Grace Dane Mazur - Looking at Lascaux, Renaissance and Byzantine images of Christ harrowing Hell, Rubens, Vermeer, and others Mazur contemplates writing, attention, Hades, the gates of Hell, trap doors, demons, love, the human body, forbidden looking, Virgil, Ovid, Nicodemus, Nighttown, and the melancholy of twilight

Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination

Grace Dane Mazur, Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination, A K Peters/CRC Press, 2010.

Click here to download the first chapter of Hinges as a PDF file

Grace Dane Mazur uses the idea of the hinge to illuminate real and metaphysical thresholds in fiction, poetry, myth, and ordinary life. From ancient narratives of Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Parmenides, and Orpheus, to modern works by Katherine Mansfield and Eudora Welty, the exploration of the Other World acts as a metaphor for the entrancement of reading and writing.
Looking at Lascaux, Renaissance and Byzantine images of Christ harrowing Hell, Rubens, Vermeer, and others Mazur contemplates writing, attention, Hades, the gates of Hell, trap doors, demons, love, the human body, forbidden looking, Virgil, Ovid, Nicodemus, Nighttown, and the melancholy of twilight.

What is it to be at the edge of the world of the imagination? How do writers, readers, and thinkers deal with this threshold? How do painters represent it? This unusual book—a combination of personal essay, literary criticism, art history, and memoir—examines what happens when we come under the spell of writing, when we get to that place where we enter into an altered state of consciousness, either as writer or as reader. Mazur uses the idea of hinges to explore what happens at real doorways as well as at metaphysical turning points and transformations¬—in fiction and poetry, and also in ordinary life. As she ranges from the ancient narratives of Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Parmenides, and Orpheus, to the modern fictions of Katherine Mansfield and Eudora Welty, she presents the hero’s exploration of the Other World as a metaphor for how we enter into the entrancement of the novel. Looking at art from the time of the prehistoric caves at Lascaux, through the Renaissance, and up to the Dutch Baroque, Mazur contemplates the structure of Hell; the usefulness of demons; and the paradox of writing and solitude. Along the way, she ponders such questions as: Why are the gates of Hell so noisy? Why is falling in love like a trapdoor? Why is the rotation of the earth uncanny? Why do spiders provoke phobias? What happens when looking is forbidden? What is it about twilight that makes gods behave strangely and brings a brief melancholy to both humans and apes? Mazur shows us new ways of thinking about mind, writing, and existence.

Some of the illustrations in Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination are hard to see in the small format of the book. As they deserve and repay fierce attention, I have put them here.

"Ordinary things can lie around unnoticed until someone comes along whose poetic imagination makes the vital connections and uncovers the riches lying concealed in their depths. Grace Dane Mazur has created an inspired fugue, writing with sensitivity and passion as she finds in the common hinge a multilayered, apocalyptic and powerful metaphor of entrances and exits, openings, initiations and descents."―MARINA WARNER

"Hinges, by Grace Dane Mazur, is a masterpiece of literary and artistic insight. To read it is to experience all over again the thrill of reading. It makes you want to revisit the world’s great masters of verbal art―Homer, Virgil, Milton, and so many others. Page after page, the reader sees something radiantly new about each of them―and about the reader’s own self at the moment of reading them. The author of this remarkable book has an uncanny instinct for seeing things as they really are at that liminal moment when the reader, in reading, crosses over from the everyday to the eternal." ―GREGORY NAGY

"Mazur’s book is strange in wonderful ways. It perches itself on the liminal perspective, where the risks of instability can yield long sight. Reaching deep into inspired erudition, it is filled with quirks and profundities, told in a voice that is both of this world and not."―REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN

"What lies between everything and nothing―asleep and awake, reader and book, the space between words, the hero/heroine and the world they occupy and from which they must escape―what lies between all that, and on what invisible spring is it all tightly held and delicately balanced and vulnerable to becoming undone? With stunning and direct simplicity, Grace Dane Mazur illuminates these darknesses, revealing an imagination that is original and vital. Here is a book I absolutely needed to read."―JAMAICA KINCAID

