Diana began her shift each morning at Queequeg’s Seafood Tavern and Brewery with a propitiatory prayer, which by a quirk of providence or some incredible stroke of luck you might be able to hear, even though it was almost always offered (and hopefully received) in silence. In fact, she woke up each day with the same prayer, or at least a similar one, such as “Please, God, help me get through the day,” or something simpler, even unaddressed, like “Help!” Besides this, she usually began each individual task with something along the same lines, such as “God help me,” sometimes whispered repeatedly while shaking her head from side to side as she pulled lemons out of a cardboard box in five-pronged clutches, two or three at a time. Once she managed four.
Joshua Hren: So begins one of the great “Catholic” (small and large C) novels of the 21st Century, Bird’s Nest in Your Hair, published in late 2012 by Korrektiv Press. The allusion to Queequeg, Ishmael’s companion in Moby Dick, is no throwaway reference: Bird’s Nest can be linked with the first great American novel by more than allusive stitchery. We soon behold the dignity of Diana’s work, quotidian as it is:
Lemons themselves were pleasant enough to work with, although they sometimes stung the small cuts on her fingertips. So, she started wearing rubber gloves as she sliced them into halves, quarters, and eights. Seven slices per lemon (no, she didn’t pray before each one). There was some pleasure to be had in taking the knobby remainder of the stem off fi rst, usually accomplished with the push or pull of a thumb. This was slightly less pleasing with the gloves on. Otherwise the knob might stick to the knife; once she slipped and cut the index finger holding the lemon in place on the cutting board. She also enjoyed pulling the stems out of apples.
It is well known that in Moby Dick Melville moves freely between the mightiest metaphysical speculation and what would, to other eyes, appear as middling, even dirty work. I think of Ahab as he harvests the spermaceti from the head of a whale:
As I sat there at my ease, cross-legged on the deck; after the bitter exertion at the windlass; under a blue tranquil sky; the ship under indolent sail, and gliding so serenely along; as I bathed my hands among those soft, gentle globules of infiltrated tissues, woven almost within the hour; as they richly broke to my fingers, and discharged all their opulence, like fully ripe grapes their wine; as I snuffed up that uncontaminated aroma,—literally and truly like the smell of spring violets; I declare to you that for the first time I lived as in a musky meadow . . .
Like Melville, you cast your poetic eye on human labor and grant it a dignity that many would miss. Reading fiction like this makes me look with a sort of wonderment on tasks that I would normally cringe at the thought of. For instance, creeping up to our son’s crib at night, holding a small flashlight over his fingers so that my wife can clip his fingernails—this is charged with something easily lost, unless works like yours make it apparent.
Brian Jobe: Thank you, that’s a beautiful scene you describe there—a different kind of harvest, but with some similarities, to be sure. The artistic habitus has a lot to do with capturing everyday reality, I think. There’s a desire, for my part at least, to grab onto the metaphysical idea from the beginning, the blinding insight, but I usually find the results aren’t nearly as good as I’d hoped. Better to begin with the small detail, like swabbing a deck or a counter-top, or even better, trimming a child’s fi ngernails. Whatever thoughts that might be spun out of details like these will be better for being grounded, and probably remain with the reader that much longer.
This is also the case, not just with ideas and insights, but with allusions and references to other works—songs, poems, novels, whatever. They make a lot more sense if there is some connection to what is already happening in the story. Near the beginning, in the first or second chapter, Diana is tending bar when a Bob Dylan song comes up on the jukebox, Gotta Serve Somebody. Obviously the song has all the metaphysical or even theological import that Dylan intended, but for Diana, and perhaps the reader, it’s a reminder that she’s there tending bar, serving somebody.
JH: Of course, the novel is enriched by its entanglements with so many other authors and artists. As you indicate, within the first chapter we find that Diana loves Bob Dylan. She plugs the jukebox at Queequeg’s in order to listen—much to some of the patrons’ chagrin—to his albums. The novel’s title, Bird’s Nest in Your Hair, is borrowed from two Bob Dylan songs, “Trouble in Mind” (Here comes Satan, prince of the power of the air, / He’s gonna make you a law unto yourself, gonna build a bird’s nest in your hair.) and “Dead Man, Dead Man” (Satan got you by the heel, there’s a bird’s nest in your hair.). In turn, Bob Dylan borrowed this phrase from Martin Luther’s meditation:
. . . temptation can be avoided by no one; but resistance may be made and with prayer and course to divine aid, we can put ourselves in readiness to meet such designs. In the book of an old father we read that a young brother expressed a desire to be rid of his thoughts. Thereupon the old father said: Dear brother, you cannot prevent the birds from flying in the air over your head, but you can prevent them from building a nest in your hair. So, as St. Augustine says, we cannot prevent offenses and temptations, but by prayer and invocation of the help of God we can prevent them from overcoming us.
