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Call her Gretchen. But that is surely the only simple signifier for Grace Dane Mazur, a writer of vast and passionate interests to which the label "interdisciplinary" rings hollow; this is a woman, after all, who has a section of her website dedicated to "astonishments." Consider Mazur's new book: Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination. It is partly an exploration of the creative process, partly a work of art history, partly an anthropological study, and partly an exploration of the brooding underworld (both metaphorical and literal). Try as I might, I simply can't sum up this slim book; it speaks for itself.
Mazur herself has an eclectic background and a powerful presence. (As Amy Minton put it in her book review for The Collagist: "If you find yourself in a dark wood, like Dante did, you might choose Virgil, the light, to guide, or you might choose Mazur—the wise woman, the mothering protector, and the childlike explorer.") Before turning to writing, Mazur studied painting and ceramics at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. After that, she studied biology at Harvard University, where she ultimately became a post-doctoral research biologist at the university's Biological Laboratories, where she studied the morphogenesis and micro-architecture of silkworms.Turning her wide mind to literature, she earned her MFA at from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She has since become the author of Silk, a collection of stories that was a New York Times notable book of the year, and the novel Trespass. Mazur was the fiction editor of the Harvard Review for a decade, and now serves as the fiction editor for Tupelo Press. She teaches creative writing at various colleges, leaving a long string of inspired students behind her; in fact, she was my instructor for my essay semester in the MFA program at Warren Wilson. Mazur lives just outside Boston, where she and her husband, the mathematician Barry Mazur, have been known to host a most gracious late morning breakfast.
In our conversation, Mazur and I discuss nothing less than the hinges of hell -- as well as Albrecht Dürer woodcuts, the Aeneid, how visual art and literature compare in their renditions of the underworld, Herman Melville, how nonfiction explorations influence the author's fiction, and, of course, Black Fire.
Here, then, is Gretchen:
If it doesn't sound too grim to put it this way, what lured you to the hinges of hell?
Oh, not too grim at all! The Hell part of your question is easy: Hell has always been more interesting to writers than heaven. Think of Milton and his fascination with – and delight in – Satan. Anyway, because of some ideas I had about reading and writing and the trance state that one gets into when one is engaged in either, deeply, I was looking into questions of Hades, Hell, the world beyond, the other world. It seemed to me that there might be some connection between the trance state we descend into when we read or write and the voyage of the archaic hero when he goes down to visit the Land of the Dead. The more I read about the regions of Hades and Hell and the heroes who visit, the more I yearned to see images of these scenes. (I went to art school before college.)
There are a few Greek vase paintings--of Odysseus, Orpheus, Persephone & Hades, a few ancient sculptures, but by far the most often represented scenes of Hell show Christ, who descends to Hell right after the Crucifixion. There he smashes the gates and rescues Jewish prophets, patriarchs, and matriarchs--worthy figures from the Old Testament who could not achieve Christian salvation in the normal way, because they died before Christ came on the scene. (This episode is not in the Bible, but can be found in various gospels of the Apocrypha.) There are lots of Renaissance paintings, chock full of demons, from the Mediterranean countries as well as Northern Europe, Scandinavia, and England; there are also Byzantine frescoes and mosaics, as well as Russian icons. OK, you say, But what about hinges? I’m getting to them. Here’s what struck me about all those paintings of Christ harrowing Hell, as it’s called – or Christ in Limbo: the artist seemed to be spending too much time and energy depicting the hinges of the doors of Hell. Seemed to me, that is. The composition didn’t seem to require those hinges, yet in most cases they are most elegantly and tellingly drawn. Look at this fresco by Fra Angelico, for example, with the black pintle hinge on the door frame just below Christ’s hovering feet.
Or this woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, where the hinge on the broken door of Hell in the lower left corner is as big as a man’s face.
Notice the hinges. Anyway. Perhaps because I spent so much of my life on the electron microscope, looking at the micro-architecture of Silkworms, those little unimportant-seeming things jump out at me. Look at me! they cry out. Figure out what I am doing here.
So I got to thinking about the HINGE. By which I mean real hinges, on every single door you go through, as you go through your day. And the nature of the hinges of hell. And then other sorts of metaphorical hinges, of the body, of the mind and of the soul, of experience, of the heavens – as well as hinges in poems and stories. And all of this fed into explorations of reading and writing and the trance state we get into when we do either…
Is there a literary counterpart to how visual artists lingered so long in depicting the hinges of hell? That is, have writers spent a lot of time on this in their texts, or was it pretty unique to paintings and woodcuts?
Actually, writers have a really intense relationship with the gates of hell and their hinges, often concentrating on the unearthly sounds they produce—thunder, shrieks, the whistling roars.
