Only Through Unknowing: Darcey Steinke on Fiction, Divinity, Spirituality and Beyond
American novelist DARCEY STEINKE is the author of the memoir Easter Everywhere (Bloomsbury, 2007; New York Times Notable) and the novels Milk (Bloomsbury, 2005), Jesus Saves (Grove/Atlantic, 1997), Suicide Blonde (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1992), and Up Through the Water (Doubleday, 1989; New York Times Notable). With Rick Moody, she edited Joyful Noise: The New Testament Revisited (Little, Brown, 1997). Her books have been translated into ten languages. Her novel, Milk, was translated into French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. Nonfiction has appeared, among other places, in The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Review, Vogue, Spin Magazine, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and The Guardian. Her web-story “Blindspot” was a part of the 2000 Whitney Biennial. She has been both a Henry Hoyns and a Stegner Fellow and Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi, and has taught most recently at Columbia School of the Arts and Barnard College. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Let’s begin with your recent memoir, Easter Everywhere. I was touched by this book, perhaps because it is so intimate, as if you were retelling a story to a close friend. It talks about your fluctuating relationship with God, and the stages of your life when you questioned the ideology of the Lutheran church. Do you think the process of rejecting ideology, authority, and order in society is necessary to regain a sense of certainty?
My relationship to God, or the Divine, or the Universe, whatever you want to call it, has always been rather rocky. I can never get comfortable with one set of ideas about the divine, or one practice. When I hear how people want set rules and how they get comfort from staid ideas (in religion), I can never ever identify with that.
My relationship to the universe has been defined by confusion and chaos, great love too, and hope. Also much doubt. I have gone through many phases. As you mention, my memoir narrates my young life as the child of a minister and then my falling away from church, and then in my thirties coming back to an interest in theology, and ideas of God. Since I finished that book I have had many more phases and ideas. I had several years of reading the Transcendentalists and being very interested in those ideas, of the transformative power of nature and man/woman as a part of that nature and therefore a natural part of the god head.
More recently I have been reading Trangpa. His book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, is very fine and influenced me a lot. I also read, many other Buddhist texts as well as the monk Thomas Merton’s Asian Journal. I have felt called to move through the idea of a finite God, or presence, even though my idea is not all that finite. I feel the move for me has to be to give up any preconceived ideas of the divine so as to get closer to it. I must unknow what I think I know. It’s only through unknowing that I can have any direct experience of the raw universe. This summer, I read a lot of William James and his idea that thinking and the movement of the mind is divinity itself very much thrilled me.
Do I think, to get to your question directly, that you have to look at your belief system carefully and see where its acquired and where it has real life, energy and movement that can push you and help you — absolutely, no one should rely on some big institution for redemption (Church or University). We all have to work this out ourselves; we need the structures, the religions, the literature, the art and idea of people and groups that have come before… but we need to look at it honestly and make sure it’s ALIVE FOR US.
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