BJ: Wow—I did not know about the ultimate source for the Dylan quotation. This is all quite apropos, to say the least. Luther’s meditation is fantastic. Especially Augustine’s advice, I have to say, but it is all extremely helpful. Many thanks for finding that and sharing it.
JH: No problem. As your Critic, it is my job to expose all of the elements of your novel that lie latent, especially those that you don’t want me to expose. As Chesterton wrote, “Either criticism is no good at all (a very defensible position) or else criticism means saying about an author the very things that would have made him jump out of his boots.” At least I am being infinitely merciful in giving you a chance to correct the many misinterpretations I am about to commit. Bird’s Nest in Your Hair is not explicitly, or at least not by any means exclusively, a “novel of ideas.” And yet I am tempted to describe it as “shrewd as a serpent, simple as a dove” (Matthew 10:16). Much of the time we follow the relatively ordinary life of Diana, the bartender. She loves Bob Dylan, sports, and what seem to be ongoing conversations with family and friends. Then there’s Jeb, a poet wrestling with the purpose of language art in a world dominated by other forms of art . . . film, for instance, which brings us to Tom, once an independent filmmaker and dreamer, now owner of a locally famous video store, and his wife Helen—who, while not the stolen wife of Menelaus, is certainly, as CEO of an adult films company, a centrifugal source of conflict. These characters, leading apparently mundane lives, lead us into questions concerning the possibility of self-knowledge. Did you conceive these characters as embodiments of different kinds of self-knowledge, or perhaps different degrees of self-knowledge?
BJ: Different kinds, definitely, and perhaps different degrees, although I haven’t considered it so explicitly until now. I think most of the characters, Diana and Jeb certainly, are aware that they view the world in a certain way. Which doesn’t mean that they understand themselves or each other as well as they would like to. And I’m not sure any of the characters understand his or her self as well as many readers should be able to understand them. Throughout most of the novel there is a certain measure of dramatic irony at work, and this irony is often played off of one character to the next. I like to think so, anyway. I would say that some characters know themselves pretty well, others not very well at all. Most are probably somewhere in between. Some characters are good at identifying the motives of other characters, and use that knowledge to manipulate them, while others aren’t so capable, or perhaps able to resist that inclination.
JH: So the characters’ awareness of their existential realities might force us to explore the extent to which we are, as Nietzsche noted, “strangers to ourselves”?
BJ: Yes, I like that. I hadn’t really thought of it in terms of Nietzsche, but that lays it out pretty well. We all depend on others to form our knowledge of ourselves, so there really is no such thing as “knowledge of ourselves” without the knowledge of others. As I think this is the case with people generally, it ought to be true of characters in a novel as well.
JH: In what sense does Bird’s Nest in Your Hair continue the tradition of Catholic existentialism? Is there such a tradition?
BJ: I think existentialism really begins with a Christian, namely Søren Kierkegaard, who didn’t care for the term. Nor did he care much for a Christendom populated by Christians who either didn’t know or didn’t care to live their faith as he thought it ought to be lived. After Kierkegaard there were some existentialists who didn’t think of themselves as Christians, and some who did. As far as I can tell, not many really liked the term “existentialism.” Heidegger didn’t much care for it. The term “Christian existentialism” has always seemed to me something of an oxymoron, but there has to be some way to refer to writers and thinkers who are professing Christians and also work with the challenges presented by philosophers such as Nietzsche and Heidegger and all the rest. The list of Christian writers influenced by existentialists is pretty long, I think. As for Bird’s Nest, while writing the novel, I was aware of ways that I was trying to please the shade of Walker Percy, who qualifies as “Catholic existentialist” as well as anybody.
JH: I’m glad you brought up Percy. In The Moviegoer we can certainly see a similar tension between characters and self-knowledge. Binx Bolling lives the relatively “ordinary” life of a young stock-broker, he “loves” (erotically, mostly) his secretaries, and yet between the lines of the story he himself tells, there also seems to be a certain tension between the language he uses to tell the story, the life he actually leads, and perhaps the life he is called to live.
BJ: That tension is interesting to me, too. I think it’s somewhat explained within the novel by the fact that he’s telling the story after the fact—after he and Kate are married, for example. But the difference between the life he actually leads and his analysis of that life seems purposefully ambiguous at times. So when he describes “the search,” he refuses to say whether it’s for God or not. And yet, he also invokes the Resurrection at the end of the novel, just as Dostoevsky ends Brothers Karamozov. And since he goes to medical school, just as Percy went to medical school, there is also the question of how much Percy is in Binx. So I agree; that tension is very real in The Moviegoer.
JH: In a Paris Review interview, Percy defined existentialism “as a certain view of man . . . as wayfarer.” How well does “man as wayfarer” embody your own understanding of human existence, and, in particular, how do your characters reveal human beings to be wayfarers?
