Beneath the Surface: the Columbia Sessions

Beneath the Surface

By Alexandre Gonçalves

I find a rare privilege to be able to measure my thoughts on a book against the author’s intentions when he wrote it. That is why I welcomed the opportunity of interviewing Joseph Nicolello about his first novella A Child’s Christmas in Williamsburg.

For me, his book felt like the literary equivalent of sailing. Notwithstanding the waves and winds on the surface of an eventful holiday celebration, there was always a sense of depth, of calmer, darker and more mysterious realities lying beneath seemingly ordinary circumstances. In my questions to Joseph, I attempted to probe deep into those realities.

How did you come up with the idea of writing this book?

This novella came about in a way that I hope neither any student nor pupil I know takes as an invitation, because it will not work for anyone else at any other time (including myself) as it is just a tale among tales… but then again, we do read at the forefront of Boswell’s Life of Johnson that literary history is the most agreeable subject in the world (2008, 21). So prior to composition I think one can trace the initial mechanisms in that for a good couple of years spent in San Francisco and New York I was always bumping into people with a disdain for mainstream culture, but it was a disdain coupled by either nihilism or its own sort of existential negativity, nocturnal moments that would gloss a creative retrieval, but never quite catapult into being an attempt at the rectification of 21st-century letters. For instance, one discontent with one’s religion could perhaps become a religious himself and start railing against the hypocrisies and frivolities of the age. The painter disgusted with what is called modern art could look to build off of Jackson Pollock and throw paint at canvases. The writer could pen a manifesto or an extreme book. But these modes of reaction seemed untenable to me. I was right at the moment in my life whereby I realized that the unendurable was beginning to disgust me. I was also already then becoming much more interested in figures like Eric Voegelin and Robert Musil, who were neither right nor left nor indifferent, but in their ways eclipsed preordained systematicities of the age. And so on a break from the aforementioned cities I was visiting some friends and family, where a good professorial poet friend of mine (actually the mentor who introduced to me, among many others, the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa) and I reunited. We had a great time together discussing life and literature. It was about zero degrees out that evening.

As we were departing I realized that part of my anxiety about certain old counterparts was my budding interest in religious history, which at that time was not necessarily religious itself; I would say it was more a blend of anthropology and philosophical thinking. I could no longer condemn all religion, having accepted my absolute poverty of knowledge on the subject. Reading the great atheist philosophers and poets, one can quickly become convinced that one is beyond needing to read any religious texts or histories. But one cannot be more dead wrong; what is at stake is selfhood and perception, purposiveness and the cultivation of one’s self. To condemn a thing that one knows nothing of is both common and odious; the reasons for the poverty of knowledge are far less relevant than the fact that one is consciously delimiting reality and conceptual history.

So as we parted ways a brutal gust of wind blew ideas of discontent out of my head and forced me to realize that I would have to take an enormous gamble in actually recreating literature rather than excoriating or lamenting things as they were. The first two ideas that came of this moment was the idea of dogma and literality, or sacrament and neglect. The other was the non-archetype in a gentrified neighborhood, as I believe gentrification has caused innumerable more problems in this city, or country, than the gentrifiers want to let on; indeed, this is the ironical nucleus of a manufactured subculture – everything is ironic less because irony is indispensable, but because the reality of how the borough came to be contradicts everything its archetypal inhabitants claim to stand for.  Thus I was drawn to everyday margins of archetypal neighborhoods, persons who are in Williamsburg but not of it; people like the McGrady family have nothing to hide but are themselves hidden.

Why did you center your narrative in a single mother and her child?

I was in this book concerned with the temporal incarnation of a simple heart, or a pair of simple hearts, as the most powerful force in the world. I do not mean this hyperbolically, but literally: wars will be waged, books burned, dreams shattered, evil carried out; but none of it can ever come close to the endurance a mother has for her child when the former has abandoned herself to divine providence, maintaining her hope by cultivation of a simple heart, which again I am convinced is more revolutionary than any political idea ever has been or shall be, as it is the gift of life-qua-life, or being-in-itself. As I hypothesized the idea of an authorial voice, I also drew on my own experiences, one of which I was then beginning to weigh in light of some of the religious history I was undertaking, at that point the Catholic idea of sacrament, of which marriage is one.

Then as I read ancient and modern texts on marriage as sacrament, it dawned on me that almost every friend or girlfriend I had from grade school on up to undergraduate always had divorced parents. I measured this not only by counting, but in some experience or another I had recently had where someone mentioned their parents were happily married and I was dumbfounded. I wanted to explore this phenomenon, what it said about sacrament and personhood, art and answerability.

Most of the story happens inside your characters’ minds. Your writing often follows their streams of consciousness. When it comes to language and style, who inspired you the most?

