Mystical Idiots

“If we think we already know what is out there, we will surely miss much of it.” —Jane Bennett

“[The philosopher] must not deny his clownish traits, least of all since they alone can give him hope for what is denied him.” —Theodor Adorno

How many times can literature be declared dead and still rise again? In November 2011, ten months after the publication of his first novel, Spurious, and three months before his most recent, Dogma (a third book, Exodus, is slated for next year), Lars Iyer published a manifesto called “Nude in Your Hot Tub, Facing the Abyss (A Manifesto After the End of Literature and Manifestoes).” With the same mixture of anachronistic pathos and acute self-deprecation he brought to Spurious, Iyer programmatically addressed some of the themes that informed his novel: “Literature is a corpse and cold at that,” he proclaims, and we live in a world devoid of the faith, belief, and awe that true literature once occasioned. For Iyer, the hope that literature — or even thought itself — represented is now on the brink of being foreclosed. The causes are diverse: globalization, populism, market forces, the “banality of liberal democracy,” and most of all, the overabundance of books and writers. No one is rejected or ignored anymore — not when everyone can publish online instantly. Authors have disppeared, replaced by a legion of keystroke laborers, shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the creative-class proles.

Not everyone is so pessimistic about literature’s place in contemporary society. A recent essay by Chris Feliciano Arnold at The Millions is bullish, offering bullet points like “ ‘Literary’ genre novels are A-OK!” and “Oprah’s Book Club went supernova” as evidence of literature’s vigorous health. Since “weird” writers like Ben Marcus and Amelia Gray are getting published by major houses and finding some success, Arnold argues, “unconventional prose has a place at the table” and there are now “many paths for the novel” — a riposte to Zadie Smith’s defining 2008 essay for the New York Review of Books that saw only two.

But is this benign market pluralism really satisfactory? As Hal Foster argued in “This Funeral Is for the Wrong Corpse” (2002) “ ‘the end of art’ never meant a literal stop to paintings, sculptures, films, novels, and all the rest; what was at issue was the formal innovation and historical significance of these mediums.” Books of many sorts can be written, they may be read, they may even make someone some money, but do they matter? It is not that we lack things to be serious about. On the contrary, Iyer claims, we are everywhere surrounded by crisis and catastrophe: environmental, financial, political, and spiritual. What we lack are “the literary means to register tragedy” and to challenge reality. What’s worse, authors carry on as if none of this is the case. By continuing to write literary fiction in the prestige mode, authors unwittingly produce kitsch that is empty at best and shameful at worst, the equivalent of “'The Nutcracker' at Christmas.” When Iyer writes that “we all know Freedom cannot be Flaubert, and yet we cannot quite comprehend why that door is closed to us,” you can see him taking aim at what critic and blogger Mark Thwaite has dubbed Establishment Literary Fiction.

In its place, Iyer proposes an alternative. Inspired by the likes of Enrique Vila-Matas, Thomas Bernhard, and Roberto Bolaño, he invokes a non-literature or an un-literature that might survive our catastrophe. He advocates unliterary plainness and “choking directness,” the “day-after sobriety of a witness-report.” He calls for an openness that resists masterpieces and closed forms and instead allows real life — “gloomy, farcical life” — to drift in. “There is a terrible honesty in this work that sets us free. These are the writers who show us how, perhaps, we can proceed.”

And proceed he does, in the spirit of Beckett’s “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” For those romantic enough to be nostalgic for literature as a world-historical discipline or for the avant-garde ambition to change the world or at least transform the reader, the present can only be a disappointment of apocalyptic proportions. The protagonists of Iyer’s novels are precisely that kind of unfortunate soul. Both academic philosophers at provincial British universities, they long for a life of high seriousness and deep thought, and they fantasize endlessly about old Europe, the mythical home of their idols: Franz Kafka, Franz Rozenzweig, Maurice Blanchot, and the neo-Kantian Hermann Cohen, to name a few. Morose, misanthropic, and usually inebriated, they stumble from pub to pub dreaming of lives of belief, commitment, and intellectual accomplishment.

The problem is, they’re hopeless. At best, they fear they might be like Max Brod, devoting their lives to the intepretation and promotion of minds more gifted than their own. Near the beginning of Spurious, Iyer writes:

‘When did you know you weren’t going to amount to anything? Did you know?’, he asks, because sometimes he suspects I never did. Well he knows, at any rate, for both of us. —‘Neither of us is going to amount to anything!’, he says with finality. ‘Neither of us! Anything!’