BJ: Yes, although I think this view of man he described comes in stages. I especially like the way Percy translated Heidegger’s term Geworfenheit. Most translators use the word “thrownness” in English versions, which I think was invented in the course of translating Being and Time. In his essays from the 1950s, Percy was already using the term “castaway” as the translation, which, for one thing, is a real word. It also makes the connection to other characters in English and American literature, such as Robinson Crusoe and Ishmael from Moby Dick. In a genealogy of Percy’s view of the human subject, Geworfenheit comes before wayfarer, I think.
I wonder if he didn’t come up with wayfarer as a way of describing Marcel’s Homo Viator; man the traveler. I think “man as wayfarer” works pretty well for a fairly blessed state of human existence, but not so well for others. I think most of the characters in Bird’s Nest are perhaps a little more stuck than that; maybe still Geworfenheit. Diana is certainly a castaway. Jeb is something of a traveler—“suck of care,” as Percy says somewhere. Likewise Helen; she’s a traveler as well. Father Adamawicz is certainly a traveler; from Poland in the 1960s to America in the 21st century.
JH: Percy was also comitted to working out the tensions between language and being, both in his essays and in his novels. What do you think of Heidegger’s thought that “language is the house of being”?
BJ: I’ve always liked that phrase about language as the house of being, because in that seemingly endless quest for what is most “primordial,” ens, being, is given its due relation to logos, the Word. And here I really must plug Jonathan Potter’s House of Words, which I think reveals just how primordial this notion of language as shelter really is.
Perhaps my novel can be a bird’s nest of being.
JH: Speaking with the Scientific Objectivity of the Critic, I’d say that it brims with being.
BJ: Thank you. In pursuing the wide range of what being human really means, I enjoy novels that combine a poetic sense of the sublime with an appreciation for all things ordinary, common, and even base.This certainly describes Binx Bolling as he commits to “the search,” and comes to the possibility of real commitment to something beyond himself. But he also brokers stocks, chases women, and looks at the “convoluted anus” of his landlord’s dog.
JH: How important is Heidegger’s conception of language and being to Percy’s more specifically Catholic conception of language and being, as well his view of the novel?
BJ: I think Percy took quite a bit from Heidegger. I think one was the notion that Descartes was an especially problematic turning point in the history of philosophy. And phrases and ideas from Heidegger’s Being and Time recur throughout The Moviegoer. In the analysis of anxiety, for example, as well as “everydayness,” “fallenness,” and “idle talk.”
Heidegger was himself Catholic, at least the younger Heidegger was. Had a Jesuit education. He identified himself as a Catholic philosopher early in his career, but sloughed that off even before he’d written Being and Time.And he didn’t much care for the term “existentialism,” either, and even “phenomenology” became something of a pathway to “universal ontology.” I think Percy considered Heidegger’s conception of an authentic life to be especially important, although his criteria for what constitutes an authentic life were probably quite different. Which is why, I think, he reaches back even further, to Kierkegaard.
JH: If the word “existentialism” is considered inadequate even by writers usually considered existentialists, could you briefly define the term “universal ontology”? Why is ontology important for novels? What about phenomenology? How might Bird’s Nest in Your Hair embody a phenomenological approach to the novel?
BJ: The term “ontology” simply refers to the study of being (from the Greek “ontos”). I recently read an excellent review of Heidegger’s shift to ontology from Husserl’s phenomenology: Jean Luc Marion’s Reduction and Givenness. I recommend that book to readers interested in the background for the issues underlying philosophy in the 20th century.
JH: It is worth noting, peripherally, that Edith Stein, now St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, was a student of Husserl before she became a Carmelite nun: sometimes I can’t withhold this wonderful sense that the Catholic tradition contains the most marvelous little constellations.
BJ: Stein worked with Heidegger as an assistant to Husserl doing research in phenomenology. They certainly took different paths from that point forward. As long as we’re recommending other books, Alasdair MacIntryre has written a great one about Stein called A Philosophical Prologue.
Briefly put, phenomenology is just what the word implies: a study or an account of that which appears (“phainomai”). Since anything that appears must first be, it only makes sense to then give an account of that being. Apart from whatever account one might give of this or that of individual being (a red rubber ball, a child’s dream of a unicorn, the set of prime numbers from 1 to 100), there is also the question of how an account might be given for everything that ever was, is or will be. Or perhaps even further: what it simply means to be, in the most abstract sense of that which is grammatically represented with the infinitive form of the most basic of all verbs. This is how I understand being qua being, the broadest of all possible categories, and especially Heidegger’s “ontological difference,” the difference between individual beings and Being.
I think the study of being is important to all novels and in fact all works of art. Hamlet names it in what is probably the most famous line in all literature, but I think some notion of being is operative even in paintings or poems or novels by relative amateurs. The novice painter stares at a bowl of fruit, and in doing so exercises a kind of phenomenological reduction. And in trying to capture the light and perhaps even ripeness of the fruit and whatnot, the painter is making a kind of study of being.
