The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney: An Interview with Christopher Higgs

TC: It seems that education is maybe decaying as an intellectual institution. The typical American university is more of a professional training school than an intellectual environment.  While I realize it might be practical, I was wondering whether you are kind of saddened that university study, at least in the United States, is moving away rapidly from the “old” grounding in the arts, sciences, and humanities? Have you encountered much of this in your teaching positions thus far? Do you think that “older” approach was itself flawed in great ways? What kinds of courses do you teach?

Fostering intellectuals is central to my pedagogical approach. I always tell my students, I can’t promise to make you love experimental literature, but what I can promise is to make you a stronger intellectual. In a nutshell, I see myself as someone who teaches critical thinking, first and foremost. Secondary to that, I teach literature. More specifically, I teach experimental literature. To give you an example of what that actually means: I just finished teaching two courses for the fall semester; one section of creative nonfiction that centered on the writing and study of the lyric essay; and the other section was a course focused on the study of experimental short stories. Next semester I will be teaching another section of my experimental short stories course (with different texts this time), as well as a section of global literature focused on The History of the European Avant-Garde from 1900-1945. As far as the whole “decline of the Humanities” thing goes, yes I find it heartbreaking to see the value system in America continue to shift so far away from a model that invests in growing and acquiring knowledge toward a model obsessed with producing productive producers.
TC: Finally, what do you think of the distinction between Anglo-American and “continental” philosophy (as well as the fact that Eastern or any other types of non-Western thought never seem to be prevalent in American philosophy classrooms—I feel this is a bit but not totally similar to the exclusion literature has gotten from philosophy, kind of). What do you think of “the absurd” as a concept? What do you think is the value of existentialism in light of the postmodernist and poststructuralist paradigms that pervade literary theory and philosophy today?

CH: You mentioned in one of your earlier questions a desire to perhaps pursue an advanced degree in philosophy. I, too, once harbored that desire. But what I realized when I began to investigate the field was that the range of possibilities for thinkers like me, which is to say continentally minded, is frighteningly slim. I think I counted something like a baby’s handful of PhD programs willing to entertain continentally-bent hopefuls. For the most part, analytic philosophy rules academic programs ion philosophy, and not to be a total asshat but seriously I find staring at the cat’s litter box one thousand times more interesting and productive than engaging in analytic philosophy. What turns out to be the case is that if you want study continental philosophy, you should head to an English department. That’s the last bastion for such thinking in most academic settings.

With regards to existentialism and “the absurd.” For me it has proven to be the province of my youth. I loved it when I was young and angsty. I still have my beat up copies of William Barrett’s Irrational Man as well as Walter Kaufmann’s Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, both of which meant a lot to me in those formative years. But ennui fades, if you’re lucky. Metaphysical crisis becomes something that was cool back in the day, smoking bowls in the hot tub waxing poetic over the absolute nothingness of it all. But then I learned something very valuable: meaning does not exist. Thus, one cannot expect to find meaning; one must make meaning. So eventually I stopped wallowing in the abyss of absurdity and decided to make some meaning: I met my wife, adopted our cat, began writing and reading and teaching professionally and now I have things to be happy about, things that give my life meaning. Absurdity is contingent on having nothing worth believing in. If you have something to believe in, life is not absurd. Some folks believe in religion, which gives their lives meaning. I do not believe in religion. I believe in my wife, our cat, my family, my friends, my books, etcetera. I now have stuff I believe to be worth believing in, therefore life is not without meaning, life is not absurd. Life is pretty fucking awesome, actually, even on the days when it’s not.
TC: I don’t completely agree about “the absurd.”  But, moving on, I found a series of videos at the OSU website that discuss your literacy and its origins. You talk about how books were kind of just materials to you until you began to listen to the Doors and looked up some biographies of Jim Morrison, who almost built his career/persona around his literary influences. I found this kind of eerie, because I was only really into reading history books and atlases and encyclopedias that my dad owned as well as the Hardy Boys and Harry Potter and maybe Lord of the Rings or Star Wars novels, until I discovered a Jim Morrison biography and I wrote down lots of the names that were mentioned in it (Nietzsche and Kerouac and Ginsberg are the ones I remember the most clearly, but I know that I took up a couple pages of a notebook writing down all the names). How hard was it actually for you to begin to indulge in those writers? What kind of opinions do you have on Jim Morrison now that you were maybe too young or naive to realize then?

