Crisis and Rebirth in Krinst Scholarship

Fafnir Finkelmeyer


When we think of fashions in literature and the arts, we often do so from a point of view of smug hindsight. The 19th century, for instance, was littered with Great Composers—Hummel, Onslow, Spohr, Raff, etc.—with formidable reputations in their day, most of which popped like a soap bubble after their era passed; today, we largely disregard and disdain their work—for most of us, on the basis not of personal acquaintance, but of received opinion. With literature, the canon is more inclusive, and the available spectrum wider; but the same phenomenon may be observed. The truth is, however independent-minded we may be, we are obliged for lack of time to rely to a large degree on the conventional opinions around us for guidance, and in the arts, deeply subjective as they are, there is very little way for us to measure what that reliance may cost us. Our relative certainty that cultural evolution has favored the deserving is, in practice, largely unfalsifiable. Cultural history is written by the winners; it is only with the gentle art of criticism that the reverse obtains. And thus it is that many reputations, subject to the vagaries of fashion, will balloon, and then wither. If this does a disservice to those who once were popular, even if overrated, its effect on those who were barely known to begin with—some of them no doubt seriously underrated—is even more disastrous.

The work of American polymath and underground poet Alvin Krinst has certainly suffered from such an undeserved downfall of fashion. Briefly celebrated as a true American original by a few brave scholars in the 1980s and ‘90s who created the Krinstian movement, which produced much enthusiastic work, papers, performances, and a series of exciting and memorable conferences, Krinst’s reputation seemed about to burst into public awareness with the advent of the internet era in the mid-90s, when (it was thought) virtual collaboration and internet publishing could provide a new avenue for forgotten, underground voices to find an audience. What in fact happened, when Krinstian scholarship moved to the web, was that it lost its urgency. The Krinst website soon fell into ruins, conferences were first postponed, then discontinued, planned publications cancelled, and the new generation of scholars who might have continued the work of the Krinstian pioneers of the past did not emerge.

So how is it that now, twenty years into this dark age, we are beginning to see a rebirth of Krinstian scholarship? Krinst’s ground-breaking work of political performance art, The Yalta Stunts, is now being published in a trade edition for the first time; there is talk of a Krinst Reader following next year; new research into Krinst’s early years is underway; a new Krinst website has emerged; plans for a Krinstfest in 2017, the first in the United States, at least, for more than two decades, are underway. How did this happen?

Several factors can be identified. One, sadly, is death. Two notable Krinstian scholars have died in recent years: J.F. Mamjjasond, who contributed much to the Krinst movement and was co-author (with myself) of Hoptime, a work which we always considered as a natural extension of our work in Krinst studies, and which is being published in full this year for the first time; and Merganser Dawlitt, J.S. D.D.S., the gentle Jesuit dentist who uncomplainingly devoted so many hours, and travelled so many miles, to perform the often tedious investigative tasks required to uncover the works Krinst so coyly left behind. We Krinstians, their old friends, coming together after their passing, felt keenly the burden of their legacy, and our sense of responsibility to Krinst’s legacy, and to Krinst personally, was rekindled, as were too the claims our old friendships still had on our hearts.

Another factor is technology, both old and new. In the midst of the internet and ebook revolution, somehow it became apparent that physical books need not disappear. Even as major publishers consolidated and the economics of publishing became even more forbidding to art, a golden era of small presses emerged, thanks to digital publishing, short-run and on-demand, and the prospect of internet distribution, which suddenly made publishing on a shoestring possible. Thus it is that the time for publication is at last at hand for work that has suffered for so long from obscurity. Originally wantonly abandoned—or, if you prefer, playfully placed— by the author in exceedingly odd and unlikely locations (e.g., on the walls of temporary lodgings, beneath a loose plank in a cabin, in seldom-borrowed library books) and typically distributed, once discovered by scholars prompted to search for them by Krinst’s own cryptic hints, to a very small circle of enthusiasts in hand-printed newsletters, this remarkable body of work, ruggedly individual, standing outside the categories of modern art or modern life, is finally coming into its own.

Whether Krinst personally rejoices at this, we do not know; the Master, like the Tao, remains as mysterious and uncommunicative as ever, while being plain as day and telling us all that needs to be said. Such is the uncanny, unnerving genius of Alvin Krinst.

—Fafnir Finkelmeyer