And something similar goes on in creative writing, I think. As I understand it, Husserl’s phenomenological reduction was a fairly strenuous, meditative practice of philosophy, requiring great effort. Writing is for me a kind of meditative practice, and I think that while trying to create the world of a novel, one almost has to write with a phenomenological view of the world. That’s why details become so important—they help bring that world to life in the imagination. That’s why the notion of a “novel of ideas” seems somewhat sterile to me; novels are better if there are things to keep a hold on the reader’s imagination. The next step, I think, is to try and see how people view the world differently by looking at the world through the eyes of different characters. So, for example, in scenes in which two different characters look at an oil slick, the way they look at it reveals the way they look at the world, and thus how the world appears to them.
I think that imagination is always expanding our notion of what we think and know about existence, about our being, and what it means to be alive. Novels provide some of the best windows into that House of Being, and what it means to be human.
JH: What major conflicts or crises emerge for such a human subject, and what redemptive possibilities emerge for one who wanders through the maze of competing and combining cultures that make up contemporary America—the novel’s setting?
BJ: That’s a good question. Different cultures offer different possibilities for redemption, obviously, but I think it’s good to make a distinction between popular conceptions of redemption and the Christian doctrine of redemption. So much of our culture revolves around winning and losing that redemption has become a synonym for a success story. The Christian doctrine of redemption is a different kind of success story entirely, I think.
The culture I’m concerned with is the one that affects the greatest number of people, so much influenced by the mass media. I think it’s obvious that we live in an extremely decadent society, perhaps the most decadent for the greatest number of people ever. That this culture is ostensibly Christian is what makes Kierkegaard so relevant. Where does one find redemption in such a world? As you say, a crisis may be a good place to begin. In the novel, I think conflicts and crises are unique to each character. For Diana, it’s a question of what to do with a particular family legacy. I think redemption for her is somewhat problematic, perhaps because she approaches the Christian question so directly. For other characters redemption is more akin to those success stories. For Jeb it’s a matter of writing; redemption for that, as well as the wayward life he has led, would come with recognition of his poems. For the other writer as well. For Julie it’s getting out from under her parents and out of the psychiatrist’s office. For Tom, it’s a question of what he wants to do with his life, and he’s sort of manhandled into the solution he used to hope for, but had given up on. Helen is in conflict with her past; redemption for her comes in getting married and getting out of the adult film industry.
JH: Could you speak a bit about the emergence of Korrektiv Press, and its singular devotion to Walker Percy and Søren Kierkegaard (incidentally, we named our son Søren in part after that great philosophical pugilist)?
BJ: Korrektiv Press grew out of the Korrektiv blog, which was started in 2004 by Jonathan Potter and Jonathan Webb. Potter Noster (as I like to call him) is an especially close reader of Percy, and his knowledge of each novel is extremely thorough. His thesis, The Needle’s Eye (available online), is an essay all Percy fans should read as a guide to the arc of Percy’s career, from the Moviegoer to the Thanatos Syndrome. My understanding is that Jonathan Webb had harbored the idea of starting a small press since long before the beginning of Korrektiv, but after Korrektiv was rolling, it just made sense to call it that. I first came across the blog in 2004, after recognizing Potter’s name from Samway’s biography of Percy, which I’d just finished. Potter and I started corresponding, and a few years later he asked me to join Korrektiv (I go by “Quin Finnegan” there). It was convenient that both Potter and Webb lived in the Northwest. Matthew Lickona joined a little while after that, as well as JOB (no relation!) and Southern Expat. Most recently, Angelico Nguyen started writing for the blog. It really is a wonderful group of writers. Matthew Lickona’s Surfing with Mel is the second title for the Korrektiv Press. If you haven’t read that yet, you should. It’s absolutely hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time, in a way I really didn’t expect it to be. Bird’s Nest is the third title. Joseph O’Brien’s book of poems will be coming out soon as well. Some of his poetry is available on the website, and readers can go there to see how great a craftsman he really is.
The blog is rather more Catholic than existentialist now, but its evolution is pretty interesting. The word “Korrektiv” savors of Northern European culture, with which existentialism is often associated, but more substantially, I think it refers to the way in which each of us can offer a corrective to one another, and demonstrate a willingness to accept others’ correctives of ourselves. And of course the blog itself might also be understood as a corrective to the way of the world, which is where the Catholic aspect comes into play.
Nice that you named your son Søren. It’s a great name, and my guess is that he’ll grow to love the diagonal through the “o.” I used to put up a quote from Kierkegaard on the blog every day, under the title “Søren Says.” I need to get back to that, because he really is an amazing writer. Certainly a very quotable one.