What a curious little book Hinges is. Written by a biologist-turned-writer, the spouse of a mathematician, it combines art history, the act of reading, memoir and mythology into one accessible package. Grace Dane Mazur explores what happens when we cross the threshold between reality and imagination, and also examines the importance of the threshold itself. Mixing Greek and Christian stories — among other religions/philosophies — with classic poetry and paintings, she demonstrates how other inquisitive minds have tackled the notion of Other Worlds. It is a fantastic and useful read, especially those looking to better understand their own craft.
Stories begin with instabilities — perhaps because beginnings themselves are such unstable conditions. In fact, the opening pages sometimes show the protagonist in a condition of both liminality and entrancement, liminality being the state of being on the threshold. It is as though there is a sense of, "Look, reader, the same thing that is happening to you — now that you are coiled around this book and are about to slip into the imagined world — is happening to this fictional character, who is at the edge of his own altered consciousness, and at the edge of adventure."
Interestingly enough, Mazur has a connection with the last book I reviewed, A Kite in the Wind, in that she has also taught in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Like many of that book's contributors, she maintains that inspiration and understanding of the written word can come from a variety of sources, and that different artists will have different interpretations of similar events. Her main focus lies with characters' first entrance into another world, and she uses paintings from Peter Paul Rubens, Dionysus, Fra Angelico, and more to illustrate her thoughts.
Our entrance into the other world when we read fiction is in many ways analogous to the hero's descent to the underworld, or crossing over to the Other World. I base this on the three qualities that seem most indicative to me of such journeys: the disappearance of boundaries, the distortion of time, and the distortion of language.She goes on to add:
Like dream time, narrative time is non-linear, looping when it wants, disappearing when it chooses. It is elastic, stretching and contracting, two minutes can take several pages, while one sentence may leap through years.
When writing, we are often told that the best approach to our most climatic or intimate moments is to stretch them out, to build suspense and longing in order to have a greater impact. Slowing down can prolong pain in a good way — the way in which we read books to process the world, pain that can be put away when we need to, in order to go about our day. The same can be said for love, for who doesn't want to draw out, for as long as possible, the best feelings of love? Think of all the kisses, the stories, the trips, the conversations that you wished would never end. Think of all the sights and sounds that can bring them back in an instant.
Mazur's writing is also that of an academic, and Hinges has plenty of footnotes, citations and an index, as well as a timeline for the the writers and painters she mentions. Her points of reference date all the way back to 15,000BC, with the Lascaux cave paintings, up to the year 2000AD, with Charles Baxter's The Feast of Love. She outlines and re-outlines her position, down to the point of better defining her word choices:

The door that is not plumb, not correctly suspended from its hinges, is like a carcass, a side of beef, dead weight; it is pretty useless. It can fall open, but not swing shut. This is why becoming unhinged is such a serious thing. You collapse wildly; you swing heavily askew.
One form that becoming unhinged can take is obsession. Although the etymology of obsession implies that something sits on us or besieges us — from the Latin ob meaning against, toward, over, and sedere, to sit — perhaps one can also think of it as when we sit in one of the rooms of our mind, unable to perform the hinging action to take us to any other room.

Some of the specific examples of hinging into another room are Christ's decent into the underworld (and how different forms of Christianity interpret that event), the Homeric "Hymn to Demeter," and Virgil's story of Orpheus, the man who made a deal with the underworld to have his beloved Eurydice back in the land of the living, only to derail his own plans at the last moment. (Mazur's line, "Descended from the Muses, he is not one for prudent behavior or stolid obedience," made me laugh knowingly.) I will admit that I was not too terribly familiar with any of these stories, but Mazur explains them all in a way that does not seem overly simplistic, nor does she fly right over the head of the classically under-read. Her teaching skills shine.
Hinges is not a long book — just 152 pages, including the index — but it provides plenty to think about. Both academics and creative types can find thoughts applicable to their work, as she articulates what we find satisfying in making our worlds permeable. I'm quite glad I read it right after A Kite in the Wind; the two complement each other well. The lines between writer and reader are also fuzzy for those who are in the business of doing both. We know what it's like to be enveloped by a good story, and yet that story also makes us want to get to work. We also know what it's like to care about a character, yet wish its creator had done a better job. The Writing world and the Reading world co-exist on a greater plane, the Imaginative Universe. Mazur acknowledges these separate-but-overlapping entities, and in the end, elevates the discussion on what art can do. - Sara Habein

Night towns, Orpheus, Gilgamesh, Hinges  and Doors
Hinges: Meditations on the  Portals of the Imaginations by Grace Dane Mazur is a very illuminating look at the worlds reading can take us into.  This a very rich book that covers brilliantly much directly of great interest to those of us very into the reading life.   
Mazur  explores the myths of Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Parmenides and Orpheus as  they relate to how we experience literature.  She  helps us to understand what happens to our analytic mind as well as our subconscious as we enter a fictional world.

