‘To write is to practice, with particular intensity and attentiveness, the art of reading’. Such did the acclaimed American writer Susan Sontag begin her reflections, Writing as Reading, a contribution solicited by the New York Times in 2000 for a series entitled Writers on Writing. Sontag goes on to explain that to write is to read, re-read, and sit oneself in judgment, using Henrik Ibsen’s expression.
Why do writers read? According to Sontag:
Reading usually precedes writing. And the impulse to write is almost always fired by reading. Reading, the love of reading, is what makes you dream of becoming a writer. And, long after you’ve become a writer, reading books others write – and rereading the beloved books of the past – constitutes an irresistible distraction from writing. Distraction. Consolation. Torment. And, yes, inspiration.
For writers, the reading of and commenting on great books from the past is the sign of their unchallengeable seriousness, with which they position themselves inside the human enterprise of writing. For those who write, to read other authors is to pay attention to the world; and this is precisely the art that the Egyptian-American poet Yahia Lababidi has mastered.
In a conversation with fellow writer Alex Stein, Lababidi elaborates on this ‘attention’ as such:
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 where I feel I am aloft, ecstatic.
Lababidi’s book, Trial by Ink: From Nietzsche to Belly Dancing, provides a bird’s eye view to what exactly the Egyptian poet is trying to achieve. In what could be otherwise mistaken for a series of essays in which different topics are investigated, he redefines for himself the original meaning of the ‘essay’ – a term coined by the French writer Montaigne – as judgment. And, like Ibsen, he indeed sits himself in judgment.
As Lababidi notes regarding Trial by Ink:
This [the book], 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.
What Lababidi is judging however, isn’t only the Western literary culture in which he so easily feels ‘at home’, but also the popular culture of our times – one of the most neglected topics in the work of serious writers – and the culture of the Middle East that he has experienced firsthand in both Egypt and Lebanon. Accordingly, he spares no effort to portray the profound sense of contradiction between religiosity and eroticism that invades everyday life in Cairo and Beirut.
At the same time, it would be wrong to think of Lababidi as an essayist, as the strong, personal, and poetic voice to be found in his work reveals him to be more of a prose writer. It is in the realm of poetry and aphorisms that Lababidi excels, with Trial by Ink being the only intermediary between his celebrated collection of aphorisms, Signposts to Elsewhere, and his volume of poetry, Fever Dreams.
I think there must be some connection between how I fly in my dreams and this state I sometimes come to in writing where I feel I am aloft, ecstatic – Yahia Lababidi
Lababidi’s poetry has traveled far. It has been translated into several languages, and is widely available on the Internet, not only in its original form, but also in the form of video clips, readings and accompanying other texts. Today, it is no longer uncommon for authors from the Middle East to write their books in English – or other languages, for that matter – and engage global audiences, while still remaining anchored in the contemporary anxieties of the region. On February 2011 – only shortly after the beginning of the Egyptian protests which later turned into a full-scale revolution – his poem What is to Give Light, a poetic tribute to the Tunisian fruit-seller who helped spark (literally) the wave of protests extending from the Maghreb to the Persian Gulf, was published. A year later in March 2012, his essay Poetry, and Journalism of the Spirit appeared on the The Mantle, the widely-read American forum for progressive critique.
In Poetry and Journalism of the Spirit, Lababidi laid out his thoughts and reflections on the place of poetry in the context of the Egyptian revolution and the larger ‘Arab Spring’ movement, looking to the great writers of the West for inspiration. What he does – together with Alex Stein – in his most recent book, The Artist as Mystic: Conversations with Yahia Lababidi is a similar exercise, in that he pays attention to what other writers have said about writing and poetry.
Stein commences the book by noting that ‘Conversation is the litmus test … Conversation is pudding in which the proof resides. In conversation we give the most complete, up to date, version of ourselves’. Together, Stein and Lababidi set out on a perilous journey to discuss those authors who have provided Lababidi with the living material for his poetry, most notably Rimbaud, Kafka, Bataille, Baudelaire, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, among others.
Detail of a Persian miniature from Rumi’s Masnavi
For Yahia Lababidi, the condition of the artist is exalted, and as such requires a withdrawal from the world, as if one were a mystic or saint. As Franz Kafka mentions in his Blue Octavo Notebooks, one of Lababidi’s favourite books:
You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the only suffering you could avoid.
In The Artist as Mystic, Lababidi questions the ecstatic state of the poet, comparing mystics from the Persian Sufi tradition to contemporary authors such as Kafka. As he says:
The Ecstatics from my tradition, the Persian tradition, could be wildly erotic, but because they were addressing themselves to God they felt safe. For Kafka, the mystic ritual he called ‘writing’ was his safe zone.
Accordingly, the reader cannot help but feel the strong sense of identification of Lababidi with the works of such enigmatic and somewhat cryptic poets and writers.
In the culture I come from, a saying is a magical thing – Yahia Lababidi
The works of Lababidi’s that have been most widely read are his aphorisms, perhaps because they are more intellectually accessible to the public. However, unlike the European aphorists, practitioners of the fragment and the freeze-frame, Lababidi finds inspiration in the oral narratives of the Middle East. ‘In the culture I come from, a saying is a magical thing. It was something people were always happy to hear or recite, and if I happened to have written it, that was good, too’, he mentions.
In one of the most significant passages in his conversations with Stein, Lababidi discusses his reading of Nietzsche in his native Egypt. ‘When I read it [Nietzche’s work] again, maybe a decade later, more intentionally, in the desert outside Cairo, it was like a long slow exhalation that let me finally examined what I had received’, he reflects. It was in the Egyptian desert, where the contemplative and mystical traditions of the West emerged since the time of the Desert Fathers, and he knows this well.
On a similar note, Lababidi allows himself a singular comparison between the work of Nietzsche and the desert. As he posits:
The desert is inhospitable. It doesn’t really want you there, but if you could stay there, if you could stick it out, you could be granted an access that you couldn’t find anywhere else. There’s a desert quality to Nietzsche’s writing, I think. It doesn’t care much for you. It may, perhaps, want you there, but it doesn’t need you there.
The vocation of the artist is omnipresent throughout these conversations, and partly echoes Sontag’s conclusion to Writing as Reading in 2000, in which she states regarding the difference between reading and writing that ‘Reading is a vocation, a skill at which, with practice, you are bound to become an expert. What you accumulate as a writer is mostly uncertainties and anxieties’.
However, Yahia Lababidi – as his conversations with Alex Stein make manifest – isn’t simply reading; he is also listening and paying careful attention to what the writers of the past have said. In doing so, he attempts to enter their worlds and inhabit them – if only temporarily – as if they were other pathways leading him to poetry.
It was perhaps another mystic, the French writer Simone Weil, who said it best: ‘Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity’.