JH: In fact I’ll steal this chance to do just that. In his beastly volume Either/Or, character A. contends, “Boredom is the root of all evil. It is very curious that boredom, which itself has such a calm and sedate nature, can have such a capacity to initiate motion. The effect that boredom brings about is absolutely magical, but this effect is one not of attraction but of repulsion.” I find this emphasis on boredom as morally and spiritually dangerous to be quite persuasive, and it does seem to be a major component of life in modern America. Not a day goes by without my ears reddening and ringing in response to the phrase “I’m so bored,” and this especially at work, from the mouths of co-workers, or from students’ mouths—this in contexts that are supposed to be stimulating, to at least be able to provide worldly divertissements. In David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, the narrator offers some insight into boredom’s origins and pervasiveness: “But moreover, I discovered, in the only way that a man ever really learns anything important, the real skill that is required to succeed in a bureaucracy. I mean really succeed: do good, make a difference, serve . . . The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air. The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable.”
BJ: That is simply brilliant. I think boredom presents something of a problem for everybody. A number of characters in the novel are confronted with boredom; in church, in the classroom, in a bar, whatever. Perhaps the reader as well, while reading the book. In boredom, everything is in vain. Ordinarily, we spend a great deal of time and energy making our way among different things and people, and it seldom occurs to us how much we depend on them. Things and people simply exist for us to use or ignore, as we wish. When we are bored, however, it isn’t always easy to say why we are bored. We can’t use things in the usual, habitual way. Time seems to slow down, or stop. We might get annoyed at the inanity of the book or the bus stop, but is the book or the bus stop really the cause of our boredom? Then we get annoyed at the inanity of ourselves, our very lives. It’s as if an invisible blanket covers everything, including ourselves. And we recognize this, and we want to escape. But how?
In moments of extreme boredom we can be forced into philosophy—maybe this is a way of “breathing without air,” as Wallace puts it. More likely, we start surfing the web on our smart phones. But if we don’t start surfing the web, or maybe even if we do, we recognize the existence of things, people, and therefore ourselves as contingent upon something else, or someone. Things can’t simply be taken as granted; we understand that they, as well as we, depend on each other, or better yet, that every thing depends in some way on some other thing. On what does everything depend? On what, exactly, do we depend? It’s a mind-boggling question. Or it can be, when we can give it the attention it deserves. In moments of boredom, we might allow our minds to be boggled and experience a thought or an emotion outside of the ordinary.
Boredom can certainly be dangerous, as you said, or what people do to others and themselves when affl icted with boredom can be dangerous. It certainly presents a challenge, as I think David Foster Wallace is saying in that passage. In a positive sense, maybe it can provide something to resist, a kind of wall to push against, or a starting block to run away from, or a way into the mystery of the world. Anyway, in Bird’s Nest, many characters experience boredom in one way or another. I tried to keep most of the chapters short, so hopefully readers won’t suffer too much.
JH: A significant number of scenes are devoted to the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. One of the protagonists, Diana, attends these sessions, and is even shown reading the Catechism. Could you speak a bit about the art of interplay between explicit and discreet treatment of Catholicism in narrative, both in Bird’s Nest and in some of the authors who have informed your work?
BJ: Religion as a subject might be passé for many novels we read now, but it has been a feature of novels since antiquity. I think it depends entirely on the experience of the individual writer. Cervantes, Flaubert, and Joyce all included the Church as part of the background to their novels, as it was certainly part of the background of their lives. Graham Greene, Anthony Burgess, Morris West, David Lodge; the list of Catholic novelists goes on and on, and the connection between each of these individual writers and the church is, obviously, unique for each of them. As for the RCIA program, I think it’s an essential part of the Church, but also a reasonably good vantage point for non-Catholic readers. I’m actually interested in learning what readers make of it; maybe I’m all wrong. I’d love to write a J.F. Powers sort of novel that really explores the nuances of the clergy and aspects of all the hierarchical relationships within the church, but that’s simply beyond my abilities. I really didn’t set out to write a Catholic novel; I’m Catholic, though, so it didn’t make sense to set out to avoid it, either.
Anyway, in Bird’s Nest there’s a brief history of the Lustercians, the order to which Fr. Adamowicz belongs, and that seems like a fairly heavy dose of what people might expect for Catholicism. For example, there’s an obscure saint from a bygone era, who founded an order you’ve never heard of. There is also a corrupt hierarchy in that history, namely Rome during the Borgias, which I think is how many people like to view the Church now. That’s the explicit aspect, and I enjoyed writing that. More fun to write about are the things that aren’t as obvious. For example, the push/pull feeling that is part of any relationship, including one’s relationship with a vast and fathomless institution.
