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. 


The Orgy of Human Being

So we have these bodies — this blood and liver, this spleen, elbow, and eye, these ridiculous toes, these labyrinthine intestines. And we have something else — a spirit? a soul? an energy? In any case, we have some invisible properties. To wit, when you meet people you get a vibe that exceeds their smell and look. Or, for that matter, when you wake you don't just feel your head, hair, and knees: you feel excited, nervous, happy.

Now, I believe that our bodies — that all bodies, organic and not — are essential parts of experience. They are not mere vehicles of our identity but constitutive of it. And yet I am no materialist. I do not believe identity begins and ends with the body. Nor am I an idealist. I do not believe identity is first and foremost invisible, as if we were first and foremost a soul.

If I must be something, I am a phenomenologist of a sort. This means I am enamored of experience, to what happens. And what happens everyday, everywhere, all the time is at once physical and non-physical, visible and invisible. I touch something and I feel something. The two combined create an experience, a phenomenon — ergo, phenomenology. 

My body is sensual; it can touch and be touched. And, at the same time, it has invisible properties — not sensual per se but still, oddly, palpable. Let's call these moods. We might choose a broader term such as affect or a more narrow term such as feelings or emotions. In any case, we are each at once visible and invisible.

These visible and invisible states — this touch and this feeling, this sensuality and this affect — are interconnected but according to an ever changing calculus. They do not necessarily correspond one-to-one. A piece of sand paper, for instance, does not necessarily have a rough mood. On the contrary, I find sandpaper rough to the touch but soothing to the spirit — such an elegant, simple tool that seeks nothing but smooth refinement.

Merleau-Ponty says the visible and invisible worlds are intertwined, marbled, a chiasmus, a reversible figure in which neither comes first, neither determines the other. They go together without becoming one.

This overthrows the tyranny of metaphysics — of concepts, souls, Forms, and ideas. This is not a hierarchy atop which sits some pure, unadulterated, disembodied truth. But the chiasmus does not affirm the rights of the material over and against its invisible brethren. No: it's a criss cross, a marbling, a braiding. These are the shapes of being, the architectures of becoming.

In these strange architectures, we need to (re)think, reconsider our approaches to a meaningful life. We shouldn't be thinking of how best to leave our bodies for we are tethered to them and it's beautiful. There is no transcendence as there's nowhere else to go. But nor do we affirm the pleasures of the body over and against ideals, ideas, identities.There is no dichotomy. Body and spirit are not opposed; they are not flip sides of a coin. Our limbs and feelings, our tissues and moods, are braided, running with, in, over, and through each other.

What makes me me and you you? Not a soul or spirit but this particular inflection of the world, of the cosmic flow: what makes you you is how you take in the world and play it back in action, words, sweat, piss, mood, disease, laughter. Just as each tree inflects the wind just so, we inflect the winds of the universe. We are a complex system of functions, a style, a way of going, of distributing things. As we interact with the world and the world interacts back, we shape the world. But this is not quite right as we are part of the world: I am this part, you are that part, that tree is its part, that screen its, and so on.

What, then, of our so-called spirit? Forget your spirit. And forget your body. Because, no duh, the two are intertwined: eat certain foods and you not only shit funny, you feel funny. Drugs are the most acute example but it's true of everything we take in — air, drink, nutrients, art, love, sex, dreams, ideas, odor. To consider our well being demands considering our visible and invisible selves at the same time, in the same breath.

We are not body or soul. We are a mishmash. We are visible and invisible, organic and inorganic,  streaming and swirling in an emergent calculus. We don't live in a house of being. There is no nation of identity with a clear executive branch. We are a symphony of visible and invisible bodies and forces moving in infinitely complex harmonies, equally resonant and dissonant — a veritable orgy of being (pace C Lynsey).


Poise, or Standing Towards the World

Consider batting in baseball. It is incredibly dramatic and profoundly existential: the batter knows the ball is coming right now — but not quite how it's coming. How is he to stand towards this at once known and unknown fate? How does he comport himself? What is his posture as he anticipates this imminent and explosive event?

