Mathias B. Freese is a multifaceted personality who is a teacher, a psychotherapist and an author. I got a chance to read and review(here) one of his books – This Mobius Strip of Ifs and was quite impressed by his writing style and the sincere way in which he has shared his life with his readers.
It was a pleasure to conduct an e-interview with him for our readers here.
1. When did you start writing your experiences in the book form ? How has been the writing experience so far?
I have been writing since 1968, although at age eighteen my high school yearbook published a poem by me which was so misunderstood and so savagely edited that I didn’t recognize it when it was in print. An English teacher got carried away and omitted the underlying theme of depression which I was experiencing when I wrote it. Unknowingly she compounded my resentment. It was the repressed Fifties, so what else is new? The next effort was ten years later in a short piece for an education journal which revealed or uncorked my disenchantment with teaching content in the classroom. After that my full-blown neurosis composed of despair, depression and rage revealed itself in 1974 when I had “Herbie” published, my first major short story. (See my first short story collection, Down to a Sunless Sea.) As you know the first essay in This Mobius Strip of Ifs , explores my serendipitous and synchronous adventure with that particular story. In any case after being listed with Mailer, Oates, Singer and other greats, I felt very encouraged and continued to write.
Rejections cooled my ardor but I never quit. Indeed, I promised myself that I would set out to write the best stories I could and at a later date have them published. This self-promise took thirty or so years. Characterologically this effort says so much more about me than as a writer. So as Spencer Tracy once said about Kathryn Hepburn in one of their collaborations, what there is of her is “cherce.” Consequently I don’t quit. I persevere. The only audience I write for is me and if you like what I have written, so be it.
My writing experience can be extracted in a sense from Kazantzakis’s epitaph: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”
2. What has this literary journey taught you and enriched you with?
Vibha, this question is the equivalent, as I think about it, of assessing my very life which by the way is what I have done on a regular basis over the years and decades, in short, pungent, I hope, open and feeling essays. We are all born to be done away with. Again I go to an epitaph to help reflect, this time Epicurus: “I was not; I have been; I am not; I do not mind.” Much wisdom and therapy in that remark, for Epicurus, rightly so, believed that philosophy should be a kind of therapy.
But readers of this interview want something else, don’t they, Vibha? (Happy talk?) An aspect of myself is not to please others but that while I write I share my experience with you, with me first. I have enriched my literary journey, not the other way around. I give to my writing and I learn in that way to write better. Krishnamurti famously said in one of his dialogues, “The word is not the thing itself.” So all my writing is just an approximation of what turmoil, tumult and insight I have about my human condition. As we all should know, to cite Christopher Hitchens, we are only partially rational, animal, and often savage at that, and our human genome controls the robot that we are.
3. Which has been your most satisfying writing experience so far?
The i Tetralogy, my extensive take on the Holocaust, represented much of who I am as a Jew and human being, of my growing up Jewish in America. In that novel I put all the skills, imagination and heartfelt renderings I could about man. I have gone beyond Wiesel’s affirmation that indifference is not tolerable any longer. I have arrived at a different assessment based on my reading, psychotherapeutic experience, my atheism – free of religious conditioning, the bane of civilization, and I have gone into the unexplored country. Man is out of control, always has been, genetically so! In a few years we all will be reading about evolutionary psychology, the additional scientific work based on Darwin’s theories which have emerged in the 90s. Dawkins, Dennett, Ridley, Wright will become well-known names, and what they have to report based on immense scientific studies can be summed up in Richard Dawkins words: “We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecule known as genes. This is a truth that still fills me with astonishment.” The Selfish Gene
Consequently writing about the Holocaust allowed me to examine the nature of man so genetically far beyond Hobbes’s “short, nasty and brutish” assessment.
This Mobius Strip of Ifs, I believe, has given me the most pleasure because I was freewheeling in my approach and many essays were written over four decades and reflected the thinking I had at different stages of my adult life. Upon reflection, the book is about the emergence of a self. It was an assessment of myself and now at 71 I see where I had trod and what lay before me. Ironically it was you or someone else who wrote that the book was a profound self help one which, I feel, is an oxymoron.
Nevertheless, this made me think and if it is so, that I have made others go back to my book, chew and digest it, that is a delightful gift to this writer’s life. My working hypothesis is that this book is from an inner directed person, and that is uncommon. Recently the American Psychiatric Association deleted Narcissism from its manual of disorders, DSM IV or V. That is, most Americans are now narcissistic and what was formerly a disorder is now the norm. All those learned interventions I had acquired for dealing with this disorder goes out the window. So when an American goes overseas and wants a house and insists that it have an American bathroom, that kitchentop counters be made of granite, that all appliances be stainless steel only testifies to our lunacy, not our so-called normalcy. By the way, the essential trait of a narcissist is his or her emptiness, the rest is all bluff.
4. Are all the essays in This Mobius Strip of Ifs taken truthfully from your own life or do they have some fictional elements too? How comfortable do you feel opening your feelings in front of the world?
Easy to answer. My life is non-fiction. I will not play shrink here, but I gather individuals are uncomfortable with my openness. An English Academic, who I have 50 years on, cited this difference between English and American writers. Americans are into Whitman, Thoreau, Ginsburg and British writers, except for Hitchens and a few others, are constipated, to be blunt. Brits, unlike Ginsburg, cannot howl. I can’t think of an English equivalent to Hart Crane. To make my point, this academic was displeased with my plumage. Oh I couldn’t care less because she cannot see through her own conditioning.