Another writer that I should mention is Shusaku Endo. The novel Silence is a classic. Scandal is also very good. In my favorite, The Samurai, there are a number of scenes that demonstrate the explicit nature of the Catholic church in places where Catholic culture is dominant—traveling through Mexico or to Rome. This is sharply contrasted with the lives of Catholics in Japan, where it was necessary to be discreet because of the persecutions. This goes back to your earlier comment about the importance of wandering. For many Endo characters, the question then becomes, What does it really mean to have faith? If the situation arises, can I lay down my life as a martyr? Should I live my life so discreetly that I might be able to avoid that end? But is that any sort of faith at all? Isn’t it just cowardice? And then how is this new faith supposed to be worked into the habits and customs that have already shaped your life? 21st century America is a long ways from 17th century Japan, and the demands of living a Christian life are different, to say the least, but I wonder if the basic tension is in some way similar.
JH: Could you discuss the treatment of pornography in your novel? In Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor wrote that “We hear many complaints about the prevalence of violence in modern fiction, and it is always assumed that this violence is a bad thing and meant to be an end in itself. With the serious writer, violence is never an end in itself. It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially, and I believe these are times when writers are more interested in what we are essentially than in the tenor of our daily lives.” I’d like to replace “violence” here with pornography. We hear many (sometimes too few) complaints about the prevalence of pornography in contemporary fi ction. In Bird’s Nest, at least for some characters, pornography is tied up with the tenor of their daily lives. Unlike, say, Fifty Shades of Grey, Bird’s Nest does not approach pornography as an end in itself, but rather undertakes a philosophical-fi ctional investigation of pornography. This may sound strange, but I was actually quite pleased to find such an explicit treatment of sex in your novel, in part because many Catholic novelists shy away from tackling it, as sexuality in our present world has become such a distorted, trivialized, aspect of human being. Why did you tackle it head-on? What does Bird’s Nest try to reveal about pornography and sex in the postmodern (modern!) wasteland?
BJ: There’s another O’Connor passage—a great moment in Wise Blood, when a young girl writes a letter about sex to an advice columnist and asks, “should I go whole hog or not?” To use that as an analogy, I decided to go whole hog. I’m not sure the pornography is all that prevalent in Bird’s Nest, but the two scenes are fairly explicit, and one of them probably drags on a little too long. No, they aren’t intended to be ends in themselves. One reason to take it head on is that it’s become a fairly normal part of life for many people. I don’t mean to advocate this normalization, but pornography is not only accessible: it’s getting hard to avoid. At least more and more people seem pretty comfortable with having pictures of themselves available to anyone, anywhere. So in the novel, one of the characters is a producer of adult fi lms, and we follow her around as she goes about her daily life. And it’s like a lot of people’s daily life, more or less. Does things related to the job, works out, attends to aging parents, whatever. And maybe I’m just looking at something essential from a different perspective, but I think what is most essential in our lives can be revealed in our daily lives. Perhaps even should be revealed in our daily lives. Pornography isn’t a good thing, and I don’t mean to present it as a good thing in this character’s life, but I did want to show that, essentially, this character tries to do good things, not to mention a lot of normal things. Tries to lead a good life.
But as you say, pornography really is the wasteland of our time. This is what we’ve been working towards since the dawn of time? But how is one to write about it? In writing a novel, though, it hardly seemed worthwhile to simply condemn pornography. There are a lot of jeremiads out there, and even though I think there is a place for jeremiads in novels, there is a danger of the diatribe becoming as self-indulgent as the sex scene. So why not just describe it as part of a mostly normal life? Sure, it’s contemptible. Now what?
I don’t have anything to say about Fifty Shades of Gray, but at Korrektiv not too long ago, we had a discussion about some of the pornographic passages in the fiction of John Updike. Among other things, I learned that Updike enjoyed physically exciting himself while writing sex scenes. I’d once read Louis Begley describe scenes from his novels in the same way. This wasn’t my purpose at all. Nor was I trying to be a fly on a bedroom wall. The sex scenes are concerned with characters who choose to exhibit themselves; choose to make what is essentially private into something public. There seems to be a lot of that about these days.
For a while at Korrektiv, Matthew Lickona put up posts titled “Today in Porn,” which weren’t really about porn qua porn, but about the way porn has filtered into our world via advertising, mainstream entertainment, and whatnot. Bird’s Nest is more concerned with the source of that infi ltration. And some of the scenes might well be considered as satire of John Updike and Louis Begley.
And then there is the question of how the modern (postmodern!) world is to be salvaged, even with its inclination towards pornography and all the rest of our present ills. I’d like to think that buried somewhere in the novel is a reason to think salvation is at least possible. Perhaps this wasn’t the best way, but it’s a novel, after all, and I wanted to try something new.
JH: In our correspondence, you once wrote that Bird’s Nest in Your Hair consciously works against the idea/myth of the “author as hero.” What do you mean by this, and why would you need to work against this idea? What sort of influence or “authority” do authors of fi ction hold in our dominant culture, or subcultures?
