I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Melissa Seley speaks with author Lars Iyer about his trilogy of novels, Spurious, Dogma, and the forthcoming Exodus.
In England, where nearly all philosophy departments adhere to the pre-Kantian analytic method, Lars Iyer is a lecturer in one of the last robust post-Kantian philosophy strongholds at the University of Newcastle on Tyne. When Iyer began blogging about his philosophical musings and end-times despair, a fictional dialogue between two failed philosophy lecturers—“Lars” and his caustic counterpart “W.”—emerged. What ensued, as Lars’s and W.’s banter took on a life of its own, is a Beckettsian mumblecore-meets-Larry David satire trilogy composed of the novels Spurious (2010), Dogma (2012) and next year’s Exodus.
Little is resolved across Iyer’s first two novels. In Spurious, Lars’s apartment is engulfed by mold, only to be plagued by rats in Dogma. As the two face university cutbacks, the scant salvation they find resides in the virtues of Plymouth gin. Manbags abound—as does a sense that the best of times are far behind. Yet Lars and W. loiter in a performative (and heartbreakingly funny) longing for epiphany, spurred on by W.’s barbs. In the first few pages of Dogma, Lars is compared in his lustiness to “one of those monkeys in the zoo with an inflamed arse—what are they called? Oh yes, mandrills,” and in his stupidity to the “roaring of the sea” and an “Easter Island statue.”
For all the charms of the novels’ cyclical structure and lowbrow theoretical ramblings, it is the quality of Iyer’s writing that is revelatory. W.’s pithy jabs at Lars are offset by swift lyrical passages—W.’s “sea” insult, for instance, is anchored by the following: “Even today, as we walk toward the gorse to the shore, he feels as though he’s taking a lunatic out on a day release, W. says. Listing my shortcomings above the sound of the breakers, he knows I’ve already forgotten everything he’s said.”
Melissa Seley Where were you born? Where did you grow up?
Lars Iyer I was born in west London—J.G. Ballard country—and grew up in the Thames Valley in the Thatcher years, when the UK was becoming the neoliberal country it is today.
MS What was your sense of religion as a child?
LI Religion meant empty prayers in assembly at school. It meant fervently evangelical Religious Studies teachers talking about the “good news.” My friends and I weren’t taken in for a second. “Official” Christianity seemed so bland, and we were all atheists. What is it about the UK that leaches everything interesting out of religion? How do they make the Bible so suburban?
My dad, a Hindu, would buy me the more edifying of the wonderful Amar Chitra Katha comics—on the biography of Sankara, for example, or on the philosophical aspects of the Gita. This was more like it!, I thought. I learnt about the notion of sacrifice, central to Hinduism, which was supposed to awaken the higher self, Atman, that burns in all things. I learnt about the avatars of Vishnu, salvific figures born on earth to struggle against evil. I learnt about Krishna, the last of those avatars, whose death saw the beginning of the fallen age in which we now live. As I grew older, I read as deeply as I could about Hindu mythology, just as I read about the mythology of ancient Greece and Scandinavia.
MS First religious experience?
LI I’m still waiting for it! I’ve always been the most boring kind of atheist, even if I have a great interest in religion. As a student, I read the Christian mystics and the Desert Fathers, as well as Zen Koans and various Sufi texts. I loved the ardency of religious writings—for example, of the notion of huenzuen, the grief, emptiness and inadequacy that the Sufi follower was supposed to feel because he can never be close enough to Allah. I admired the integrity shown in the story of Kitano Gempo, the Zen abbot, who endeavored for his whole life not to be attached to anything. As a young man, Gempo grew so adept at poetry, that his work was widely praised. He stopped writing, saying to himself, “if I don’t stop now, I’ll be a poet, not a Zen teacher.” Ah, if only your grief, emptiness and inadequacy was caused solely by an insufficiently deep closeness to God! If only there was a genuine cause to which you could devote yourself so that everything else seemed worthless—even writing!
Georges Bataille tells us that the experience of the absence of God is divine. For him, John of the Cross’s call to imitate Jesus means we must undergo the fall from grace, the agony, and the moment of what Bataille calls “non-knowledge.” In this way, Christianity points us to a sense of the “absence of salvation, the despair of God.” Unlike Bataille, I have never belonged to a religion, never believed, which means I am at a remove even from the atheistic mysticism he practices in several of his books. Bereft both of God and the absence of God, I nevertheless constantly return to religious writings.
MS Who was your first close friend?
LI Looking back, I remember a haze of friendships, rather than a particular friend. I remember childhood friendships of shared tastes and interests, based on the consumption of the same comics, the same computer games, the same science fiction books. I remember friendships of shared projects, be they cycling around just-built housing estates, or playing in bad bands. As I grew older, my friendships formed through a shared sense of disgust with our peers and our world, and a desire to find something of intrinsic value. Music was very important to us. Our intellectual life took the form of discussing the relative merit of bands, albums, of journalists in the music press and so on. But all this paltry compensation for our sense that life—real life—was elsewhere.