I want to take a brief look at what she says about one of Katherine Mansfield's best known short stories, "The Garden Party" as it can sort of serve to let us see how Mazur's book can help us get more from what we read, which is to me a tremendous boon.  There really are an  awful lot of very interesting things in this book.   I normally do not do this but I think it maybe best to quote from the press release a bit:
"What is it to be at the edge of the world of the imagination? How do writers, readers, and thinkers deal with this threshold? How do painters represent it? This unusual book — a combination of personal essay, literary criticism, art history, and memoir — examines what happens when we come under the spell of writing, when we get to that place where we enter into an altered state of consciousness, either as writer or as reader. Mazur uses the idea of hinges to explore what happens at real doorways as well as at metaphysical turning points and transformations — in fiction and poetry, and also in ordinary life. As she ranges from the ancient narratives of Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Parmenides, and Orpheus, to the modern fictions of Katherine Mansfield and Eudora Welty, she presents the hero’s exploration of the Other World as a metaphor for how we enter into the entrancement of the novel."
I am assuming here a  basic familiarity with Katherine Mansfield's short story "The Garden Party.  (There is a link to the story in my first post on it  HERE.)    As the story opens an affluent family is preparing for a garden party.   The setting is New Zealand in the 1910s.   The mother in the family is trying to let one of her daughters take control of the setting up of the party, or she is pretending to do that to give her daughter responsibility.     The workers some how seem more "earthy" and real to her. She wishes she could be friends with them.   Near where the girl and her family lives is a place where "workers" live.    Everyone in the girl's world works with their mind, not their bodies.   Word comes that a man in the worker village has been killed.   He has a wife an five children.  To compress a bit (read the story and I think you will for sure see Mazur's point of view is very illuminating) the girl ends up taking left over food from the party to the family of the man who was killed.   As she walks toward the house of the widow she feels she is entering a dark world she does not really understand.   She is both attracted to it and repelled.   As she sees the body of the man, about 35 years old, she seems to me to have her first  stirrings of passion.   She has a simultaneous  first encounter with Thanatos and Eros in the cabin in the underworld, the night town of the workers village.    As she leaves the village her brother awaits her to guide her home.  Here is the wonderful conversation between Laura and her brother:
" Laurie put his arm round her shoulder. "Don't cry," he said in his warm, loving voice. "Was it awful?"
    "No," sobbed Laura. "It was simply marvellous. But Laurie--" She stopped, she looked at her brother. "Isn't life," she stammered, "isn't life--" But what life was she couldn't explain. No matter. He quite understood.
     "Isn't it, darling?" said Laurie"

As I was reading Mazur's remarks on Katherine Mansfield it seems almost as if Mansfield own life was a leaving taking from the very comfortable house hold of her Bank of New Zealand President father to the  near poverty of life among the denizens of the  night town that was literary London in the 1920s.   Mazur makes some interesting speculative points about how Mansfield made use of her fatal disease in deepening and maturing her art.   Mazur has an  extremely interesting and impressive background.   She has a PhD in Biology from Harvard.   For ten years she was the fiction editor of the Harvard Review.   She is the author of a novel, Trespass and a collection of short stories, Silk, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.There is a lot more information on Mazur on her web page.
I strongly endorse this book to anyone interested in understanding the mythic roots and metaphysics of the reading life.    I really enjoyed her account of the story of Gilgamesh.    The book is also extremely well illustrated.   I enjoyed reading this book and gained some concepts I can use going forward with my reading. -

