Mark Mirsky is the author of five novels, including Thou Worm Jacob (Macmillan, 1967), The Secret Table (Fiction Collective, 1983), and The Red Adam (Sun and Moon Press, 1990). A professor of creative writing at the City College of New York, Mirsky is also the editor and cofounder, with Donald Barthelme, of the literary magazine Fiction. He has written a book about Shakespeare, The Absent Shakespeare (Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994), and is the editor of Diaries: Robert Musil 1899–1942 (Basic Books, 1998) and coeditor of Rabbinic Fantasies: Imaginative Narratives From Classical Hebrew Literature (Yale University Press, 1998). The Rail sat down with him recently to discuss his new book, Dante, Eros, and Kabbalah (Syracuse, 2004), and the relationship between thinking about literature and writing fiction.
Johannah Rodgers (Rail): I know that you have always had important relationships with the work of a number of different writers—I think particularly of Thoreau and Emerson and the Austrian novelist Robert Musil. But why Dante?
Mark Mirsky: Dante. First, I read him in John Ciardi’s translation, just the Inferno, and didn’t understand why he was so important. But just as I read Kafka and didn’t understand why he was so important the first time I read him, I knew I’d missed something. So I didn’t put the Commedia down with a sense of hubris that I knew more than the critics, but rather with a deep inferiority complex that I wasn’t getting it yet. To read Dante you have to be able to enter his time, and I didn’t have the background. Then my mother died. Suddenly I was interested in mysticism and philosophy, and I started reading the Zohar and Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. And there were ideas I’d met in the Zohar moving through Dante. At the time I didn’t know that they were rooted in this common neo-Platonism and that Provence was the hotbed and that it had moved from Provence to Sicily and Bologna and Florence. Now I went back to Dante, and I got it. Everything kicked in. My father was a political man, and Dante was a political man. So the political rage, which I had already felt close to, now came together with [my understanding of] his mysticism and his strong sexual [craving]. He went to the inferno to go to paradise; the inferno was just a byway. Dante was headed for the body of Beatrice. He was looking for an erotic mystical union.
Rail: If, as you’ve said, this book about Dante is not a book of criticism, what do you call it?
Mirsky: (Laughs) It is trying to listen to Dante, to hear his secrets. The greatest question that you can ask in literature is “Can I in this book enter the other world?” Because you, the reader, in reading the book enter the writer’s world. And if the writer is asking, “Can I enter the other world?” you enter that world too. And that is what Dante is asking.
Rail: And that’s what you’re doing in your fiction?
Mirsky: I hope so. I can’t say I do.
Rail: You quote Boccaccio writing about Dante’s commitment to understanding “the truth of things locked up by heaven.” Is this something that is part of your own project as a writer?
Mirsky: Oh yes, absolutely.
Rail: (Laughs) Could you explain?
Mirsky: But this is the bridge to Musil. Look, I started as an actor, and one of the most incredible experiences an actor has is when a voice speaks through him, and the spirit moves one’s bones, and one takes leaps and mesmerizes the audience in a persona that is not one’s own but that is given to them. Every great performer knows this phenomenon; Kafka talks about it in his story “Josephine, the Singer or the Mousefolk.”
Rail: You and I tend to agree that through literature we try to understand what the world is about. But we often don’t agree on the importance of the sexual and the erotic in literature. And I think we may have a different perspective on this because I am a woman. When I read Dante writing about women, I do not, as you seem to, believe that he is talking about women but rather that he is talking about himself and his own desires.
Mirsky: So Dante, it’s true, imagined Beatrice on the basis of, according to Boccaccio, a very real interest in getting into women’s pants. But it is also true that you, Johannah, imagine me a certain way. You will probably alter who I am [based on your perceptions]. And Dante’s imagination and the imagination of his fellow poets probably altered the nature of the women they were in love with. My own experience of life is that eroticism is one of the most powerful experiences of surrender.
Rail: And that is why the erotic plays such a large role in your own writing?
Mirsky: Yes, I’ve experienced total loss of consciousness. As I get older I still have these intense desires for intimacy.
Rail: But why does this need to be dramatized through women’s bodies? In your book, you write: “Both the Zohar and the Commedia are about man’s desire to penetrate the secrets of the afterlife.” And my questions in response are: What does it mean for a woman (literally and figuratively) to read these books? Can she read as a woman, or must she read as a man?
Mirsky: Of course she should read as a woman. Mystical union is a mutual ecstasy. And Dante is totally supine and dependent on Beatrice.
Rail: But it is not her; it is his imagination of her.
Mirsky: Look, he is a man writing.
Rail: Yes, he is a man writing.
