Beyond Good and Evil

An interview with the author Rob Doyle

Darran Anderson

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Darran Anderson: Reading Here Are the Young Men and your recent essay on Houellebecq for Gorse, it's clear that what is often reductively labelled transgressive in literature is actually just the vagaries and casual brutalities of reality seeping into an art-form that is generally unfamiliar and uncomfortable with it. Do you feel there's a disconnect between mainstream contemporary writing and the way life actually is?

Rob Doyle: If you write or speak straightforwardly, describing things as they appear to you, it will often come across as brutal. Perception itself, I often think, is inseparable from cruelty, aggression and brutality – to see is often to see too much, to see what would rather remain obscure. If you write about bitter misogynists left behind by the sexual revolution, or about Dublin youths who take drastic quantities of drugs, watch a lot of pornography, and get off on violence and atrocity out of sheer boredom, it might seem transgressive or provocative, but only to those would rather not acknowledge that, for some (or many), this is how things are.

Writing, it seems to me, is often done out of rage, at least initially. It's an act of aggression. You're going through life, reading books and finding that not enough of them describe reality as you experience it, acknowledge the facts as they present themselves to you. So, eventually, out of frustration and inner need, wanting to force an acknowledgment of an unsanctioned reality, you hack away at the page - you describe how life really feels in that shard of culture and history into which you have been thrown. You put it all in a book and you breathe a sigh of relief and then you say, 'There, that's it. That's the reality I'm confronted with. If you don't like it, to hell with you.'

After reading a draft of Here Are the Young Men, an acquaintance said it was too dark and hopeless, and added that life isn't like that. I smiled politely and said nothing, whilst thinking, 'Well, good for you.' I have nothing to say about the way life is for everyone, only about how it appears from a certain perspective or perspectives. These are as valid as any other, but I never found them to have been given adequate expression when I set out to write this book.

DA: The title comes from Joy Division. What's the attraction there for you? 

RD: Simply that I found Here Are the Young Men to be an appealing title. Joy Division are a band I admire, one of a great many. Additionally, a Joy Division-derived title felt appropriate to the characters, atmosphere and setting of this book - extreme, ominous, dystopian, post-industrial, gesturing towards the post-human. Joy Division are a band I used to listen to on my headphones while roaming the city taking speed – the cold, mechanical, jagged sound is suitable for that. They would provide a good soundtrack for the novel, but then so would lots of other stuff.

DA: Though it's set in Dublin in 2003, I understand you began writing the novel in Sicily. Was the sense of distance, in terms of space and time, important in creating the story and gaining perspectives? 

RD: Distance, both temporal and spatial, was crucial. I was writing a novel about troubled young men who are just out of school, and one of the benefits of getting older is irony and detachment - you can look back on your experiences with a distance and understanding that were not possible at the time, and this is helpful when writing fiction. I think an eighteen-year old living an intense and frightening life, like the characters in Here Are the Young Men, might be able to write a certain type of novel, but not the kind that I have written, because I had this benefit of irony and distance. In fact, the temporal distance allows you to be more ruthless and severe in the telling of such a story, because your greater understanding of the follies and pretensions of youth mean you can skewer them more efficiently.

Writing the novel outside of Ireland – mostly in London and various cities in the US – worked very well for me. Ireland can feel like a village, and in any village, you're stifled by the prying gazes of your neighbours. I wonder if the inhibition I detect in some Irish writing comes down to this - writers can't let go completely because of the potential social consequences. I'm a romantic and an idealist when it comes to literature, and I want every book to be what the jihadi boys call a martyrdom operation - a suicidal gesture in which nothing at all is held back, even if publication plunges the author into disgrace and abjection. A large, foreign city such as London – which is where much of Here Are the Young Men was written – is useful for an Irish writer in that it allows for a near-perfect anonymity. This is particularly true if, like me, you have done nothing with your life other than drift around and write, so that you hold no social position and are responsible to no-one but yourself. That way, you have nothing to lose and can write in a state of pure dis-inhibition. You can write as if you were already dead, which is how it ought to be done. It is for similar reasons that, whenever a younger writer asks me for advice (which has never actually happened), I always tell them they should butcher their parents and, if possible, their grandparents too.

