Interview with Joseph Harms, Round 2
February 23, 2022
MM) You don’t write for clout or status. This work is an unapproachable labor of love. Why is it important?
JH) While Ades and Baal on first glance might seem a bit dense, a bit unapproachable, it’s my hope that the hypothetical reader likely will fairly quickly become accustomed to the stylistic/formal choices, especially as both novels (and this is true for Cant and Wyrd as well) are absolutely traditional concerning plot, arch, pacing and genre. Ades and Baal are gothic horror more or less to the T. With both of these novels I consciously tried to strike something like a balance between my somewhat dense narrative tendencies and suspense. Dialogue, which makes up nearly half of each book, also, ideally, lightens the load, adds to accessibility.
From Baal to Cant there is something of a formal jump. For better or worse, I do feel compelled to accept the descriptor “unapproachable,” though this was in no way a goal of mine, rather an inevitable result of sticking to the adage “maximum concision, maximum complexity.” To avoid any overlap with our previous interview, I’ll keep this “jump” quick. From page one of Cant, really from the first night I began working on the book, I knew two things: I’ll never land an agent/publisher with this book; it is above and beyond what I, up to that moment in early 2010, considered myself capable. For better or worse (and it really may be for worse—I’ve received angry letters from complete strangers attacking not the book’s content but rather its form…The actual sentences pissed them off), Cant was written in something of an elevated state that at that time I hadn’t really known existed, at least not in a sustainable manner. Each night I worked on that book I approached it with fear and anxiety.
In setting out to write Wyrd I told my wife that I’d dial things down a bit and write a cosmic horror/weird fiction piece, a highly approachable book concerning the utter irreality behind accepted reality—Kant’s noumenon, Buddhism’s sunyata, Schopenhauer’s Will, etc. Formally speaking, that didn’t happen.
On finishing Wyrd I found the following quote by T. S. Elliot and decided to use it as an epigraph (despite being relatively lukewarm as goes his work): …most contemporary novels are not really “written.” They obtain what reality they have largely from an accurate rendering of the noises that human beings currently make in their daily simple needs of communication; and what part of a novel is not composed of these noises consists of a prose which is no more alive than that of a competent newspaper writer or government official.
Finally, concerning whether or not they are important. To my thinking, any form of inquiry, when taken to its so-called logical end, leads to stasis, aporia, a complete falling-out of meaning; and from here pessimism, whether personal or cosmic or both, seems to be the only tenable stance or mode of thinking with which to face the world. I read a lot of dark literature, listen to a lot of dark music, etc., and, whether incremental or meteoric, these creations help me find a way through what has become (likely always was) something of a stark/bleak foundation—not toward anything like optimism, which in all forms I find abhorrent, but towards acceptance or a “letting be.” Simultaneously these dark works make me feel far less alone. There is a great Thomas Ligotti story called “Bungalow House” that deals with this paradox.
MM) You’ve said that Cant, one of the volumes of Evil, “may as well be set in Eschaton.” What do you mean by this?
JH) I’d like to think/believe that, dialogue aside, one could open up Cant to any page, read a paragraph, and, no matter its topical concern, receive the sense that the world is coming to an end or, better, preteristically, that it has already ended. To an extent, that is why the second half of the book is titled “Michigan Denouement.” Part of the intended formal effect of Cant is just this. I wanted there to be a novel buried within the novel’s central plot (Cant, like the other novels in Evil, is, at the end of the day, plot-heavy). Who knows whether or not this intention is successful.
One aspect of this intended effect is an accumulation of words with foliate and/or highly specific meanings. For example “quell” also means “to slaughter,” “quarry” is also a pile of bodies, “cant” is the insincere use of pious words/jargon/to speak hypocritically/lively/lusty/to tilt/etc, but it is also “the secret language of the underworld.” Most erudite/recondite words I used fall along these lines. Some, like “solifluction,” connote internally (soul-flux) while in actuality project their semi-homophonics/nymics into the outside world: “the slow creeping of saturated fragmental material (such as soil) down a slope that usually occurs in regions of perennial frost.” Such words, to my thinking, are in and of themselves poems. Solifluction—there, poem finished. When applied to an emotional state, they can say what would otherwise take a solipsistic paragraph or two to say. Some like “piccolo” connote a seemingly opposite mood to the action of the scene in which it resides, pointing toward a transcendent levity in, say, natural beauty, while also potentially connoting the moral state of the actors, that is, if it brings to mind “peccavi” or “peccadillo.” An “argosy” of wildly chirping birds connotes their “argot” and the fleet of ships on the offing behind and beyond their murmuration, etc. The novel buried in the novel (it is my hope) will rise to the surface like a pentimento, and this, in part, comes from the above, or in the form of an accumulation of antinomies that at their most basic (I tried to avoid this) are similar to the contronym “cleave.” Also, buried in the novel are concrete hints that an apocalyptic event did in historic reality occur in the not-distant past and is having tangible, residual effects in the present.
