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"The Omega": An Interview with Joseph Cardinale

Joseph Cardinale is the author of The Size of the Universe (FC2). His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in jubilat, Denver Quarterly, New York Tyrant, and Web Conjunctions. He lives on eastern Long Island.

His story, "The Omega," appeared in Issue Ninety-Six of The Collagist.

Here, he talks with interviewer Andrew Farkas about his use of mono-mythical stories, about a common misinterpretation of spiritual and mythological texts, and about Nothingness.

Please tell us about the origins of “The Omega” (which feels like I’m saying, “Please tell us about the beginning of the end”). What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

The story is mostly excerpted from the beginning and ending sections of an unpublished novella. Initially, the goal was to write a dreamlike narrative that explicitly drew on archetypal imagery and ideas. A related goal was to use the simplest possible language. I started out with a readymade mono-mythical setup: the distant Father on the Mountaintop inviting the narrator to see him, tempting him with an inexplicable mystery. And from the beginning I conceived of the Father more as a symbol than as a singular character. I wanted to unapologetically invite and interrogate the inevitable mythic and biblical associations: the Father as God, the mountain as a site of mystical revelation. Even as I was writing the novel, though, I didn't know what exactly was going to be revealed to the narrator at the end of his journey. The idea of the Omega comes directly from a Borges story called "The Aleph." In Borges, a character claims to have discovered, in his basement, an Aleph, which he defines as a spatial point "that contains all the other points." In my story, the Father claims to have an “Omega” in his brain, and he defines the Omega in similar terms. And the mystical vision at the end of my story explicitly and syntactically echoes the vision of the Aleph in Borges. I like to think of my story as a sort of response to Borges, but maybe that's just a fancy way of saying I stole his idea.  

As I was reading the story, I was first struck by the influence of mythological and religious texts (the title seemingly connecting to the “I am the Alpha and the Omega” line from Revelations, the Father being capitalized and living on a mountain, the harrowing journey for what might be a boon), and yet your purposeful use of ambiguous words and phrases throughout undermines the certainty such texts are supposed to instill in us. So, what would you say you are doing with mythology and religion here? How have mythological and religious stories influenced you? Do you seek to undermine mythological and religious stories, or to help them evolve, or to get them to help explain the universe we live in now?

I don't know. I definitely am trying to write in a way that highlights and frames spiritual questions. And I love religious and mythological stories. So I'm not trying to undermine them, at least not insofar as undermining implies critique. I don't think that spiritual and mythological texts are designed to instill certainty, though. I think that's often how they're interpreted, and maybe, by playing up the ambiguity, I'm trying to undermine or challenge what I perceive as a misinterpretation. I think the point of mythic-religious art is to refresh our awareness of the mystery of existence. To remind us of the foundational existential questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? Where did the universe come from? What are we doing here? What is the self? Where is the boundary between the inner world and the outer world? Etcetera. When I read genuinely religious and mythological stories, I never find definitive answers to these kinds of questions. I find myself, instead, cast into something like the Cloud of Unknowing that the mystics talk about. And that’s, I guess, where I’m trying to guide my readers—to a sort of surrendering awareness of what we already know we don’t know. If that makes sense.  

Continuing on with the story, however, it felt less and less mythological and more like Samuel Beckett (the obsession with nothingness, the setting as a kind of null space, the word play). Now, whereas Beckett uses Biblical references (the crucified thieves in Waiting for Godot, Job in The Unnameable), his are specific and often aid in grounding the reader. You, on the other hand, seem to be pointing more toward, say, Joseph Campbell’s ubiquitous monomyth than any particular mythological text, meaning there’s no grounding force except for a vast generality. How do you see yourself dealing with the concept of uncertainty, then? Do you feel that since Beckett, at times, uses grounding forces that he flinches in the face of nothingness? How have you advanced the idea of nothingness beyond Beckett?

