Flaneurs of a Certain Madness: On Yahia Lababidi & Alex Stein's "Artist as Mystic"
A few weeks ago, I bought my first eBook: Artist as Mystic: Conversations with Yahia Lababidi by Alex Stein. I have to admit I was hesitant — not to read the book but to buy it as an eBook. In fact, I was so hesitant I tweeted my hesitancy, informing Mr. Lababidi that, while the publication of his eBook was exciting, I would wait for the print version. But our anxieties are revelations. And my protest of the eBook — an aesthetic protest, mind you, not a principled one — revealed my ambivalence, testifying to my curiosity. I protested too much.
And while I am not necessarily converted to the eBook, I could not be happier with my purchase. Waiting for a train, eating lunch, sitting on a bench while my son plays, I draw my phone — a funny name for it, at this point — from its denim sheath, suggestively slide my thumb, and there is Yahia Lababidi and Alex Stein talking about Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Baudelaire, Kafka, Bataille, some dude named Ekelund‚ and this doesn't even include all the casual asides on Rilke, Poe, Rodin, among others.
This experience, for me, holds all the promise of the digital: sitting at a bus stop, I am ensconced in a silent yet audible conversation, dwelling amidst a teem of words, ideas, moods, possibilities.
Reading Artist as Mystic, this is what pops at first: Lababidi's voracious appetite. He moves through ideas, through words, through ideas with an ease but also with a profound engagement that is nothing less than exhilarating. And it is so gloriously free of the pedantic, arid academic nonsense that normally defines books on such so-called big names (is Ekelund a big name? I'd never heard of him but am thankful for the intro. I was also inspired to buy, and read, Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal. And is there any greater recommendation for a book than it inspired me to seek more?).
Yes, I came through the academy. But one of my main issues with academia was not just how it asked me to write but how it asked me to approach texts (see? I still use the word "text" — which is not necessarily a bad word but it reveals, in no uncertain terms, my academic training). To me, a text — I can't help it! — is a living, breathing, rambunctious thing. I never wanted to treat it as a corpse, something to be exhaustively dissected. It was something I wanted to converse with (liberated from academia, I'm allowed to end my sentence with a preposition).
And, as the title declares, this is exactly what Stein and Lababidi give us: conversations. The focus is not monolithic, as if this was the ultimate tome on writing. No, this book moves as a conversation should — from text to text, idea to idea, moment to moment. It's not always continuous. There are no tidy summaries. This is a book of caesuras and ellipses, flows and meandering. It's not a coincidence that Baudelaire's flaneur shows up. For that is what we witness here: Lababidi and Stein as flaneurs of writing.
Along the way, we get insights — lots of insights —but we get lots of passion, as well. We witness, we feel, Lababidi engage these books. My favorite moment might be when he discusses how he read Kierkegaard (a writer very close to my own heart): "I never could understand Kierkegaard with my eyes open. He was too many, too much, too elusive.... I had understood Kierkegaard all along with my eyes closed, but now I knew the earth of him, around which the many moons revolved."
What I love here is how he engages Kierkegaard, not whether I agree with his reading. Artist as Mystic, if nothing else, is a great model for how readers should approach these hallowed authors: converse with them. Listen but also talk back. It's not a matter of revealing their secrets. It's not a matter of exhausting their oeuvre. It's a matter of understanding, sure, but it's above all a matter of taking, connecting, playing, feeling — in a word, engaging.
This, alas, is what's truly great about this small but potent book: it's all about engagement — with words, with ideas, with life. Lababidi tells us how all these different writers wrestled life as we, in turn, witness Lababidi's own engagement. This is not the work of a scholar in the traditional sense. This is the work of, well, a poet: someone who lives to make new sense of life.
What we're left with is something unique. Stein and Lababidi traverse the lives of these writers but this is, by no means, a biography. They perform exegeses but this book never seeks, never proffers, a certain position with footnotes and citations. No, they are up to something else entirely. They are interested in the will to write. And not just the will to write but the will to write things that are alienating. Look at the names we read: these are not those who write to please, placate, or or even explicate. Stein and Lababidi are interested in those writers who are different, who are a little nasty, who often led odd lives that ended ugly. As they take up this or that writer — Baudelaire, Bataille, Nietzsche — they seek the will that would write such things, that would suffer and delight and ache because they had to.
As Stein and Lababidi make their way through this then that writer, they don't seek to exhaust the canon as if they were experts laying down the final word. No, they move between the authors' lives, words, and the words of others in search of the will that drives such mania, such madness, such brutality, such beauty, such alienation. They seek to grasp, to wrestle, this mad will.
Now, our authors are much gentler than, say, Bataille. But, while gentle, they are not reductive or reassuring. In an almost disconcertingly smooth voice, they give us the fecundity of a certain breed of madness. Combined with its speed, this makes the book a welcome delirium.
Artist as Mystic, while surely not as alienating as its subjects, is an expression of will, not an exposition of knowledge. Sure, these guys know their stuff. But that's not why you should read this book. You should read this book because it's refreshing, beautiful, and inspiring to read a book that so joyfully engages the will to life in all its messiness: that strolls so freely among a certain madness.