I’d like to think then what happens to Cant is that, despite it all (the general horror of Shannon’s inverted bildungsroman), it becomes both a novel set in Eschaton or preteristically and paradoxically after Eschaton, as well as a celebration of beauty, friendship and love. As abstracts, at least, awe alterity and praise seem fundamental to creation, no matter how stark, how horrible.
MM) Do you think writers like us are immanentizing the Eschaton? There’s a sense of doom coloring everything with the pandemic and climate change, the state of the economy, etc. Yet here we are, about to reissue a long series of novels informed by antiquity as much as the modern world, with paper shortages and the great resignation of labor, supply chain dysfunction, freight being fucked, Canada under martial law due to truckers’ protests, and I can’t help but feel like it’s fated, a supreme act of synchrony.
JH) Current events aside, I find it hard not to immanentize something akin to Eschaton. For a long time, maybe over a decade, I had these chronic stomach pains (re Shannon in Cant) that would come a couple times a month and last for almost exactly ten hours per bout. Anyway, before and after the pain I would have what can only be called a mystical experience, an utter emptying of self and of world, an ineffability by definition (one I try to get at these days with each poem written—each of course fails, though hopefully in an interesting way). Concerning mystical experiences, very typical, very textbook, and as such completely convincing, realer than reality, etc. They were, for me, overwhelming examples of an indwelling Eschaton, while simultaneously they were instantaneous convictions of an external Eschaton—or better put the difference between the two ceased. Typically I would be ecstatic (despite the imminent pain or the exhaustion of having lived through intense pain) to once again know a human never lived, a world never worlded, etc. A Schopenhauer quote used in Wyrd: Once knowledge has been entirely suspended, the rest of the world would of itself disappear into nothingness…this world of ours, real as it is, with all its suns and galaxies, is—nothing.
Concerning synchrony: I definitely agree, and I think many people feel this way, that an apocalyptic sense of synchrony re current events, especially, of course, the pandemic, has in fact occurred in that what has previously been intrinsic (the sense that all things are ending or have already ended, a derealization coupled with Cotard’s syndrome) has been met by an extrinsic of equal or greater force.
MM) Do you feel it incumbent on you to write something incomparable, or is this simply how you write naturally? What drives your stylistic inclinations? What are your thoughts on the linguistic feat at stake here? Do you consider texture when you write as much as characterization, depth and plot?
JH) To avoid any repetition in my response re our previous interview, I will keep this a bit short. Whether with the poems or with the novels, I suppose I finally set out to get at the noumenal. As stated above, this is impossible, doomed to failure. I also try to do so positively (not as it relates to attitude, but as it relates to direct confrontation or an addition) rather than apophatically, to try for ekstasis rather than negative ekstasis. Because this must fail, I often have to (or so I feel) go with apophatics and negative ekstasis. Either way, this is my highfalutin objective and as such drives my stylistic inclinations. To even begin, I need to have something like the grand delusion of confidence, a confidence that within my capabilities I have everything at hand—every possible word, syntactic mode, metrical form, literary device, etc.
To my thinking, without at least equal attention paid to texture—language on the level of the sentence or line—characterization depth and plot will not cohere, and neither will intention (even if that intention is preordained to fail), and so will not last, will not hold up. The endeavor will not be worth the undertaking (not to say that it is to begin with—or that any endeavor has any value whatsoever).
MM) Why is it called Evil?
JH) In putting Ades, Baal, Cant and Wyrd into a single book (my deepest, sincerest thanks, Manny) the title Evil came to mind immediately and seemed inevitable, as it is the common thread, at least as it relates to plot and often as it relates to an underlying world view. Here is a drastic oversimplification:
ADES: Primary influence: Dostoyevsky. Evil comes to town from elsewhere; coming adulthood must be faced; classic horror.
