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“Scratching at the underbelly of a voided present” – An Interview re: Ansgar Allen’s Plague Theatre (forthcoming with Equus Press, 2022)

David Vichnar and Narmin Ismiyeva sit down with Ansgar Allen to talk about his book Plague Theatre, forthcoming with Equus Press in March 2022.

Equus Press: In a typical “Ansgar-Allen-fashion” (thinking here of The Sick List which does the same with the Thomas Bernhard corpus), Plague Theatre brings together various sources – both imagined (the “manuscript” on the 1720 plague outbreak in Scarborough) and real (Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, Artaud’s Theatre and the Plague, to name a few) and out of them weaves a radically intertextual narrative, at times in a paraphrased form and at times as direct citations. This brings the text close to a quasi-academic work of reference rather than a work of fiction. What to your mind is the relation between the two?

Ansgar Allen: In practice there is little relation between the two. Academic writing and writing fiction will be seen by many as antithetical pursuits. There are some exceptions at the margins of the academy, but for most disciplines, including my own, the old habits of academic writing hold sway. It is a strange fact of academic life that the academic journal article (and to a lesser extent the academic monograph), hardly varies all that much in its form across the various disciplines and apparently divergent ways of thinking that the university is said to support. Most academics seem blind to this. They approach their writing as if it were not driven by severe stylistic constraints and proceed as if they are in the business of merely presenting arguments. I find it perverse, given the extent of these constraints, to hear academics proclaim attachments to academic freedom as if academic writing does not already narrow what they are able to think, or at least narrow those thoughts they are able to publish in so-called respectable journals. A fanciful idea somehow persists that the university is a place where thought is possible in the expanded sense of it being unshackled and at liberty to travel where it wishes, whereas the academy is extremely restrained and limited in its outlooks.

Other modes of thinking and writing are easily dismissed. Work that attends to its own rhetorical construction can often appear suspect within this context, as if it were beguiling reason with ‘poetry’. And modes of expression that do not freight themselves with the usual weight of references and footnotes, and that do not lead the reader by the nose, are made to look as though they have not put the effort in to think things through.

I have long been suspicious of the established practices of academic writing and have sought other modes of writing in order to access other modes of thinking. These do not have to be fictive, and my first experiments (in Benign Violence and The Cynical Educator) were with quasi-aphoristic, fragmentary, and irreverent modes of expression. These were not whimsical experiments, but were necessitated, so I thought, by the topics I was engaging with. The lines of thought that I was pursuing would not be permissible in the standard language of academic research.

More recently I have turned to fiction in order to travel outside the academy and think in ways it does not usually permit. One major advantage is that fiction allows the author to establish distance from the ideas that are under investigation in any given text. Academics typically have to stand by their arguments, they are themselves identified with the arguments they make, and there are strong ethical grounds for this being the case. By contrast, fiction allows this identifying link to be broken, where readers do not (or should not) expect the views of an author to be represented in any simple way in the characters and situations and ideas that are presented. This is extremely liberating. As an author I am no longer expected to remain consistent across or within a body of work, but can open up writing to multiple, overlapping perspectives and allow the particular logic of different points of view or lines of thought to develop without the usual (academic) restraints. Literature is also far more diverse in terms of the styles and hence modes of thought it enables and so is a much richer terrain of possibility to occupy. It does come with its own conceits, securities, and limits too, of course. Literature is in many ways just as rule-bound and has its own systems of exclusion.

EP: Plague Theatre manages the almost unimaginable: it brings together Defoe and Artaud—two writers arguably as different as can be—into productive dialogue. The common ground of this unlikely rapprochement is their treatment of the plague but is there, to your mind, any other commonality between the two? Also, at times the Defoe and the Artaud seem to “infect” the text in a quasi-viral fashion—what to your mind is the relation between viral and textual “infections”? Would you consider writing itself to have ‘viral’ quality?

AA: My intention in Plague Theatre was to stage a collision of texts rather than personalities, and so I was not overly preoccupied by bringing historical characters into any kind of dialogue. I also make very little attempt to establish distance between the various texts referred to in the book, despite their differences. They are separated from their origins, torn from their worlds. Plague Theatre should make historians weep. It is a rude assemblage. It presents a desolation of sorts.

