Photo by Lin Hixson

Over the last several months, I have been working with Matthew Goulish as an editor and publisher of his forthcoming collection of essays, The Brightest Thing in the World: Three Essays from the Institute of Failure. Over the course of that process, questions began to emerge from the periphery of the text as I continued to read and re-read the manuscript. These questions did not arrive at first glance for me, but rather coalesced with my sense for Goulish’s craft. The Brightest Thing in the World is a collection of essays that touch on seating strategies, Dick Cheney, cuckoo clocks, the Fibonacci series, butterflies and old friends. It covers tremendous ground for being only 70 pages; the experience of those pages feels most like an afternoon I spent once, a few years ago, when a very dear friend whom I hadn’t seen for years had a six-hour lay over in Chicago. We spent about three of those hours walking around Wicker Park and after the 20 minutes of  personal-life catch up, regularly found ourselves in a conversant territory that was at times abstract, reflective, sanguine, funny and joyous. Only in retrospect did I consider how our physical derive coincided with the discussion we’d had, or how — perhaps — we had, in an intuitive and accidental way, managed to negotiate the past and the present at once. Goulish similarly weaves multiple threads together like a tapestry and by their accumulated resonance creates an impression of loss and longing. As in Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, the reader passes through an associative experience and the colors of each facet are bright and vivid — perhaps like the leaves in fall on a misty morning. These are the essays of a poet; like the performance of words, each verb is as active as a muscle. The Brightest Thing in the World: Three Essays from the Institute of Failure will be released at Defribillator Gallery on Monday, May7th from 7-9pm. 

Caroline Picard: At the end of the book, there is a small but striking note about the deteriorating relationship between humankind and animals. Something came into focus when I read that note —I suddenly realized how present other life forms were in the book, from the pets abandoned in Katrina, to monarch butterflies, to ctenephore (what in some ways feels to me like an A-list star of the book, though I suppose there are many stars). Can you talk a little bit about the presence of animals in The Brightest Thing in the World?

Matthew Goulish: When I go to the movies, I always sit through the credits until the very end. Sometimes a dedication appears and pauses on the screen before the fade out. I appreciate that the very last words one sees have a special place, and a particular role to play, as the threshold leading out of the work and back to the world – like an usher opening the door of the theater. Beyond that gesture, I find the last moment a charged one in the way it can, with a very small comment, re-inflect everything that has come before, as if to offer a revelation from the vantage of the retrospective view, and to invite a second reading with that end grace note in mind. The passage on the possibility of animals going away forever comes from Howard Norman, whose writing has been a longtime inspiration for me. Throughout his work, starting with his earliest translations of the Swampy Cree in Manitoba, one finds this attitude of respect for animals who “are people like us” although they have a skepticism of humanity. I remembered the quote as I was working on the Barbellion essay.  I wanted to introduce that kind of thinking into the essay, as it seemed to make explicit the implicit reverence with which Barbellion observed nature. I did not know what to do with it until I had the thought to drop it in at the end like that. Then when I selected these three essays to constitute this book, the quote guided my thinking in the way it might amplify that thread through all three of the essays, and do so after the fact if it appeared at the end of the book. I had in the back of my mind, for example, in the middle essay, that between the death of the monarch butterflies in Mexico in 2002 and the race riots of Tulsa in 1921, an equation exists that has to do with uncountable loss, and the ancient belief of the butterfly as psychopomp, the carrier of the human soul between lives. This was how I formulated my response to W. G. Sebald – as if to compress and Americanize his obsessive hysteria, his monologues that seem to be running to try to keep pace with accelerating disaster. But through the three essays this thread appears in a backgrounded way, the way animals might make their appearances in human life, anyway my life, rushed and crowded in an urban setting. As the bus approaches the bus stop, I see a Sandhill Crane flying over Division Street, possibly headed for the Humboldt Park lagoon. Or I’m leaving a friend’s house at the end of the night and I surprise a raccoon at the back porch. If I let it, that encounter, however fleeting, resets my thoughts about my behavior, my values, or anyway my day. I wanted to use the book’s last moment to draw attention to that unobtrusive thread – call it ecology.

CP:  What does it mean to fail? And is this inherently tied to mortality? Can failure be a quest?