BAAL: Primary influence: Nietzsche. Evil is discovered to inhere timelessly procinct in us all; adulthood as adulteration, corruption circumambient, inescapable except in death; worship of a beneficent “God” = worship of “Satan.”
CANT: Primary influence: Jung. Evil is sought and actively participated in to make sense of one’s station and self that isolation and loneliness feel condign; Gnostic Samael, the blind creator god, rules earth, if anything does.
WYRD: Primary influence: Schopenhauer/Nishitani. Evil as cosmic horror from the noumenal aspect of a chair to the universe—to oneself; “God’s” suicide via the anti-noumenal objectification of all things (making things as seen/real) that all might grind to a halt, that death might finally exist as a perfection in this corrupted deathless world of gross regeneration designed by the blind creator god Samael.
MM) Did this thematic tetralogy come about organically? Is there a continuity in your work?
JH) Each book, besides Wyrd, came more or less whole cloth. After a long time waiting, the story conducive to my concerns just “came” to me. Insert, ad infinitum, writerly clichés here (for each novel I filled up a notebook of plot-points in one sitting, then, Manhunter-style, tacked them to my wall chronologically, then, as writing progressed, added a mad amount of notes to the notes, etc.) In hindsight, the books seem contiguous to the extent that their being published as a unit makes, to me at least, nothing but sense.
With Wyrd I knew maybe two things: I want to explicitly address the nonhuman indifference of all life/objects/etc., including that which resides in the human, the complete lack of inherency central to all objects; and I wanted the story to be set in a west coast boardwalk town with the boardwalk carnival as mediator between character and fundamental irreality. I in no way set out to write some scifi speculative fiction with Kurt Cobain as a main character. In many ways I wish I hadn’t done that—but it seemed, and still does seem, crucial, necessary (within my small, interior world of necessity). Skin the sun, fall asleep…Look on the bright side, suicide. Lost eyesight I’m on your side…I miss the comfort in being sad. Finally, in addressing the nonhuman ever-extant in us all and in the world at large, these extremely human sentiments hit home, were needed.
MM) What do you think about the collision of the avant-garde and classical? Or about releasing a novel out of step with mainstream readership and consensus vogue, with an indie press more typically putting out more extremely online fare? Evil goes harder with transgression than any book in our canon, but the cultural shifts are so accelerated and pronounced now, more fragmentary, with less of a coherent singular vision for art. People are calling this rapid periodicity the vibe shift. What do you make of where culture is headed? Where do you fit with expat’s ethos, in your view? How is this book in dialogue with other contemporaries, art not existing in a vacuum?
JH) A hard question to which I don’t want to conjure/feign an answer or for a minute pretend that what follows is anything but highly subjective, as at large, and I definitely don’t mean this as a point of pride or a point of false humility, I am out of touch with the zeitgeist. Evil comes from books/writers like Paradise Lost, Under the Volcano, Shakespeare, Wallace Stevens, all the authors mentioned in this interview, Cioran, etc.
The fragmentary has been an embedded part of the arts since Modernism, the fragmentary collage (whether centos of others’ work or of mixed media/genre/form, etc.) a fulcrum of postmodernism, which may or may not be over. I suppose I chose to write traditional, plot-driven (though, finally, formally challenging—though this was not a choice but, to my thinking, a necessity) novels because, to my thinking, it is the most difficult form in which to write and as such the most convincing. It is easy to hit enter twice and move on to the next fragment, exceptionally difficult to get from point A to B in an enticing manner (not to say I have succeeded in this). World-building, plot-arc, etc.—I am not sure that these aspects of storytelling will ever fully fall to the wayside, no matter the cultural currency in so-called new approaches (all of which, as far as I’ve read, which again isn’t much, hark back to the 1920s and before). There is a solipsism that I find hard to relate to in what contemporary poetry and prose I have read, this idea that one is one’s own fully formed primary source and as such is self-validated, to the extent that it is hard not to wonder whether these “I” authors, lyric and prosaic alike, have read deeply and throughout history as opposed to shallowly and solely within the confines of the current furor. This insular tautology can be very dull. Yet exactly this type of writing often sells as it naturally has its thumb on the pulse—regardless of how weak that pulse might be. I guess finally I am banking on quality over the currency of the worship of the current.
