:: Article

In Answer to a Garielle Lutz Question

Greg Gerke interviewed by Garielle Lutz.


Garielle Lutz

In your essays, the act of concentrative reading often takes place in less-than-ideal daily life (in your car during breaks from work, on subways, in fetid public libraries, in unsquanderable intervals of release from the demands of child-rearing), and what emerges in your work is the conviction that art isn’t some sort of treat that awaits us sweeteningly at the end of a workday or at the conclusion of our chores, but instead is something that can be present in our every moment as both an influencing and a clarifying force. You write of “daily stealing kisses” from books and of reading aloud to intimates, and you’ve cited Walter Pater’s statement that “art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.”

And in your essays about movies, in particular, you demonstrate that works of art are not merely things in themselves but also prompters of self-reflection. You write about how “great art can offset the gross weight of muck on our souls and open a space in our lives for our behavior to mend.” When I’m reading a review or a work of criticism (such as a fairly recent biography of John O’Hara) in which the writer starts in at some length on his or her own life, I usually start feeling myself being thrown out of the writing almost centrifugally. I don’t want to read about the writer; I want to read about the ostensible subject matter. In a work of criticism, it can seem presumptuous for the writer to insert himself between the reader and the work being written about. Yet your essays demonstrate that a viewer need not negate himself and his own history when watching a movie, and your examination of your own life in your essays exerts itself on me centripetally — the more you confide about your inner life and your romantic history, the more I feel pulled in, centripetally, to the larger, encompassing subject, and I want to see exactly what it is that you see, and feel what it is that you feel.  A lot of this has to do with your candor, your unsparing honesty about yourself. Yet I still wonder how exactly you pull this off when so many other writers make a mess of it.  Can you talk about this? 


What I’m hunting is something I’m not sure I have a handle on, but it’s certainly in perennial opposition to trends, truisms, and especially anything mentioning “master class” or “jaw-dropping.” I’ve lately been reading Randall Jarrell’s essays, mostly on poetry, and one, “Poets, Critics, and Readers,” contains something that might get overlooked when thinking about critics or essayists, which might make any answer I have more suspect:

We all realize that the poet’s beliefs are, first of all, his: our books show how his epoch, his childhood, his mistresses and his Unconscious produced the beliefs; we know, now, the “real” reasons for his believing what he believed. Why do we not realize what is equally true (and equally false)? — that the critic’s beliefs are, first of all, his; that we can write books showing how his epoch, his childhood, his mistresses and his Unconscious produced the beliefs; that we can know, now, the “real” reasons for his believing what he believed. The work of criticism is rooted in the Unconscious of the critic just as the poem is rooted in the Unconscious of the poet.

Maybe Jarrell’s words go to the heart of how fictional and poetic roads are more admirable and palatable to the public — they are more dexterous because they are parabolic, with no finger-wagging critic or advice columnist telling one how to live. So, if one pumps the criticism with updrafts of narrative and fictional engagement, one is appealing to different parts and predispositions of the audience — and testing their patience, as one risks blowback from those clawing to know about plot. I believe I am doing this, but I had no conscious plan to do it — the art led me to it. When I began the long piece “Does Eric Rohmer Have the All of Me?” I had no idea I would start writing about my past relationships; it came very naturally as if the experience of the films had willed it after months of stewing in my psyche. I think that art relates to one’s entire person and one must meet it with the same intensity and ferocity. The subject of the art isn’t a character caught in a bind — it’s us. Our life is constantly refracted back in the lighting, framing, and crooks of the actresses’ smiles in Persona, or the words, intimations, and sounds of speech in T.S. Eliot’s poem “Portrait of a Lady.” Criticism of art should try to capture those deep reverberations that permit our greatest memories to confound us. The art under consideration needs to be submerged in the acid bath of the hidden personality (not the social-media persona) and then reconstituted, which is what William Gass does without parallel. Cynthia Ozick, who also does this, wrote that the impressionism practiced by him is how “the criticism of the text vies as a literary display with the text itself.” Whatever I’m doing, it began as an impulse to share art with those I cared about, but I soon found that I needed to carry the right sort of language and, maybe, narrative drive into the deal — that centripetal force might be my fictional impulse trying to appease itself. In the spirit of the Jarrell quote, it might be true to say there is some friendly manipulation at work, but maybe the type that criticism is not known for.

In conjunction, a short poem of Rilke’s enlightens:

Tell us, poet, what do you do?
— I praise.
But the dreadful, the monstrous, and their ways,
how do you stand them, suffer it all?
— I praise.
But the anonymous, featureless days,
how, poet, can you ask them to call?
— I praise.
under each mask, to speak a true phrase?
— I praise.
And that the calm as well as the crazed
know you like star and storm?
— Because I praise.

This dangles in my conscious mind as I burn the days thinking about books and films. I feel less and less of an inclination to write about works that don’t do anything for me or even repel. Often, I won’t go through with them — I haven’t seen a Tarantino film since Jackie Brown and I’ve never finished an Ian McEwan novel.