The novella from which “The Omega” is adapted is actually loaded with direct references to movies, songs, and biblical stories. So the original draft was much more realistically grounded, in that sense. And my original vision was to write a narrative that starts in the recognizably "real" world—or uses a vaguely realist aesthetic—and then gradually arcs toward something more like the Null Space in which Beckett's stories are set. More specifically, I wanted the ultimate revelation of Nothingness—the conclusion of the story—to come at the endpoint of a more conventionally grounded heroic journey, as in the Borges story, where the climactic mystical vision of the Aleph concludes a seemingly low-stakes comedy about a rivalry between two poets. And I think the occasional grounding forces in Beckett’s fiction work in an essentially similar way; they never resolve the mystery of existence, but underscore the inadequacy of language and point toward the Nothingness that words veil. In adapting “The Omega" from the novella, I was, yes, making a deliberate effort to emphasize the mono-mythic aspects of the narrative. And that meant removing any details and references that might ground the story a specific time and place. I wanted to pare down the prose to the point where all nouns in the story seem as though they are implicitly capitalized. Like: when I use the words "mountain" or "house” or “wall,” I don't want to the reader to see a specific mountain or house or wall, but to see something more like the Platonic idea of a Mountain or House or Wall, which seems more urgently real to me, really, than the tangible world.

I have to ask this question. Supposedly Donald Barthelme’s favorite writing assignment was “describe nothing.” Do you feel that your own project here is to describe nothing? Are we all always describing nothing?   

Yes! I love that prompt. I wouldn’t exactly say my project is to describe nothing, because of course I can’t, but I wanted the story to clear a space for the reader to meditate on the primordial question of why there’s something rather than nothing. And that’s also what the prompt does. It’s essentially a Zen koan. It pushes the intellect to the point where rational and linear thought is disabled and, as the narrator says in my story, “words stop working.” I think the primary imperative of all mythic-religious writing is to guide the reader, gently, to this point—and to invite us to see Nothingness, or whatever, as a sort of spiritual home, connecting everything.     

What have you been reading recently that you might recommend?

Most of my literary inspiration, lately, has come from non-fiction books like Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God, William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, and Tolstoy’s Confession. And I really love Stephen Mitchell’s translations of The Book of Job and the Tao Te Ching. As for contemporary fiction, my favorite book of recent years is a short novel called First, The Raven: A Preface, by Seth Rogoff (Sagging Meniscus Press 2017). That’s the kind of novel I wish I could write, starting in the recognizably “real” world and moving gradually and gracefully toward greater uncertainty and deeper un-knowing. By the end of the novel, every word starts to seem absolutely clear and absolutely confusing; it leaves the reader suspended, almost mystically, between understanding everything and understanding nothing. And it’s just a really fun read.  

What are you writing these days?

I’m revising and re-envisioning the failed mess-of-a-novella from which “The Omega” is drawn; it’s titled Out of Nothing. More generally, I’m working on cultivating a more intrinsically motivated approach to the writing process. Trying to approach writing less as a solitary professional pursuit, less as a laboriously exacting exercise of craft, pressure, and patience reluctantly undertaken with some vaguely imagined workshop-style audience of perpetually unimpressed strangers in mind, and more as a natural in-the-moment response to specific encounters and experiences. Writing only out of love and only when I feel compelled to capture the overflowing truth of a moment or insight I might otherwise forget. In this spirit, I’m working, sporadically, on a series of autobiographical sketches centered on dialogues with my five-year-old son (one of these sketches is forthcoming in jubilat). I’m working, too, on recording and transcribing stories my son tells me (or I tell him) through a question-and-answer process—and I’m finding inspiration and renewal in the unselfconscious strangeness and mythic energy that animates some of these stories. Yesterday, as I was anxiously pondering the fourth question in this interview, he suddenly announced, apropos of (apparently) nothing, “I’m going to make a story where me and you build a spaceship. And we’re going to go to space. But when we get to space, space has vanished.”   

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