DA: Reading the novel, certain writers seem to resonate in the mind but very lightly and integrally, without pretence or disruption to the story or the characters. There were moments of Beckett in the characters anxiously drifting and Nietzsche's line ‘insatiable as flame, I consume myself' sprang to mind several times. It seems almost insulting to extract influences because the book is very much your own of course and life imitates art imitating life and on and on forever until it's impossible to say which came first. Did you find influences surfacing consciously or unconsciously, or indeed at all as you wrote the book or look back? Was there any attempt to avoid the influence of others?

RD: The book is peppered with unattributed and defaced Nietzsche quotations. The influence of certain writers and philosophers manifested itself naturally as I wrote this novel, simply because I have been under prolonged exposure to their thought and it has done much to shape my world-view. Along with Nietzsche, Beckett, Cioran, Baudrillard, Houellebecq, Ballard and the likes, Georges Bataille looms large over this book for me. There was even a strand, which I edited out, involving an overt exploration of Bataille’s thought, particularly as it is expressed in his book, Erotism. That is a book which, as much as any other, has informed my way of seeing the world and human life, in particular my relationship to violence, ecstasy, excess and the sacred.

There are plenty of other influences which I can see in the book, but these are more literary than philosophical – Martin Amis, Bret Easton Ellis, Dostoevsky, the Beats and all those American drug-writers, A Clockwork Orange, Trainspotting,and so on. The philosophy is mostly in the background. Here Are the Young Men is a novel, so its chief concern is to convey the texture of life - how it feels to live in a world under the rule of these ideas, enduring these crises. You don’t have to give a damn about philosophy to enjoy the book: first and foremost it’s a story about young Dubliners who descend into a feverish realm of porn, violence, drugs, cruelty and alienation. Along with the philosophical subtext, there are plenty of dirty jokes, disastrous sex, ultraviolence, drug-binges, humour, mischief, and deranged-fantasies, so there’s something in there for all the family.

DA: The book is both a study of surviving or drowning in the turbulent years of early adulthood and also a study in nihilism. In terms of the latter, your book suggests that traditional or tabloid ideas of evil are much too neat, binary and oddly comforting. The reality is much more complex with inertia, apathy, boredom, voyeurism all playing an unacknowledged part. Do you think we flatter ourselves by creating good guys and bad guys?

RD: One of the consequences of reaching a relativist, pessimist or even nihilist philosophical conclusion – and I struggle to see what other choices we have, because you can’t put the genie back in the bottle unless we wipe the slate clean and annihilate all traces of our Western, rational, enquiring, sceptical tradition – is that the old moral judgements no longer have any absolute justification. ‘Good’ and ‘evil’ fall away, and you’re left with the naked, universal war of wills, the strong dominating the weak, Orwell’s vision of a boot stomping on a human face for all eternity. For a century or so, humans have been waking up to the fact that there are probably no ultimate, metaphysical consequences to their actions, to whether they are altruistic or ruthlessly egoistic, whether they kill, exploit, steal, abort and euthanize, or choose not to. People still want to believe in the good, but if you are truthful with yourself, it’s hard to anchor that in anything objective or fundamental. That gets demoralising. And so you start to wonder where the limits lie, how far we can drift into barbarism and horror when the old moralities are lying in ruin. Maybe the horrors of the twentieth century were just humankind getting warmed up, the prologue to an abyssal techno-Sadean future. By the end of Here Are the Young Men, because of this cocktail you mention – boredom, apathy, drift, indifference – virtually all of the characters have become morally compromised, to say the least. With the exception of Kearney, who gleefully embraces evil, wallowing in every kind of destructiveness and cruelty, the others are not really ‘bad’ young men. They just drift until they find themselves on the other side of the line – they have crossed into a realm of horror and destruction, without ever really wanting to.

Simple, black and white, good and bad moral outlooks or judgements tend to annoy me. Personally, in life but especially in art, I almost never bother any more with such stances as indignation or disapproval. These often seem to me to be based on delusion, narcissism or myopia. How lovely it is to feel yourself to be on the side of ‘the good’, ‘the right’, yet if you step back far enough, you’ll have the perspective to see that much of what is generally approved of in our civilisation – even humanitarianism, egalitarianism, the cult of compassion, and so on – has looked base and noxious to more exalted cultures than our own. Besides, rather than point my finger at others – even politicians, bankers, capitalist overlords, or whoever – I find it more interesting to turn the accusatory scrutiny inwards, to look into myself and explore my own capacities for immorality or amorality, as well as for virtue. Disapproval, the quickness to judge – these get in the way of understanding, and the best novels, I think, seek to explore and understand, rather than judge or merely enact prejudice.

