Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination by Grace Dane Mazur

Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination
by Grace Dane Mazur

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.


Full disclosure: I won this book through a giveaway hosted by Bookslut. Cheers to them.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

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