How can you resist the subtitle of Grace Dane Mazur’s Hinges?
It’s Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination.
Well, you can’t resist it. Not if you’re book-ish, and especially not if you’re also writer-ish.
If book-ish was in the book’s index, you might see a reference to this passage:
“When we enter the altered state of consciousness to which fiction carries us, we lose ourselves.”
And if writer-ish appeared below, you might see a connection to this one:
“Because the close, focused attention of the writer is often even more piercing and prolonged than that of the reader, the imagined world replaces by its intensity and brilliance the ordinary world of the living.”
And there *is* an index. Because Hinges has some personal anecdotes, but it also reads a little like a series of lectures.
But lectures given by someone who holds her subject close, so the tone is somewhat academic but infused with an intensity and a passion for these portals. (So that’s not a bad thing.)
To illustrate, here is the longer passage that I think would be indexed under book-ish:
“When we enter the altered state of consciousness to which fiction carries us, we lose ourselves. We lose our sense of time. Language becomes strange or altered. We replace our loved ones – our lost, our missing, our absent, our longed for – with new people, sudden strangers who are at once accessible and beguiling. Though we cannot quite reach out and touch these strangers, they touch us, move us, break our hearts or heal them, and cause us to lurch into laughter and weeping. They make us know in ways we have never known before, and take us beyond human limits, beyond the borders of the mind.”
You can see the emotional quotient of the subject matter, with the talk of the readers’ engagement and being touched and broken-hearted, and you can also see the ways in which the sentence structure and vocabulary take it to a more formal mode of expression.
I actually found the more-academically-styled portions of Hinges, with their detailed analyses of specific paintings and excerpts from literary works, quite interesting; I had intended to read the book in 20-page sections, and more than once I read beyond that point in an analytical segment, because I was sincerely intrigued and challenged.
Nonetheless, I really enjoyed the more personal parts of the narrative and wished that there had been just a little more of that. Because imagination is personal, our engagement with art works and art forms is personal.
(There is a story about the author stealing plants, for instance, that I absolutely loved; a little more of that would have been much appreciated. Although I understand the risk of prosecution might just be too high. Heheh. And please don’t hold this against her until you know the details: said plants were sorely neglected and needed to be rescued. Or something. See Theft-ish-ness in that index.)
But if you are wearing your student hat while you’re reading this post, you might want to know that some of the works considered herein include: Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party”, Fra Angelico’s “Christ in Limbo”, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Peter Paul Rubens’ “Orpheus and Eurydice with Hades and Persephone”, and Ovid’s Metamorphosis.
Each is considered in the context of a hinge, or an edge, or a border. Here is how the author explains her preoccupation with such objects, with such states, with such symbols.
“Edges delight me. Borders and thresholds – these are the terrifying places where I am most at home even while I find them puzzling, doubt-engendering, and loaded with possibilities of choice and danger of permanent exile. My favorite people inhabit the margins. Dawn and twilight make me shudder.”
I can easily relate to this. I went through a long period of snapping photographs of gates on county roads.
(You can see one of them below, which I scanned to accompany my current Thursday posts on Adam Gopnik’s Winter; see how one book/photo I’m reading manages to hinge into another, too.)
At first I thought that was odd, a monstrous coincidence, that this book would make its way to me, seemingly the ideal reader for it. Even though I hadn’t articulated my interest as surrounding the hinge specifically.
But then I thought back to book-ish and writer-ish, and I think it’s more likely than not that, if you’re checking the index for these subjects, you, too, are fascinated by something like this, something which represents a transition, a turning, an opening.

(What is your favourite kind of hinge? Do tell.)
Here is another: the hinge between sound and silence.
“Greek mystical texts, says Kingsley, explain that this hissing or piping sound, this sound of silence, is the sound of creation: the noise made by stars and planets as they coil and spin.”
And here is another:
“As a writer, I often feel that friction – between non-being and becoming – as an idea is coming into view. That feeling of being about to have a thought can be so intense that it might as well be shrieking, and often I make proclamations to my beloved not that I have just had a though, but that one is on the way.”
One more under Book-ish:
“Certainly our silent reading voice is, as [the poet Thomas] Lux says, based on who we are and what we have experienced and felt. But I think it is some sort of new mixed voice, not solely our own, and this coupled voice becomes the means for inhabiting someone else’s thoughts.”
And one more under Writer-ish:
“Only in writing it all down do I see how abducted I get: I spend so much time flickering on the edge of work but not quite in it, the demons of the world of matter and of light, the demons of the garden, and the demons of dinner are always struggling for possession.”
Uh oh, I just realized that each of these probably would appear under both Book-ish and Writer-ish because we do hinge there, don’t we.
But that’s okay. In fact, I think that’s more-than-okay. I think that’s what Grace Dane Mazur intends to do with her work; she wants you to think about hinges, hers and yours and mine.
And if you take up the challenge, you quite likely will find that your response will hinge on something else. I can’t help but pull out the Book-ish-ness and the Writer-ish-ness, but there’s just where I hinge with this work. Your portal could take you somewhere else entirely.
I whole-hinged-ly recommend this work. -