CH: I am shocked and totally thrilled to hear that you had a similar experience coming to literature through Morrison. I wonder how many of us there are out there? It makes me want to put out a call for stories/essays on the subject, see if I can put together an anthology of some kind.

For me it was not a problem to engage in the books on my Morrison list because I thought about it as if I were doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing, which made it edgy and subversive and I loved that. Literature only became cool for me when I thought of it as an act of transgression. Books held dirty secrets the world did not want me to have, secrets that could transform me into a Morrison-type figure: a dark and wise and complex individual who knew more than anyone else in the room and had more creative ideas than anyone else in the room, which is exactly the kind of person I have always wanted to be.
TC: You talk some about your original undergraduate studies focusing on film/theatre. You mention Tarantino but you don’t really explain your actual opinions on him too much. What do you think of him?

CH: Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction came out in 1994, in the fall of my junior year of high school. It was a revelation. I had never seen a movie told in such a disjunctive way. I had never seen a movie with such moxie and swagger. It was profane and hilarious and so, so cool. Immediately, I had a similar feeling of affinity with it as I did with Morrison: I wanted to know more. I wanted to “get” all the references. I wanted to find out about all the films that influenced Tarantino. So, in a way, Tarantino did for me in terms of film what Morrison did for me in terms of literature. He introduced me to world cinema.
TC: There’s a part where you describe how as a writer/professor you understand narrative and literary structures, but you kind of want to completely fuck around with those structures. This is apparent in your first novel The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney. There are lots of blurring of lines between author and narrator, theorist and novelist, plot and no plot, etc. Who are the different critical theorists whose faces are distorted on the front and back covers (I am writing in thinking that they are critical theorists hopefully)? Also, why do you reference yet cross out Burroughs’ name in the blurbs in the back that aren’t for you, directly at least (also I am guessing they are for William Burroughs, but I guess they could also be Augusten Burroughs)? I think these very basic things you do to the actual exterior of the piece itself as an object kind of reflect that earlier fascination you had with books as materials/objects, am I right?

CH: (Wow, that is a seriously smart connection you’ve just made! The decisions concerning the cover and the back of the book were not consciously tied to my early ideas about the book as object, but now that you point it out it makes total sense. Thank you for that! See, now I hate to go into teacher mode but what you’ve just done here is exactly what I think criticism has the potential to do, and why I think criticism is so important, which is to say that by making the connections you’ve just made, you’ve made the text bigger. You’ve made it more significant than I intended. You participated in the construction of the text. Fuck yeah!)

This also goes to show the paltriness of reading practices aimed at uncovering author intention – but that’s a whole other train of gripping I won’t waste time expounding on. For the cover, those pictures are not critical theorists – although that would have been a terrific idea. They are just various portraits that Ken Baumann (the mastermind behind Sator Press) found and chopped and arranged. We worked closely on the design of the cover and back, but he’s the man behind the curtain, the royal orchestrator. Our idea (sort of) was to collage these fragmented faces as a way of representing the multiplicitous Mooney. In terms of the blurbs on the back, we wanted to do something different than the normal typical blurb thing. The idea of appropriation seemed perfect. At first I was just going to steal blurbs from other books and change the names to Mooney, but I wasn’t sure how interesting that would be and also I got a little worried about copyright infringement. Then my wife, the outrageously brilliant poet and scholar Caitlin Newcomer, came up with the idea of crossing out William Burroughs’ name and scrawling Mooney’s name above it in such a way as the original would still be legible, which would give it more significance and layering and would ultimately be more funny and sad. It was a perfect idea. Exactly the right thing. (Those blurbs, btw, come from one or more of the books in the Nova Trilogy.)

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