Milton, for example, knows all about noisy hinges. In Paradise Lost (published in 1667), his syntax feels as marvelously grating and contorted as the sound he is describing, as he tells how Sin, the daughter and mistress of Satan, agrees to open the gates of Hell:
. . . then in the key-hole turns
Th’intricate wards, and every bolt and bar
Of massy iron or solid rock with ease
Unfastens; on a sudden, open fly
With impetuous recoil and jarring sound
Th’infernal doors, and on their hinges grate
Harsh thunder, that the lowest bottom shook
Of Erebus . . .
[book ii, lines 871–883]
(…) A massive gate
With adamantine pillars faced the stream,
So strong no force of men or gods in war
May ever avail to crack and bring it down,
And high in air an iron tower stands
On which Tisiphonë, her bloody robe
Pulled up around her, has her seat and keeps
Unsleeping watch over the entrance way
By day and night. (…)
At once the avenger girdled with her whip,
Tisiphonë, leaps down to lash the guilty,
Vile writing snakes held out on her left hand,
And calls her savage sisterhood. The awaited
Time has come, hell gates will shudder wide
On shrieking hinges.
Does this writerly relationship with the hinges of Hell carry over to the contemporary era, if in a different form? Or, if this is an artistic obsession that has faded away, then why and how did that happen?
In the Western world, the writerly relationship with the hinges of Hell would seem to have faded away, as mainstream religious thought has largely diverged from mainstream literary writing. In contemporary literary writing, in fact, I can't think of any examples off hand.
But if we shift to screen-writing, then we find the shrieking hinges in horror movies, and in almost any really scary movie. I would guess that if in a really ominous scene a door is opened and the hinges are quiet, it feels as though something is missing--which can, of course, make things even spookier.
And if we look at 19th century writers, and if we consider the hinges of hell to be an example of the general case of the threshold of the transcendent, and the sounds as a sort of alarm that one is passing to another state of being, to another world, or through any sublime phase shift, then such sounds are everywhere in the work of Edgar Allen Poe. More wonderful brilliant piercing alarms of transcendence occur Herman Melville's astonishing story, "Cock-a-doodle-do," where the sublime call of the rooster is an announcement of passing to the other world, Heaven or Hell, rapture or descent, as well as the call of the poet.
This book fuses together literature, art, science, history, certainly the underworld--so many different points of obsession for you, and you move so swiftly among them. It feels like a magnum opus in that way. Where do you go from here? After the hinges of hell, what comes next?
Now I return to my novel. Its working title is About Time. I've been working on it for the past five years. Or is it ten? I don’t like to admit to ten. I write incredibly slowly. Then I revise. I use Penelope's method--undoing each night what she wove that day--as my model for reworking. The novel is about the night before the wedding: the two families are at dinner in the garden; no one wants to be there; everyone wants to be elsewhere; unions are forming and dissolving before our eyes. I hope to finish by early spring.
My next nonfiction project, though, may be about Black Fire. That is, it will be about Absence and Presence, and the way certain forms of absence actually contain the missing thing. This kind of “inclusive absence” implies and calls forth existence, even as it proclaims non-presence. So it will be about fullness and want; about light and shadow and pitchdark; about the black moons of the virgin cult in parts of Europe and Latin America, and black fires in general. Consider this description of the Genesis from the Zohar:
A spark of impenetrable darkness flashed within the concealed of the concealed, from the head of Infinity--a cluster of vapor forming in formlessness, thrust in a ring, not white, not black not red, not green, no color at all.
What is a spark of darkness? What are black fires? That’s what I’d like to get at.
Given these multifaceted explorations in Hinges, and now, possibly, Black Fire, how are you finding your fiction influenced? Especially given that this novel has been with you for awhile...
What an excellent Question. As all of them have been!
I think these influences are at work in all possible directions. The longest chapter in the novel I’ve been working on is about the dangers of disobeying the injunction not to look. This led me directly to the non-fictional explorations of Orpheus and other aspects of Forbidden Looking in Hinges.
Conversely, some of the nascent ideas from the not-yet-written Black Fire, particularly those about Presence within Absence, I now see, are penetrating into this same novel, where strange things are happening with Time. Time loops back on itself, in order to juxtapose or link presences and exclude absences. Who knows, there may be black moons or black virgins lurking as well.
Influences and obsessions are so pervasive. In fact, once you're really obsessed with something it's hard to keep it out of anything you do – fiction, non-fiction, poetry, cooking, gardening. Think of the Black Cloud poppy, the Black Knight iris, or the Queen of the Night tulip…that something so dependent on sunlight as flowering plants should have varieties with such a light-gulping spectacular brilliant darkness, making an absence of themselves in the garden.
It’s as though each of these creative paths allows us to get at only certain aspects of the object of our obsession, allows us to pay fierce attention and penetrate to the core only in certain ways. So the real portrait or analysis or discourse must finally be the collection of these partial attempts—since each is limited by being focused through the lens of text or song or garden.
In the end, of course, looking at our work can influence us in turn, as when we straighten up or re-align upon catching ourselves in a mirror. The collection of these partial experiments paints our portrait as well, revealing who we are, what our presences and absences are, how we live our lives.