This being the case, the bulk of both Iyer’s novels consists of the characters — including one called “Lars,” quite obviously an exaggerated version of Iyer himself — abusing themselves for their failures and shortcomings. Or rather W., the slightly more successful one (he, at least, has a decent house and a woman in his life) abuses Lars, who passively narrates W.’s varied and inventive insults with regard to Lars’s weight, hygiene, living conditions, dietary habits, and intellectual capabilities. More or less plotless novels about a couple of bickering, self-pitying intellectuals and their recondite obsessions ought to be tiresome slogs, but Lars and W.’s circular and frequently repetitive dialogue is so witheringly, gut-bustingly funny that Spurious and Dogma both maintain a madcap forward momentum even as their characters remain stalled.

Despite Iyer’s remarkable erudition (like his namesake protagonist, he is a philosophy professor, with two books on Blanchot to his name), these books defy the usual tenor of the “philosophical novel” by remaining resolutely and laudably lowbrow. Nor is writing himself into the books any kind of metafictional trick in the usual postmodern sense: Rather than, say, foregrounding the constructed and unstable nature of reality through unreliable narration and winking gestures toward the fictiveness of the text, Iyer’s self-deprecating presence in the story makes his prose more direct and his satire more poignantly pathetic.

Iyer’s approach has an obvious precedent in Thomas Bernhard’s grandiloquently caustic monologues, in which the tragic mode is carried to such lugubrious extremes that it begins to border on the farcical. For Iyer, however, the tragic mode is already irrecoverable: We are inescapably stuck in the realm of farce, and he stands ready to milk this sorry state of affairs for all the comic value it can produce. Thus, Lars and W. “hoot and point like apes” and send each other drawings of cocks in online chats. They are “essentially joyful,” as W. improbably remarks, noting that Lars has given him the “gift of idiocy.” “We are idiots, we agree,” Iyer writes, “idiots who do not quite understand the depths of their idiocy. We’re mystics of idiocy, we agree, mystical idiots, lost in our cloud of unknowing.”

Over the course of Spurious, our two idiots get up to very little. W. forces his students to listen to Godspeed You Black Emperor! and watch Béla Tarr films. The two travel back and forth to visit each other in Plymouth and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. They discuss their shared conviction that the world is ending. W. admires Lars’s adamantine apocalypticism but, deep in his own study of Jewish mysticism, he nevertheless feels that something may save them. Drinking is key. Drinking reveals the apocalypse but also the patience to get through the apocalypse.

The two concoct plans and dream of escapes: W. attempts to learn infinitesmal calculus and ancient Greek for the umpeenth time but is defeated again, as always. At a presentation he and Lars give together, they argue that the disaster has already happened, but no one agrees with them. They are quite alone. Sal, W.’s girlfriend (or wife, it’s not clear), complains that the two of them are vague and boring. The world apparently agrees.

The only element of Spurious that seems to hold out the promise of an event, some kind of advance in the plot, is the creeping damp that is taking over Lars’s decrepit flat. Chapters of escalating poesy are interspersed throughout the book in which the damp is described hypnotically, as if it had a life of its own. Even as it ruins his walls, his kitchen, his bathroom, encroaches on the living room and advances into his lungs, Lars seems transfixed by it. He bathes the brownish splotches on the wall with a bleach-soaked sponge as if he was administering to an animal or ritualistically supplicating a dark, inscrutable god. The damp is Talmudic, Lars muses: It is that it is.


With the tonic prescriptions of Iyer’s manifesto behind it, Dogma subtly but decisively refines the template laid out in Spurious. Dogma picks up exactly where its predecessor left off, but events are brewing. We learn that W.’s job is threatened thanks to the restructuring and downsizing of the humanities in higher education, but his intellectual project is taking shape. Capitalism and religion shall be his theme: “The ‘and’ is designed to be provocative, W. says. He wants to provoke the new atheists, he says. There’s nothing more infuriating than the new atheists.” Furthermore, our heroes are about to embark on an adventure: a lecture tour, in America!

And so, one may even begin to anticipate the makings of a plot, with all the usual trappings: conflict, resolution, etc. And for a while, we sort of get one. In America, they find that signs of the apocalypse are even more abundant than in their native Britain (“They’ve made a theme park of the End of Times!, W. says. They’ve made a Disneyland of Armageddon!”). Upon their return, they make an intellectual pact: after the Dogme95 manifesto of that other Lars (von Trier), they dub their own movement Dogma. Sounding not unlike Iyer’s own manifesto, the precepts of Dogma are, initially, noble: be Spartan, use ordinary language, be full of pathos, speak with sincerity and the greatest of seriousness, be collaborative, plaigarize, and most of all, “always write as though your ideas were world-historical.” But things soon get silly.

