A Fortnightly Commentary on
by Lars Iyer
By MERRITT MOSELEY.
LARS IYER’S WIDELY-DISCUSSED and much-admired trilogy of novels, Spurious, Dogma, and Exodus, prove hard to categorize. They are at the same time comic and grim—comprising an apocalyptic view of the modern university and a grim take on the possibility of philosophy, all presented as comedy. In Exodus, the third installment, W., one of the two philosophers—or would-be philosophers, or philosophers maudit—whose actions and conversations make up the series, has retained his university job on a technicality but is now teaching badminton philosophy. An occupation of his university to protest the fate of the humanities fizzles out inconclusively. In despair over their failure to think, to be heroes of thought, W. and Lars drink Plymouth gin and talk about philosophers—sometimes admitting they don’t understand them. More than anything else, the narrator Lars reports the attacks on him by his friend and colleague W., who savages his idiocy, his disgusting flat, his physique, his clothing and his dancing.
A typical comment from W.:
Thought should bear upon what matters most,” says W. as we look out to sea. “What matters most to you?” asks W. “Your dinner? Alcohol? Chav mags?
My idiocy is theological, W. tells me. It is vast, omnipresent, not simply a lack (of intelligence, say), though neither is it entirely tangible or real. We picture it as a vast, dense cloud, and then as a storm, flashing with lightning. It can be quite magnificent, he says. It can shock and awe.
When, in Dogma, W. gets a chance to appeal his dismissal, he asks Lars to accompany him, because “he wants the equivalent of an idiot child, W. says. He wants the equivalent of a diseased ape with scabs round his mouth throwing faeces around the room.”
NOT MUCH HAPPENS to Lars and W. in the course of these three books, and the trilogy ends almost arbitrarily without overt resolution and without any summing up. Readers have been reminded of Vladimir and Estragon and there is certainly something Beckettian about Iyer’s two philosophers—they can’t go on, they’ll go on. If there is hope in this story it comes from its being told. Lars, the narrator, about whom we learn only what he reports W. saying about him—which is often abusive and exaggerated—keeps telling the story.
The three novels are undoubtedly funny, perhaps most likely to stir nervous laughter from those who share their concern about the decline of humanistic education. But they are deadly serious, too, and not just about philosophy departments. Iyer is trying to demonstrate the malign consequences of capitalism and neo-liberalism across all of society. There is real outrage about its victims.
Are Lars and W., then, representatives of what post-industrial, consumerist western society does to philosophers? In part. Their constant references to real philosophers—Weil, Kierkegaard, Rosenzweig, Blanchot, Kristeva—better philosophers, philosophers compared to whom they are “hinderers of thought”–testify to their feeling that they have missed their time: “Sometimes, W. thinks it’s fallen to us: the great task of preserving the legacy of Old Europe.” Like almost every noble ambition this one is quickly subverted: “We’re delusional, W. says. He knows that. We’ve gone wrong, terribly wrong, he knows that, too. But don’t we belong to something important, something greater than us, even if we are only its grotesque parody?”
LARS AND W. are victims of their time and place. In one of his outcries, W. says, “The thinker needs a milieu . . . A place to think. Kant in his Konigsberg, walking the same route every day. Kierkegaard in his Copenhagen, wandering among the crowds . . .” Perhaps this explains why, having visited Middlesex University and agreed that it has the “crappiest of campuses,” they seem unsurprised when before the novel ends the philosophy department at Middlesex has been shut down.
But if they are victims of belatedness, of their milieu or lack of it, of the triumph of soulless social conditions, their plight is also their own fault, and they know this, too. They worry that “We’ve nothing to do: isn’t that our problem? They observed that great philosophers (unlike them) “have always had unfeasibly high voices.” But beyond their voices, their “stupidity,” their “idiocy”—acknowledged by both, with W.’s saving proviso that he is less idiotic than Lars—there are their habits. One of these, for instance, is spending far too much time drinking. But more broadly, they lack system. In his clearest acknowledgement, W. declares
The thinker needs regularity! External structure! The thinker needs discipline, if he’s in it for the long haul, W. says.
Structure and discipline: isn’t that what I lack?, W. says. I am a chaotic man, he says, a man without pattern.
There was a time when W. had the necessary structure, when he was one of the fabled postgraduates at the University of Essex:
Four hours at his desk, and then a walk to take the ozone. . . A light lunch, followed by practice at his classical guitar. . . An hour at his German or an hour at his Greek. An hour at his Hebrew. . . Then four more hours at his desk before dinner. And after dinner, a walk along the river, W. says.
W. IS RIGHT, of course. They do need a system, a structure, a routine. For examples of how they might arrange their lives to produce thought, we can turn to Daily Rituals, a recent book by Mason Currey. Interestingly, this book originated as a blog (at http://dailyroutines.typepad.com), just as Spurious did (http://spurious.typepad.com). Mason Currey relates how, wasting time to keep from completing a writing assignment, he began looking into the daily routines of successful writers, which became his Daily Routines blog: an effort which required him to settle down to a daily routine himself, with a 5:30 wake-up time. The result is Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. The subtitle is a little misleading, as he includes scientists and architects and philosophers, as well as composers, painters, and writers: a hundred and fifty-five in all.
W and Lars could benefit from some advice about drinking from George Sand or Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote that “the very excellent organization of a long book or the finest perceptions and judgment in time of revision do not go well with liquor.”
It is true that few of Currey’s artists have to teach, while, as Lars’s report of W’s report about his university laments:
Teaching hours went up. Colleagues became busier; there was less time to talk. . . . things fell further. Colleagues did nothing but teach. . . Colleagues have forgotten what scholarship is. They’ve forgotten anything but teaching, endless, remorseless teaching.