In the blurb for a different book, Burton’s Anatomy, I suggest that we have reached a cultural moment where there is only debris left to build with. Plague Theatre represents another attempt to build from that wreckage.

The question of textual infection is obviously a theme that runs through the book, and the narrative toys with it as a possibility. As a writer I am drawn to the idea but also, at the same time, fairly circumspect about it. Perhaps writing is contagious between writers, and some readers, but I am not convinced of the possibility of more widespread contagion, or derangement. I think we have to look to other media. An obvious issue with textual environments, particularly those we understand in one way or another to constitute ‘literature’, is that they are appreciated on the basis of prior training, or education, and they are reliant upon some kind of instillation of ‘value’, a belief in their importance. I think if literature is to have any chance of functioning as a contagion, as a derangement, it needs to destroy or act against the comforts it creates in the culture of the educated. It is perhaps for this reason that in this book, and others, such as The Sick List, I take aim at those comforts, and at those self-regarding ideas, so that the highly literate, and the highly educated, can no longer relax so easily into the activity of reading.

EP: The minimalist prose reminds one of Beckett’s novellas, the tortured solipsism of the outcast protagonist, of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, and the thematic and formal investment in transcription and copying as portals of creativity, of Borges’ “Pierre Menard.” Was any of these three on your mind when writing Plague Theatre?

AA: All three writers have certainly influenced me, and I mention Notes from Underground in passing within the novel. But I wouldn’t say that their writing or the writing of anyone else was in my mind as some kind of touchstone when working on the novel. When writing I am more preoccupied with listening to the unfolding of the text before me, such as it is, and paying attention to how its internal logics develop during the process of writing. It interests me to witness how a developing text begins to define what is stylistically and otherwise permissible within the framework it develops. I think I enjoyed writing Plague Theatre so much because it offered me more permissions to travel and rove than some of the other, more deliberately claustrophobic and monomaniacal works I have been engaged in.

EP: Literature being this kind of institution of quotation and allusion, it is notable that Plague Theatre deals with the institution of the museum, described as a place where the intellect goes to “die”. On the one hand, it is a ‘junkyard’ for things already ‘intellectualised’ and on the other, it is an airless space, where the thinking ability of the intellect is diminished. How does one resurrect the intellect, how does one create something living? Outside of literature?

AA: When I describe those places where the intellect goes to die (the museum in Plague Theatre, the university in The Sick List), I am not necessarily lamenting that imagined death, or calling for some kind of resurrection. There is an element of parody operating here, where the worries of those who fear for the health of intellectual life are being exaggerated and inverted. This so-called death which I write about is also only imagined for a certain kind of intellection, that sort of serious-minded thinking which uses the word ‘intellectual’ and its cognates and concerns itself with the problem of their diminishment. Having said that, I do find museums difficult places to think, or at least my difficulty in thinking is brought into stark relief alongside so many exhibits that should surely prompt it. I have not been in a museum for some time now, but in the past, as I wandered about in them, I did feel my intellect undergoing some kind of annihilation, and felt disappointment too, as if this should not be happening. I think Blanchot’s short essay Museum Sickness provides some clue to what might be going on here.

EP: In relation to that, would you describe the act of ‘intellectualisation’ as the opposite of decentralisation? The intellect seems to make the ‘ultimate’ sense of things, giving them fixed meaning, turning them into artefacts, fetishising them into non-living beings. What would constitute an alternative means of interaction with the artefacts (and with the world in general)?

AA: Yes, this is definitely part of it; the transformation of experiences into artefacts, an excessive preoccupation with sense-making, and organising perception, and record-keeping, and accountability, on establishing the laws, categories, and values we should think with, the social rules we should abide by, etcetera. And this does not happen in isolation. It depends upon institutional environments that support and encourage that kind of activity, all of which needs to be refused. Hence the importance of betrayal (I’m thinking here of Bersani in The Gay Outlaw), irreverence, a lack of due seriousness where seriousness is expected, certain forms of cynicism, dark humour, and other lowly activities, all of which seem to me to be necessary in order to keep thinking alive.