That said, there are, specifically, three modern authors whose work I relate to. Thomas Ligotti (who is quoted extensively in Wyrd—I discovered his writing between the completion of Cant and the inception of Wyrd, and was very reassured that he and his works exist), Eugene Thacker (I first read Infinite Resignation less than a year ago and have since read most of his books—minus a few relatively small takes, I am in agreeance) and Michel Houellebecq (maybe three years ago I came across Serotonin and have since read all of his books—he is an outlier for me, yet nonetheless, when I am reading his work, he feels like a friend (I am far less interested in his controversial plots than the fundamental impetus: short of suicide, what to do?)). This triad of modern authors recently discovered is absolutely a new thing for me. Put simply, I often read current literature and often stop a few pages in. Somehow in the last few years I got lucky and discovered the writing of the above-mentioned. I’m grateful for their work.
MM) Allowing for the previous question to be primarily the preoccupation of coastal elites, is this a Midwestern novel? Insomuch as you’re from the Midwest, and given the recent notoriety and zeitgeist-import of autofiction, how much of this work is true/based on truth? What of yourself can be found in it?
JH) Baring Cant, 30% of which takes place in western Europe, Evil is set in Michigan. I don’t see any importance in this. It is simply where I am from. Maybe of note is the lack of anything close to metropolis writing/milieu. The dynamics of social situations, social activity, etc. doesn’t interest me very much. I lived in NYC for ten years and for the most part can’t write about it, as inherent in any NYC setting is a plethora of other people, which detract from value (in life and in fiction—obviously this is super subjective and the opposite of course can be true—Gaddis’ The Recognitions, for example).
There are few direct autofiction elements in any of the novels, though Ades and Baal are pretty good markers of my preteen to teen years, and Cant my early adulthood. Wyrd is something akin to my current mood—far more detached from specific pilfered details of my lived life, which ultimately serve as the backbone for the preceding novels, though in a highly fictionalized manner.
MM) What are you working on now?
JH) I’m working on a collection of poems titled Funest. I’m a couple poetry books behind as goes publishing. Goety and Youel will be coming out in 2023 via Black Spring Press and IFSF Publishing respectively.
MM) What have you read recently? Is your interest lately dominated by the written word and the humanities?
JH) Besides the authors mentioned, I am reading/have recently read Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, Gary Indiana’s Do Everything in the Dark, the prose of Wallace Stevens and Yeats, William James at large, Bloom’s The Daemon Knows…The best book I’ve read in a long time, really since Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, was Nishitani’s Religion & Nothingness.
To your second questions, yeah, I am really typical in this regard—when I have free time, I’m pretty much reading and writing.
MM) Would you say Evil valorizes heroism and romanticism? In defiance of puritanism, in its oscillations between the grotesque and beauty, where does this epic journey take us?
JH) If there are heroes (as opposed to plain protagonists) in any of the novels, they are, by the end, murdered or left dead-alive. Harold Bloom in book after book makes a strong argument (mostly concerning poets) that we have not left the Romantic period. I find it hard to argue otherwise. Beyond gothic horror, cosmic horror, literary fiction—over and above almost every genre is, finally, Romanticism. Evil undoubtably falls under this umbrella term, especially Ades and Baal, as the gothic horror is about as Romantic as it gets.
I’m not sure where these books might take the hypothetical reader, but despite their dark content they took me, if momentarily, out of darker situations, broadly speaking, out of quotidian “reality.”
MM) Is evil in America banal?
JH) In Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel he argues, if I remember (it’s been upwards of fifteen years since I read it), that not only is it (evil, violence, etc.) banal, it is cliché, an overused copout somewhat unique to American authors, a way to skirt issues that so-called realism, or literary realism, demands both author and reader face head-on, a cheap act of legerdemain employed by charlatans to make up for a dearth of emotional and intellectual depth. A fantastic book whose argument is difficult to refute if one places one’s upmost literary value on realism/literary realism/human relations/etc, if one approaches writing in a fundamentally anthropocentric manner without a thought to the indifference of the world in which we live and, deep down, the indifference imbedded in each of us, our fundamentally unhuman pith (or lack thereof).
The criterion of reality is its intrinsic irrelevance.
No artist tolerates reality.
…he could not help seeing how shallow, fickle and meaningless all human aspirations are…Calm, lasting beauty comes only in a dream, and this solace the world had thrown away when in its worship of the real it threw away the secrets of childhood and innocence.
My thoughts exactly. Thank you so much, Manny.