In Order To Breathe

An interview with the writer and philosopher Lars Iyer

Darran Anderson

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Darran Anderson: There's a certain cliche that I noticed in some people's responses to reading Beckett or seeing his plays performed. The surface reaction is often "Jesus, that's bleak." Then there's the critics who think they're being perceptive and original by, somewhat condescendingly, saying, "Oh but beneath the bleakness, there's a rich vein of black humour." What they seem to miss is that beneath that strata of humour, there's even more bleakness, perhaps abyssal. While your novels have a very distinct voice of their own, there are parallels with Beckett's gallows humour. Both are laugh out loud funny and both have the effect of making the reader think twice about what he or she has just laughed about. Why do you think there's this link between bleakness and laughter? 

Lars Iyer: In gallows humour (black humour), we laugh at the absurdity and imposture of human life. We refuse to treat tragic materials tragically.

I think black humour should be distinguished from the kind of satire which points out injustices, looking to remedy a situation. Such satire depends on old norms, on stable, dependable and authoritative values – it depends on a shared sense of what is just and unjust. Black humour is more subversive, carrying the old values away in its laughter. It is not ameliorative, but apocalyptic. It is not didactic, but anomic. In black humour, we laugh at ourselves, who are at a loss in a world in which the old norms do not hold. But this is not enough. If we are to push black humour to its limits, if we are to allow it to become abyssal, we must laugh at our laughter, too – at its futility; at its gratuitiousness. And we must exhaust our laughter, our very capacity to laugh. After tragedy, farce; and after farce – what? That, for me, is the question.

Black humour becomes abyssal. But it allows, nevertheless, something which pulls us back from the abyss: the fact that such humour is shared. Black humour involves communicating with others, speaking and laughing with others. In the end, black humour cannot laugh away the act of communication on which it depends. Perhaps, for this reason, human existence is not absurd…

Hope is implicit in the very act of communication, even if the person with whom you attempt to communicate is yourself. Such hope can be found in Beckett’s work: Hamm and Clov play their endgame. Krapp listens to his younger self. Even the narrator of The Unnameable is writing for someone. Beckett’s works are rooted in a desire to communicate, an obligation to express, the origins of which he never explains, and never has to explain, since it is the condition of the artistic impulse. Here’s Albee on Beckett:

"I've never felt Sam to be a pessimistic playwright. A pessimist does not try to write. The true pessimist wouldn't take the trouble of writing. Writing is an attempt to communicate, and if you're a pessimist you say communication is impossible: you wouldn't do it."

DA: I'm interested on your take on inspiration. A lot of writers have their own theories on where the 'bolt out of the blue' moment of inspiration comes from, from Keats' 'negative capability' to hallucinatory shamanic revelations, Dada games of chance to Tom McCarthy's 'echo-chamber of influence.' All of them seem to suggest that there's an ether where ideas are floating about and if you have the right method you can tap into it. It seems an almost quasi-mystical phenomena but it could come down to something like cybernetics; we're all tangled up in everything that came before us and everything we've experienced and we'd have to be Kaspar Hauser not to be. Influence is inevitable and inspiration is perhaps something we've forgotten that we have already known or have subconsciously synthesised from what came before. Do you think there's any truth in the ether idea of inspiration? And to what extent do you think originality is possible?  

LI: Inspiration is enigmatic. It involves a kind of receptiveness, for which ‘negative capability’, shamanic revelation, Dadaist games of chance and McCarthy’s echo chamber are a name, but also an answering desire to suspend reason or wilful deliberation: a willingness to admit an empowering spirit into the work, to render it productive. The artist must embrace dispossession, acknowledging the authority of a possessing voice, but it also necessary to assume responsibility for the work, to shape and realise what has been received such that it might inspire others in turn.

Is the receptive element of inspiration ‘quasi-mystical’ or cybernetical? Talk of the Muse, the breath of God, of automatism is only a way of figuring indebtedness to an enhanced fluency, to an enlarged capacity to make connections, which comes about for a number of reasons. We all have moments of inspiration – in conversation, in romance, in art galleries, in childcare, in cookery, in DIY... Artists, trained in particular artistic traditions (jazz singing, or figurative painting, or novel-writing), make use of inspiration in a particular way, they put it to work, feeling freshly the affordances of their chosen medium. I envy improvising jazz musicians and action painters, who are able to act on their inspiration in the moment. As a novelist, working for the long haul, I need to many, many draughts of inspiration to get my work done.

Is originality possible? Only if it is understood in the context of these traditions. Lispector’s fictions belong to the tradition of the novel, the short story, but also mark a decisive mutation of that tradition. Of course, the history of literature is simply the history of mutations of this kind…

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DA: Do you find boredom interesting?