The batting stance is one of baseball's great aspects. There are so-called fundamentals — elbow up, back leg planted, minimal movement — but every batter faces his fate in his own way. I still remember hearing the great Jon Miller calling a Giants-Dodgers game when Gary Sheffield, at the pinnacle of his career, came to the plate: "Sheffield steps in, waves his bat menacingly...."  Oh, man! That was Sheffield — against all fundamentals, he indeed waved his bat menacingly, twitching with anticipation — not anxiety, mind you — but rousing anticipation like a cougar about to spring from its cage. 

Some batters are stoic. Some are tightly wound coils. Some plant themselves low and broad; others, light and tight. You can tell a batter in a slump because, well, he literally slumps. 

The world comes at all of us, all the time. There is no down time, only slower and faster, more or less intense. To be alive is to perceive, to have the world literally bear down upon you, inundating you with stuff — air, sights, sounds, feelings, affects, moods, ideas, people. It is relentless.

Like the batter in his box, you know the pitch is coming. The question is: How do you stand towards this inevitable onslaught?

There are others who never let the world come to them at all: they already know the world and hence make everything fit or else they toss it aside. Others, are meek, cowering before the world, stumbling and stuttering. Some are oblivious, the world blowing by them — which can be bliss or not, depending on the situation.

I know that I, for one, am twitchy in that existential batter's box. I rarely wait for the world to come to me. I talk a lot and fast, hoping — I suppose — that my frenzy of discourse will proverbially hit the ball or otherwise control the terms of the situation before I am the one controlled. This is not the posture of a wise man.

With fear of extending the baseball figure beyond decency, a good hitter waits for the ball. Not too long, mind you, but he waits for the ball to come to him. And then goes with it. If he tries to pull an outside pitch, it will not go well. Better to go with it and hit to the opposite field. This is to say, the best hitters are those that remain poised — reposed but ready for whatever may come.

Poise is incredible — it is to be both self-composed and wavering between rest and motion. It is, then, neither still nor moving per se. Poise leans neither back nor forward — it doesn't lunge but nor does it sit back. It demands a balance but without the stasis balance can imply. Poise doesn't lose itself in the world but nor does it make the world bend to it.

To be poised is to move with the world as oneself: to be this way of going with all these other ways of going.


The Erotics of Writing

Here's a confession. When I was writing my dissertation, I'd rent a stack of pornos — VHS, mind you, as this was 1997 — plop a tape in to my VCR, turn my old beaten up TV towards the desk and, so poised, begin my writing. All around me were books stacked and sprawled and bent, a veritable orgy of text, as the TV offered a virtual orgy of carnality. To me, it was one continuous wash of bodies spurring me on to climaxes at once physical and intellectual. (Although, it's worth noting that my onanism rarely ended in orgasm: it was all about the process of moving through this space or, as Barthes says, the jouissance.)

Writing wasn't always like that for me. At first, I wrote lucid, expository essays: I made my argument, offered my evidence, and got the hell out of there. There was no teasing — of the words, ideas, or audience. There was no pleasure. Writing was a formal exercise, bereft of body — mine, the reader's, the text's.

This all changed after being baptized — old school style, my entire head and body submerged — in Foucault, Derrida, Merleau-Ponty. They had such fun, such abandon, as they wrote. They were never just trying to get their ideas across as efficiently and lucidly as possible. No, there was a complex milieu, if you will, of words, syntax, punctuation, ideas across time and space, an audience with expectations, desires, needs, histories. And these French writers frolicked in that space, made words do things I didn't know possible. They turned me on.

Writing, of course, is of the flesh just as our breath, hair, skin, piss, shit, and come are. Language streams through our bodies, our fingers and mouths and ears, those most knowing, most sensual modes of assuming the world. When we write, we inflect our bodies just so as we reach to inflect the bodies of others. Merleau-Ponty says we reach for a word as we reach for an itch, that we have language just as we have legs.