After their project inevitably fails, it’s pretty much all denouement. Coming back to Lars’ flat, we find that the problem of the damp hasn’t gone away, though the real problem now is his infestation of rats. The two return to their obsessions: Lars to Jandek

 Jandek, Chair Beside a Window (1982)
(he listens to nothing else), W. to Lars’s failings. Once again, we are left with the raw material of Iyer’s project: a friendship. “If he’s cruel, W. says, it’s out of love.” As abusive as their relationship may seem, one eventually gets the impression that Iyer believes in the value of cruelty. Insofar as we are all infinite failures, equally guilty for the state of the world, we require allies who will be infinitely demanding, who will force us to be our best selves. Only through the very strictest discipline can any semblance of hope be maintained.

W.’s great dream, we learn, is of collectivity: “an army of thinker-friends, thinker lovers.” We hear that he dreams of a “thought-army, a thought-pack, which would storm the philosophical House of Parliament.” But he has only Lars, and not only does Lars lives hundreds of miles away, he is even more of a buffoon than W. himself.

For all his perversity, Iyer’s message boils down to an endorsement of the spiritually redemptive power of authentic friendship and collectivity. What makes his treatment of it different, however, is that he presents such authenticity as difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in life and equally difficult to articulate in art. The high value Iyer places on essential human relations is a rebuke to those who deride “experimental” fiction as narcissistic or self-indulgent evasions of emotion. Unfortunately, what is essential is also what’s least accessible.

The Point recently published an article by Jon Baskin that juxtaposed Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace as exponents, respectively, of “social realism” and “spiritual autobiography.” Baskin concluded that, paradoxically, social realist empiricism all too often flattens and denudes social relations: “What is the most real thing? This is the question that artists like Wallace want to use their fiction to investigate, and which the realist so often behaves as if he has already answered.” If Iyer’s writing poses a challenge to Establishment Literary Fiction, it stakes its claim on exactly these grounds.

Even more unexpectedly, it may be that the most “real” thing in Iyer’s books is neither Lars nor W. nor the friendship they share, but rather the inchoate forces that invade Lars’s flat: the damp and the rats. During one of W.’s diatribes on the greatness of Béla Tarr, he quotes something that Tarr once said: “It was [a matter of] getting away, of distancing ourselves from the story because we thought that the wall, the rain, the dogs have their own stories, and that these stories are more important than these so-called human stories that we write.” For Tarr, it may be that there is something absolute about nonhuman entities — at another point in Spurious, Tarr is quoted as saying that, on the vast Hungarian plain, he encountered mud, rain, and the infinite — a view that can too easily be dismissed as portentous nonsense. However, Iyer has commented in an interview on his interest in displacing an “anthropocentric model of responsibility” in favor of dramatizing the “‘difficult joy' of being responsive to circumstances totally alien, totally other.” He cites Clarice Lispector’s account of the relationship between a narrator and a cockroach in The Passion of G.H. as inspiration, but a philosophical background for this position has also been articulated by such philosophers as Bruno Latour, Isabelle Stengers, Jane Bennett,  and exponents of Object-Oriented Philosophy like Graham Harman and Levi Bryant. (Bryant’s blog, Larval Subjects, is blogrolled on Iyer’s blog.)

For Bryant, broadening our frame of thought to include nonhumans and even inorganic systems as things that are on equal ontological footing — they are all “equally real” — not only helps us to develop “more nuanced understandings of why social assemblages are as they are” but also broadens our means of political intervention. This is entirely relevant to a discussion of collectivity and even friendship, insofar as both have a political dimension. Much of the Western philosophical tradition of the past several hundred years has focused on the human mind, language, signifiers, and ideology. But, as Bryant writes, “just as it makes little sense to debunk an alcoholic’s beliefs to get them to stop drinking when they are addicted, it makes little sense to solely rely on debunking people’s beliefs about the environment to get them to live more sustainably when material alternatives are not available to these people.” We are entangled, he argues, with all manner of entities, including petrochemicals, transatlantic cables, freight ships, paper mills, trees, labor unions, the People's Republic of China, and tungsten mined in the Congo.

Sometimes, as in Iyer’s novels, we are entangled with rats.

The point is not that Lars should make friends with his household pests, but that attention to the Other is a challenge and a responsibility that doesn’t extend only to considering the well-being of our fellow, individual humans (difficult enough) but instead goes much further. Reality is infinitely more complex and multilayered than our frame of reference normally allows for and the forms of our entanglement in it often escape us. If we want to avert the apocalypse (and I’m not speaking metaphorically here), we must attend to what is real. Insofar as this task requires a herculean effort, we are all as stupid as Lars and W., lost in a cloud of unknowing. But there is hope! Whether it is for us remains to be seen.