Jonathon Keats may be the last living renaissance man. While he’s best known as a conceptual artist/mad scientist who once tried to reverse-engineer God in a Petri dish full of bacteria, he’s also an accomplished writer, having penned three novels and worked as an art and literary critic for San Francisco Magazine, Artweek and other publications. His art has always been an attempt to “sneak up on the big questions” of our existence through the construction of thought experiments and absurd, often tongue-in-cheek installations.
His latest book, The Book of the Unknown (Random House), is a both a departure and a homecoming for Keats, in that it uses one of the oldest known narrative forms, the fable, to poke and prod at the master myths that characterize the human experience. Populated by a cast of whores, idiots, clowns and saints, The Book of the Unknown casts a curious light on the most common, and hence the most absurd, elements of life. We spoke with Keats recently about the book, his latest art projects and the futility of satire.
Josh Indar: Your work as conceptual artist has made use of a medium that is very much in the modern tradition, yet your new book is much more of a back-to-basics form of storytelling. Was that intentional?
Jonathon Keats: Using the intensely familiar, that is to say, using the form of the fable, was a way of approaching the unfamiliar without threatening the reader, without unduly confusing or disorienting the reader. In other words, I think that what I’m interested in are large questions that, if posed in their starkest form, would simply be unapproachable, for me or for anyone else. Ideas are well and good but they are hard to grasp unless they are given a tangible form, and the motivation of my artwork is to give those ideas a tangible form. I also think it’s important to provide as many registers, as many ways into the work as possible. [The forms of] the past can provide that.
JI: So you’re asking the same questions as you do in your art, but you’re using characters rather than images or concepts in order to pose them?
JK: The art I create is populated by anyone who encounters it. I see the art as a form of fables where I create an alternate world which people can enter into and interact with each other in that context. What plays out within that alternate world can help people reflect back on our own world in a way that is sufficiently new, so that our common assumptions are no longer so commonly assumed.
In the case of the fiction, it is a written fable–I myself have populated the world I have created. It’s almost like the fables are pre-warmed and the art requires our own body heat to warm it up.
In writing the fables, of course, none of this is going through my head. I find myself to be a compulsive storyteller, totally seduced by the world that I create. I find myself alive within the characters and utterly at the service of the characters, who to me feel as real as the people I encounter in the context of an artwork. And to me, they seem as unaccountable – what they say and what they do is as surprising to me as the people who I encounter when I create installations.
JI: It sounds as if you’re still writing these. Are there more to come?
JK: Yes, I have no choice. All my projects end up being more ambitious than I am. The origin of the project was that I became interested in the Lamedh-Vov, the 36. (Note: Talmudic lore has it that at any one time, there are 36 living Lamedh-Vov, righteous but anonymous souls that exist solely to justify humanity’s continued presence before God. The 12 tales of The Book of the Unknown relate the stories of 12 of these unlikely “saints.”) To me they seemed like an ideal group of people to work with largely because they exist in time, yet at the same time they don’t. They’re mythic in their own time even though they’re unknown even in their own time.
So I found that I had written 12 of them and it had taken me around four years and the manuscript seemed to be around the length of a book, so I decided to publish them as a book, at the same time realizing that I still have 24 to go. Because there are 36 of them at any time historically, I have no choice but to write 36 of them.
JI: While you were writing this book, I had a chance to talk to you about Aesop, the supposed master of fables. We were discussing how Aesop was brutally murdered, and you said something like, “The real crime perpetrated upon Aesop was that later generations kept tacking morals onto his stories.” So I was interested to see that, while there isn’t a moral to any of your stories per se, there is a type of morality being expressed, right?
JK: I don’t know. I think there might be a morality you can find, but there isn’t a morality I wrote into them. In other words, they aren’t reverse-engineered morals. The characters within these stories behave in the way in which they do and have their individual viewpoints and their individual morality, and those individual ethics play out in the story so that there is some sort of moral dimension to what happens within them. That’s more to the credit of the characters than it is to my credit.
That said, I am the one writing them and his whole world exists within my head, and looking back on them I find that there are certain consistencies… I seem to have a great deal of skepticism for people in aggregate. Groups of people seem to be brutish and inhuman, whereas the individual seems to be able to transcend that. This seems to be something that I find in most if not all of the stories, and when I then reflect on my own world, I find that really resonates for me. I don’t have a lot of trust in people when they get to be a group, whereas I have almost endless and probably, utterly irrational optimism in the individual.