I sometimes witness the small segment that is “literary- (and film-) critic twitter” and I see a little too much virtual backslapping over putdowns, hatchet jobs, and real imperially stinky sarcasm and I keep wondering if this is envy showing, as in “I’m going to tell you how you’ve gone wrong in your ‘art’ because I’ve read all these other books and what you’ve put together doesn’t match up.” In the end, it’s about them, not about the art — the new Don DeLillo novel is just a gateway for them to prove their mettle. Now, what I write is ultimately about me, but hopefully in a different manner: I wiggle enough to show my cracks, rather than playing the knowing yet nebulous presence who casts judgment. I’m going to tell you about myself and how it feels to be in the body with this flickering, fancying, and falsifying mind at play. I care little for questions of who’s right and who’s wrong.

It should be pointed out that this criticism or essayism is something I’m not being paid for — I have nothing to sell. I’ve always written out of a sense of passion and never from assignment or pitch, mainly because I had to experience the artwork before knowing if I had anything worthwhile to say. Any piece I was paid for I produced inverse to capitalizing on the release of the art, because I mostly enjoy writing about works not of our hour — for selfish reasons, but also in allegiance to longer-nested relations with the art. Liv Ullmann’s film Faithless (screenplay by Ingmar Bergman) has shaken me the few times I’ve seen it; it’s a film that is now hardly available and barely on anyone’s radar. I would much rather devote my time to this piece of art, even ahead of the latest Terrence Malick film. I’ve lived with the Ullmann picture for almost twenty years, so a relationship is at stake, whereas with the Malick I’d be hamstrung by not being able to reflect on the images for months, let alone a few weeks. Just a few days ago, an editor refused to see a piece I’d written on Louise Glück because her Nobel from six months ago is old news —but this is at the expense of rushing a piece into print. Time is reflection and pays the pain of delay by being better written because of having been sweated over longer.

This leads to something Jarrell cribbed from Goethe, but it is so adamantine in its truth and judgment that I must set it down again:

All great excellence in life or art, at its first recognition, brings with it a certain pain arising from the strongly felt inferiority of the spectator; only at a later period, when if we take it into our own culture, and appropriate as much of it as our capacities allow, do we learn to love and esteem it. Mediocrity, on the other hand, may often give us unqualified pleasure; it does not disturb our self-satisfaction, but rather encourages us with the thought that we are as good as another. . . . Properly speaking, we learn only from those books we cannot judge. The author of a book that I am competent to criticize would have to learn from me.

A bounty of the greatest art can’t be seen through and fully digested at first — this has been shown again and again in the case of Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, William Faulkner, Robert Bresson, and John Cassavetes, among others. The interesting critic should breathe into that “certain pain arising…” because there are the riches — when one can’t say for sure, we might be better off with awe and acceptance of limitation, as in Frank Kermode’s describing two lines of Wallace Stevens as “among the most beautiful in Stevens and I do not know what they mean.” I don’t go to a review for a plot recap, I want to know what the art did to someone’s soul — show me tire marks! And we should a-ha at Goethe’s “self-satisfaction” because there is too much of this debilitating attitude, the show of vanity and “putting in a box,” and not enough wonder. A critic doesn’t need to figure out a work of art and a reader will possibly hold it against her if she does — I know that a maxim about reviewing is that people want a review to tell them what they are going to think of a work of art, but I feel therein lies an injustice. In the end, most of us want stories, not advice — even a story about a critic experiencing a work of art. This may well be because literature, according to French critic André Bleikasten:

is that which silences the deafening noise of common speech and unsettles common codings and categories. Literature is the side where the relation to reference, meaning, and truth is vertiginously suspended. As such, in its refusal to affirm or deny, in its mute dispersal or emptying-out of meaning, it is an uncanny force of provocation and destabilization, a force that resists assimilation to what we know and how we think, and hence capable of repelling ideology as well as theory.

Ideological and theoretical criticism does very little for me. Give me the poet-critics, like Hugh Kenner, who wrote, “Everything perishes but tradition.” I would think I do what I do in service of the artistic tradition — that force-field of art which fewer and fewer people can feel, but for those who do, they are strongly guided. A year before he died, Henry James wrote, in a letter to H.G. Wells: “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance…I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.” This is so clear, like smooth rock under clear river water, that it bears full recognizance. Could we have lived long in the world if we didn’t have art? Doubtful.


Greg Gerke by Hannah Bergman

Greg Gerke’s work has appeared in Tin House, Film Quarterly, LA Review of Books, The Kenyon Review, and other publications. Especially the Bad Things, stories, was published by Splice in 2019. See What I See is now available from Zerogram Press. Among those praising the book is Christine Schutt, who said, “See What I See is the very brew needed in these parched times. Greg Gerke’s generous, thoughtful reflections on the beguiling experience of art are full of uplift and reverence for the illuming efforts of writers and filmmakers: Louise Glück, William H. Gass, and William Gaddis, Stanley Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson, to name but a few.”

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, May 1st, 2021.