MS How would you define friendship?
LI We usually understand friendship to involve a special concern for the other person, a concern that is, in some way, returned. We value our friend for intrinsic reasons, for the unique individual that they are. And our relationship is typically characterized by an intimacy, by a bond of trust wherein we can disclose things to one another that we might not share with anyone else. Friends typically share views and values, as well as a sense of what is important. And friendship involves a kind of sympathy, whereby you take joy in your friend’s successes, just as you are disappointed when things go wrong for them.
Seen in this way, friendship is a philosophical ideal, something to aspire to in order to cultivate your own virtue, as well as the virtue of your friend. For my part, reading what I’ve just written, I wonder whether I’ve ever had a single friendship! W., in my novels, speaks of an opportunism and cynicism which, springing from neoliberal capitalism, progressively strips away our capacity for intimacy and sympathy, and hence friendship. I share his concern. I always felt, growing up, that my so-called friends and I were rats in a maze, responding in a limited way to a small range of stimuli. A system of stereotypical rewards and punishments trained us to be self-interested, bent only on maximizing what we took to be our own ends. We had a sense that there was something wrong with our world, that older forms of solidarity and community were disappearing, but we had lost the ethical sensibility that would have allowed us to live up to the ideal of friendship.
MS Do you believe in Platonic love?
LI Platonic love? Nowadays, we associate this kind of love with chastity. This is paltry. Once, it recalled the kind of love Plato explores in his dialogue, The Symposium. For Plato, Eros is ultimately a striving for the good, for the divine, via the relationship with another person. Even the corrupt but beautiful Alcibiades senses this, in Plato’s dialogue. He feels an erotic love for the notoriously ugly Socrates, regarding him as closer to the divine than he is. Alcibiades even invites Socrates under his blanket. But Socrates refuses—for him, the good and divine lie beyond the physical realm we inhabit, beyond our bodies. For Socrates, Alcibiades’s beauty is only a reminder of the true object of erotic striving: the good, the divine.
Do I believe in this kind of love? I believe in the virtue of friendship that strives for something beyond our consensual reality, beyond the opportunism and cynicism which prop it up, although I do not understand this “something beyond” as divine. In the end, for all its joys, friendship has allowed me to experience a sense of the lack of friendship, of the emptiness of life. Perhaps this is one of those things which have drawn me to write about thinkers and filmmakers for whom re-imagining friendship is of paramount importance.
MS Is writing an act of friendship?
LI We usually conceive of friendship as reciprocal (it seems curious, I think, to speak of an unrequited friendship), so it is hard to see how forms of writing which are not directly addressed to already existing friends might be said to constitute acts of friendship. Nevertheless, I have always been drawn to, intrigued by, writers who have claimed that their writing is, in some way, an act of friendship for their readers. Bataille is one of these writers, who, isolated from those close to him in the years of World War II, dreamt that he might, in some way, reach out to his unknown readers in a kind of friendship. “I’m now seeking friends and readers a dead person might encounter, and I see them up ahead of me already: innumerable, silent, always true like stars in the heavens.” Bataille’s aim was to communicate with his readers through a kind of textual sacrifice of the writing self, which would bring about the sacrifice of the self of the reader in turn. Friendship, in this sense, becomes a religious ritual, analogous in many ways to Hindu practices. How mysterious! How intoxicating! I think it was with a similar dream that I threw myself into blogging …
MS When (if ever) did you first begin to think of yourself as a writer?
LI I still don’t think of myself as a writer. To be a writer is to be something exalted, in my mind. In France, you can write novels, but still not be thought of as a writer. Being a writer is something more lofty. Being a writer is an honor that can only be bestowed upon you by others.
MS What led you to start writing a blog?
LI I wanted to reach others who felt a similar kind of aversion to most elements of contemporary culture and mainstream media as I do, and who shared the sense that they were “internal exiles” in our neoliberal world. I also wanted to write with the authors I admired, rather than simply writing about them.
MS Did you alter your process in any way, from writing Spurious to writing Dogma?
LI I assembled Spurious from materials at my blog of the same name. I hadn’t intended to write a novel at all. But as I wrote more and more W. and Lars posts—which were meant only as “light relief” from other topics at the blog—I began to see that they deserved to be formed into a standalone narrative. With Dogma, I knew I was writing a novel. I still wrote it at the blog, but I did so with much more self-awareness: the posts that made up Dogma were no longer simply “relief,” but the things themselves.
MS Did you change from book to book, as a writer?