EP: Even though his ideas are presented as enlightening throughout the novel, the narrator also disagrees with Artaud in places, accepting the pessimistic view that plague or plague theatre lacks momentum and is not able to bring radical change once and for all. Things are accepted and forgotten, becoming part of the ‘written’ past. Is then the ‘revelation’, which Artaud deems the most significant effect of both the theatre and the plague, indeed impossible?

AA: This is a question that is raised but not resolved in Plague Theatre. The novel remains open to the idea that a fundamental disturbance and redirection of human activity is still possible, and that some kind of eruption, a plague-like theatre, or a theatre-like plague, might have a role to play.

EP: To briefly touch upon the psychogeography of the novel: The narrative is mostly set in Scarborough. The image of The Great Ask, carried into town in the belly of a fish/whale is grotesque and surreal. Could you talk more about this character? The other important geographic ‘body’ is that of the sea. Could you elaborate on its significance?

AA: I wouldn’t want to interpret The Great Ask, although I will confess to taking some pleasure in creating a grotesque leader and then killing him off. Most leaders are not grotesque in this way, however. They are not great, totemic aberrations like The Great Ask appears to be. Leaders are generally conformists. They lead because they have become good at giving the system what it needs, or what it expects, rather than introducing something new. And if grotesque leaders still appear, they are grotesque in a more ordinary way.

About the sea, I agree it is an important geographic ‘body’ or participant in the drama of the novel. I think I will again try to avoid interpreting its significance, and this is partly because the sea remains fundamentally evasive within the novel. I can confess to having long felt a strange sense of elation when I am myself in that liminal zone between high cliffs and the edge of an ocean.

EP: “The poor abandoned all soothsayers, criers and false doctors, and gave vent to themselves on one another. That was the point at which plague theatre was founded on the streets of the town, of London of Scarborough, as Artaud might write, and plague metaphysics made connection with the earth” (p. 89). It is interesting to consider plague as a ‘phenomenon’ that travels through history. Would you say that the state of the development in which the civilization is experiencing plague/plague theatre significantly alters or influences its course? Or does it simply give it a new iteration – an updated plot with the archetypical roles (false doctors, pseudo-healers, priests, incapable leaders, etc.) still present?

AA: Plague Theatre is clearly not a straightforward historical novel, and it is an important function of the book that the manuscript which appears within it, and which drives the novel, remains undated. The manuscript could be from 1720 or it might originate a decade or a century either side. The manuscript could even be a much more recent document, a forgery of some sort, a ruse to give the impression of it being older than it actually is. This basic uncertainty prevents the reader (or at least the contemporary narrator within the novel), from marking off the contents of the manuscript as ‘non-applicable to our present’.

EP: Finally, one cannot not ask about the contemporary situation of the writing/reading sub specie our current covid-era. Later in the text, the narrator expresses his worst fear: not of the unspeakable suffering or the downfall of civilisation entailed in every iteration of the scourge, but precisely of its repeatability, of how “1719 is recognizable to 1721 because nothing has changed” (111). The narrator continues: “No further revolution would be necessary, or possible, because we have reached an adjusted state of consciousness already, we have already arrived at the best that might be hoped for, even if the best is merely knowing that the world is slipping away, committing suicide.” So the question is, is 2019 recognisable to 2021, because nothing has changed? Have we adjusted and is the world merely slipping away from us? 

AA: Plague Theatre was written in 2020, and then revised across 2021. So it was definitely influenced by its own plague environment. I should probably note, however, that it was never intended as a direct commentary on our own scourge. At the same time, I do not deny that links can be made.

Reflecting back over the last two years, it does feel as though too much has stayed the same, as if the world has become stuck in that moment during waking, and before getting up, where the slumbering invalid knows that it is time to move, to finally do something, to open an eye, but stays recumbent, as if paralysed, not up to the effort of the day. Meanwhile all the mechanisms grind on, and deepen their purchases, so that even in the waking state we are deadened by their inertia. Writing in this context sometimes feels, a little, like scratching at the underbelly of a voided present, and then, growing tired, retreating back into the daily rituals that define and deaden us.

About Equus Press

EQUUS was established in 2011 with the objective of publishing innovative & translocal writing.

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“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?…we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us” // Franz Kafka, letter to Oskar Pollack, 27 January 1904
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