((The) Bride) Stripped (Bare) (By (Her) Bachelors)(,)
(Even) Church was surprisingly meaningful today. I’m Christian, to a point. But I’ve never quite shaken the insight of theologian Karl Barth that many people go to church to make their last stand against God (the hermeneutics of suspicion).
But today, after the Eucharist and the crucifixion readings, they stripped the altar. It was odd to see two lines of people, on each side of the church, carrying stuff off. They carried everything, including the great candlesticks, the bible, the banners, the purple Lenten altar linens and coverlet, even the gold cross, off the table and out of the church. They stripped the altar. It made me think of the word ‘stripped.’ I decided it was a good word, with a literary application.
I wonder if flash fiction is a conscious stripping down to get our attention, to economize, to compress timeless truths and stories to just a few symbols of emptying. If maybe flash, at its best, is a gesture that signifies our desperation. If it is a kind of prose poetry for an overstimulated age, maybe a Lenten genre, an offering up of what little we have. It has some of the elements of storytelling with a negative sign in front of the equation, a calculus of loss, a kenosis of the heart. Less of me, please. Less of you. A hunger for less, a thirst for something to move us, for a sense of transcendence that can hit us– bam!– in the time it takes to strip an altar. Or a life. Of illusions. Flash as a spiritual practice of letting go of what never need be said in the first place. An awareness, as in Flaubert, that human speech is “like a cracked cauldron on which we knock our tunes for dancing-bears, when we wish to conjure pity from the stars.”
If Kafka were alive I believe he would be writing flash, along with his other inscrutable writings. I say this because even his letters, his scribbles, are flashes of insight. Flash arrives! In the hands of its best practitioners, people like Lydia Davis, or Kim Chinquee and Kathy Fish, writers see a form slumbering in the marble and chip away until everything non-essential has vanished from view. So much of the flash I see online is dreck, but this is true for every form of writing. Perceptions of form are subjective, as are all critical judgments; Henry James thought Tolstoy’s War and Peace was a baggy monster. We want to measure ourselves as writers by the best in class, and this issue of New World Writing showcases some.
I have read Lydia Davis recently, but not her flash. I read her translations of Proust, the least flash-like writer one can imagine. Davis, I believe, writes flash because she wants to, and because she understands that the largest gestures are grounded in the smallest, where all the emotion is carried; she can go long because she has gone short. Everything today is under negotiation, including literary forms. However weary, whatever the menu options to exhaust us, it is a time of dazzling dialectic. Flash is life in miniature, which can be so clarifying. Our lives are shrinking even as we are being pushed out of our comfortable spaces. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, we can only understand and desire community when we have experienced solitude; we come to understand our need for solitude when we have been too long in the presence of others, the booming buzzing confusion, and recognize the need to be alone– to strip down, to withdraw, to take an appointment with oneself.
Tonight, safe at home, I recall Kafka’s conversation with Max Brod.
–We are nihilistic thoughts, suicidal thoughts that come into God’s head, a bad day of his.
–Then is there no hope? Brod asks.
–Oh yes, Kafka says. Plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope. But not for us.
In an era of over-consumption and overstimulation, with moronic screaming social media and plugged-in-tuned-out soulless suburbs, with cities sold to high bidders, bookstores gone to Gap, record stores to parking lots, where the zeitgeist is best captured by zombies (the walking dead), and love in the twilight of the age best exemplified by vampires (the undead), maybe flash is an attempt at tiny everyday awakenings, wee epiphanies for writers and readers who don’t ask much but to feel something, anything, again, who have shrunk their expectations and have seen their last hope die, who have stripped their altars and await an Easter rising which, for them, may never come. The best of them– unpaid, un-agented, unnoticed, untenured, un-remarked– write on, trying mightily not to envy, writing not because they want to but because they need to. Some days, it is enough.
Gary Percesepe is an editor at NWW.