It’s only four years old but has the texture of cyberpunk science fiction, Stephenson’s Snow Crash, that sort of thing, that I read in the nineties. It’s partly the gritty urban realism that provides that cyberpunk taste, though Despentes’ Vernon Subutex I isn’t set in some near future, but navigates the joys and terrors of emerging culture in the present day. There is also the ironic social commentary channeled through the hustlers and alienated street people who exist side-by-side in this grim, violent world.
Style is central, a cynical even paranoid perspective, but without sacrificing completely the characters’ humanity. It is a narrative that is perfectly in tune with our post-war awareness that advanced societies do not by default become more humane or civilised, quite the reverse in fact.
Despentes’ Paris is not the city of Benjamin’s bourgeois flaneur, but more in tune with the concrete jungle of Baudelaire. It also contrasts with Cusk’s confined, rather claustrophobic trilogy of middle-class life, offering an alternative set of keys to understanding the ethical dilemmas of human experience in the late-capitalist modern city.
One morning as I was riding my bicycle–I must have been around five or six years of age–I was struck by the sensation of being ‘me’. It hadn’t occurred to me before but the feeling persisted for several minutes. I saw myself for the first time as distinct from the people around me. In Sartre’s essay on Baudelaire, he writes that “Everyone in his childhood has been able to observe the accidental and shattering apparition of the consciousness of self.” When I was able, much later, to think coherently about that sensation of personal identity, I understood it to be composed of a person’s past and present.
Claudio Magris’s A Different Sea is a narrative about a protagonist seeking non-being, an experiment with living each moment fully, without desire or projection. His sense of self is fashioned by “Homer, the tragedians, the Pre-Socratics, Plato, and the New Testament in the original Greek, and Schopenhauer – also, of course, in the original; the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Sermon of Benares and the other teachings of Buddha; Ibsen, Leopardi, and Tolstoy.” Magris raises important questions that many of us struggle with about personal autonomy, authenticity and identity–how to make the transition from an aesthetic to ethical selfhood? His protagonist, Enrico Mreule, choses an austere, solitary life that leads not only to his own progressive mental deterioration but that of the people he choses to have around him.
Man is not a particularly dignified species but it is compelling to read an account of a character with a heroic, fate haunted conception of self. Enrico, like Philoctetes who he admires, tries to establish a life solely dependent on himself but of course, like all of us, is enmeshed in a web of complex forces. Past relationships and emotions are a crucial part of our consciousness of self. To disregard such forces is to put our sense of identity at risk. Magris’s novel is all too brief, but remarkable to follow Enrico’s life journey from nobility to pity, and use the space to reflect on human nature and the values that ought govern a human life.
Life is a hospital, in which every patient is possessed by the desire to change his bed. This one would prefer to suffer in front of the stove, and that one believes he would get well if he were placed by the window.
It seems to me that I should always be happier elsewhere than where I happen to be, and this question of moving is one that I am continually talking over with my soul.
“Tell me, my soul, poor chilled soul, what do you say to living in Lisbon? It must be very warm there, and you would bask merrily, like a lizard. It is by the sea; they say that it is built of marble, and that the people have such a horror of vegetation that they uproot all the trees. There is a landscape that would suit you — made out of light and minerals, with water to reflect them.”
My soul does not answer.
“Since you love tranquillity, and the sight of moving things, will you come and live in Holland, that heavenly land? Perhaps you could be happy in that country, for you have often admired pictures of Dutch life. What do you say to Rotterdam, you who love forests of masts, and ships anchored at the doors of houses?”
My soul remains silent.
Perhaps Batavia seems more attractive to you? There we would find the intellect of Europe married to the beauty of the tropics.
Not a word. Can my soul be dead?
“Have you sunk into so deep a stupor that only your own torment gives you pleasure? If that be so, let us flee to those lands constituted in the likeness of Death. I know just the place for us, poor soul! We will leave for Tornio. Or let us go even farther, to the last limits of the Baltic; and if possible, still farther from life. Let us go to the Pole. There the sun obliquely grazes the earth, and the slow alternations of light and obscurity make variety impossible, and increase that monotony which is almost death. There we shall be able to take baths of darkness, and for our diversion, from time to time the Aurora Borealis shall scatter its rosy sheaves before us, like reflections of the fireworks of Hell!”
At last my soul bursts into speech, and wisely cries to me: “Anywhere, anywhere, as long as it be out of this world!”
Condemned constantly to the humiliation of a new conversion, I have made a great decision. To flee from the horror of those philosophical apostasies, I have proudly resigned myself to modesty: I have contented myself with feeling; I have returned to seek shelter in impeccable naivety.
The entire history of literature-a secret history that no one will ever be able to write except in part, because authors are too skilful at obscuring themselves-can be seen as a sinuous garland of plagiarism. By this I do not mean functional plagiarism, due to haste and laziness, such as Stendhal’s plundering of Lanzi; but the other kind, based on admiration and as a process of physiological assimilation that is one of the best protected mysteries of literature.
Alex Stein, essayist and aphorist, is the author of Made-Up Interviews With Imaginary Artists. In The Artist as Mystic, Stein interviews Yahia Lababidi, essayist, aphorist and poet. Does Lababidi exist? Is the interviewer imaginary? In these post-postmodern (or neo-modern) times, do such distinctions matter? As David Shields wrote in his manifesto, “Once upon a time there will be readers who won’t care what imaginative writing is called and will read it for its passion, its force of intellect, and for its formal originality.”
As Sol Lewitt said, “Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.” Or as Alex Stein puts it, they “hold something more dear than one’s own happiness.” With one exception, the artists chosen as subjects for these literary interviews are those that have accompanied me from early on: Kafka, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Rilke and Kierkegaard.
Beyond Stein’s introductory essay the book is structured, as the title suggests, as a series of interviews with Yahia Lababidi. Stein fades away, as Lababidi discourses about literature. Lababidi wears his erudition lightly during these interviews with a discursive style that is undemanding but whose allusions circle a fraternity of Modernist thinkers. Of Kafka, Lababidi says:
Kafka is us, without lying.
Shouldn’t that change the way I read him? It should. And it does. It ups the volume on everything. Even if he only clears his throat, it rings like thunder. Because the fact of the matter is he has something thunderous in him to say, and the fact of the matter is we know that he does. That is the point. Some of this stuff, sure, it can be more navel gazing, more convolutions, but what we cannot fail to recognise in Kafka is that this is a guy who is wrestling with his angel, and that commands our attention. What he is up against, so are we up against.
The passion that Lababidi brings to his reflections on what he terms The Exquisites revitalizes and never fails to offer some fresh perspective. This is a short text, that I read in a single sitting, which I hope generates a sequel.
I left hanging above the exception, Vilhelm Ekelund, of whom Lababidi says:
He practised a kind of literary soul-gazing. “Books must be lived to be read,” he writes. He saw into the writers he read in ways that others don’t. He composed essays and aphorisms.
Another essayist and aphorist? Having verified that Ekelund is not imaginary I shall seek out his work.