To Describe Our World: An Interview with Kevin O’Rourke

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“One could only begin simply by looking,” Kevin O’Rourke writes to welcome us into his new memoir: As If Seen at an Angle (Tinderbox Editions, 2017). Comprised of tightly woven essays on art, medicine, death, and grief, his new book is at once funny but heartbreaking, lyric but precise. It explores a fascinating range of topics — from Clyfford Still’s famously acerbic personality to the YouTube channel for the Benson Family Funeral Home in Chicago; from the untimely death of The Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch to the history of German wunderkammer; from “The Pink House” where the author used to party in college to his father’s suicide and his mother’s subsequent grief and lost battle with cancer. Parsing the fogs of distant memories, flying over landscapes, zooming in on the details of artworks, and scouring all kinds of dictionaries and databases, O’Rourke weaves together a rich web of artistic, scientific, and personal inquiries.

I had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about his book and some of the complex ideas and nuanced emotions it seeks to understand.

To describe our world we need words, which themselves invite inquires of their own, hence the nested doll that is etymology, the root of which comes from the Ancient Greek etymologia, “study of the true sense (of a word).” Which is tricky, the definition containing the old chestnut true, a word that by simply existing divides the world into light and dark, yes and no, and creates the gulfs between those far shores of disagreement. Words, then, are an imprecise tool at best, as apt to cause injury as cure. And words will inevitably fail us, as our bodies and all the bodies of those we love will inevitably fail. Our world is one of inevitably irrevocably failing bodies trying to make some sense of our failures, our bodies creaking aging wooden windmills barely hanging on to the soil in a rain-stricken landscape.

I wanted to start by talking about language, and language as a form of inquiry. I think the book could reasonably be described as a book about epistemology — how we know what we know, by the ways that we see. Part of seeing is also in creating the vehicles for sight — art, sentences, music, so on. I wonder if you could describe how you think about your prosodic style and how it relates to the artworks you engage. Likewise, if you could describe language’s relationship to the body, especially to anatomy. Is etymology a form of surgery? Is the body a complex sentence? And what about imprecision and failure?

You’re right that As If Seen at an Angle is in many ways a book about epistemology. I also see the essays’ structures as being modeled on epistemological inquiry. When I was writing As If, I was keenly interested in using words’ roots to understand their implied or “true” meanings, so I spent a lot of time looking up the epistemology of words. Epistemology dictionaries work like regular dictionaries: you have entries for words, generally a short definition of that word, and then linked roots/sources, often going backward in time. Take the Online Epistemology Dictionary’s entry for “book,” for example. We’re given the more recent Old English “boc” and then the Proto-Germanic “bokiz,” for “beech,” in the sense of writing on beech bark. A lot of my writing follows a similar method of inquiry. I start with an end problem or issue I’m interested in exploring — the relationship between emotion and health, etc. — and then either work backward, or dig and dig.

And at the risk of being pedantic, what are words but abstract representations that we’ve decided stand for things in the world? At some point, someone saw a cat, so we decided we needed a name for the cat, certainly to communicate with one another about the cat, and possibly also so we could even know how to think of the cat (since we largely think in words; I read too much Wittgenstein when younger). The same goes for the body, and for understanding what happens to the body. Unless one practices medicine or works with medical literature, one is unlikely to encounter the enormous mass of words used to describe the things that go wrong with us. But the words are out there, multisyllabic and waiting.

Seen from above, there seems to be little beach where California’s Mattole River meets the Pacific Ocean. The transition from land to sea looks abrupt, as the summer’s dry, yellow grass — maize and goldenrod, straw and cream — terminates in a band of green fed by the spreading delta created by the river’s alliance with the sea. What beach there is is interrupted by the flow of the river itself, running parallel to the waves’ rhythmic pleating before making a sharp left and heading to its source and terminus. The river flows fast and free, and the channel it cuts through the pebbled sand looks almost machine-carved. The sound of the ocean dominates, and here and there driftwood lies, bleached by salt and sun and looking like great knobby bones.

I want to hazard that there are two different kinds of seeing in this book: the landscape pan and microscope. In this example of the former, we have a very real sense of landscape as made — “machine-carved,” perhaps, but also carved here in description by syntax. Stretching this a little bit, I think you could also consider the major memoiristic thrust of the book as a form of landscape — personal, temporal landscape. This, too, is something that is made. I wonder if you could talk about the act of writing memoir, making memory, and its relationship to the viewer? The viewer (read: reader) is at once looking at the piece but is also embedded within it. I wonder if you might unpack this dynamic?

Writing memoir/personal essay is strange, because on the one hand it’s inherently diaristic to mine one’s memories. But because a personal essay is expressly not a diary entry, one has to keep the possibility of an audience in mind at all times. This means resisting the impulse to include things one might otherwise include in a diary (i.e., by pulling punches, or punching harder for effect), and it means sculpting one’s memories — or supplementing one’s memories — to serve the art of the essay.

For example, I don’t personally remember every detail in the passage above. When I wrote “Video, Videre,” I stared at a lot of pictures of the mouth of the Mattole River, which I camped near in 2011. Certain aspects are straight from my memory — that the channel the river cut through the sand near the Pacific Ocean looked machine-carved, for one — but there’s a lot of digging into my own head, and supporting what I find there with research, going on. Memory, or at least my memory, is too spotty to serve as the sole source of a piece. Plus, the point of a personal essay isn’t to serve as a record of the writer’s memory, but to explore a theme or topic in search of some understanding or truth. After all, the word “essay” comes from the Middle French “essai” for “trial, attempt” (again, per the Online Etymology Dictionary).

Because who knows, what if what one thinks is just a swollen lymph node, and that the swelling will go away on its own, or at least will go away as soon as one stops thinking constantly about it, is not a swollen lymph node at all but a ‘low-grade malignant neoplasm’? Ignorance, particularly ignorance of mostly rare but occasionally deadly medical conditions that initially manifest as the sort of harmless everyday physical hiccups we all experience more and more frequently as we age, is bliss. But the information to feed our fears is out there and accessible; all one needs to do is reach out and grab it. . . . [C]rime statistics associated with one’s neighborhood; the origin and nutritional viability of those long, unpronounceable chemical ingredients listed on the side of one’s box of breakfast pastries; vehicle-related deaths per year; and images, oh god, images: of hemorrhagic fevers, of what happens when high-caliber rounds hit human bodies; of plan crashes; and of one’s exes looking older and puffier than one’s memories of them, thus realigning our view of our ourselves and the constantly crumbling world of jowls and cellulite, beer bellies and receding hairlines.

If we talk about knowledge, then we must, in the twenty-first century, talk about over-knowledge. Our access to knowledge is unprecedented, and what I especially love about the hypochondria that you describe in this passage is the way in which it is so deeply related to knowledge, which feels primary to hypochondria — that we don’t start as hypochondriacs and find these resources but that these resources initiate in us a kind of intimate anxiety. Knowledge inevitably leads to our own bodies, and so to our own deaths (think of the Garden of Eden). Can you describe the relationship between knowledge and anxiety, and how the internet changes this? What about limitless knowledge and bodily finitude?

I wrote a number of these pieces when I was working for The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute. During my time there, I attended a conference in which the problems posed by having too much data (specifically, too much genomic data) were discussed. In short, the drastic decrease in cost and time since the human genome was first sequenced in 2000 has led to a huge bottlenecked influx of data, so much that researchers can’t handle it. Though medical researchers are not in general an anxious bunch, at this conference there was a palpable sense of being frustrated and upset about all of this information. The very existence of the unprocessed data wasn’t anxiety-inducing; they weren’t afraid of the sky above in its infinity. Instead, what was maddening was that there was information the researchers couldn’t access, because that information might be able to answer their questions.

This is how I feel about the internet, with the addition that the internet is often toxic and bad. I find the mass of information on the internet to be simultaneously anxiety-inducing and comforting; the answers we seek may well be there, but we’ll need to wade through lots of muck to find them. And you know, duh, knowledge in general is always two-sided. I’m glad that I took Latin and Greek so I can appreciate Classical references in books, and I’m happy my four-and-a-half-year-old son knows the names of Edvard Munch paintings on sight because my wife and I own a lot of art books, but I’d prefer not to know about precancerous polyps, or certain grim things the Nazis did, or what little kids on ECMO look like (something I learned while at CHOP). Not everything is enriching.

A confession: Whenever artists dies, especially younger artists, I inevitably look up their age so that I can compare my own progression as an artist to theirs.

Kevin O’Rourke

This is a wonderfully, humorously frank moment, and one that should resonate with many writers. A simple question here (maybe!): what is the relationship between “accomplishment” and “life”? Do you sense this relationship changing as we navigate a new political, cultural, and technological era?

Though there have been changes to the way art is published and shared (namely via the internet), and though these changes — by reducing costs, and enabling work to be shared widely and instantly — mean that there’s a ton of art to wade through, the older yardsticks by which success is measured haven’t really changed much. For writers this means a book or books by an established press, and some measure of critical regard (if not commercial success). Look at many universities’ application requirements for creative writing faculty positions. Here’s the language from an opening at The New School: “MFA or equivalent professional experience; significant publication history, including at least one book.” The clear message is that if you haven’t published a book — never mind your blog, or your active Twitter feed — you shouldn’t bother applying.