BJ: I think in our earlier conversation I was just restating Rene Girard’s hypothesis in Desire, Deceit, and the Novel. The French title of the book is actually better translated as Romantic Lie, Novelistic Truth (Mensonge Romantique, Vérité Romanesque), and the idea is that the great authors begin with a clear sense of their own desires, indeed a clear sense of a self, projected onto the protagonist, which is self-flattering, even heroic, but based entirely on desires he has borrowed from others. Don Quixote modeling his behavior on Amadis de Gaule is the best example of the way imitation plays an important part in this dynamic. According to Girard, in the course of writing their books, the best novelists confront the romantic lies they have told themselves, and gradually begin to embrace the more difficult, and certainly wiser, novelistic truth. It might be better to say that they themselves are confronted with the comforting lies they have told themselves. In Bird’s Nest there are a number of writers; one is an author, or at least someone who thinks of himself as an author, but can’t even get around to starting the book. Different characters go through different transformations, and are confronted in various ways. I’ve probably said too much. And as much as I admire Girard, I set out trying to imitate other novelists and poets, not the great scholar. I can’t lay claim to the same patch of Parnassus as those authors I tried to imitate, but I did the best I could.
I’m not sure how much authority writers of fiction hold. Generally speaking, art seems overvalued in many ways, at least in the way it can devolve to the worship of idols. On the other hand, we all automatically assume that truth comes down to some kind of quantifiable, even material reality, and I think the nihilism and relativism of so much in contemporary life has evolved in the void left by this misunderstanding. Do authors therefore bear a certain responsibility to the culture? Perhaps as custodians of our culture? There is something wrong with this idea, I think, at least in considering them as a special class of citizens. Of course, all of us—rich man, poor man, beggerman, thief—are more or less responsible for our common culture. Authors (and of course screenwriters, songwriters, and really any creative writer) have a responsibility to write well, and with regard for the truth of the individual work. That’s burden enough, I think.
JH: I’m so glad you turned us toward Girard, and his great work Romantic Lie, Novelistic Truth. In a fascinating chapter toward the end, “Dostoevskian Apocalypse,” Girard offers some salient thoughts on the author as hero when he locates the phenomenon of underground desire, the ressentiment that spills from the narrator of Notes From Underground, in contemporary writers. “Never before has so much been written but it is all to prove that communication is neither possible nor desirable . . . For a long time the romantic tried to convince society that he gave it much more than it gave to him. Since the end of the nineteenth century, any idea of reciprocity, however imperfect, in the relationship with the public has become unbearable . . . For a long time he has claimed to be speaking only to himself; today he claims to be speaking without anything to say.” I’ll return to this in a moment. First, in a passage that points to the process you describe earlier, Girard goes on to contend that “In the writing of Notes From Underground Dostoevsky rises for the first time to the level of novelistic revelation. He escapes egotistic indignation and justification; he forgoes the literary fruits of the underground, renounces the ‘beautiful and the sublime’ of White Nights and ceases to wallow in the misery of Poor Folk. He stops giving the name of involvement or noninvolvement to the fixed distance of fascination. And he describes all the lies of which he is in the process of ridding himself.” Dare I ask, if we look at Bird’s Nest as in a sense a tangle of romantic lies incarnated, in the process of revealing novelistic truths—and, further, if I hold up Girard to put you, the author, in a corner from which I refuse to let you escape by saying that you are speaking without having anything to say—can you muse openly about some of the romantic lies which your novel allowed you to exorcise?
BJ: This will be a little like explaining a joke, won’t it? But yeah, as for the romantic who in the past spoke only to himself and now has nothing to say, I’d like to think the whole “postmodern” set-up of the novel is a pretty good parody of what I think Girard is describing: the guy seated at his desk with a bad case of writer’s block. So I’m not sure how well Bird’s Nest fits into Girard’s pattern for the novel. I hope it does.
If it does match up with Girard’s model, this is complicated by the fact that I actually started writing with a conversion story in mind. When I first sketched out the last chapters, I wanted to end the story with the Easter Vigil Mass, and one of the characters getting baptized. It was supposed to be a hopeful ending, maybe not unlike some of those Dostoevsky endings, or Walker Percy at the end of The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman. This character would be shown to have persevered, to have made a commitment to something beyond herself, to have found strength and sustenance with a new community. All of which are good things, the very best of things. And I have certainly experienced some of this myself. Writing the novel certainly did become a process of disillusionment. It took all the faith I had, the little I have, to realize I’m a faithless sinner. In the end, I think I better understood why I first started going to church. I began with a very triumphalist view of Roman Catholicism, which of course has much to recommend it. But it also seems pretty distant from the daily task of trying to live a Christian life.