JI: You’ve called yourself a fabulist. What is it about the structural form of the fable that interests you?
JK: What motivated these stories in the broader sense is that I’ve written a couple of novels that are very much in the here and now, very much in the satirical tradition of writing, and they inevitably come out of the modernist tradition. But I began to have second thoughts, I guess. I began to have real problems with writing those sort of stories, this level of satire–the world seems capable of self-satire to a degree that I can’t possibly replicate, let alone surpass.
Also, the modernist idea was, and this is a gross simplification, that life bears no resemblance to story telling in the old fashioned sense–there is no beginning, middle and end to the events of life, there is no interconnectedness, everything is disjointed. Most fiction today follows this philosophy, that literature ought to be like life and life is inherently haphazard. But I began to think, first off, I love stories that begin, “once upon a time ago, and far, far away.” I love them because they have a way of putting the world in order, and not in any way that is authoritative, but in a way that, in the sciences for example, we might use a model that is inherently a simplification in order to grasp a system that is ungraspable.
Likewise, what storytelling historically did and what the modernists either forgot or refused was that these [folkloric] stories were fictions not only in their details but they were fictions in the broadest sense, they were worldviews that were intended to be taken on and shed at will, they were ways of seeing, of creating a world that is whole, that has a beginning middle and end, that has total rationality within. That seems to me to have intrinsic value. I don’t think the modernist novel is lacking in value. I think the realization that life isn’t like the story book, is an important realization.
Nevertheless, I think that story books, folklore, the myths that civilization has had for so many millennia, are absolutely essential, because in the chaos that is life, I think it is essential that we have these fictional ways of making sense momentarily of all that is around us.
It’s like how a map is a fiction. Nobody looks a at Mercator projection and thinks it is really how the world actually is, but it is useful in the same way that fictions can be useful, for helping us navigate our lives. Knowing that they are artifice is part of what gives them their power. I wanted to find that power that I think most stories written today shun.
JI: It’s interesting that you would bring up the idea that myths and stories can lend order to our lives, because that’s a pretty good description of religion, a subject you’ve tackled in your art many times. It also intersects with the idea of going back to the Talmud for the inspiration for these stories.
JK: I think that’s true. In my art, I’ve always worked with our operating myths, and those myths are most obviously religion and science, but they also include economics, law, government – all of these are models or simplifications that are incredibly powerful. In the case of the art, it really relates. While we can recognize a fairly tale from a mile away, I think we are a lot less capable of recognizing the simplifications and the assumptions that are made in legal code, for example, or in scientific theory or commercial exchange. In any of these realms that we encounter on an everyday basis, we don’t recognize the fictional in our everyday lives. The art that I create is at some level an attempt to discover those underlying and varied assumptions, to make manifest the systems that we have created, just as much as a myth or fairy tale is created.
JI: Was there any reason you grounded these fables in Jewish folklore?
JK: I was brought up Jewish, I was bar mitzvahed. Only after that formal training–which I found to be repugnant, as I find all formal training to be–did I find my own way of studying and learning and appreciating this religion. The stories of the old testament and the stories of Jewish folklore are, to me, absolute models of the sort of storytelling that I most relish. The Talmudic tradition of questioning and of being more interested in the question than the answer, or interested in how the question generates answers only to generate more questions, really temperamentally resonates with me. I know no other way.
JI: What new art projects are you pursuing?
JK: I have a new project called “Universes Unlimited,” in which I’ve invented a quantum universe generator. I’ll be creating new worlds and also giving others a do-it-yourself kit where they can make their own universe at home. It’s very simple–I provide the basic supplies. You just need to get a mason jar, drinking straw and a piece of chewing gum. It’s nuclear-powered with uranium-doped glass and I provide that.
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About the author:
Josh Indar is a California writer, journalist and musician whose work has appeared in various newspapers and small magazines around the state. In December, he will finish an MFA in creative nonfiction at Antioch University, Los Angeles. He currently lives with his wife and two sons in Chico, CA, where he teaches writing to disadvantaged kids.