And look, it’s beyond the scope of this interview to debate universities as cultural gatekeepers, but the point is that established “success” — even narrowly defined, career-focused success — leads to the possibility of more success. Say you publish a book and land a 2:2 teaching position. Even if the position pays modestly, which it certainly will given academic compensation in today’s late-capitalist economy, the position will afford you the time and space to work on your art. Which could lead to further publication and accolades, et cetera et cetera, and before you know it you’ve got a Guggenheim and a lifetime achievement award.

But as much as one might like technology to act as some great leveler, the traditional guideposts of success are helpful in that they winnow the field of what’s available. I felt overwhelmed by the amount of art in the world before the Internet. Now I just feel permanently behind the curve. The Internet is one of the things that makes me most appreciate my age, because I can remember what the world was like before it.

What do I like so much about [Clyfford] Still’s work? Well, I could say the movement; I could say the way his paint is applied like plaster; I could say the way his colors seem to literally pop out of his backgrounds. Or I could point to how when I look at Still paintings my eyes tend to dart crazily around their surfaces, for the colors’ vertical movements tend to thwart one’s eyes’ ability to see the paintings as wholes; maybe I could note how there is more going on, texture and visual-interest wise, in small sections of Still’s work than there is in the entirety of many other painters’ paintings’ wholes. Arguments regarding technique and expertise could be made; I could discuss his use of a palette knife instead of a brush; I could talk about hue and saturation; I could say the sheer size, for the experience of walking into a room of these giants is similar to being cursed out volubly and violently, similar to being hit in the face by an object flying through the air at great speed.

To me, this quote is about technique. First, might you offer us an etymology of “technique” (obviously I’m nudging you toward Aristotle here)? Second — considering Clyfford Still in particular — I want to ask a deeper question about epistemology and its relationship to craft: what is the relationship between knowing and expression?

Our “Technique” is a French word that comes from the Ancient Greek “tekhne,” for “art, skill, craft in work.” English words based on Romance words often have staid etymological progressions, though the fact that they’ve changed so little in thousands of years is interesting.

Now onto Clyfford Still: one of the reasons I’ll never be a super confident or successful poet is because I have trouble scanning lines. Meter does not pop out at me like it probably should. When I was at Kenyon, I took and nearly failed a literature class taught by Perry Lentz where I did abysmally in part because I never could scan lines well. Maybe this is old fashioned, but I do think there’s something to the old maxim of “you can’t break the rules if you don’t know the rules.” (NB: this has not really stopped me from writing poetry)

Take two paintings by Still, his PH-45, 1925 (LINK) vs. his PH-1052, 1977 (LINK). Before he started painting great shearing rips of color, Still — who received years of classroom training and had serious realistic-painting chops — produced traditional, generally representative works: self- portraits, landscapes, still lives, etc. The first painting, which Still painted when he was twenty-one, is a very straightforward natural still life. The second, which he produced when he was in his early seventies, is representative of his mature, violently abstract work, which he started producing almost exclusively in the 1940s. He’d had enough of the rules.

In the painting, she is the only other woman in the room. Like the female patient, as well as the clinicians operating on that patient, she is also wearing white, though the white she wears is only that of her high crenellated cap and of the apron she wears over her black clothes. The merest glimpse of her left hand lets you know she is holding something, a tray perhaps, that she has always been in the room holding a tray, that she is comfortable being the person in rooms of blood not engaged with that blood but instead being the person holding the tray and waiting to be called on by the men whose shirtsleeves have been rolled under their surgical gowns. Her eyes are heavy and ringed with red; she looks tired.

This is an obvious feminist moment, but I also think it has to do with different roles that have historically been gendered: the didact and the attendant. So I’m interested in the latter — here is another opportunity for an etymology: might you provide one for “attendant”? And then, could you talk about waiting, waiting for and waiting on, and the relationship between waiting and suffering? What about knowledge and medicine and how they attempt to intervene on what we all are waiting for, namely, death. Is there an art to the weariness of the attendant? Is there an art to waiting for death?

One more time with feeling: “attendant”<—the Old French “atendre,” “to expect, wait for”<—Latin “attendere,” “to stretch toward,”<—which is from the “ad,” “to, toward” + the Proto-Indo-European root “ten,” “to stretch.” To quote the Online Etymology Dictionary, “The notion is of “stretching” one’s mind toward something.” Killer, right?

