance Garnett): "I think I could stand anything, any suffering, only to be able to say and repeat to myself every moment, 'I exist.' In thousands of agonies - I exist. I'm tormented on the rack - but I exist!" Could it be that, as you've said, "chaos itself has order to it"? Reactions?
M: I am not into systems, although there are about 250 different kinds of therapies. As a therapist I struggled for years for a way to how-to, a method, which is using something to do something to someone else. I kept evolving and changing, and I never did capture the elusive butterfly. How I struggled! There is a part of you, David, I see, from this question and from our correspondence, that casts a very large net into the sea, like some Indonesian fisherman trying to make his day's wages. I cast smaller nets, for I have discovered in my journey that seeking transcendence is serendipitous; in fact, I hope it is. It might be very sweet that way, as the girl kissing you before you make your gentle moves. Perhaps I have been conditioned by early readings in Existentialism, for it is a very courageous philosophy, in part, a product of WW II. What if no one comes for you while a Nazi bastard is pulling out your nails? Who do you go to? Who do you call out to? I am essentially alone in this world, and in some interesting way I draw some internal strength from that. I think metaphorically Judaism gave that also to me. Can one imagine millions of people hating your very being? Now we can. And what is one to do?
The character "i" is a denominator, the world is his numerator, and it crashes into his total sum; he is very much the way I might respond to such horrors. In the better ways we think of ourselves, he represents the way I face life. I wish I were as strong as he, and perhaps I am. (Our fictional selves are always better than our real selves.) The only way out for "i," as I see it is for him to fall back implosively upon his own self; he is a questioning man, a doubting man, a secular man conditioned as a Jew, but also free of that. And so he screams about the chaos he feels. He is impaled with a stake through his mouth to the wall. He is my better self, he is the self I choose to be if I were faced with ultimate horrors -- I need no god, no system, no belief. I need whatever my DNA has given me, whatever I have learned. I refuse, at least cognizantly so, to be conditioned. I suppose I am only concerned with the awakening of intelligence, as Krishnamurti phrases it. And my task is to be free of him as well. To be a disciple of anything sucks - just take a gander at Christ's dozen.
D: You don't hold back in your sexual scenes and fantasies in your writing. Some readers may consider many passages to be pornographic. Do you believe in such a distinction: "pornography" or "sex scene"? Tell us your thoughts on explicit sexuality in literature and in actuality.
M: I did not set out to write pornography or sex scenes. I endeavored to get into the minds of men and women whose only pleasure was in the body -- and its parts. In the concentrated world of the concentration camp what pleasures existed? The constant use of the body in porno flicks is curious. It is as if there no other pleasure in the world existed except getting off. Men are often props, so are dildos, chains, fucking machines. Pornography is a land of portals and descents. I feel, at moments, it is a defense against feeling dead. I am surprised that many in the porno business do not do away with themselves. Perhaps the beating and pulsation of flesh and its liquids keep one sustained.
With thoughts and conjectures such as these, I felt that there was an intimate link between the rabid violence in the death camps and sexuality. I explored that. As I think on this now, I feel that pornographic desires create a split between what is real and what is not real. In other words, one atones or expunges the committal of horrors to other human beings on a daily basis by washing these sins away in total and ravishingly lustful sexual acts. At least, in the sex one may feel, an antidote to not feeling, as one whips a prisoner to death. In short, the pornographic passages in my book serve a literary purpose, as if brothels did not exist in the camps and ashtrays were not made from skin.
D: What are you up to lately? Any writing projects following your The i Tetralogy novel?
M: About 25 years ago I made a writer's pact with my self. I would only publish short stories in a book if they were accepted and published. And so this small body of work came to be. In the summer of 2007 I will publish about 10-15 stories in a book titled Down to a Sunless Sea. It is a line from Coleridge's "Kublai Khan." My son will do the cover; my companion will do the introduction which she informs me will be an exploration of the pain in me and the pain in the stories themselves. Once we write something we never own it. Some stories are traditionally crafted, others are experimental, some are sui generis; one is an attempt by me to get into the mind of my daughter's disease which, only in part, led to her suicide.
I will give away copies to friends without the pressure of marketing them; I have done my life's task. One other book is a science fiction fantasy which needs real editing but essentially is the tale of a creature on a desolate planet awakening to intelligence within his grotesque corporeal presence. It is a story really about my becoming aware. After that, I may try my hand at poetry, for it is the most concise of writing
D: Matt, you're a balls-to-the-wall, important writer/thinker, and I appreciate having become acquainted with you. I wish you blessings on your path. Have you any closing words for readers/fans?
M: If I have any readers out there, struggle with Kazantzakis' injunction: "Reach what you cannot."
Read the contextual review of Freese's The i Tetralogy
© 2007 SubtleTea Productions All Rights Reserved