As a student of literature, I learned very early on that stream-of-consciousness in published work is of course a very fine-tailored deal. It requires much editorial work, or order, in order to appear anarchic. Thus we write off the top of our heads and often have to go back and revise it. Woolf, Joyce, and any number of mid-twentieth century Americans sought to convey a sense of spontaneity that is itself the result of extensive editorial reconstruction. One must go back and actually edit – or their editors edited – the work to seem particularly overflowing. I have found that when done well one can at the same time better comprehend the other and oneself in a sense that hitherto neither would have thought possible. To this end, I am trying to better understand the outcasts of a society, or the replaced, and their place within religious literality. 

It is certainly not something employed in my other forthcoming books, but for this text I found that the aspect of reflection was so central that I had to make an attempt to capture thought itself. This, alas, is impossible, as if we start writing down precisely what we are thinking, especially when emotionally overwhelmed, it is like hitting the brakes all at once on the highway or something like that, or turning around in a whirlpool, against the current.

I think the stylistic forces at work here were something like a fusion of Gustave Flaubert and Ingeborg Bachmann. One thing that I can say absolutely, looking back, is that there was a sentiment correlative to my idea of literary cognition that I would still stand by today. Interestingly, it was the only epigraph for my forthcoming three-volume Künstlerroman that I did not hear back from the publishers on. I had reached out to New York Review of Books Classics just as the pandemic was beginning in earnest and could have written to them again, I suppose; but the book proceeded without this passage, and perhaps its best usage is indeed to share here. It comes from Francis Steegmuller’s translation of a lesser known bit of prose from Flaubert:

I am turning toward a kind of aesthetic mysticism… When there is no encouragement to be derived from one’s fellows, when the exterior world is disgusting, enervating, corruptive, and brutalizing, honest and sensitive people are forced to seek somewhere within themselves a more suitable place to live. If society continues on its present path I believe we shall see the return of mystics as have existed in all the dark ages of the world. The soul, unable to overflow, will be concentrated in itself. The time is not far off when we shall see the return of world-sickness – beliefs in the Last Day, expectation of the Messiah, etc. But all this enthusiasm will be ignorant of its own nature, and, the age being what it is, can have no theological foundation: what will be its basis? Some will seek it in the flesh, others in the ancient religions, others in art; humanity, like the Jewish tribes in the desert, will adore all kinds of idols. We were born a little too early: in twenty-five years the points of intersection of these quests will provide superb subjects for masters. Then prose (Prose, the youngest form) will be able to play a magnificent humanitarian symphony. [excerpt from Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait (NYRB Classics, 2005.]

Readers of Dylan Thomas will be disappointed not by lack of poetic musicality, but because the title has nothing to do with Dylan Thomas or his book. We could probably add Qiu Miaojin, Proust, Breece D’J Pancake, and Marguerite Porete to the canon of voices at work when I executed the book. This was a very early work, and I must admit that my aesthetic taste was still in the process of getting its bearings straight. I wrote the book in a couple of afternoons; indeed it took me three days to write and five years to get published. Nonetheless, it is important in that it is a seed that goes two ways: a prolegomena to the vast work, and also the first movement of a seasonal cycle of New York novellas.

Your story is centered around Christmas and there are several references to Easter. We learn that Caitlin went to a retreat in the Abbey of Gethsemani. Sarah’s First Communion is also mentioned in the book. The life of your characters is clearly punctuated by those liturgical points of reference. How do you see the role of faith in your story?

Faith is not overt because I believe that my intention was to model a narrative on persons for whom perhaps not even a sacred text can come up with the answer. Not all, I’m sure, but a number of persons reading this who are religious, and have a central text or texts, have turned to this material in every frame of mind imaginable. But perhaps the most troubling is when one brings a problem to the doctrine and cannot find a concrete referential point. In my book, it is rather that I believe attempts have been made in various fashions by the mother, Caitlin, to vindicate her choice and decision, and she has realized she was wrong. But it is this very notion of “wrongness” that I am interested in, not whether someone is or is not wrong.

Freedom from marriage has not resulted in glamor and independence, but rather delusions of living in a “tenement”, or an abject misunderstanding of herself altogether. This again is not some proclamation of traditionalism or something, but rather the very fact that things in general seldom pan out precisely the way we envision them. I am sure there are many persons who have committed an act that violated their religious principles for the sake of what was perceived as freedom or gain, only in the end to find out they were in fact wrong. They are rather torn and conflicted rather than free and easy, and in what is initially a terrible process, they are actually called into a higher state of comprehending holy things, among them pain and suffering, writing and holiness, willingness to militantly be available for what one is called to be, no matter how one got to this place. It is an abolition of victimhood. And again, I rather celebrate Caitlin McGrady, as the cloud of self-referential unknowing is not a bad thing to me, but a natural thing. The age calls for a derangement of the senses. She knows that she does not know, and knows that those around her parading gentrified confidence know far less in believing that they know everything, which is to know nothing. Her strength is made perfect in weakness.

Here is someone who grew up believing marriage was a sacrament, got married proclaiming it as so, taught her child the same thing, and in the next movement was no longer married. The problem is both religious and secular, immediate and genealogical. But this human comedy is quickly curtailed by the idea of offering herself as an ideal mother (and on Christmas Day, as surrogate daughter), not because she is unmarried, but because she loves her daughter.