What of the creators who interest Lars and W.? Kafka, for instance? They are lost in despairing admiration for him. How did he live?
Despite having a full-time job at an insurance company, Kafka finished work at 2 in the afternoon, took a nap, did ten minutes of exercise naked at an open window, took an hour’s walk, had dinner, and sat down to write at 10:30 p.m., working for hours before snatching a little sleep in the wee hours and then going to his job. Kant fixed his own routine about age forty; rising at 5 a.m., he lectured and wrote, and ate lunch until about 3:00; he then took his walk, every day at 3:30, visited a friend (the same friend every day, Joseph Green) and after a bit more work, retired at precisely 10:00. Notice the importance of a more ordinary person as friend: as Kant has Joseph Green, Kafka’s walks were often with Max Brod, his supporter and literary executor. W. and Lars wonder:
Which one of us is Kafka and which Brod?, W. muses. We’re both Brod, he says, and that’s the pity of it. Brods without Kafka, and what’s a Brod without a Kafka?
We are both Brod, W. says, and Brod for one another. When an ass looks into the gospels, no apostle looks back; when Brod looks into Kafka, it’s only Brod who looks back. I am his Brod, W. tells me, but he is my Brod, too.
WHAT ABOUT KIERKEGAARD? Kierkegaard is the looming presence in Exodus—the philosopher of despair—the one thinker of whom W. concedes Lars some awareness, if only because Lars is half-Danish. He explains the Kierkegaard project: “We have to become more Kierkegaardian than Kierkegaard, W. says. More Danish than the melancholy Dane!” They will work backward from all of Kierkegaard’s finished works, to his mind, his cultural milieu, even his physiognomy. Of course, like most of W.’s ambitions, this one declines into bathos:
That Kierkegaard wrote: we should pause before that, mulling it over, W. says. That Kierkegaard was at all: we must pause before that, too. And that we exist at all, in our stupidity: ah, that’s what’s unbearable, W. says. The fact that, despite our best intentions, we’ll never be able to understand a word of Kierkegaard.
Oddly this does not deter them from lecturing on Kierkegaard on their speaking tour around the perishing universities of Britain. W. frequently reads lines from Kierkegaard that he has transcribed into his notebook, and even says “Kierkegaard foresaw us . . . He knew we were coming. Why else would he write so many pages on the dangers of religious enthusiasm, of drunken religiosity and of religious phantasmagoria?”
Now, Kierkegaard—there was a man with regularity and external structure. He wrote in the morning and then took a long walk through Copenhagen at noon each day, returning to write for the rest of the afternoon and part of the evening. He had some peculiarities associated with the way he took his coffee, which was more a syrup made of energy-giving sugar than a real liquid, but he hewed to a system that helped him produce the collected works, spanning Lars’s windowsill, with “their sober spines, the different colours. . . the sheer bulk of them . . ..”
THE THREE MOST common disciplines that go up to make successful method in Daily Rituals are: early rising (many of these people rose at dawn; Balzac got up at 1:00 a.m.; it isn’t clear when he woke up, but Mozart always had his hair done by 6:00 a.m.); napping—from Joan Miró’s difficult-to-imagine fifteen minute nap, through many one to two hour lie-downs, and even Jerzy Kosinski’s four-hour nap every afternoon; and—most important of all—walking. Just a few of the dedicated walkers in Currey’s book are Beethoven, Kierkegaard, Freud, Jung, Mahler (three or four hours a day), Faulkner; Kant (every day at the same time), Kafka, John Milton (three or four hours, in his garden), Franz Schubert, Victor Hugo, Dickens (a three-hour walk every afternoon promptly at 2:00); and Tchaikovsky, one walk in the morning and a two-hour walk in the afternoon.
W. knows this and he used to know it better—his systematic day as a postgraduate included regular walks. There is a long passage about walking:
Sometimes W. imagines we might walk our way to ideas, he says, as we wander through the trees. That to walk—if we walked far enough, hard enough—might also be to think. Or at the very least to think about thinking. To have ideas about ideas, ideas about the ideas we might one day have.
But I’m no walker, that’s the problem, W. says. Not any more. Was I ever a walker?, W. wonders. Did he only imagine us walking together? . . .
And I walk so quickly!, W. says. What am I trying to escape?—“Yourself? Well, in that case, you’re doomed.”
Soon, the suggestion of walking as a way to ideas, having then become walking as a way to have ideas about ideas, peters out into ideas about walking. The most amusing is W.’s analysis of the differences in the two men’s “philosophy of walking.”
He is a Jewish walker, for whom every walk is an exodus, a leaving behind of the house of bondage. For the Jew, every walk is a political act, a determined effort to found a new community, to journey together away from the captivity of Egypt.
But I am a Hindu walker, W. says, for whom walking is not political, but only ever cosmological—“You set out to come back again! You go forth only to return!”
So much for walking, now a topic for philosophizing and blame-placing.
Iyer nicely captures the results of lives conducted without system in a system almost without life. W. and Lars will never be heroes of thought and sometimes they give up on the bare possibility of thinking—because the times are bad but just as much because they lack a daily ritual. They will never produce Either/Or or the Critique of Pure Reason. But Iyer’s brilliant perception is that their fecklessness makes them alive, makes them surprising, makes them funny. No one would want to read three novels about the real thinkers, with their productive customs, Thomas Hobbes’s nap or Victor Hugo’s daily visit to the barber. But W. and Lars, drinking gin on the train, or brainstorming a new philosophical system (Dogma), with rules like “always use Greek terms that you barely understand,” addressing a bored audience of six in Nashville or watching their pro-Humanities protesters all fall asleep, have a variety that custom cannot stale.
Merritt Moseley is a Professor of Literature at the University of North Carolina at Asheville in the US and the author of several books on recent British fiction. He is still casting about for a daily routine.