As Nietzsche reminded us so frequently, resentment uglifies the world. Resentment is in everything now, usually masquerading as egalitarianism, righteousness, anti-elitism, the democratic spirit. I don't want to accuse anyone. I love Nietzsche's words: 'I shall turn away. Henceforth, that will be my sole negation.'

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DA: The question of authenticity is one that plagues the characters. There's an overwhelming sense of disconnection from reality; "He couldn’t tell whether these reactions were genuine, or just imitations of pornography, echoes of someone else’s long-vanished pleasure." Some seek vicarious pleasure in violent computer games and hardcore pornography and connect to reality through sudden acts of actual violence. Others struggle when real troubling emotions such as love or betrayal break through the numbness. Do you think we have a unique dislocation from reality these days? Do you think we were ever really connected?

RD: I don’t want to invite the unhelpful banality of drawing too easy a link between autobiography and fiction, but when I was younger, for a period of several years I looked upon myself with horrified fascination, apprehending a terrible gulf which separated my condition from the image of ‘the human’ presented in classical literature, art and philosophy. It was clear to me that something had gone badly wrong, and I didn’t, and still don’t, believe it was a purely personal disorder. I knew it was intimately linked to modern technologies, particularly the media and their colonisation of reality and consciousness. I perceived in myself a depthlessness, a lack of substance, a vacancy – a disjunction between how I felt (or didn’t feel) about things, and how I thought I was meant to feel about them. Nowadays, I don’t worry about that – I feel far more human, partly because for years I have intentionally disconnected myself from the reality-dissolving consumer and media culture in its grosser manifestations. It’s still out there. It’s easy to be sucked up from your roots and dehumanised, fragmented and de-realised through exposure to the glare and din of the modern world. This is particularly so for the young, for teenagers, because they haven’t yet had time to build up the defences of an integrated character that can withstand the seductions and impingements. In extreme cases, you end up with characters who have lost the plot like Kearney and Rez in Here Are the Young Men, or with abominations like Anders Breivik.

DA: One of the more nihilistic characters flirts with the idea of death-cults, many steps removed, such as Nazism and Islamism. Do you think there's an underlying urge in young men towards self-destruction or is it wider than that, perhaps what Freud emphasised as a death-instinct in contrast to the life-impulse? 

RD: Personally, I was always drawn to the cult of self-destruction, and in a more qualified way I still am. The extreme gesture, the excessive act - to go back to Georges Bataille, that which is sacred in violence. Not violence in the sense of hurting people – that repels me; I’ve never had the desire to hurt anyone – but violence as excess, frenzy, surge of force and sublime emotion. In Here Are the Young Men, these ideas are viscerally explored through the character of Kearney, who is erotically drawn to images of catastrophe and violence. Though he cannot articulate it as such, in these images, particularly in the awesome and terrible events of 9/11, Kearney connects with something profound, atavistic, pagan and primal in himself, some need for a deeper, richer, more mythically resonant experience of the world than modern life is giving him.

Materialism, rationality and capitalism do not adequately feed the human spirit in all its grandeur and its monstrous appetites. People who suffer from this more than others – young men like those in my novel, for instance – might come to worship destruction and excess, because there is a vitality there, a force and intensity which transcends the rationalistic, self-preserving, bourgeois tedium of the modern world. Ancient cultures understood this hunger for the transcendental, and for excess, destruction, magnificence and chaos, a lot better than we do, and consequently they were less neurotic and destructive in how they dealt with it – they sublimated the human passion for carnage, blood, madness and uproar into marvellous gods like Kali, Shiva or Mars. If you’ve killed all the gods, that doesn’t take away the human propensities that these gods embodied and honoured, and so people will be compelled to create new ones. In Here Are the Young Men, the gods that these unconsciously pagan, profoundly dissatisfied, spiritually hungry young men worship are gods of chaos, violence, excess, madness, cruelty and carnage. 9/11 is a kind of god for them: a sublime, transcendental event which dwarfs the pettiness and meagreness of day-to-day life in the bourgeois-materialist-capitalist world. Every culture and every human being needs rituals to access the power and reality of the deeper self: in the absence of any culturally-approved rituals worth respecting, Matthew, Rez, Cocker and Kearney develop their own rituals, which usually involve pummelling drug-abuse, brutal drinking, and other forms of self-destructive excess.

