The Art Is the Act of Smashing the Mirror: A Conversation with Gilbert Sorrentino
Andrews, David, The Review of Contemporary Fiction
The following interview was conducted by mail during the summer and early fall of 1996. It was completed in early 2001.
DAVID ANDREWS: In the preface to Something Said you note that you "no longer hold many of the positions taken here; many of them are, in a word, embarrassing." Could you give a broad sense of what you meant when you wrote this in 1984? Have there been major changes in your critical thinking over the years?
GILBERT SORRENTINO: Speaking broadly, as you suggest, it's not so much particulars or specifics that are embarrassing or annoying but, in certain pieces, a kind of overt partisanship, often coupled with a very heated prose. The positions, I'd say, are by and large not bad, but the way they're defined can, in retrospect, look gauche and unconvincing. Of course, I can cop a plea and say that virtually all of these pieces were written to interest an audience in writers I liked, or conversely, to drive an audience away from writers I disliked. They were also written pretty quickly, rarely laboriously revised, and, paramount in these enterprises, written with little or no concern with what people would think of them or me. Put these things together, and there is a real possibility of winding up with egg on the face. As for changes in my critical thinking, I don't think so. I still distrust analogy and comparison, I still have no idea how words seem to represent the world, even as I know that this is quite impossible. Little theory has dented me, it all seems to come down to the mysteries of language, and the results of such investigations are what writers have always known: language will kill you if you give it an inch; a "good sentence" is so only in context; and words are things that refuse to stop changing.
DA: Many of your works contain obvious autobiographical resonance. Could you describe your view of the relationship between your past and your art?
GS: Let's assume you're looking in a funhouse mirror, there you are, David Andrews, and yet ... you don't really look that way. Now you take a hammer and smash the mirror, and look again. You don't look that way, in spades! Yet there you are, really, right? OK. The past is you; its memory is the image in the mirror; the art is the act of smashing the mirror. The past is simply a mine from which one draws ore, and then does this and that with it. The closer "this and that" seems to be to the past facts, the more it is thought to be autobiographical. On the other hand, Mulligan Stew may well be my most "autobiographical" work. But the "this and that" of the book is relentlessly foregrounded, twisted, distorted, tortured into weird shapes, and artificialized, so that no one has ever said a word about its autobiographical elements. That's saved for Sky and Aberration, which look Really True. As for my short stories, oh boy! Many of them are written in the first person, so that readers, even sophisticated readers, simply cannot or will not accept that "I" as a character. Nothing to be done about it.
DA: Do you consider yourself an aesthete? How do you feel about aesthete as a term? The word is so often associated with pejoratives like mere and naive that it almost seems pejorative itself.
GS: "Aesthete" is fine by me. Oddly enough, or maybe not so oddly or enough, the people who scoff at aesthetes are those who go all weak in the artistic knees when presented with "deep" stuff. They love things that don't seem to mean what they say, as if the artist went out of his way to "fool" them into taking his work at face value--but they'll not be fooled! Look at all the crap that's been written about the cetology chapters in Moby-Dick. Why are they there? What does it all mean? The novel is so richly symbolic, so redolent of hidden meanings, etc., etc., that these chapters must have a metaphorical/symbolic function, too! Whereas they seem to me to be rigorously metonymic, absolutely conceived as a series of complex signifiers that point to the great signified of Moby Dick himself. …