We do not, I am saying, have to take one’s life decisions and attach it to every last atom of the subject’s being, which our digital culture would certainly have one believe. Likewise, if a faith is steadily undermined to the point of destruction, this does not definitively prove the faith is wrong, per se, but that people have destroyed it for themselves. We quite frankly have no idea what another person on earth feels, nor do we even comprehend ourselves as much as we put on a commendable show of it on the world-stage. Faith then is not lamenting what has happened, nor going through mental jugglery in an effort to vindicate lesser decisions we have made. Rather, it is again about the simple heart. The simple heart is ready to die, but only because its bearer is at last ready to live. At the same time, there are things that are beyond both the science of language and the language of science; I believe the predicament in this book is one of them, and will be in the subsequent three volumes of the tetralogy.

You do not hide the poverty, suffering, and flaws of your characters. Yet, since we get to know them through the eyes of Sarah, it is hard to not look at them with affection. Why did you choose this working-class setting and a child’s perspective of it?

Though I have been discussing some heavier implications of the book, I think here I can move into something perhaps still thoughtful, but theoretically easier. This would be for instance, in a place like Williamsburg or Brooklyn, both of which have simultaneously become nouns and adjectives, we associate a specific type with the adjectival noun. Depending on who we are, our instinctual mental image will vary. Perhaps less so for Williamsburg. But there are many people in Williamsburg who I would imagine do not go to bars until 4:00 am, do not get tattoos, do not listen to music other than what is on the radio, do not care for the Democratic Party, and are in essence not-hipsters, or outcasts-in-being. But the genealogy of persons perhaps several generations-deep in places like Williamsburg constitute just as important a place as any manufactured subculture, or product of the culture industry, such as the idea of the hipster.

I think a perfect example of this is the wealth of classical scholarship available from the late 1960s, or the Summer of Love. There were people hallucinating and fornicating in San Francisco, yes; some are still there, both in the flesh and in mythological or ghost form. But there were also great minds teaching and writing such as Gilbert Highet, Thomas Merton, or Edward Dahlberg, who in their literary profundities force one to realize how odious a good deal of secular glorification is.

So this literary process for me was a secular variation on negative theology: how can I define Williamsburg by what it isn’t, which is thereby what it is? I have no interest whatsoever in the archetypes of Brooklyn or Williamsburg based on both firsthand experience and a natural inclination for substance. I think that for both myself and someone like Caitlin McGrady you are just walking down the street one day, and it dawns on you that empiricism is not the beginning and end, but a limitation. At that point one is in business. Gentrification is a disease of the mind. Pierre Hadot has an excellent book, Philosophy as a Way of Life, in which he (among other things) traces the idea of spiritual exercise from the ancients into the twentieth century… I think that in addition to unloading the ancient philosophical origins of Ignatius of Loyola’s exercises, we likewise can reconsider the spirit at work in ancient practices and texts that we would otherwise consider secular. Typology has a singular hand in Hadot’s book, or thesis; but I say all of this because I think the writing process was for me something of a spiritual exercise, cut in the cloth of a more ancient tradition.

Did you have a concrete reader in mind when you wrote this book?

If I had something concrete in mind when I wrote the book, I believe it was Platonic, or Neoplatonic, in its appeal to the Ideas, or Forms. I was concerned first with apprehending the degradation of life and union in the country, which has been accelerating for four or five decades now. I am not interested, however, in moralizing; I am interested in apprehending the scenario whereby a moral fixity offers itself to every situation at the cost of sanity and endurance. If an institution like the Catholic Church is active in a society whereby the sacrament of marriage is not taken seriously on the whole, it puts the poet in a situation not unlike Dante’s, I suppose, wherein the philosophers and theologians had millions of words on the afterlife… but they could not come up with the Comedia. We have Aristotelians and Platonists running around to this day, but they are hollowed out by our absolute lack of Homers.

Faced with an abysmal situation, like the person who is irreversibly against infanticide or the dissolving of a marriage under any scenario, we have in the remedial sense therapy and support groups for when all hell breaks loose. But this tells us nothing about the interior lives of mothers without husbands, and children with just one parent.

Rather than get too concerned with sin, condemning sinners or sins themselves, I am more interested in the book of disquiet that is at the heart of holiday reflection but cannot seemingly be put into words. Although subsequent books will come forth that are much different from this one, this novella strikes me as a fair starting place. I wrote for the reader who is wondering what on earth happened to literature; my wager could not be any larger, in its idea of a creative retrieval that ultimately, when the day is done, hits a target no one can see. It is not that my books are apolitical, but rather that they reject the very premises of binary political theologies. I am very much like Plotinus in that sense, more concerned with the One than quantity of books sold, speeches read from scripts designed to distract, or whatever eschatological spectacle is in the headlines now, with the urgency of a switchblade knife, only to – poof – vanish, the second it is no longer reported on.  

Alexandre Gonçalves is a PhD candidate in Communication at Columbia University. He also has a Master’s degree in Comparative Media Studies from MIT.