While I can understand the psychological allure of death cults – Nazism and Islamism, for instance – I find them vile, and the people I have known who were strongly drawn to such cults were also vile, and ultimately weak and moronic. I don’t think the worship of death is a worthy answer to the problems of human life. It is pathological, a failure to sublimate the destructive passions. There is a part of my character which relishes extremism, but I try to keep it in check, because, for all the fascination it exerts, extremism is rarely a valid solution to anything.

DA: You've spoken previously of, to crudely paraphrase, how Irish literature is largely a PR creation. It seems nationality and arguably even the self are forms of fiction. Would you agree and do you think it boils down to some fictions being more believable than others or at least suspension of disbelief being easier?

RD: Nationalism is an odd thing. What is this ‘Ireland’ I keep hearing about? My sense of it is that nationality is just, as you say, a fiction, albeit a useful one in terms of motivating and unifying large numbers of people. Best to treat national identity with a dose of irony, and not get too swept away by it. Most of the time, I find national pride fairly silly. However, there is always going to be tribal loyalty, which is one of those instincts that evolution has programmed us with. I suppose national identity is just an extension of that, hence everybody banging frying pans against their heads and howling in the street when the World Cup is on. I can even get swept up in nationalistic fervour myself, though only for the duration of a Pogues song. But that’s just music, so seductive and manipulative. You can’t trust it.

The self too is a kind of fiction – a vital one. If you have ever endured a period when the self or the ego has dissolved or come apart – through mental illness, psychosis, drug-induced states or whatever – you’ll know that the alternative to the fiction of a cohesive, stable self is terrifying: chaos, pain, fragmentation, white noise. You need to build up the defence of a stable and coherent self to function in the human world and get through life. But it isn’t real; it’s only a façade. Underneath, there is a flux and froth of sensations, impressions, drives and memories, without much order. It’s best not to think too much about it. Don’t go too long without sleeping, either. Take breaks and eat nourishing vegetables in between drug or alcohol binges. Eat plenty of bananas, because they are a good source of potassium, which I am told is a good antidote to existential dread.

DA: Though the characters seem at the beginning of their adult lives and are in the midst of disappointments, there's a sense of pervading nostalgia; people that age often seem to be the most nostalgic strangely. It reminds you of Homer's definition of nostalgia as a searching for home and how they know there will be loss and regret to come before it happens. Perhaps that they will never find home. Do you think exile is an inevitable part of the human condition?

RD: It seems to me that nostalgia and exile are inherent to the modern condition. There is this sense of living too late, at a time when all the grand hopes have come to nothing, when it’s no longer possible to give yourself wholeheartedly to the narratives and artifices that generated such cohesion, beauty, dignity and happiness in times past. Metaphysically and spiritually, it’s as if the human being has used up all his resources. Man shot his load way-back-when. He may as well call it a day, go home and close the curtains, drink himself into oblivion or just stick a shotgun in his mouth and get it over with. Nowadays, you wander around the world and you visit churches, cathedrals, temples, and there is a melancholy to it, perceiving such splendour, the works of a love and faith that are no longer possible, that can never be experienced again. It’s as if everything that happens from here on in can only be an after-thought, an anti-climax - a post-coital shudder or the twitching of a decapitated fish. You wish everyone would just quieten down, but they’re still at it with their wars and genocides, their utopian schemas. These days, when it comes to philosophy, I’m more inclined to trust the preachers of exhaustion, decline, and mediocrity. All the rest, the wild-eyed zealots and the messianic utopians, are dangerous and deluded, and hell on earth comes about by taking them too seriously. Man gave it his best shot, but he’s never going to win the gold medal. He’s getting on a bit now; best to resign himself to a dull but comfortable, suburban future, not to get so worked up any more, and give it over with the gulags and the death-camps and the crusading. Life’s too short. Or, as an old Patagonian friend who may be dead for all I know or care used to say, ‘Life’s too long.’