LI: It’s been a long time since I found myself bored. Like everyone else I know, I’m too busy – I’m a perpetual-motion machine. But boredom is something the character Lars, in my trilogy, is well used to. He says he’s discovered five hundred different kinds of boredom...

Heidegger argues that profound boredom is revelatory. It shows us what it means to exist, to live in the world. And it gives each of us the chance of assuming our existence for ourselves, of waking up to a sense of our individuality, our uniqueness.

My experience of long periods of un- and underemployment makes me wonder about Heidegger’s account! I know what E.M. Cioran means when he calls boredom ‘an evil without site or support’, ‘an indefinable nothing’, ‘a pure erosion, whose imperceptible effect slowly transforms you into a ruin unnoticed by others and almost unnoticed by yourself’. Boredom – profound boredom – can be a living death.

But there is another sense in which boredom might be freeing – a sense in which boredom might help us breathe, help us live. ‘I think we would benefit greatly from spells of vaguely restless boredom in which desire can crystallise’, Adam Phillips writes. Phillips’s boredom is a boredom of engagement, of unexpected encounters, of Situationist ‘drifting’, of the desire for the ‘outside’ which holds sway over so many of the characters and movements I write about in Exodus. There is a communal meaning to this kind of boredom, and perhaps even a political one. 

DA: You wrote in your manifesto 'Once upon a time, writers... wrote only to communicate with the already dead..." If you could communicate with one dead writer or thinker, who would it be, what would you discuss and why?

LI: It would have to be Socrates. I would like nothing better than to discover who the real Socrates was, as opposed to the fictionalised versions given to us by Plato and Xenophon. 

DA: There's an acknowledgement of the deterioration of the importance of literature socially in your work. Reading your books, I've been trying to find a reason for that. Is it simply a technological or sociological change in which books have lost their central place with so many other distractions or have even lost what Benjamin called an aura? Or do you think there's any link to mortality? If to quote Cicero via Montaigne, "to philosophise is to learn how to die", is philosophising diminished by our denial, and society's shielding, of the fact we will die? There seems to be few momento moris these days because we don't seem to be facing the fact we are going to die, at least in the West. In the past you had Blanchot and Dostoevsky for example facing down firing squads, the temporary evading of which seems to have spurred on their enquiries. It seems less urgent and vital now if we presume we have fifty years before shuffling off in a morphia-dimmed coma. 

LI: Television did for literature, I’m afraid. Since the 1970s, with colour television widespread, the torrent of images, of messages, has been unceasing. It’s become very clear that now we live in a visual culture. An older form of prestige still attaches to literature, however. This is evident in the new emphasis that has been placed on the teaching of classic texts in British schools, and perhaps in the flourishing of literary festivals. We can see it in the still-widespread coverage of books in the newspapers.

I’m not sure that this has anything to do with our relationship to mortality. The analysis of mortality is not a significant aspect of the interesting philosophical diagnoses of our times, e.g., Vilém Flusser’s claims for the epochal significance of photography, or Paolo Virno’s insight into the prevalence of opportunism and cynicism, or Jameson’s account of postmodernity. And besides, there’s plenty of evidence of mortality – we see it nightly on the news. Perhaps it is not the fact that each of us will die that is the most significant lesson of human finitude. It is the fact that others are dead and dying, and that we are implicated in their suffering.

DA: Your trilogy takes place in the grim aftermath of the triumph of neoliberal capitalism. Given that it seems all-conquering, at least for the present moment, do you think there are spaces we might still be able to escape to, whether physically or philosophically (thinking of your time in Patmos)? Might literature's redundancy be its salvation given, like poetry has been, it might be left relatively alone from commerce? Is W's radicalism an escape?

LI: My trilogy, and Exodus in particular, is all about escape – about finding an exit from the spaces and the times that are under the sway of neoliberal capitalism. Lars’s Old Hulme, the Wivenhoe of W. and the Essex postgraduates, have an exemplary role in Exodus, naming a marginal place, a place outside neoliberal tasks and projects. And they are joined in the novel by conceptual spaces – the Situationists’ Paris, Red Clydeside, Scotland before the Act of Union, Ghandi’s Quit India movement, Non-Cooperation, the exile of the children of Israel in the desert, the Events of May 1968 in France… Could we imagine such spaces opening up now? We have to, I think. In her writing, Rebecca Solnit continually reminds us of the meaning of political hope.

"Hope, to me, is thinking that the future is uncertain, deeply uncertain, and that there’s some way for us to influence it. It’s about embracing unknowability and uncertainty, which have always been important territory for me, and which I think give us an invitation to experiment and become and voyage and question, while certainty shuts everything down."

