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yahia lababidi's

Betsy L. Chunko
reviewed by


Betsy Chunko holds graduate degrees in both art history and literature. She earned her PhD from the University of Virginia and currently teaches at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY.

Books Reviewed:
Trial by Ink: from Nietzsche to Belly Dancing by Yahia Lababidi
The Artist as Mystic by Yahia Lababidi and Alex Stein

Yahia Lababidi’s Trial By Ink is hard to describe and resistant to summarizing impulses. One might call it a collection of essays on art and philosophy, but really they are, by and large, something else—aphorisms, a perhaps under-used form of expression.

On the aphorism, Lababidi is philosophical. He believes it “integrates both existential and moral commitment.” This quote, which suggests the critical undertone of Trial by Ink, is actually taken © Roberto Romei Rotondofrom The Artist as Mystic, another and even harder to describe recent release that traces a series of conversations between Lababidi and his friend and fellow intellectual, Alex Stein. It’s worth pausing for a moment to think of what this other text accomplishes before returning to the essays. The Artist as Mystic is a series of lyric meditations on the ecstatic sensibilities of great writers, poets, and thinkers such as Kafka, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Rilke, Kierkegaard and Ekelund. It is a rewarding book and unintimidating given its subject matter -- the kind of text that gets the neurons firing in one’s mind. You feel like you’re in the conversation with Lababidi and Stein, which is especially interesting if you haven't previously cultivated strong affinities or antitheses to any or all of these great artists.

One of the conversations preserved by Stein’s essays is excerpted from Mystic and placed near the start of Trial by Ink. I asked Lababidi to comment on the process through which an essay like this is composed—where his voice ends and Stein’s begins. “I guess a simple way of addressing your question [is] to say that it was edited by Alex,” he offered. The more revealing explanation, though, delivered with his trademark thoughtfulness and surprisingly lyric clarity, goes like this: “It is an assisted monologue . . . we often swap places, and steal the words from each others’ mouths . . . our collection of conversations is very much a ‘collaborative work . . . a creative translation.”

The essay, in any case, fits in this other context. All of the essays in Trial by Ink have a place -- which is no small accomplishment, considering they range so drastically in their concerns. The work is composed of three parts. The first provides a series of critical observations in a mode similar to what might be deemed the genre of the literary essay, though it is not, in general, the literature that concerns Lababidi so much as the artist behind the ink. The high point here is a piece titled, “The Great Contrarians” that treats the lives and works of both Friedrich Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde. Lababidi weaves the two together, revealing surprising overlaps in the intellectual preoccupations of two so seemingly different figures. He surmises from their joint examples that “they came close to discrediting themselves through their tendency toward hyperbole . . . Yet even their half-truths, if they did not always impart sustenance or give pleasure, communicated enthusiasms, and could excite contemplation.” Nietzsche and Wilde each, he argues “confessed to housing (at least) three selves.” Through a common “theater of contradictions,” they “compounded the difficulty of knowing where they stood in relation to their (often extreme) positions.” Indeed, Lababidi’s interpretation of these totemic artistic dispositions provides one of the great ‘narrative’ threads throughout the collection as a whole. Regarding Stephen Patrick Morrissey, former front man for the Smiths, Lababidi writes later of his “capacity for contradiction” as a thoughtful “Miserabilist” of his age.

There are other threads here. Lababidi quotes Susan Sontag, looking back at her seminal collection of essays, Against Interpretation: “I was -- I believed -- merely extending to some new material an aesthete’s point of view I had embraced, as a young student of philosophy and literature, in the writings of Nietzsche, Pater [and] Wilde.” This superimposing of one great mind’s self-meditations on the self-meditations of others connects past and less-past in a transhistorical, transnational dialogue about the essence of the creative personality. We see it again, this intellectual genealogy in, for instance, another essay from the collection’s first part, titled, “Reptiles of the Mind.” Here, Lababidi treats Melville’s “Bartleby: the Scrivener,” reading the story as a meditation on the longing for stillness (a theme which will be picked up again in an essay on silence in Part II). This conclusion is particularly interesting when one considers it, as Lababidi does, against accounts of Nietzsche’s affect in that time just before the onset of his great madness. Of note, Bartleby’s mantra -- I would prefer not to -- also becomes, for Lababidi, a potential rallying cry for the everyman civil servant and his fellows, “the dispirited automatons of an absurd workplace.”