MG: My father is a retired engineer. Growing up with him I learned about failure analysis as a way to understand a complex system. It is not difficult to see the philosophy in that, when the system concerns thought. My jacket catches on the arm of the chair as I try to stand up, and the comedy of my life commences. Failure is certainly inherently tied to the mortality of my intentions. Attention to failure can constitute a quest to understand the broader spectrum in which any action actually operates. In the last essay, I do not mean to suggest human mortality as a form of failure. The operative failure is in my ability to write about death, maybe because death, when it is actual and not imaginary or virtual, eludes writing, or maybe just because writing about it eludes me. I can only write in proximity of it. I mean to say that to succeed, in any traditional sense, would mean to ignore events that insist themselves into one’s thinking, but to ignore them would be the death of the writing. One must fail and include them.

CP: What happens to the text when it is printed and read? How does this differ from its passage as a delivered lecture?

MG: I am happiest when I write as if there is no difference.

CP: I also love the presence of diplomatic relations — the way these come up, with the presence of Orsen Welles in the first lecture, and then a second reiteration of WWII through Barbellion’s position in history. There is another instance with Dick Cheney’s duck hunt. I can’t quite put my finger on it, or necessarily understand why I’m asking this, but I want to ask you about freedom, the freedom of an individual acting within his or her time. How do we negotiate our context? What is the point of that negotiation?

MG: This question relates to the first one for me. The comment, made in passing, toward the end of the analysis of the Dick Cheney hunting accident, that animals feels insulted if they are hunted incompetently, also derives from Howard Norman. I think that the appearance of animals in the book, that I mentioned above, brings with it two modes of discourse; one, that we can talk about animals as a veiled way of talking about the human (the ctenophore as a life); and two, that we can read in attitudes toward animals a measure of human ethics. The Cheney passage operates in this second mode, as relevant in relation to the care for the apprehension of the other as separate from, and not in service of, oneself. I am partial to the way that ethic asserts itself in stories of diplomacy, in which individuals represent nations perhaps, as in Graham Greene’s tale of Harry Lime, an American war profiteer who realizes the fantasy of witnessing his own funeral on his way to becoming the perfect, invisible gentleman criminal. During the Bush-Cheney years, there was a great deal of talk in philosophical circles about a resurgence of Hobbesian brutality, in service to the sovereign and in irreconcilable conflict with other nations, seen as fundamentally alien. I felt I needed to address that at the time, and my own role as an ambassador to Switzerland, where that lecture was delivered. By address it, I don’t mean examine it in any way other than the hall of mirrors approach of parading case studies and letting them bounce off one another. That is to say, when I talk about Harry Lime, I mean Dick Cheney, and when I talk about animals, I mean to offer an escape hatch from the prison of the individual as representative of a nation-state, that is to say, the fixed identity, and therefore the grandiose self. How we behave now, or anyway what we are attentive to, in response to the social interactions that the moment offers us, is determined by how we consider our own identities. Are they fixed, or always in motion? How do I attend to another person’s intention invading my own? How does the pursuit of dignity differ from the pursuit of happiness? How do I think of the margin my life occupies in relation to the historical moment as a kind of center?

CP: I think this interview would be remiss if I were to skip over the idea of love. It comes across in Dan Beachy-Quick’s reflection on your book, where he says “I want to say the failure of the bud results in the blossom — such ruptures lovingly unfold as failure’s larger gifts” but is also evident throughout the body of text: the care of your description and interest. The time you spend with Barbellion, or the effort of Kust’s grave site. Can you talk a little bit about care in the face of failure?

MG: Is it possible to feel love without an object for that love? Without a person, or creature, place, or recipient of any kind? Can writing serve as a form of training for such objectless love? For aligning the powers of thought with the powers of feeling, as an exercise, that brings one into a relation with oneself, or constantly adjusts one’s being in the world? Those are questions for which I do not have an answer, but questions that I want to stay close to, or keep near at hand, in any act of writing.


On the other hand, it has been said that we are here simply to find the things we love, and to find the appropriate way to praise them. Then to risk making of our lives a public song of praise. I mean that writing offers us a chance to find what we love, and to pay attention.

Matthew Goulish co-founded Goat Island in 1987, and Every house has a door in 2008. His 39 Microlectures – in proximity of performance was published by Routledge in 2000, and Small Acts of Repair – Performance, Ecology, and Goat Island, which he co- edited with Stephen Bottoms, in 2007. He was awarded a Lannan Foundation Writers Residency in 2004, and in 2007 he received an honorary Ph.D. from Dartington College of Arts, University of Plymouth. He teaches in the MFA and BFA Writing Programs of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.



Caroline Picard