After all, when I shit, it's me making sense of the granola, grouper, and gin I've consumed. And when I write it's me making sense of the Foucault, Nietzsche, and Deleuze I've consumed. This is one reason students panic when they have a paper to submit: like the angst riddled potty training toddler, they can't let go of what they believe to be theirs. There's a reason we call a writer's output a body of work.

And writing, well, writing is the process of manipulating, massaging, this body. Which is to say, writing isn't an exposition as if language were simply a container of ideas and words. No, writing is an act of moving amongst words, syntax, ideas, beliefs, logics, concepts, semi colons, expectation. Writing is a give and take, an engagement, an act of making sense. I may brazenly reach for an apogee but grammar doesn't allow it just because I want it; I must work with its parameters, its desires, its body. Writing is a collaboration, a coitus of sorts, including the delicious foreplay.

When I can't find the word I need, the word I want, the word I crave, I lean back, lean forward, a davening rabbi with a hard on. I close my eyes, wiggle my fingers, my blood pumps erratically as I feel my way through the litany of words and figures. Sometimes, the word doesn't come and I fumble awkwardly like a teenager with a zipper. Where is it? How do I get this thing down?  Other times, the words flow like the fingers of a master masseuse across the lower back. Oh, yes, the process of writing is an intimate engagement that demands feeling and fumbling and fondling one's way across the page — and across the litany of attending bodies, from textual ghosts to neologisms to the unassuming period.  

A word is not a sign, a mark, of something else, a pale avatar of a resonant truth. No, a word is a gesture. It is dramatic. It is physical. A word is itself an act of gathering up and expressing ideas and affect, concept and mood. It is not a neutral delivery system. It is a flourish, a genuflection, a manner of being in the world. Yes, a word has a comportment just as my or your body does. This is why certain words piss us off, bind us to others, turn us on. A word takes up the world and then comes at us with it and we are informed, confounded, intrigued, angered.

Writing is an orgy as bodies of all sorts — the writer, reader, words, marks, ideas, moods — each with its own needs and desires conspire to create something resonant, something that tickles and prods: something that entices the world.


Philosophy as World

When I read philosophy — which is pretty much all I read — I feel my way through it. I let it play in me, through me, in my head and my loins, my tongue and my gut, my fingers and my duodenum. I wanted to write duodenum. And now I have, twice.

I reach for the character of the philosophy — and let it reach through me. I lend it my body as I become its dummy of a sort. Only I'm not a very good dummy (ok, ok, yes, there are many jokes here) as I am not readily manhandled. I parry, hedge, steer, stipulate, and grope back.

Each philosopher takes me up differently: Hegel is a masochistic comedy of errors, as I slip and slide through murky waters; Derrida, a playful pedant who, like Hegel, loves the comedy of slipping and sliding; Bergson, so seriously and methodically trying to intuit the endless flow of everything; Merleau-Ponty's serious poetics, a chiasmatic erotics, that leave me a silky web; and so on. 

My point, among others, is this: I don't read for the logic of ideas alone. Yes, I read for and with the logic. But I could not, nor would not, ever reduce any philosopher to his — yes, usually his — logic or concepts.

I am, alas, not a philosopher. Not in that sense. I don't read the history of philosophy as different efforts to answer the big questions — What is self? What is mind? What is being? What is language?  Forget those questions. They are (almost) always the wrong question. Just because someone asks a question, doesn't mean you need to answer it. 

I follow Deleuze and Guattari's conception of philosophy: it is the creation of concepts. Some say this is not philosophy. I don't care. In this world view, each philosopher asks a different question, proffers different answers, creates a different cosmos. Does this mean Socrates and Hegel have nothing in common? Does it mean I can't put Derrida next to Bergson just to see what happens (I think nothing would happen)? Of course not. Philosophers create lines, worlds that steal and borrow and live with other philosophers — as well with novelists, architects, artists, fashion designers. Jean Paul Gaultier, from one angle, is one of the great philosophers of our times — identity is a put on, the world all surface and oozing through itself all the time. And Deleuze and Guattari are leading architects. What is the rhizome if not an architecture — of experience, of being, of becoming, of thinking, of the social, of space?

I am a rhetorician, a sophist. I have never taken a philosophy class. I am a rhetorician through and through.  I see difference, love difference, read for difference. I don't try and see how the books I read add up to anything. Together, they coalesce in me and what I think and say is how they have worked themselves out — in me, of me, through me, with me. And while there is a certain pleasure to the proof, it is not the thing that makes or breaks a philosophy to me.

One of my favorite moves in philosophy — no, in anything — is the opening two propositions of Leibniz's Monadology:

1. The Monad, of which we shall here speak, is nothing but a simple substance, which enters into compounds. By 'simple' is meant 'without parts.'

2. And there must be simple substances, since there are compounds; for a compound is nothing but a collection or aggregatum of simple thing.

Why do I love it? Because it is thoroughly tautological: the first principle is "proven" by the second which itself is proffered as self-evident. I love the way The Monadology moves from the simplicity of the monad to the infinite complexity of the cosmos under God's perfect rule, all from this self-starting point. And, in the middle, we discover the infinity of matter: another pond in every drop of the pond ad infinitum. These 90 propositions, these 11 pages or so, give us this glorious, melodious vision of mind boggling, harmonious, infinite complexity. He creates an entire world as if from scratch.

When I read Leibniz, when I consider Liebniz, I dwell in his beautiful world. I have no need, no will, no desire to question his logic, find fault or even complicity with another philosopher. To do so seems repugnant, at best. I just want to be drunk on Leibniz, delirious on Leibniz, swirling with Leibniz.

Other times, I crave something else. I want to dwell in Bataille's cooky extremities. I want to wander with his generous nastiness.  Bataille functions as a counterpoint to Leibniz — a counterpoint, not the counterpoint. There is no opposition, not here. My philosophers, at times, form a Calder mobile. But then Calder joins the mix as another voice, the whole structure involutes, and comes out somewhere else, as something else entirely. 

Philosophy does not give answers. It poses questions and proffers worlds. To each his or her or their own logic. And the more the merrier. 



Flirting is an invitation. But not necessarily to sex. In fact, more often than not, sex is neither the real nor desired outcome. Flirting need not be the means to an end. It can be, and often is, an end in and of itself.

Any meeting of two people births a third, if not more. William Burroughs and Brion Gysin call this the Third Mind: there is me, there is you, and then there is the space — the force, the identity — created in our interaction.

We all know this. When we hang out with a friend, another creature is formed — a two-headed monster. This monster is often a beautiful beast. But, sometimes, it's not. Sometimes, for a calculus of reasons, the creature formed by the two of you is grotesque. Hang out with a different friend and a different monster is born. There is an energy, a force, that extends into both of you, through both of you, born of each of you and yet taking you outside of yourselves. Extend this to larger groups and you get the madness of the mob.

This is the very condition of the social: to interact with others is to be taken astray of yourself. I am not suggesting that when you're alone, you're truly oneself and that the social sends you off path — as if there were a path. No, what I'm trying to say is that when alone, there is little to nudge us — which is why books, films, music, meditation, solo trips are important. But in the social one is confronted with forces that inflect and shape and massage one's way of going. The social is an event of distributing identity.

Flirting, to me, is one of the great challenges and delights of the social. Conversation is another. So is Dionysian bliss, as at a rave or concert or sex. There are many modes of going with this third mind, ways to negotiate it, different architectures that can be forged. But I want to talk about flirtation.

Flirtation is an invitation, an invitation to the third mind. But what makes it different than a conversation or any number of other modes? Well, while flirtation is not necessarily a means to sex, it participates in the sexual economy. What makes flirtation so exciting, amongst other things, is that there is the risk and potential rewards of physical intimacy. This is evident when strangers begin talking and think to themselves: Are we conversing? Or does this dude want to boff me? When my friends and I converse, we have been known to work ourselves into a frenzy. But screwing each other doesn't enter the equation (perhaps it should but it doesn't and this makes our conversations different than flirtations).

Now, our culture tends to suggest that getting some, as they say, is good in and of itself. But of course the reality is that physical intimacy — not just fucking but fucking, too — is an incredibly pleated and, at times, quite nerve wracking encounter. The fear of the body in general; the fear of this person's body; the loathing and shame of one's own body; the inundation of foreign smells and touches and sounds and germs; the fluctuation of desire: all these things and more define the novel sexual encounter.

So while sex is not the end state of flirtation, unlike a conversation, sex is an implied possibility — along with all its attending delights and anxieties. Even if it's a passing elevator flirtation, what distinguishes the casual flirtation from the casual conversation is the possibility — even if impossible! — of consummation.

And what's truly amazing about flirtation is that this sensuality is present in the flirting itself. There doesn't need to be a touch, grope, or kiss. The flirting is itself a sensual act, even if no bodies dare touch.

This is testament to the palpability of not just words but of the invisible state of bodies. When we flirt, we extend our words and invisible selves into a third space and invite the other to extend his or hers. In this space between the two — this emergent and impossible space, this miraculous space —  a kind of (al)chemical reaction takes place.

When it goes well — and you know what I mean — there is a surging, a frenzy of forces thoroughly erotic and exquisitely disorienting and reorienting as, together, you nudge and prod each other on, massaging this amassing energy, stroking this third mind into delirium. You literally enter an emerging space in which the terms of engagement — including those of your very identity — are up for grabs.

It's hard to sustain. Sometimes, the wrong energy — in the form of a word, burp, look— enters the equation and the whole thing dissolves, vanishing in one swift woosh. Sometimes, it just peters out and then you're left standing there, a tad awkward. Sometimes, it builds and builds and finds itself leaving the realm of flirtation as the bodies become ensconced in the flesh of consummation. And still, other times, it simply winds down, awaiting another opportunity.

Flirtation is a delicate art. There is no contract signed out of the gate setting the terms, assuring both parties what the limits are. No, what makes flirtation so exhilarating is that the contract is written on the fly, jointly and silently. Both parties — I suppose there can be more than two but, lord, that gets complicated — both parties have to feel their way through the encounter without pre-defined terms. And when you beckon the third mind, anything (or nearly anything) is possible.

There are encounters that look and sound like flirting. This is when two bodies enter cocksure of themselves, each maintaining his or her distance but giving all the signs of engagement. These can be fine experiences and might mark an opportunity for a future flirt. But it is just an exchange of social protocol — "Where do you work? Oh, that's interesting." Little new is happening. There is no collaboration. Neither party leaves the preworn path. Nobody goes astray.

Of course, different people have different tastes for flirtation, different comfort zones, different ways they're willing to risk the flirtation delirium (this applies to lots of things, such as drugs: each of us has a different appetite for delirium). On a date, there is — hopefully — a moment when things turn. When it is longer a matter of exchange and becomes a collaborative forging of a new space: an inflection point as water boils and becomes steam.

Ah, yes, when both of you are in full flirtation mode, giving and taking generously, when the third mind is flourishing, there is a distinctive energy as that delirium begins, carrying both of you along, fueling and driving and titillating and prodding until neither remains intact, until both of you have have left the room and are dwelling in this other space.

Oh, this is an incredible moment! You enter this new space together but not as one. You are not a married couple acting in unison.  There is no contract. Anything is possible. I want to say it's a bewildering act of faith but that's not right: it's not faith that drives you but the empirical experience of an invisible event. Everyone around knows it, senses it, sees it, even though it's invisible. It is an incredible space, one that crackles with energy (we are electric beings, after all — what is that great Whitman line? "I sing the body electric." Perfect).

From one angle, flirtation is liminal, existing between indifference and intimacy, chastity and consummation, friend and lover, stranger and intimate. But to read flirtation as solely a phase on the way to somewhere else is to miss its power and possibilities. Flirting, even when fast and slight as between barista and customer, creates a sumptuous, if temporary, site of delirium.

The Posture of Things

You're shopping for a chair. As you browse the aisles, you note the variety — from backless computer chairs to high bar stools to plush ...