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An Interview With Nicola Masciandaro by David Hoenigman

Nicola Masciandaro

Nicola Masciandaro is Associate Professor of English at Brooklyn College (CUNY) and a specialist in medieval literature. Recent publications include: “Decapitating Cinema” (And They Were Two In One And One In Two, co-edited with Eugene Thacker), “Metal Studies and the Scission of the Word” (Journal of Cultural Research), “Unknowing Animals” (Speculations), “Non potest hoc corpus decollari: Beheading and the Impossible” (Heads Will Roll: Decapitation in Medieval Literature and Culture), “Exploding Plasticity” (French Theory Today: And Introduction to Possible Futures), and “Getting Anagogic” (Rhizomes). He is the editor of the journal Glossator: Practice and Theory of the Commentary, co-director of Punctum Books, and blogs at The Whim.

What projects are you currently working on?

My main project right now is a book called Sorrow of Being. It’s a more or less philosophical study of mystical sorrow that attempts to take sorrow seriously as a weird kind of cosmic substance composed of the negative identity of thought and being. Rather than restricting sorrow to the terrestrial sphere, to being only a mundane emotion that is humanly about things, I see sorrow as an element or feature of universal reality. The project is centered around the representation of perfect sorrow in the late medieval text The Cloud of Unknowing, in which true sorrow, as the final ecstatic stage of contemplation, is defined as sorrow that one is, a sorrow that is co-substantial with being itself, like a more intense version of Heidegger’s concept of care (Sorge). For me the fact of this sorrow has three primary implications: 1) that being, both the totality of it and emergence of individuated entities, is the work of a universal event of negative will; 2) that reality is intensive and inherently mystical, always hiding within itself more and more reality—God is a mystic, as it were; 3) that self and universe are cosmically bound, such that it is improper to think oneself or any other entity as an effect or creation of a reality that is simply there, before and after the event of being—in other words, to use Meillassoux’s term, you are an arche-fossil, a weeping stone. The book starts with the Crucifixion eclipse and ends with a commentary on Lovecraft’s Ex Oblivione, in which a waking dreamer beautifully escapes being: “happier than I had ever dared hope to be, I dissolved again into that native infinity of crystal oblivion from which the daemon Life had called me for one brief and desolate hour.” So this is basically a speculative medievalist project that paradisically leaps through a kind of endless, exterior gap between self-centered melancholy and Lovecraft’s vexed premise that “emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large,” elaborating throughout a principle for revolt against secular and religious creationisms.

When and why did you begin writing?

I starting writing a little poetry in college, I think as a kind of adjunct to the mathematics I was studying. Then I defaulted into literature and had to write more deliberately. Not sure about the ‘why’ part, but I was attracted early on by annotated texts, exegetical reading, and my term papers usually had a lot of footnotes. Now I am overtly interested in writing commentaries.

Who or what has influenced your writing?

The texts I keep most near me, probably. On the shelves closest to my desk: Aquinas, Augustine, Dante, Aristotle, Plato, Plotinus, Macrobius, Meher Baba, Ovid, Rumi, Eriugena, St. Francis, Ibn Arabi, Dionysius, Bonaventure, Bataille, Negarestani, Boethius, Lovecraft, Melville, Peter Lombard, Cervantes, Agamben, Hugh and Richard of St. Victor, Hafiz, Nietzsche, Romance of the Rose. Music is also an important parallel inspiration, especially black and doom metal, Bach, medieval chant and polyphony, traditional Indian and Persian music, and some folk songs.

How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?

My father, Franco Masciandaro, is a great interpreter and scholar of the Divine Comedy. I didn’t read the poem myself until college, but the almost endless relatability of life to that text was certainly in the air as a child. So that had some kind of effect—inculcation in a hermeneutic world, poetry as participation in and disclosure of intrinsic values. My parents very lovingly never required me to master any specific, responsible skills, and I have always enjoyed playing, non-instrumental activity, like rock-climbing. Not leisure, I haven’t exactly had that, but I have inherited/developed a tendency to treat things playfully and impersonally, which is both a strength and a weakness.

Do you have a specific writing style?

That would be easier for someone else to describe. I used to think my writing style was densely clear, equational, like a crystal. But now several people have told me that my writing is ‘gnomic’ and difficult. For example, I have had grant proposals and article submissions rejected due to: “considerable extraneous material, digressive argument hinging on personal and unsubstantiated opinion, a ‘flowery’ writing style that obscures author’s intent. Language seems to emulate the mystical qualities of the texts. This does not aid intelligibility. A valid point, but does not require entire paragraph of poetically-inspired language. Contribution to critical literature left to the reader. Likely outcome unclear. Avowedly experimental nature does not inspire confidence. Overtly theoretical and absurdist approach . . .” In my own mind, my writing is very clear, in the sense of a distinct and well-defined verbal experience of thought. I want the words to be the thing. But I can also see that I have difficulty committing to and little faith in or desire for texts that are governed by communication, which seems inherently suspicious. Why is this text communicating to me? What is it trying to trick me into? Why is the text treating me like someone who needs his own thoughts dictated and explained? Instead I think the truth of good texts is more like perfume, something released into the atmosphere by a more secret and hidden penetration and distillation of essences, so that you want and need it whether or not you understand it, both in advance of and after itself. That is the circulating good or spice of a text or any other kind of action or expression, an irresistible invitation to realize something significant or radical.

What genre are you most comfortable writing?

Commentarial prose and ghazals.

Is there a message in your work that you want readers to grasp?

Not really. There are some recurrent themes (beheading, mystical love, labor, spontaneity, deixis) and common ideas that might be printed on t-shirts (‘Life, I Can’t Believe It’s Really Happening’, ‘The Impossible is Inevitable’, ‘Today You Will Be With Me In Paradise’), but no messages, at least none of the delivering kind.

What book are you reading now?

Apart from the several books I have to teach and/or consult for research, which is most of my reading, I am enjoying J.H. Prynne’s commentary on George Herbert, Reiner Schurmann’s book on Heidegger and anarchy, some texts by François Laruelle, and I just started Grettir’s Saga.

1 comment to An Interview With Nicola Masciandaro by David Hoenigman

  • Hello Nicola. I came across your ‘gloss’ on Black Sabbath, and found it really inspiring -I relate very strongly to many of the things you say and it is great to read some intelligent and thought provoking writing about metal.Maybe especially because in this country – England – metal has long been seen as the musical preference of the brain dead by many people. Thankyou for sharing this on the internet. I am now interested in what a gloss is and intend to learn more about it
    Marilyn

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