Weirdly, now it even seems that these lies, romantic and otherwise, are woven into the warp and woof of it all. Not in the sense that “lies are the new truth” . . . I’m not trying to say that A does not equal A or anything like that. A lie is a lie. But that commitment continues in spite of the fact that we are all liars at some time or another. Maybe that’s part of the draw of fiction.
JH: Alongside the myth of author as hero, we can also turn to the myth/idea of beauty as salvific. In his latest book, Image editor Gregory Wolfe has resuscitated the idea that “beauty will save the world.” This quote is often taken out of its context in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot to romanticize the role of beauty as a force of salvation. In the novel (I love Dostoevsky dearly, and am committed to his work, even if I am tempted to take Ritalin when I’m on about page 500 of any of his massive novels, and even if he held the Catholic Church in as high regard as Luther did, and even if he used the adjective “Jesuitical” to describe just about everyone evil in any of his stories), the sentence belongs to Hippolyte, a resentful youth who is dying of tuberculosis: “Is it true, Prince, that you once said: ‘It is beauty that will save the world’?” When he uttered the phrase, Prince Myshkin—“the idiot”—was speaking of Nastasya Filippovna, the troubled beauty at the center of the story, whose beauty, connected with a sort of suffering that seeks redemption, is linked to Christian revelation. I’ll resist sidetracking us too much by simply saying that, at least in The Idiot, and up until 2013 AD, beauty in and of itself does not save the world. And yet in Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s “Address to Artists,” he turns to Simone Weil, who wrote, “In all that awakens within us the pure and authentic sentiment of beauty, there, truly, is the presence of God. There is a kind of incarnation of God in the world, of which beauty is the sign. Beauty is the experimental proof that incarnation is possible. For this reason all art of the first order is, by its nature, religious.” How do you respond to the proposal that “beauty will save the world”? In what sense does it perpetuate a romantic lie, and in what sense does it contain truth?
BJ: I read JOB’s review of Beauty Will Save the World at Korrektiv, but I haven’t gotten around to reading the book yet. I guess I’m suspicious of the notion that Beauty will save the world. I appreciate the Dostoevsky reference, but I still think of fashion designers and supermodels planning a benefi t runway show. Which may not be such a bad idea, actually, but I’m not sure it will save the world. And what it might do is help fashion designers and supermodels (and novelists and poets and painters) appease their guilt-stricken consciences rather than visit prisoners in the local jail or protest whatever needs protesting.
It should go without saying that one needn’t be religious to make or appreciate art, even art of the first order, and one can name any number of great poets for whom religion isn’t the least bit important. Then the question is what replaces religion, or if art or poetry itself serves an unnamed religious function. Of course the original meaning of religion is derived from the Latin religare, meaning to bind, to connect, and yes, I think art does this. Getting back to anthropology, I like Girard’s theory that music was invented to drown out the screams of human sacrifice. And I like what Weil has to say about beauty as a sign pointing to the incarnation. This seems obviously true when we look at beauty in nature, in a sunset or in a murmuration of starlings or whatever. The world is naturally beautiful, and taking a cue from Weil, perhaps the beauty found in works of art can help us to renew our appreciation of the incarnational beauty of nature. Perhaps in the end there isn’t much need to make a distinction between the two. The Iliad itself is a force of nature, and the dignity and pity associated with Hector in defeat seems built into nature as it is described in the epic.
JH: Finally, may I push you even further? Is there such an authentically “beautiful” moment in your novel, one which surprises you when you reread it, one which you thank God for working out through you, as you worked out your own salvation in fear and trembling, in novelistic form?
BJ: Thanks, that’s very kind. Perhaps there are a few lines in Bird’s Nest that manage to distract readers from the screaming. I like some of Jeb’s poems best—Sea of Tranquility is probably my favorite.
JH: Then let’s leave off with the poem, ending where we began— with the text itself:
SEA OF TRANQUILITY
One evening we sat on a park bench amidst the stars,
gazing up at the inky infinity, counting the constellations
we could name. Orion, the hunter. There, Pegasus . . .
Gemini . . . Ursa Major, and Minor. Strange how life
can turn on an embrace not lasting fifteen seconds,
while the stars were wheeled around Polaris. Afterwards,
I fumbled every word in your presence, frightened
by those distances, gravity, and the heavenly stars.
Taking pity on me, I think, you directed my gaze
toward a gibbous moon whose milky light drew us on.
There, at a nickel tossed in the dark: there, in the middle,
between Serenity and Fertility, and for a moment
there we floated, weightless, where the light brought us,
ebullient in the buoyant darkness of Mare Tranquillitatis.
Joshua Hren is managing editor of Dappled Things.
Brian Jobe studied Classics at the University of Washington and the University of California at Santa Barbara. His writing has been published at National Review Online and Korrektiv, in Letter X Magazine, the Local Writer, and Dappled Things. He lives in Seattle.