If Part I approaches literary criticism, Part II, entitled “Studies in Pop Culture,” treats topics ranging from the public fascination with the macabre to “the holy hush” of silence and our increasing inability to find it or to listen at all really, to ourselves, to others, in the modern world. Lababidi is not criticizing us for the way we are; instead, he’s asking us to notice something and to coax ourselves out of the darkness of our irrational tendencies and into knowing realization of what we sometimes (if not all too often) let ourselves become. Yet the second section of the book also treats topics of popular culture per se, as its title implies. There are not one but two essays on Michael Jackson, or so it would seem. In fact, these essays look at Jackson in terms of the cult around him and the moribund directions the public’s fascination with this iconic figure took as his life and career wore on. They are eulogies, really, about a very talented, and ultimately very strange man driven to hide within himself, from us if not from himself, recognizable uber-signifier, perfectionist, dreamer and self-promoter. That is, Lababidi’s Jackson is a man at once completely unknowable and terribly ubiquitous.

In keeping with the inversionist impetus throughout, the first of these essays on Jackson begins with a poignant eulogy not just for the pop star, but for the author’s own boyhood thralldom to his icon. Lababidi writes, in this section, of “investing him with a love that I could not direct at myself.” This, he suggests, is what we do—we give celebrities adoration and attention we are not comfortable enough, or capable enough, of giving to our own person. In discussing the cult of celebrity more generally, Lababidi suggests its “unsavory and dishonest” aspects culminate in “the displacement of Socrates’ famous dictum ‘know thyself’ with ‘know another.’” As a consequence, “the transference of time, energy, curiosity and hard work meant to be directed inwards…is instead -- lazily and cruelly -- outwardly directed. For this reason, a rise in celebrity culture may correlate with a decline in the culture of self-examination.”

Such a statement is interesting to consider in terms of an essay from the collection’s third and last section on the shifting ideological trends in the Middle Eastern cultural centers Lababidi is at once near and far. Here, the author meditates on the kind of television programming -- the almost ritualistic watching of it -- buoying contemporary Egypt during Ramadam. He’s implying something through the essay’s very presence in the collection, coming, as it does, after the earlier meditations on pop culture’s dark underbelly, on its tendency to pull us away from the potential to grasp our better selves. Near the close of Part II is a quote from Diogenes that advises one to “restamp the currency” -- or, as Lababidi puts it, “come up with an alternative, and more spiritual set of values, that are better-suited to these times.” As a whole, Trial by Ink is advising, implicitly, such a switch to increased self-examination, examination which might lead to an evaluation of malfeasant materialistic values.

That is, these essays are about Lababidi’s spiritual and philosophical development and his personal concerns, shared here as a model, as a call to practices that might constitute a kind of ‘nudge’ into greater awareness. The stakes are high. He writes, at one point in this collection: “Civilization is a fragile thing . . . In a very real sense, we are easily punctured water balloons, or vulnerable bags of blood and bones. Walking down the street, we entrust our frailties to complete strangers, everyday.” We are both more than our bodies and our everyday experiences and yet merely these. The trick of it all, this cultivation of our better selves, he shows, lies in the way we frame our responses to the mundane and ecstatic alike.

In his essay on Susan Sontag, Lababidi suggests that her talent, as a critic, lay in her diligent delicacy: “Rather than hectoring or tearing down, she preferred to communicate her enthusiasms.” A similar approach characterizes his own responses to the array of topics he treats. Thus, what at first may seem like disparateness in the material concerns of the varied meditations housed under one cover ultimately reveals the landscape of a real person’s concerns. Lababidi shows that all aspects of the world can be studied, intellectualized and critically engaged. The result is a book that is, above all, ‘thoughtful,’ in the many senses of the word -- and somehow, though immensely thoughtful, not difficult to read (a superb feat). One can, in fact, read Trial by Ink in a single sitting, it is brief enough. But these are the kinds of thoughts that one doesn’t digest all at once. Imparting a deep sense of serenity, as it does, this is the kind of writing one is compelled to come back to, again and again.

by Betsy L. Chunko:
Plastics, Toxicity & Health

In The Evening © Roberto Romei Rotondo


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