LI Hopefully, I improved! With Spurious, the novel, I think I discovered an idiom, a way of writing, which was particular to me. This was my good fortune. You can look through books that trace the careers of painters. To begin with, they do all kinds of things. They experiment. They try this style and that, following blind alleys. But then, at a certain point, they are themselves—they paint in the style we associate with their name. How did they reach that style? Through practice, through simply being there to paint. But through luck, too. Through a kind of grace. I feel lucky that I discovered my idiom, my style. Once I had done so with Spurious, it remained to explore what could be done in this idiom, how it might be expanded, and set to work on different materials. Hence Dogma (and, indeed, Exodus).
MS Why a trilogy?
LI I lucked into a style and a subject that, I thought, deserved a more extended treatment than a novel could provide. I wanted to use longer story arcs, longer thematic arcs, and to bring the novels to an appropriate climax.
MS Do you think of yourself as a novelist? A comedian? A satirist? A contrarian?
LI As a novelist, I suppose. The comedian, the satirist, the contrarian stands apart from the world, in my view. As a novelist, I am in the thick of things, implicated in them.
There is something humble about novel-writing, about the prose of the world. I am on the side of the ordinary, the everyday, even if the everyday is more mysterious than might first appear. I love writing about ecstatic transport, of great wild dreams and delusions. I love writing lyrically. But I do so while trying to keep true to the disenchanted world in which most of us live, and to which we must return after our ecstasies. W. reports Lars’s life-changing experience of reading Kafka—but Lars read Kafka’s novel while working in dreary jobs in hi-tech industrial estates. W. has a vision of the utopia of Neolithic Britain, of the virgin forests where hunter-gatherers lived without social hierarchies—but this vision occurs on a Crowthorne golf course.
MS Do you consider the philosopher part of yourself as separate from the writer part of yourself—like Pessoa with his heteronyms? Or is the act of writing this trilogy closer to W. quoting Rosenzweig’s belief? that theological problems must be translated into everyday terms, and everyday problems brought into the pale of theology?
LI I think the same thing that I said earlier concerning writing holds for philosophy, too: it is for others to give you the title, philosopher. Writing novels is, for me, an activity entirely different from teaching philosophy. When I teach, I aim to introduce students to philosophical materials from various times and places, and assist them in the task of critical thinking. When I write fiction, I use these materials partly for comic purposes and partly to construct a kind of “metaphysic,” as D.H. Lawrence once called it—a framework that gives coherence to the fictional world of my characters. In Spurious and Dogma, this framework is drawn from philosophical and religious materials on which I am in no way an expert. I choose these materials for what I feel is their inherent thematic appeal—the way they reflect the interests of my characters, or advance other concerns within my narratives. Often, I choose them for laughs—because, treated properly, they have comic potential. As such, I am far from a figure like Rosenzweig, whose intentions were much more serious.
MS You’ve said that Spurious, on account of its low-brow humor, is neither esoteric nor inaccessible. Do you have a relatively philosophically clued-in audience in mind while you’re writing?
LI The novels require no background in philosophy at all. There are no “in jokes” in Spurious or Dogma for clued-in readers, analogous to the jokes for adults in the Toy Story films. There is a deeper design to the novels than might appear on first glance—this is what I mean by a “metaphysic”—but I think this can be appreciated intuitively, as well as through more intellectual means.
MS You’ve said that literature is posthumous. What do you mean?
LI Sometimes, it is necessary say stupid things—to speak out from an overwhelming feeling. For some time, I have felt that what has been called literature for a couple of centuries is over: that the conditions in which it thrived, and which are necessary for its survival, have disappeared. Perhaps this is plain wrong—more books are being published than ever, and in more parts of the world. Perhaps my claim reflects a crisis of Western culture, a crisis of masculinity, a crisis of a privileged “race.” Perhaps amazing new literary hybrids will appear, the like of which we can only dream of. Perhaps a new chapter of literature, capital L, is about to begin … . I do not have the strength to believe in these things. I wish that I did.
MS What gives you the strength then to return to your work with new energy again and again?
LI It is only by returning to our creative projects, over and over again, that we can achieve anything by writing. Getting to your desk is the trick. Leonard Cohen says in an interview, “Most people give up. My mind is not particularly fertile. My only success is the fact that I’ve been able to get to the desk.” I agree with him. That’s been my success too, such as it is. I lack wit. I am not funny in real life. I’m fairly quiet; I rarely hold forth. I do not excel in intellectual discussion. How is it that I, of all my friends, have published novels? One answer is that there is no money in novel-writing. There is some measure of cultural prestige in publishing a novel, of course, but this is disappearing. Why on Earth would anyone bother to write, when there are so many other things to do? Does getting to your writing desk reflect strength or weakness? Do you go to your desk full of the desire to create literature, to populate a fictional world? Or do you slink there, full of disgust and self-disgust because ordinary life isn’t sufficient for you?