Call her Gretchen. But that is surely the only simple signifier for Grace Dane Mazur, a writer of vast and passionate interests to which the label "interdisciplinary" rings hollow; this is a woman, after all, who has a section of her website dedicated to "astonishments." Consider Mazur's new book: Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination. It is partly an exploration of the creative process, partly a work of art history, partly an anthropological study, and partly an exploration of the brooding underworld (both metaphorical and literal). Try as I might, I simply can't sum up this slim book; it speaks for itself.
Mazur herself has an eclectic background and a powerful presence. (As Amy Minton put it in her book review for The Collagist: "If you find yourself in a dark wood, like Dante did, you might choose Virgil, the light, to guide, or you might choose Mazur—the wise woman, the mothering protector, and the childlike explorer.") Before turning to writing, Mazur studied painting and ceramics at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. After that, she studied biology at Harvard University, where she ultimately became a post-doctoral research biologist at the university's Biological Laboratories, where she studied the morphogenesis and micro-architecture of silkworms.Turning her wide mind to literature, she earned her MFA at from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She has since become the author of Silk, a collection of stories that was a New York Times notable book of the year, and the novel Trespass. Mazur was the fiction editor of the Harvard Review for a decade, and now serves as the fiction editor for Tupelo Press. She teaches creative writing at various colleges, leaving a long string of inspired students behind her; in fact, she was my instructor for my essay semester in the MFA program at Warren Wilson. Mazur lives just outside Boston, where she and her husband, the mathematician Barry Mazur, have been known to host a most gracious late morning breakfast.
In our conversation, Mazur and I discuss nothing less than the hinges of hell -- as well as Albrecht Dürer woodcuts, the Aeneid, how visual art and literature compare in their renditions of the underworld, Herman Melville, how nonfiction explorations influence the author's fiction, and, of course, Black Fire.
Here, then, is Gretchen:If it doesn't sound too grim to put it this way, what lured you to the hinges of hell?

Oh, not too grim at all! The Hell part of your question is easy: Hell has always been more interesting to writers than heaven. Think of Milton and his fascination with – and delight in – Satan. Anyway, because of some ideas I had about reading and writing and the trance state that one gets into when one is engaged in either, deeply, I was looking into questions of Hades, Hell, the world beyond, the other world. It seemed to me that there might be some connection between the trance state we descend into when we read or write and the voyage of the archaic hero when he goes down to visit the Land of the Dead. The more I read about the regions of Hades and Hell and the heroes who visit, the more I yearned to see images of these scenes. (I went to art school before college.)
There are a few Greek vase paintings--of Odysseus, Orpheus, Persephone & Hades, a few ancient sculptures, but by far the most often represented scenes of Hell show Christ, who descends to Hell right after the Crucifixion. There he smashes the gates and rescues Jewish prophets, patriarchs, and matriarchs--worthy figures from the Old Testament who could not achieve Christian salvation in the normal way, because they died before Christ came on the scene. (This episode is not in the Bible, but can be found in various gospels of the Apocrypha.) There are lots of Renaissance paintings, chock full of demons, from the Mediterranean countries as well as Northern Europe, Scandinavia, and England; there are also Byzantine frescoes and mosaics, as well as Russian icons. OK, you say, But what about hinges? I’m getting to them. Here’s what struck me about all those paintings of Christ harrowing Hell, as it’s called – or Christ in Limbo: the artist seemed to be spending too much time and energy depicting the hinges of the doors of Hell. Seemed to me, that is. The composition didn’t seem to require those hinges, yet in most cases they are most elegantly and tellingly drawn. Look at this fresco by Fra Angelico, for example, with the black pintle hinge on the door frame just below Christ’s hovering feet.
Or this woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, where the hinge on the broken door of Hell in the lower left corner is as big as a man’s face.
DurerNotice the hinges. Anyway. Perhaps because I spent so much of my life on the electron microscope, looking at the micro-architecture of Silkworms, those little unimportant-seeming things jump out at me. Look at me! they cry out. Figure out what I am doing here.
So I got to thinking about the HINGE. By which I mean real hinges, on every single door you go through, as you go through your day. And the nature of the hinges of hell. And then other sorts of metaphorical hinges, of the body, of the mind and of the soul, of experience, of the heavens – as well as hinges in poems and stories. And all of this fed into explorations of reading and writing and the trance state we get into when we do either…  
Is there a literary counterpart to how visual artists lingered so long in depicting the hinges of hell? That is, have writers spent a lot of time on this in their texts, or was it pretty unique to paintings and woodcuts?
Actually, writers have a really intense relationship with the gates of hell and their hinges, often concentrating on the unearthly sounds they produce—thunder, shrieks, the whistling roars.
Milton, for example, knows all about noisy hinges. In Paradise Lost (published in 1667), his syntax feels as marvelously grating and contorted as the sound he is describing, as he tells how Sin, the daughter and mistress of Satan, agrees to open the gates of Hell:
. . . then in the key-hole turns
Th’intricate wards, and every bolt and bar
Of massy iron or solid rock with ease
Unfastens; on a sudden, open fly
With impetuous recoil and jarring sound
Th’infernal doors, and on their hinges grate
Harsh thunder, that the lowest bottom shook
Of Erebus .
. .
[book ii, lines 871–883]
Virgil, who writes in the 1st century BC,  also knows these alarming hinges. In  Book VI of the Aeneid, we see Tisiphonë, one of the Furies, guardian of the gates of Hell:
            (…) A massive gate
With adamantine pillars faced the stream,
So strong no force of men or gods in war
May ever avail to crack and bring it down,
And high in air an iron tower stands
On which Tisiphonë, her bloody robe
Pulled up around her, has her seat and keeps
Unsleeping watch over the entrance way
By day and night. (…) 
At once the avenger girdled with her whip,
Tisiphonë, leaps down to lash the guilty,
Vile writing snakes held out on her left hand,
And calls her savage sisterhood. The awaited
Time has come, hell gates will shudder wide
On shrieking hinges.
And even earlier, in the 5th century BC, the ancient Greek poet and philosopher Parmenides writes of his journey to the land of the dead to talk with the goddess Persephone. As Parmenides travels, accompanied by the daughters of the Sun, the axles of his chariot wheels make the sound of a whistling roar. This same cosmic roar is repeated by the bronze hinges of the gigantic doors of the underworld as they swing open to let Parmenides and his chariot enter. 
Does this writerly relationship with the hinges of Hell carry over to the contemporary era, if in a different form? Or, if this is an artistic obsession that has faded away, then why and how did that happen?
In the Western world, the writerly relationship with the hinges of Hell would seem to have faded away, as mainstream religious thought has largely diverged from mainstream literary writing. In contemporary literary writing, in fact, I can't think of any examples off hand.
But if we shift to screen-writing, then we find the shrieking hinges in horror movies, and in almost any really scary movie. I would guess that if in a really ominous scene a door is opened and the hinges are quiet, it feels as though something is missing--which can, of course, make things even spookier.
And if we look at 19th century writers, and if we consider the hinges of hell to be an example of the general case of the threshold of the transcendent, and the sounds as a sort of alarm that one is passing to another state of being, to another world, or through any sublime phase shift, then such sounds are everywhere in the work of Edgar Allen Poe. More wonderful brilliant piercing alarms of transcendence occur Herman Melville's astonishing story, "Cock-a-doodle-do," where the sublime call of the rooster is an announcement of passing to the other world, Heaven or Hell, rapture or descent, as well as the call of the poet.
This book fuses together literature, art, science, history, certainly the underworld--so many different points of obsession for you, and you move so swiftly among them. It feels like a magnum opus in that way. Where do you go from here? After the hinges of hell, what comes next?
Now I return to my novel. Its working title is About Time. I've been working on it for the past five years. Or is it ten? I don’t like to admit to ten. I write incredibly slowly. Then I revise. I use Penelope's method--undoing each night what she wove that day--as my model for reworking. The novel is about the night before the wedding: the two families are at dinner in the garden; no one wants to be there; everyone wants to be elsewhere; unions are forming and dissolving before our eyes. I hope to finish by early spring.
My next nonfiction project, though, may be about Black Fire. That is, it will be about Absence and Presence, and the way certain forms of absence actually contain the missing thing. This kind of “inclusive absence” implies and calls forth existence, even as it proclaims non-presence. So it will be about fullness and want; about light and shadow and pitchdark; about the black moons of the virgin cult in parts of Europe and Latin America, and black fires in general. Consider this description of the Genesis from the Zohar:
A spark of impenetrable darkness flashed within the concealed of the concealed, from the head of Infinity--a cluster of vapor forming in formlessness, thrust in a ring, not white, not black not red, not green, no color at all.
What is a spark of darkness? What are black fires? That’s what I’d like to get at.
Given these multifaceted explorations in Hinges, and now, possibly, Black Fire, how are you finding your fiction influenced? Especially given that this novel has been with you for awhile...
What an excellent Question. As all of them have been!
I think these influences are at work in all possible directions. The longest chapter in the novel I’ve been working on is about the dangers of disobeying the injunction not to look. This led me directly to the non-fictional explorations of Orpheus and other aspects of Forbidden Looking in Hinges.
Conversely, some of the nascent ideas from the not-yet-written Black Fire, particularly those about Presence within Absence, I now see, are penetrating into this same novel, where strange things are happening with Time. Time loops back on itself, in order to juxtapose or link presences and exclude absences. Who knows, there may be black moons or black virgins lurking as well.
Black_iris_opt Influences and obsessions are so pervasive. In fact, once you're really obsessed with something it's hard to keep it out of anything you do – fiction, non-fiction, poetry, cooking, gardening. Think of the Black Cloud poppy, the Black Knight iris, or the Queen of the Night tulip…that something so dependent on sunlight as flowering plants should have varieties with such a light-gulping spectacular brilliant darkness, making an absence of themselves in the garden.
It’s as though each of these creative paths allows us to get at only certain aspects of the object of our obsession, allows us to pay fierce attention and penetrate to the core only in certain ways. So the real portrait or analysis or discourse must finally be the collection of these partial attempts—since each is limited by being focused through the lens of text or song or garden.
In the end, of course, looking at our work can influence us in turn, as when we straighten up or re-align upon catching ourselves in a mirror. The collection of these partial experiments paints our portrait as well, revealing who we are, what our presences and absences are, how we live our lives.
- Anna Clark

For a review of Hinges by Elizabeth Bachner in BookslutClick Here

For two reviews of Hinges in Libary Thing,    Click Here

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

Trespass: a novel

Grace Dane Mazur, Trespass: A Novel, Graywolf Press; First Printing edition, 2002.

"She was not afraid of this man, but it flustered her that his small conversational rudeness--the abruptness of his refusal to explain about bathtubs--seemed to have given him the upper hand. No matter, he was starkers and an intruder and folded into her own laundry tub, and even though she was naked and fifty years old and alone in the house, she was strong and she knew how to kick, and besides, there was a long-handled shovel leaning on the wall right behind her."
Maggie Gifford is shocked to see a strange man bathing in her laundry tub, but even more shocked by her response: an offer to scrub his back. Unleashing an erotic madness reminiscent of A Midsummer Night's Dream, this peculiar stranger runs amok during the Gifford family annual summer reunion, disrupting the otherwise peaceful farmland of the southeastern Massachusetts shore.
But the Gifford family is not without its own peculiarities. Maggie is secretly loved and desired by her own cousin Jake, a remittance man and mail-order minister. Jake lives on the border of Maggie's life, on the farm adjacent to Maggie's house. His beautiful gardens are a daily tribute to Maggie, and each year he constructs a hidden room in the forest made of flowers, plants, and trees, for her birthday. But someone has poisoned Jake's gardens and his relationship with Maggie--destroying the delicate arrangement he spent years trying to create. Is it Maggie's daughter who lures men with her angst-ridden poetry; Jake's often estranged girlfriend, an installation artist who runs a Volvo dealership; or the disarming shadow of the man who is trespassing in their woods and hearts?
In this luminous first novel, Mazur shows with humor and grace that despite the well-tended garden of life, desire and nature have the power to break loose, which can lead to an explosion of random beauty.

Trespass is about all kinds of trespass, crossing boundaries and resting on someone else’s property, land, and sexual bodies and souls. A wonderful book.” — CHARLES BAXTER

Trespass is a work rich in both the perverse beauty of estrangement and the rare delicacy of actual connection. Grace Dane Mazur’s prose is at once dense and expansive, idiosyncratic and accessible. This is a wild and remarkable book.” — ROBERT BOSWELL

Trespass burrows magically under the skin and takes up permanent residence there until the last page is read.” — RICHARD RUSSO

A Rhode Island family teeters on the brink of meltdown in the first novel from the author of Silk, a New York Times Notable story collection. Maggie Gifford spends her days gardening, writing poems and sewing strange sculptures; her husband, Hugh, and her cousin Jake are devoted to her. One afternoon Maggie, naked and alone in the house, discovers a stranger taking a bath in her basement. She offers to scrub the intruder's back, thus beginning an involvement that threatens the quiet harmony of her life. Mazur describes the patterns of love as resembling "the interlocking mosaic tiling patterns of the great Moorish palaces and mosques, with their interwoven stars and crosses and diamonds," and this is certainly true of the relationships that develop here. The stranger, Grenville, becomes an obsession for Maggie, who, unaware that Jake is in love with her, confides in him. Tormented by the knowledge that his cousin is falling for another man, Jake begins to loathe this stranger and to make flawed decisions about his own life. Then Maggie's children and grandchildren arrive for their annual summer visit. When Maggie's skittish but fiercely sexual daughter, Gillian, begins her own entanglement with Grenville (not to mention some "crazed rutting" with Jake), their family web is strained almost beyond recognition. Mazur's sharply realized characters and often remarkable prose make up for the occasionally unlikely plot developments and moments of unconvincing dialogue, while the beauty of the rural Rhode Island setting and the intrigue of the plot add to the pleasure. - Publishers Weekly