Having spent years in treatment and working on myself by reading Krishnamurti, I have no qualms about expressing my feelings openly, not disguised as in novels and short stories. The personal essay fits my personality and I use it as best I can. Think about this: the real task of a good shrink is to make the unconscious conscious and human beings have a terrible time arriving at revealing themselves. We really do not communicate well as a species. We are gelatinous vats of suppressed and repressed feelings and awarenesses. When you can break through, you are free.
I struggle to be psychologically free. I can say that all my writing is about my need to be psychologically free, of myself, especially you, and of the world which conditions 24/7. And the worst felon in all this is the monolithic and mammoth conditioning of religion which is the dragon at the gate. Freud argued (The Future of an Illusion) that to become free of this conditioning brings you into full adult maturity as a human being. Religion is man -made. (Pause.) Consequently it is corruptive.
5. What do you intend to write next? When is it expected to be published?
The next book is already finished and I am thinking of how to go about getting it published. I have submitted it to several online magazine contests, but most likely I will have to self-publish it myself.I will not engage agents on this because it is so time intensive to acquire one I’d rather go the other alternative routes. After all, I do not have a vast readership nor do I devote many hours to promoting the book. I try to do what I can but I refuse to be sucked into rampaging capitalism which is all the rage across the internet, the hustling, self-promoting, the slobber at some writers’ mouths as they urge you to read this or that. So here is a synopsis of my next book. No one who encounters the Holocaust seriously is ever done with it.
I Truly Lament, is a varied collection of stories, inmates in death camps, survivors of these camps, disenchanted Golems complaining about their tasks, Holocaust deniers and their ravings, and collectors of Hitler curiosa (only recently a few linens from Hitler’s bedroom suite went up for sale!) as well as an imagined interview with Eva Braun during her last days in the bunker. The intent is to perceive the Holocaust from several points of view.
An astute historian of the Holocaust has observed that it is much like a train wreck, survivors wandering about in a daze, sense and understanding, for the moment, absent. No comprehensive rational order in sight.
In my award-winning Holocaust novel, The i Tetralogy, considered by some an important contribution to Holocaust literature as well as a work of “undying artistic integrity” (Arizona Daily Sun) I could not imagine it all, and this book of stories completes my personal struggle. Within the past year 10 stories have been published online and in print from this collection, the most recent “Slave” published in Del Sol Review in December 2011. I will promote my present book and by year’s end publish the new one.
6. What were your thoughts when you started writing The i Tetralogy ? What unique thing did you want to convey on the Holocaust that has not been done before?
Allow me to depart a little from the question and express my thoughts in this fashion To have survived the Holocaust is to have been gutted as a human being. The inner self is ravished. Whether or not one recovers from that is beyond comprehension.
All literary depictions of the Holocaust end as failures, perhaps revealing shards of understanding. And is understanding ever enough? Writing about the Holocaust is a ghastly grandiosity.The enduring mystery of the Holocaust is that memory must metabolize it endlessly and so we must try to describe it, for it goes beyond all imaginable boundaries. One soon realizes the fundamental understanding that the species is wildly damaged, for only a damaged species could have committed the Holocaust. No great piece of art, no technological achievement or other historical creation of mankind can ever expunge the Holocaust.
Human beings are so much less than we give them credit for. If we begin here perhaps books can be written about the Holocaust – without blinders or eyelids, although by definition they will fail. Every artist who struggles with the Holocaust must begin with an acceptance of failure and that must be worked through before art begins.
I have come up short here. I must say what I have to say as a man, as a Jew, and be done with it. I feel deeply the flaw within as part of this species. I am ashamed.
By name and nomenclature, the Holocaust is but an approximation of what happened. The species cannot grasp its nature. The artist will only succeed marginally if he or she manages to drive that home.
The eternal perseveration of the species has become the Holocaust. We will never be done with it. We will never work it through.
7. You are a teacher and a psychotherapist – which of these two vocations excite you more or is more satisfying, other than writing. While working in the capacity of a psychotherapist, which do you think are the most common human frailties and strengths?
As a psychotherapist I can engage human beings, at times, at very profound levels, not in the classroom. Most schools condition human beings, that is their real task – to indoctrinate, to be an American or to be French. By working with my fellow human beings I began to grow as well, and as you know, Vibha, in This Mobius Strip of Ifs I write about the telling consequences of being a client and a practitioner. For me treatment helped this soul to become much more free, more open, more expressive, although I still work on those potholes we all have.
I am not an expert on human happiness, frailties and strengths. No one is an expert. As I age I realize I know shit. Perhaps other than techniques, therapists should keep that in mind, all “professionals.” Look at the world about – it is in chaos, those in charge are not in charge themselves, think of Clinton’s errant penis, Cheney’s need to devour human beings by sending them off to war, Sarah Palin who did not know that there was a North Korea and a South Korea.
I’d pose your question another way. What can I do to become aware, and what can I do to decondition myself so that I can see clearly? In that is hope.
8. Could you please give suggestions to budding authors on how to make their writing more effective and meaningful?
Advice sucks. Whatever advice I have received I had to process through my own machinery. So if you want to lick at the waters of advice-givers, make sure that your machinery is working real well and that you can discern good from bad.
Let me specify. It is an old cliché to writers that they should write between 500 to 1000 words a day over years. And what if you cannot? Well, I had to work and feed the family. I wrote in study halls while I taught; I wrote late into the night when I could. I fought off despair all those years through sheer grit and bullheadedness. I just wanted to write to exorcise my dybbuks. I never thought of myself as a writer. I was an auto-didact. What I have concluded is that you do your best, learn what you can, use what seems useful and forget all the bullshit – you know, 10 ways to have your book reviewed, how to write a query letter to a blogger, how to get an editor, and how to promote you work before you even write it (book as package). I don’t know about you but I am fatigued. We do all this fussing as each day we move closer to our end. Ecce Homo.