It is only by returning to our creative projects, over and over again, that we can achieve anything by writing. Getting to your desk is the trick. Leonard Cohen says in an interview, “Most people give up. My mind is not particularly fertile. My only success is the fact that I’ve been able to get to the desk.” I agree with him. That’s been my success too, such as it is. I lack wit. I am not funny in real life. I’m fairly quiet; I rarely hold forth. I do not excel in intellectual discussion. How is it that I, of all my friends, have published novels? One answer is that there is no money in novel-writing. There is some measure of cultural prestige in publishing a novel, of course, but this is disappearing. Why on Earth would anyone bother to write, when there are so many other things to do? Does getting to your writing desk reflect strength or weakness? Do you go to your desk full of the desire to create literature, to populate a fictional world? Or do you slink there, full of disgust and self-disgust because ordinary life isn’t sufficient for you?
When I think back over my adult life, I remember a series of desks at which I wrote, or tried to write. Is my desk a retreat or a rallying point? I’ve never been sure. Perhaps getting to my desk is an attempt to give meaning to my life, at a time in which meaning is being stripped from the world. Perhaps writing is necessary in order to confront this meaninglessness, to struggle with it. But perhaps writing only perpetuates this meaninglessness, doubling it up, making it even more real.
If anything, this awoke me to my own sluggishness. I’ve resolutely failed in the last few months to get to my desk and update this blog. I’ve produced nothing creative. This is a pretty superficial response to what Iyer says, I know, but I feel I can’t begin to answer his questions with any honesty, having shied from the desk for too long. I rather like his anti-heroic picture of the dejected writer, though suspect that in my own case it’s fear of failure, rather than excess contentment or distraction, that keeps me from writing: I’m entranced by a heroic ideal I can never fulfill. And that seems a pretty sorry reason not to write. Perhaps I should allow self-disgust to propel me? Disgust that I could hide from failure. A heroic disgust.
In any case, I hope to update this blog more regularly now, and less fustily. Though I’ve a very boring post on F H Bradley in the works that I’m compelled to grind out completely before anything more colourful comes along.
Iyer’s second thing is about friendship and what Hegel would call “ethical life” (Sittlichkeit):
We usually understand friendship to involve a special concern for the other person, a concern that is, in some way, returned. We value our friend for intrinsic reasons, for the unique individual that they are. And our relationship is typically characterized by an intimacy, by a bond of trust wherein we can disclose things to one another that we might not share with anyone else. Friends typically share views and values, as well as a sense of what is important. And friendship involves a kind of sympathy, whereby you take joy in your friend’s successes, just as you are disappointed when things go wrong for them.
Seen in this way, friendship is a philosophical ideal, something to aspire to in order to cultivate your own virtue, as well as the virtue of your friend. For my part, reading what I’ve just written, I wonder whether I’ve ever had a single friendship! W., in my novels, speaks of an opportunism and cynicism which, springing from neoliberal capitalism, progressively strips away our capacity for intimacy and sympathy, and hence friendship. I share his concern. I always felt, growing up, that my so-called friends and I were rats in a maze, responding in a limited way to a small range of stimuli. A system of stereotypical rewards and punishments trained us to be self-interested, bent only on maximizing what we took to be our own ends. We had a sense that there was something wrong with our world, that older forms of solidarity and community were disappearing, but we had lost the ethical sensibility that would have allowed us to live up to the ideal of friendship.
Again, this interests me selfishly. It was quite nice to see a contemporary novelist spelling out one of the central themes of my PhD research: the way certain postmodern novels deal with the sense that the conditions of possibility for a coherent kind of ethical life have been lost. W’s argument here is a tad reductive, however, in leading the issue immediately back to neoliberalism. He’s totally right, of course, but the perniciousness of methodological atomism goes back well before the 1980s, and I’m not enough of a materialist to grant that the history of ideas is also that of the market. Rather, I think the debate also exists within the history of ideas itself, particularly in the gap between forms of humanism and anti-humanism.
More on that later, but this has led me to reflect on the latent humanism of Iyer’s own writing. I’d love to do a post on Spurious and Dogma, once I’ve remembered the former and finished the latter. But something I’d like to avoid in that post is discussing the work in terms of friendship. Obviously these novels are about friendship, but when Spurious came out last year, friendship dominated reviews of the novel so as to obscure a good deal of its discursive content (as if it had, somehow, to be led back to a comfortable novelistic category – as if the form of Lars and W’s discussions were more important than their content). I was hence a little dismayed to see Iyer talking lengthily, however perceptively, about friendship (although clearly he talks about everything else in the interview too). Perhaps a little more dismayed to see no-one pointing out that this is a particularly male kind of friendship under discussion: women don’t have much of a role in Spurious and Dogma, and I’d like to know if Iyer believes the (quite plausible) proposition that friendship between men and women is impossible – a thesis that would, however, necessitate a deeper exploration than his duologues provide – or if he thinks it’s adequate exploring friendship tout court via the bantering of two middle-aged, male academics, as if their masculinity really were gender-neutral.
What Spurious and Dogma really remind me of is Withnail & I. There’s only one woman in that film too. Clearly both Iyer and Withnail have a shared heritage in middle-period Beckett – a heritage that stretches through all modern drama and comedy, from Pinter to Pulp Fiction and Peep Show. Beckett does, however, in many ways seem richer, both in that he is not so exclusive of women, and that – in developing away from gendered characters altogether – his abstract subjects take on an interesting negative relation to humanism. (Peep Show probably succeeds on the first count, but not on the second.) It’s this relation to humanism that I’d really like to get at in Iyer, and not via the category of friendship, but another, equally humanistic, which he also shares with Beckett and Withnail: dignity.
The fundamental charm of Withnail & I lies in the dialogue, whose wit and eloquence have a redemptive capacity: we maintain dignity within ruin through the grace of our rhetoric. Perhaps this is the only way open to us when we are left with nothing but language. The pathos of the final scene hinges upon this idea. Withnail is utterly destitute, forsaken by everything but one of the most beautiful passages in Hamlet, which he bellows to the wolves. There’s a kind of dignity here very similar to Vladimir and Estragon’s, to Hamm and Clov’s. It’s also very similar to that of Lars and W on their inebriated lecture tour. However much they might fail as thinkers or writers, they can nonetheless acknowledge their inferiority with a crystalline deadpan humour; they have still encountered great beauty and flashes of truth, discussing Rosenzweig over a dive bar’s pooltable. W’s glorious insults of Lars are also a perverse form of esteem, as well as self-assertion. In this sense, the books seem to me as much about dignity as they are about friendship. Dignity achieved by a certain poise.
It’s through this kind of dignity that I’d like to try to get at Iyer’s humanism. It is more essential to his novels’ form and enduring interest than friendship alone, and at the same time so much more tenuous, like W’s messianism, or the notions of the human developed in the French thought that clearly inspired Iyer and his avatars (who are obviously also readers of Blanchot et al.). What Iyer says in the interview about solidarity and ethical life expresses a conservative nostalgia for which I’m broadly sympathetic, though I’d not say that either of us is blatantly a communitarian. It’s a stance that I find fascinating, and his novels are an excellent example of how anti-humanism seems to turn back upon itself to issue into a more informed humanism. The interplay of form and content (how exactly is antihumanism compromised when discussed with an old friend over a pooltable?), as well as the relation between residual human dignity and rhetorical eloquence, seem like another good way into Iyer. Such dignity is even more fundamentally human than that of friendship, reposing in language alone. It is the philosopher’s plea for immortality: the renunciation of the perishable.