Progressive politics needs voyaging and questioning. It needs fresh visions, new forms of organisation, new tactics… It needs inspiration. It needs to breathe

You ask whether W.’s radicalism is an escape. It’s equivocal, I think. There is something glorious in the political dreams of my characters, and something futile. I always feel caught between the kind of political optimism Solnitt celebrates, and classic left-wing melancholia. This is registered in my novels. It would be dishonest if it was not.

You ask about the marginality of literature. As I have said, literary fiction retains a surprising prestige. Its coverage is out of all proportion to its sales. Thousands of students enrol on creative writing courses. All kinds of people dream of writing a novel, or of life-writing. It is unsurprising therefore that the literary-fictional world is full of careerists and networkers. Literary fiction is rife with opportunism, even if it serves a comparatively noble end. We writers sometimes seem to put almost as much effort into marketing ourselves, representing ourselves, as we do into writing…

For myself, I don’t yearn for the ‘true’ marginality of the literary world. I think such marginality would have a debilitating psychic effect on the writer. You have to believe that what you do has some cultural role. You have to believe in some kind of posterity – that someone, somewhere will ‘get’ it. This posterity might be of a limited kind. Leonid Tsypkin wrote for the drawer. How remarkable! What strength of will! But he believed his fiction would find readers… He had hope in the very act of communication... To throw out a message in a bottle: isn’t that the dream? Even if, in the end, the bottle only bobs back to you. 

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DA: You've spoken about the unacknowledged rarity and difficulty of real friendship, which is reflected in the central characters relationships. It made me recall the arcadian dreams of artists and poets (Coleridge's Pantisocracy, Van Gogh and Gauguin's planned commune) which merged from similarly deep but fraught friendships and which ended in disaster but nevertheless fuelled their imaginations. Do you think friendship is anathema to the modern way of things? Do you think there's any truth in Adam Curtis' continued assertion that we've lost the delusion of thinking utopias might be possible and it's left us prey to cynics and doomsayers?

LI: There is a politics and a philosophy of friendship in so many of the groups W. and Lars admire: the Rue Saint-Benoît group, comprising Mascolo, Duras and associates, the Operaismo movement of Tronti and others, Debord and the Situationists… In each case, it is a matter of a dream, a utopia. As Blanchot writes of one of his own communal experiments: it failed, but it did so utopianly. These utopias are necessary! So much of what I’ve tried to write is an attempt to pay tribute to these utopias, and to imagine new ones.

Friendship and the modern world: my friends are busy with their work, with their lives. It has been painful to see intellectual friends losing hope in their own projects because of long working hours, or the crushing role of bureaucracy, or – and this is widespread – a psychic malaise, a general feeling that nothing is worthwhile. How difficult it is to believe in what you can do! This is why I admire ‘outsider’ artists like Jandek. He’s been able to maintain his belief, to go on writing and releasing music, in the face of indifference and hostility. Hope, again. An ethos of affirmation. We need to be reminded of hope, if this word is allowed to name a positive disorientation, a productive lost confidence and uncertainty…

DA: I'm assuming your forthcoming book Wittgenstein Jr is a nod to Ludwig Wittgenstein. If so, what draws you to the philosopher? He seems a curious intriguing figure when you compare his hyper-lucid gnomic works to the strange apocrypha and dramas of his life. Was it difficult or refreshing to make the break from your trilogy to somewhere else?

LI: Wittgenstein Jr is indeed based on the life and myth of the great Viennese philosopher, which I find irresistible. But the novel is set in our present – in today’s Cambridge and Wittgenstein is a nickname some students give to their intense young lecturer. It is a fitting nickname: my character is as afraid as the real Wittgenstein was of losing his mind; and he has the same faith, initially at least, that his studies in logic might save him. But the novel also focuses on the students themselves, on their escapades, on their hopes, their friendships, their romantic entanglements…

Was it difficult to leave the trilogy behind? Certainly! But refreshing, too. I wanted something new – to engage with new rhythms, especially those of Wittgenstein’s prose; to incorporate something of the real Wittgenstein in my Wittgenstein, and in my writing of my Wittgenstein. And I also wanted to mark the distance between old, Viennese-style high seriousness, and our world. The students in Wittgenstein Jr, who are very much of our world, are largely responsible for the comic element in my novel. I hope the novel is funny and light. I hope it dances... 

DA: If a catastrophic event was to strike humanity, and civilisation (I use the term loosely) crumbled, what book would you send as a time capsule for the future post-apocalyptic survivors and why?

LI: I would send them some medical textbook to help them patch up their wounds…