I go into this at great length in “The Other Woman,” but the most interesting aspect of Thomas Eakins’s “The Agnew Clinic” for me is the nurse standing on the right side of the composition. The painting has the air of quiet bustle and movement — Dr. Agnew’s prognosticating; every member of the audience’s body is at an angle, either leaning forward to hear Agnew, or to better see the procedure at hand, or to share some confidence with their neighbor; and Agnew’s helpers busily loom over the patient, one cradling her head, one seeming to hold her down while readying a sponge, and the third actually making the incision. The nurse alone is still, and as a result the viewer’s eye is drawn to her. Our minds, to borrow from above, stretch toward her. There’s something about stillness in the midst of motion that attracts; I suppose there’s an art to being unbothered by commotion.

However, I’ve begun to suspect that catharsis might be too much to ask for. And that asking for catharsis is doomed form the start, because in seeking catharsis one is seeking an end that allows one to move on with the rest of one’s life. And this is foolish because things never really end, but instead continue and experiences merge into other experiences that merge into memories that jumble over each other like eager young children chasing a soccer ball on a foggy morning in October, all crowded chaotically around the object of their affection, the air fuzzy with their breath’s fog.

This is one of my favorite images in the entire book, and I want to use it, here, to ask a question that has both personal and political meaning. We want catharsis. We want closure, a sense of healing. But this is an impossibility — our vision blurs when we take aim at it. I wonder if you could talk about what we are left in the wake of this impossibility, namely, the never-ending, the continuing, the experiences and memories that “jumble over each other”? How do you consider this as, for instance, a memoirist?

First of all, I’m glad you liked the image! Little kids crowded around a soccer ball on a foggy weekend morning — soccer mornings are always misty and foggy, it seems — is just such a useful, rich image. I really do think we need more little-kids-playing-soccer-as-metaphor literature.

And this is perhaps your most difficult question, because grappling with the impossibility — or the unattainability— of catharsis is one of my central projects as a writer. I’d say, and I hope this doesn’t sound pithy, that in the absence of catharsis the seeking itself is the next best thing. At least that’s what I’ve settled on; I’m working on a book entirely about my father’s suicide now, so we’ll see whether process-as-catharsis-replacement suffices.

Though my father’s mustache was for many years a deep, lustrous black, by the time he died it had begun to gray, and was flecked throughout with wiry gray hairs. In particular, there was one gray hair on the left side of my dad’s mustache that always seemed to jut out from the main mass of hair, as if it were a mustache cowlick. . . . The hair wasn’t special. It was a hair. And he never mentioned it, nor did I mention it and in so mentioning it prompt a deep father-son conversation about grooming, and the face one presents to others, how to navigate the churning waters of adulthood, and the iniquity of aging. The hair was simply there. But it is special insofar as I remember it, or at least insofar as it is a conduit for remembering something that is special; I cannot say for sure that I would much remember what my father looked like (without photographic aid) if not for that gray hair.

Of course, I don’t want to leave us hanging on ad infinitum. So some closure, and where I find it is precisely in the details. In fact, in the very idea of detail. Here we can revisit what we’ve been talking about in terms of technique and making, but I want to shift this toward an examination of memorial. This book itself is a memorial, certainly, to your father and mother, and I wonder if you could talk about detail — such as the bristles of your father’s mustache (no doubt an echo of the painters’ brushes that can be found throughout the book) — as a memento. You seem to wrestle with its simplification of your memories, at the same you are grateful for its strong effects, the longing it can so readily create. It seems music, especially, does this kind of ambivalent work as well. Could you unpack this ambivalence? Could you talk further about the ways that you have carried your loved ones around with you?

We carry everyone we love everywhere with us, all of the time. Some details simply stick out — like that gray hair in my father’s mustache did, literally — more than others. What I’ve tried to do in these essays, particularly the ones explicitly about loss, is to grab onto those details that I can remember clearly, to see where they lead.

See, before I turned entirely to writing, I thought I’d become a visual artist, hence why I write about art so often. And when I was practicing art, I was always drawn to abstract work, both because it was fun to make (look at a Pollock, who’s out of style now but whatever, and tell me that flinging paint around a room doesn’t seem like fun) and because I enjoyed not necessarily knowing where a piece would end up. For example, my senior thesis at Kenyon was a video installation: I used old home movies that my father had shot to create a series of video pieces, some more abstract than others. I picked a series of things my father had shot — my sisters playing in the backyard, or beach scenes — and sort of deconstructed them by zooming way in on specific frames, blurring the clearly representational, etc. It sounds sophomoric now that I’m writing about it (the installation was my undergraduate thesis after all), but that’s still roughly the kind of work I’m interested in. Even if focusing so closely on specific things — like my father’s mustache, or my mother’s chemo port, which is the subject of “Ports and Dockings” — means that I’m simplifying memories by breaking them into parts. Life and art are hard enough as is, and I have no problem with cutting corners from time to time.

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