Maggie, a striking grandmother who lives in the family's charming old farmstead on a deserted piece of Massachusetts coastline, is at home naked one day when she discovers a strange man taking a bath in her basement. Intrigued, she scrubs his back. The man, Grenville, lurks about her property like a satyr, and sexual tension sets in. Later, we find that he's a married local realtor who has essentially run away from home. With husband Hugh conveniently away sailing for days on end, Maggie and Grenville manage to hook up. But when Maggie's trendy children and grandchildren arrive for the summer and pose about the farm like models in a Ralph Lauren commercial, Grenville's sexual opportunities increase, sending both Maggie and her cousin Jake, whose devotion to Maggie is obvious but unacknowledged, into jealous funks. Finally, the moral violations are too much even for this superficial crowd. The silly plot is redeemed by Mazur's pleasantly crafted prose. This novel by the author of a story collection, Silk, is a passable purchase for summer fiction collections. - Reba Leiding
Silk: stories

Grace Dane Mazur, Silk, Brookline Books/Lumen Editions; Second Printing ed., 1996.
Read a story from Silk

Collection of stories about people who are far from home, all, in thier way, discovering life, death, and eros.

The first half of this short story collection presents the sexual education and awakening and education of Cass, whom we first meet at age 10, watching her aunt bathe herself in a stream, and who eventually lands in Paris and launches affairs with her aunt's lover and her own brother. These libertine adventures are related in a cool, detached style reminiscent of Marguerite Duras. Mazur is concerned not with passion and ecstasy but with the delicate, subtle tracery of the sense, the scent of durian, the look of the male genitalia, the whisper of silk on skin. Cass is touched lightly, if at all, by guilt, and no terrible consequences result from her incestuous love. She is also a sharp, wry observer of family life, and Mazur leavens her erotic exploration with a couple of riotous family dinners.

“What Grace Dane Mazur means to suggest, here and elsewhere in the stories of Silk, is that connections between people have a life of their own, doggedly pursuing their own mysterious trajectory. ” – ANGELINE GOUREAU

“Mazur’s stories are blindingly smart and very pleasingly perverse. Their subjects, often international in setting and unconventional…range from that of an old woman on her way to a rendezvous with the infinite in the Paris catacombs, to the complexities of a romantic and mindful affair carried on between a brother and his sister…from Eastern Asia to Cambridge, these silky and sexy stories love the world they describe, and they have enough intelligence and intensity to melt snow.” –– CHARLES BAXTER

“Pure delight! Caught in its web, Silk will hold you captive to a feast you’d wish never ended. These stories are at once sensual, heartwarming, entertaining, and wise…” –– STRATIS HAVIARAS

 Mazur takes her readers on a journey around the world in 11 often subtly connected short stories that are meant to appeal to the senses and the gypsy spirit. In Singapore she evokes the smell of orange trees; in Paris the griffins and monkeys perched on an old cathedral; in Boston the "beginning pulses of the wind" as a hurricane begins. Mazur records the sensation of the present while each of her characters, in a distinct voice, records the past that surrounds it. The clever nuances of the stories (particularly those involving the figure of Cass) are immensely pleasing. When Cass is modeling nude for her Aunt Marika in "Backlighting," the reader understands both the significance of their relationship and the complexity of the younger woman's attachment to France as related in "Privacy," the first story in the collection. The apex of Cass's journey occurs in "The Lights of Love"; she is in Singapore, recounting her French odyssey for Max, the amorous husband of a close friend. Here, Cass's dialogue is skillfully crafted to reply to questions that were left unanswered at the end of "Foreign Things." Mazur's writing is generously descriptive and lyrical and her dialogue is subtly apt, but most of all it is rare to find a collection that works as coherently as this. - Publishers Weekly

“In this absorbing collection of short stories, newcomer Mazur does an excellent job of intertwining the emotions of her characters, mostly young women. In the title story, for instance, Suzanna becomes so involved in the art of wearing silk and of working with silkworms in her lab that she overlooks the rest of her life. Many of the 11 stories involve a young art student named Cass. As she takes Cass from Singapore to Paris and has her pose nude for her Aunt Marika in ‘Backlighting’, Mazur creates memorable scenes that definitely evoke the senses. An intensely felt collection; highly recommended for public libraries.”-Library Journal”Many of the stories in this collection are charged with erotic energy, especially those that feature a young American called Cass. We first meet Cass in ‘Privacy’, when she is ten years old, spending the summer with her grandparents in the French countryside. Cass’ sense of her own sexuality is awakened by her exotic aunt, Marika, a painter. Years later, when Cass is in Paris to study physics, posing as a model for Marika precipitates an affair with Stasek, Marika’s lover. Cass’ sexual development, through three marriages, in fact, is explored in the stories that follow; her personal journey unfolds sometimes in the first person and sometimes in the third. With its sensual imagery, foreign flavors, and layered themes, this is a richly textured collection.” - Booklist

For a review of Silk by mel u in The Reading Life,   Click Here

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