Fall book season is upon us with a slew of big names releasing giant tomes within weeks of each other. It will be difficult to keep up with even the greatest of the Great American Novels and the Booker short list, let alone anything coming out of the smaller presses.
Read the last Bookslut on Coco Chanel.
So what should be done about the small, hard-to-categorize gem of a book about art and literature, released by a tiny mathematics specialty publisher that has thus far been overlooked and neglected?
Grace Dane Mazur’s Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination is a wide-ranging and provocative examination of where we go when we read—or write—a book. From Homer to the caves in the Dordogne to Eudora Welty, Mazur takes us on a tour of the underground and the far reaches of imagination in the name of finding out where our stories come from, who is really doing the telling and why storytelling is in our blood.
It’s worth making a little room for in your fall reading schedule.
Hinges seems like it was pulled together after decades of interest and reading. Was there a spark that made you decide or figure out how to pull it all together?
It was more like a succession of tiny sparks.
The two main strands of this book appeared to me in around 2004. One had to do with a state of the psyche, our descent into the world of fiction. The other was that most ordinary piece of old-fashioned hardware—the hinge. I had been thinking of the strange things that happen to us when reading, or writing, fiction. It seemed to me that our spiraling down into the altered state of fiction echoes the visit of the archaic hero to the land of the dead.
Looking in the visual arts for representations of Greek heroes descending to Hades, I stumbled upon paintings, frescoes and mosaics of Christ in Limbo, also known as the Harrowing of Hell. It was there, in a painting by Fra Angelico, that the hinge grabbed me.
Before becoming a writer I had been a biologist. I’d spent years and years looking at microscopic structures in insects. So I had been trained to stop and gaze at things that I don’t understand, the sort of thing that the eye usually skips over because it doesn’t make any sense. The broken hinges on the doors of Hell in Fra Angelico’s fresco called out to me as though they were flashing in neon. “We are strange things,” they said. “See if you can find out what we are doing here.”
So both of these strands were obsessing me, and calling out to be woven together, even though one was mind, the other matter. Over the course of the six years of working on the book, those sparks you mention would come, but they were tiny, barely bright enough to be called thoughts, and they would continually braid and knot and tangle things together.
Hopefully this isn't a too personal question, but I was wondering how being married to a mathematician influences your interest in art and literature, and your own writing.
Fine question. My husband does Number Theory, mathematics of the pure sort, up where it’s very close to poetry. In fact, he reads more poetry and fiction than almost anyone I know, and writes poems when he’s not doing math. We’re always showing each other things, both in the world and in texts. He is my first and most demanding reader, and he has a wonderful eye for the distinction between simple fuzzy-mindedness and the necessary ellipsis of the lyrical. There’s a crystalline clarity to mathematics that shimmers up there, acting as a sort of beacon.
You seem to state that reading is a creative act in itself—not just writing. Is that fair to say?
Yes, I would make that claim. The best kind of reading, I think, happens when we are paying ferocious attention. All our antennae are quivering. It involves the lifetime of unconscious preparation that has formed our “eye” or “ear” as a reader. (I need the lectorial equivalent of the “voice” of the writer.) This preparation determines the depth of our interaction with the work.
When we read, we explore the world of the text. We are instructed by the author as to how to imagine this world, but even the most generous author can only propose the images to us. Our own imagination must then go to work. So author and reader are partners in a strange kind of construction, where the only tools are the author’s words and the reader’s wisdom. Each time we reread the same book this construction changes—we are different, older, wiser, even if only by a day or two—we see new facets of the narrative architecture emerge.
So, going into a text is an active form of exploration. As we read, we are creating our response. It’s lonely, bewildering and full of dangers and astonishments. This is true for writing as well as reading. But the exploration works both ways—a work of art explores and examines us while we are experiencing it. Even a headless statue can look at us and find us wanting.
Reading your book I was reminded of Marina Warner, a writer I hugely admire. You both seem to undertake the act of decoding your surroundings like she does. Do you read her? And what, pray tell, would you call this type of writing?
I’m a huge admirer of Marina Warner! And I like your use of the word “decoding,” with its sense of parsing the texts (code coming from the Latin codex for split block of wood that was covered with wax for writing…) of one’s surroundings. The world is full of secrets, some of them esoteric, but others are hidden in plain sight because we have forgotten to notice them. We have neglected to realize that we don’t understand them.
The subtitle of my book has “Meditations” in it, and that may give the philosophical flavor of it. At times I am tempted to call these works essays, but sometimes instead of making an argument or leading to a single point, they seem to ramify, to just keep branching, leading to digressions which seem to take on a life of their own. It makes me very happy when they do that. It seems to echo some excitement of the cosmos. What I really like to do is to take disparate things and show what happens when they nudge up against each other.
There are philosophers who build entire structures from first principles, vast cathedrals of new ways of thinking—Kant, say, or Hegel. And then there are people who prefer to notice and unify things that already exist, or make them understandable in a new way. I guess I tend to look at the Humanities as one vast landscape which becomes ever so much more fruitful and interesting when we forget about the boundaries between its various principalities and domains and simply conduct our investigations everywhere.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.