Mirsky: Let me ask you the question. What if it were a woman writing? Would I be put off by that? You look for an equal partner. Obviously, he didn’t get whatever he was looking for from his wife. He had to dream about a girl who was dead who might have had the same imagination as he had. But you ask a question I probably should have asked in the book. People think Dante seduced Beatrice, but that is not it. Beatrice seduced Dante. Beatrice got Dante to write this beautiful poetry. She is the one who summons him. This is the game of courtship centered, in Dante, on the woman. Dante’s imagination and the imagination of his fellow poets probably altered the nature of the women they were in love with. But those women and their often superior social manners altered the poets. Mandelstam speaks brilliantly about this. What we know about Dante is that he allows himself to be scolded rather brutally by Beatrice for not keeping her and her image of her body untainted. And with respect to your question and The Man Without Qualities, [Dante] is a man with many personalities. He cannot be fixed as one person. He is many people. He is female as well as male. Musil, as you and I both know, gets into women’s heads in incredible ways. The joy of writing is discovering that all of these people live in you. Yes, they all come from you, but they turn into other people. You become them. Musil listens to his wife in the other room, and he becomes her. His short story “The Perfecting of a Love” is about an adulterous relationship that his wife actually had. Those Musil stories [in the collection that includes “The Perfecting of a Love”] are called “Unions,” and I believe what Musil meant by that was that when we fall in love we become the other person and they become us. Dante understood something of this; so did the neo-Platonists.
Rail: So is literature for you sacred? Do you read literature in the same way you read the Bible?
Rail: Why not?
Mirsky: (Long pause) I saw a ghost, twice. The Bible and religion are separate from literature.
Rail: Why do you read literature then?
Mirsky: To enter strange worlds. Whenever you encounter the uncanny, you are unhinged by something you cannot explain but that you desire. Because it promises something. In the Zohar it is called Ain Sof (“without end”). That was what Musil was seeking. He didn’t have a formal religious belief, but he had that desire for understanding.
Rail: Does the world make any sense?
Mirsky: Yes, that’s a constant.
Rail: Do you write to understand what the meaning of the world is?
Mirsky: Yes, of course, everyone does who is serious. Why, who doesn’t write that way?
Rail: I’m not sure that everyone does.
Mirsky: When you realize that someone is an interior decorator, then say goodbye. The only literature that is preserved are those books in which someone has searched for the meaning of what it is to exist.
Rail: Did your understanding of that question change after writing the book on Dante?
Mirsky: It changed as I wrote the book on Dante.
Rail: Did Dante provide answers?
Mirsky: Yes, he spoke to me. I knew he would speak to me if I was able to enter his world and [the scholars] Wolfson and Strauss and [my colleague, a great medievalist, Fred] Goldin and others allowed me to enter his world. As my father was a statesman whose heart was broken, Dante was a statesman whose heart was broken. I felt immediately through Dante the anger and the sadness that I felt through my father. I also felt the sexual imagination and the necessity of living through an image of a woman. I felt very close to him, and I began to understand what he was trying to ask of philosophy and the church fathers.
Rail: I want to ask you about why it is important for writers to edit and publish other writers’ work, particularly when we all only have so much time to do our own work.
Mirsky: I had a very strange conversation with Jack Hawkes one time. I admired Hawkes deeply, but I felt that his writing was getting thinner and thinner. I warned him that he had to read. I felt that he had stopped reading seriously. The opportunity to edit Musil’s diaries was also an opportunity to spend time with Musil. And Donald Barthelme taught me that. Donald was the best-read writer I have ever met. He read an extraordinary amount, and he was deeply generous with his time. He was also, quietly, a great public man. My passion for Musil also brought me closer to Brodkey, who was wild with excitement when he heard I was having the Diaries published. It may have been part of Brodkey’s insistence that brought me to Musil. I very slowly assimilated Musil. I felt something there, the authority. I feel it in Dante too. I could have spent a lot more time on my career, networking, but a lot of that is trivial. Musil was not trivial. It returned as much as it took.
Rail: Does our own writing change because of our relationships with other writers?
Rail: What is the book you want to write next?
Mirsky: Well, I’ve written 800 pages of a novel, and I’d like to find an ending. I’m temporarily exhausted. Now I’d like to go back to another novel and to a book on my father and grandfather, which is a personal book about their immigration, and I’d like to figure out a way to structure that.
Rail: Do you have any advice for young writers?
Mirsky: The most important thing is to believe in yourself and to find a way to get your stuff published. I also think it is important to get to know older writers whom you think are important. I’ve always admired the way the poets group together, and I wish fiction writers would do the same. I really fell in love with Paley and Barthelme, and I followed them around.
Rail: I thought you were going to say that they should read.
Mirsky: That’s like saying “you should breathe” to a human being. I mean, if they don’t know that, then they’re not writers.