DA: There's a degree of foreshadowing in the book, happening as it does during the supposed glory days of the 'Celtic Tiger'. History appears cyclical. These times will no doubt return as will the bust and on and on. Do you think we're stuck in eternal recurrence or will society ever wake up?

RD: I don’t know, and I can’t say the question worries me all that much. I don’t feel that I have an awful lot invested in this world, having kept resolutely out of the procreation racket. I don’t want to sound insensitive – I know people are really suffering – but I don’t think it’s an entirely bad thing that the economy collapsed in this country. Ireland during the Celtic Tiger was a heap of shit – everyone was so vapid, vulgar, status-driven, tedious. I wanted to shoot every bastard who so much as looked at me funny. Nowadays, the country feels to me more open-hearted and open-minded, gentler, more engaged, tolerant and mature, and day-to-day life feels less harsh and nihilistic. Just as conflict and struggle can be revitalising and purgative, so too can breakdown, be it personal or cultural. Having come to pieces, you have no option but to look squarely at yourself. Less driven by illusion, you begin to rebuild. And what you make, with any luck, will have more substance, integrity, wisdom and virtue than what came before. It reminds me of that David Foster Wallace line: ‘The truth will set you free, but not until it is finished with you.’

DA: There's an observation by one of the characters regarding the point of Tarantino films, "He’s after givin up on reality. He knows that it disappeared back in the forties or whenever. He doesn’t pretend we’re still livin in that time when people had, like, emotional journeys and dramatic conflicts and, ye know, moral dilemmas. He’s cut the crap." Your book however acts as an implicit counter to that idea; we do have all these things, we are authentic, we are human, god help us all. Do you think maybe that's our downfall? Is there a case for optimism?

RD: A novel can be about many things, and one of the things this novel is about is young people struggling to retain their humanity. It’s a novel that considers the looming possibility of a post-human world, but it’s not a post-human novel, and the characters, for all their numbness and disaffection, are still human – just about. They affirm their humanity in various ways, most of them painful and destructive, and perhaps this is their triumph, and also the novel’s note of optimism. Perhaps this is one of the struggles of our era: to keep our humanity when technology is evolving so rapidly, becoming, within our lifetimes, a phenomenon of godlike power, almost a new species on the planet. This is why all those sci-fi narratives are so potent and popular: Blade-Runner, Brave New World, Neuromancer – they are the new myths, our way of confronting the anxieties thrown up by this eerie, omnipresent and incomprehensibly powerful technology.

Until recently, I was very worried about the effect the internet - and everything else I’m addicted to - was having on me. I feared that the technologies of total connectivity, with their massive attack on solitude and inner silence, spelled the death of literature as we know it – and perhaps they do. Maybe writers won’t survive the onslaught, at least not in any form that seems acceptable from where we’re standing. However, a short time ago I made the decision to stop worrying about it, stop wearing myself out fighting it. There’s no point trying to withstand the future. It’s like swinging your fists against a tidal wave. I’ve decided to embrace it - more technology, more connectivity, more caffeine, more alcohol. It’s impossible to know yet what the effects of all this new technology will be on humankind, but it’s interesting and even admirable to live experimentally, to snuff out the temptations of nostalgia and not always be hung up on what gets lost. Man is the experimental animal. He treats himself as a test subject, and fair play to him for it. Man doesn’t give a fuck. He’ll try anything once. He’s up for the lolz.

It hadn’t occurred to me that Here Are the Young Men ‘acts as an implicit counter’ to the idea of the termination of reality and the loss of the soul, but now that you’ve made the suggestion, I can see the truth in it. Life will always break through the numbness. Humans are facing new challenges and onslaughts in the twenty-first century – but perhaps it has always been that way, it only seems different, and humans, being a hardy, robust, extremely adaptable and ingenious species, will always find a way to navigate the new perils. Human beings might retain their humanity, no matter what the world throws at them. I don’t have much time these days for apocalyptic, black-and-white, simplistic narratives of technology - denunciations, jeremiads and so forth. Man is a resilient and cunning virus: that’s why we love him.