When I think back over my adult life, I remember a series of desks at which I wrote, or tried to write. Is my desk a retreat or a rallying point? I’ve never been sure. Perhaps getting to my desk is an attempt to give meaning to my life, at a time in which meaning is being stripped from the world. Perhaps writing is necessary in order to confront this meaninglessness, to struggle with it. But perhaps writing only perpetuates this meaninglessness, doubling it up, making it even more real.
MS How would you define inspiration?
LI Inspiration is usually thought to involve a kind of receptivity. To be inspired is to have been possessed from without—from outside your psyche, outside the natural order, the mundane. You might go on to act on the basis of your inspiration, to write a poem, to take an unexpected turn in your trumpet solo, but that openness is essential.
This notion of inspiration remains structurally intact from antiquity to our times; it is just presented in different terms. The priestess at the oracle in Delphi, intoxicated by hallucinogenic fumes; the Biblical prophets, carried away by their visions; the afflatus of the Romantic poets, strongly linked to the idea of genius, all share this model of inspiration.
But the feeling of possession with which inspiration has always been bound up has traditionally been treated with suspicion. Philosophers have wanted to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate forms of inspiration—the lucidity of the philosopher from the divine frenzy granted by the poetic Muse, the genuine insights granted to the prophet from the delusions of the heretic, and so on. Inspiration is wayward and to be distrusted. At the same time, inspiration seems an indispensable notion. “Heightened” states of various kinds seem implicit to all kinds of creativity even if we might want to give a more deflationary account of this supposed “height.”
MS You’ve said that you’d like a reviewer to take up arms with you. Is that a branding instinct (“all P.R. is good P.R.”), a masochistic instinct of a general wish to antagonize? Do you really want your upcoming New York Times review to tear you to pieces?
LI The activity of writing seems in some sense wrong to me. When I write, I feel that I have committed the sin of presumption—who am I to have dared to place words before others? There’s the sin of inattention, too—by writing, by furthering my own career as a novelist (such as it is), I’ve turned from my admittedly inadequate attempt to do something which really matters, that is, philosophy. And there’s a sin of arrogance—who am I who would dare to go up against the greats, those literary writers I have revered for so many years? That’s why I dream of being placed in the literary stocks and having rotten vegetables thrown at me. I am a knot that wants to be untied.
MS There is a moment near the end of Dogma in which W. reveals what seems like a genuine sense of hopefulness for he and Lars. Has W.’s character progressed or is his mood a fluke, the product of a good cup of coffee or a passing whim?
LI For the most part, W. is hopeful. Both characters are, despite everything. Otherwise, how could they go on? Of course, there is an element of performance to the characters’ despair, as there is to everything they do. On the other hand, things do get pretty bleak for W. in Dogma …
MS What pitfalls await Lars and W. in Exodus?
LI Exodus has W. and Lars confront the source of their horror: contemporary Britain. The characters journey through Reading, London, Manchester, and Edinburgh on a lecture tour, before taking a last stand against neoliberal forces in a university occupation. They dream, as they travel, of leading an “exodus” of postgraduates to a new life on Dartmoor, the source of the water from which their beloved Plymouth Gin is made. And W. lyricises about the great generation of Essex postgraduates (of which he was one) who sought, in various ways, to escape the conditions of their country.
MS Do you have another novel project in mind? Have you begun working on it?
LI I’m currently writing a new novel, Wittgenstein Jr, with new characters and in a new setting. Early days yet—there’s very little time to write—but I have a clear idea of where it’s going.
MS If philosophy is, as W. puts it, an unrequited love affair, what is writing?
LI The word philosophy contains an etymological reference to the word, love. The philosopher is a friend of wisdom: that’s what the word suggests. This is a very tough kind of friendship, because it can seem that you get very little back. You might care for philosophy, but what does philosophy care for you? Enthusiasm for philosophy is not a sufficient condition of being a philosopher. That’s the problem!
Something similar holds with respect to writing, if we’re using the word in the lofty sense I mentioned earlier. Perhaps this is the modern condition, as Josipovici has suggested: lacking trustable external sources of validation, the modern writer is only ever in love with writing, and never sure that he or she is a writer. The status of writing is something your work has to receive through an external judgment—but when will that judgment come? And can you trust it? Are you really a writer or only someone in love with writing?
MS What is your great hope in writing?
LI No great hopes. A small hope, rather than a great one: to continue to be able to write, and to publish. The future of our societies—climate change and deepening inequality—seem grim. Babylon is burning. What is writing in the face of this?
Lars Iyer blogs here.
Melissa Seley’s nonfiction has appeared in Parallelograms, Gastronomica, Paper Magazine, The Spectrum Anthology, H.O.W. Journal, and Tokion among others. She was a 2010-2011 Writer-in-Residence at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and co-curates Ess Ess, a reading series in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. She is currently at-work on a memoir.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee