First published at BIKYAMASR
Only a few weeks before her death in 2004, Susan Sontag completed an introduction to “Under the Glacier”, a novel by Icelandic Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness, published in an English translation of Magnus Magnusson, a year later. Her copious introduction begins with a reflection about the nature of novels and fiction:
“The long prose fiction called the novel, for want of a better name, has yet to shake off the mandate of its own normality as promulgated in the 19th century: to tell a story peopled by characters whose opinions and destinies are those of ordinary, so-called real life. Narratives that deviate from this artificial norm and tell other kind of stories, or appear not to tell much of a story at all, draw on traditions that are more venerable than those of the 19th century, but still to this day, seem innovative or ultraliterary or bizarre.”
She goes on to mention some of those traditions or alternative genres:
Tale, fable, allegory.
Literature of fantasy.
Then she concludes the section by saying: “Convention dictates that we slot many of the last centuries’ perdurable literary achievements into one or another of those categories. The only novel I know that fits into all of them is Halldór Laxness’s wildly original, morose, uproarious “Under the Glacier”.
Among the few works that can be said to engage in this form of transgression is Yahia Lababidi’s “Trial by Ink”, even though it is not anywhere close to a novel, and is easier to categorize in the both libidinous and sobering kind of essays written by Sontag herself than in the articulate but realistic dream-worlds of Laxness. Lababidi begins his book by explaining that “Essai” is the French word for trial, and that in 1580, Montaigne set out to interrogate and discover himself, minting a new literary form: the essay.
His book of essays, judgments, witticisms, aphoristic thinking and other sensuous devices available to writers; he describes in the following manner: “This, too, is a subjective work where I attempt to evaluate what I care for and generally test my responsiveness to literature and culture. In the course of such investigations particular judgments emerge, expressions of taste and values. These are my trials, where I am simultaneously scratching my head and pen across paper, to determine what I think about a given subject”.
The observer, unconcerned as he may be, can only resort to Lessing’s epigraph taken from St. Augustine: “For the same reason this is all in a certain sense true and in a certain sense false”. And yet one keeps wondering what is it that Lababidi, an Egyptian writer, wants to put to trial? The answer is not easily found in his book, after all, books are not meant to answer questions but rather to shake up, to make uncomfortable and to unsettle. At least good books, that is.
What could have been mistaken for an elaborate treatise on literary personalities and styles in the world of culture and seen through the conventional lens of highly modernist literature, is rapidly enough transformed into a journey from the classrooms of an American college, reading English literature and other select pastries in the delicatessen of European letters, to the throbbing womb of the Middle East and the most unusual cityscapes, capturing with almost erotic curiosity, frames cut out of life in Beirut and Cairo. The transformation is not a rite de passage that unfolds in a crescendo but rather, it is a constant state of emergency that is made manifest in the figure of the “I”: “I was 18 years old when I began to guess that I too might be a writer. The change stunned me. I had known myself one way and that knowing was silenced”.
The confession, somewhat stranded in between the mystic of exaggeratedly talented and now legendary artists, reminds one of Mary McCarthy’s “How I grew”, a passionate account of how, in her own words, “I was born as a writer”, that she wrote in the last decade of her life, recounting the adventure of her years through the inane schooling of America’s finest secondary institutions – not without irony – and then at Vassar College. But Mary McCarthy had prepared us for the confession: She had written over a dozen novels, edited the posthumous work of her late friend Hannah Arendt, and above all, 20 years before that, wrote her “Memories of a Catholic Girlhood” that recounted the years preceding “How I grew”.
Lababidi’s confession, on the other hand, leaves us perplexed if not slightly disconcerted at how little we know about him and even more, how little can we know about him from his poems, before reading his book. For those of us who were trained in academic philosophy or journalism and practice any of the two, even if we write about objects so personal like books and films and works of art, there is something terribly sinful about the “I” figure in writing. At times it is disquieting, and other times it is almost embarrassing. We have made it into a profession to avoid confessions and writing as an “I” by all possible means.
Yet here there is this “I” that speaks about great figures in the history of modern literature, about popular figures in the world of pop culture and reflects upon the life of the mind and the spirit in the Middle East – and not just about the Middle East. Is it narcissistic? Is it overblown? Is it perhaps worthy of condemnation by the charge of advancing his death in offering confessions? All the charges would be true if the I would be an imposition on the reader, a lens, a point of view.
Something else is at work here: He resorts to Wilde in order to say that “to become a spectator of one’s life is to escape the suffering of life”, and here it is the writer himself who does precisely that, doing with the pen what Sontag said that people do with the camera – “The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own”.
The touristic impetus in his book becomes clear when the “I” is such a polite intersection rather than interjection or intervention. In spite of the passionate entourage and the complexity of landscapes offered, commenting on everything, from the great philosophers, to Michael Jackson, to belly dancing and sex; he looks askance at what the world is offering him and places himself at a certain distance, but without alienation – philosophical or otherwise: “The artist prays through attention. I think of my dreams. I think of those times when I fly in my dreams. I think there must be some connection between how I fly in my dreams and this state I sometimes come to in writing when I feel that I am aloft, ecstatic.” Is this a trial? An essay? A novel? A poem? The reader needs to make up his mind on his own about the answer.
His eloquent commentary on the Middle East is only intensified and brought to life by his observation point, placed inside the womb and yet outside, in the grand academic halls and altitudes of art; realizing and carrying through and through what I – and here it would not be entirely inadequate, disquieting or embarrassing to use I, since I am not only a dumb confidante of journalistic events, but also a reader and a writer on my own right – had demanded from artists, writers and filmmakers in the Middle East to take upon themselves as a spiritual project: To find a language, refined and sophisticated, but unpretentious, to speak about religion and sex, without resorting to the flip side of repression – vulgarity and pornography:
“Much of the new morality is fanned by a kind of Islamic panic, quite foreign to the laid-back Egyptian character. It is the difference between a quiet confidence and a loud insecurity. By defiantly accentuating a superficial religiosity, contemporary Egyptians downplay their natural strengths and exaggerate their weaknesses. As a general rule, extreme positions are to be mistrusted. In this context, extreme Islamic interpretations are buttressed by people’s insecurities so that seemingly innocuous everyday activities acquire sexual connotations, such as: the slapping of slippers on a woman’s feet, the smacking of chewing gum, or smoking a cigarette.”
His criticism of religion – which he defines to be now as irreligious as it is unspiritual – and society never leaves the domain of art and that is why I contend to the revolutionary nature of this work, not because it has revolutionary affiliations per se, but because all art is always revolutionary. The Arab Spring as we know it now – with its discontents as well – has had its predecessors, independent and solitary as they might have been, in works such as the films of Bader Ben Hirsi and Samer Daboul, the paintings and installations of Amna Al-Nassiri, the novels of Naguib Mahfouz. To this list that runs very long in time and quantity I wouldn’t hesitate to add the poetry and essays of Lababidi, even though they might not be as easy to classify as the above mentioned.
He goes on to comment on the sex culture of Cairo: “With female flesh under wraps, and no promise of release in the near future, sensuality spills into unexpected spaces. In Cairo, the human need for physical contact manifests in intense same-sex intimacy. It is not the least bit unusual to encounter men holding hands, pinkies interlocked, hugging and kissing, while calling each other unusually sweet names: sokkar (sugar), a’assall (honey) or rohe albi (my heart’s soul). Equally common to witness men affectionately wrestling like scrapping puppies, or playfully grabbing each other like testosterone-maddened teens, well into middle age”. What is surprising here is not what he writes, but that we need to resort to an artist’s observation to get a full view of what is common knowledge to us.
Amidst his incisive but always delicate commentary, it is also possible to find certain abandonment to melancholy which is always abandonment to the world and not out of it: About Beirut for example, he says that “Strolling the streets of Beirut, one senses a low frequency erotic charge in the air, diffused desire. All communication is a kind of casual flirtation.” Is this criticism? Excitement? Longing? The answer is to be found soon in an apparently insignificant but telling passage, coming from an Egyptian holding a Lebanese passport and writing in the English language: “For the majority of Lebanese, exile is a matter of fact as well as a way of life – with around 15 million living abroad in comparison to Lebanon’s total population of some 4 million.”
Zygmunt Bauman writes about Derrida saying: “Derrida is obsessed with ‘being away’. There is some reason to surmise that the obsession was born when the twelve-year-old Jacques was in 1942 sent down from the school which by the decree of the Vichy administration of North Africa was ordered to purify itself of Jewish pupils. This is how Derrida’s ‘perpetual exile’ started. Since then, Derrida has divided his life between France and the United States. Culturally, Derrida was to remain ‘stateless’. This did not mean, though, having no cultural homeland. Quite the contrary: being culturally stateless meant having more than one homeland, building a home of one’s own on the crossroads between cultures. His home on the crossroads was built of language.”
This is precisely the exercise that Lababidi performs and successfully – Using his Egyptian background to intersect the crossroads of Western thought with aphoristic thinking and his home in the letters of America and Europe to see the Middle East critically, lovingly, detachedly and intimately attached, putting it to trial, inside out. His many homes are not only cultural but also emotional and spiritual. When he writes about the calling of literature thinking of the great writers, perhaps unknowingly emulating his heroine Susan Sontag – to whom he devotes an entire chapter – he writes: “Again, the calling. Again the gift slash curse privileged. The whole life structure developing the necessary faculties, the necessary conditions. Rimbaud must be drunk and whoring all the time, Kafka has literally to abstain and deny himself everything.”
Here I begin to wonder if it is not himself that he is talking about, in between the ecstatic fasting of Ramadan and the pretensions of beauty and appearances in Beirut, both of which are intimately described in his book. If I would have to sum up his work and his book in one paragraph, I could only resort to what the homeless Derrida, the permanent exile, would say about his pupil Sarah Kofman, another devoted reader of Nietzsche:
“For she too was without pity, if not without mercy, in the end for both Nietzsche and Freud, whom she knew and whose bodies of work she had read inside and out. Like no one else in this century, I dare say. She loved them pitilessly, and was implacable towards them (not to mention a few others) at the very moment when, giving them without mercy all that she could, and all that she had, she was inheriting from them and was keeping watch over what they had – what they still have – to tell us, especially regarding art and laughter.”
“Trial by Ink: From Nietzsche to Belly Dancing”