'We’re British - There’s No Cure For That': An Interview with Lars Iyer

by Marc Farrant

Lars Iyer is a lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, where he is one of the country's foremost Maurice Blanchot scholars. He is also the real-life embodiment of the fictionalised narrator 'Lars' in his trilogy comprising the novels Spurious (2010), Dogma (2012) and, most recently, Exodus (2013), all published by Melville House. Lars is also the author of a now famous literary anti-manifesto, published in The White Review as 'Nude in Your Hut Tub, Facing the Abyss (A Literary Manifesto After the End of Literature and Manifestos)', and is just finishing a novel based on the life of Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein Jr.

Here, he discusses the destitution of academic life under the conditions of contemporary neoliberal society; the exhaustion of thought and thinking; the relation between literature and philosophy; and what it means to be British and attempt to think.

In your manifesto, the declaration that ‘literature is dead’ is supplemented by maxims for those who come after literature but still want to write. They amount to a sense of writing from within this disaster, and acknowledging a certain levity that marks this impossibility.

The trilogy seems to capture the ethos of this predicament in terms of ‘thinking’ and ‘non-thinking’ – which signals a certain dialogue between literature and philosophy. Does the trilogy mark a form of writing that comes after literature – or is it merely intended to provoke a discussion of literature's end?

My manifesto was written in a spirit of provocation. The novel, as a form, has been subject to a devaluation in recent years – it has been marginalised within contemporary culture. True cultural life is elsewhere. How, then, to reclaim the novel with this marginality in mind? How to mark a kind of crisis of transmissibility when it comes to the relationship between the novel of today and what has gone before? For me, Vila-Matas, Bolaño and Bernhard have some answers, and that was the point of my manifesto.

W. and Lars, the central characters in the Spurious trilogy, are fascinated with the literature and philosophy of what they call ‘Old Europe’. Much of the comedy of the trilogy follows from the distance between ‘Old Europe’ and the contemporary Britain of the characters. There is something ridiculous about the importance W. and Lars give to their own endeavours, which is patterned after the writers and thinkers they admire, in a world completely indifferent to their concerns. But I hope there is something admirable about W. and Lars, too – something that moves the reader in the characters’ vehement attempts to think in the tradition of their masters. The plight of W. and Lars is derisory but also, perhaps, inspiring. More broadly, my characters’ predicament is a way of marking the problem of the contemporary novel in my novels. How ridiculous to try to do something new in a British novel today! The task becomes one of evidencing that ridiculousness, that sense of imposture. I seek to do so laughingly, lightly, remembering what Chesterton said: ‘solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light’. Here, Vila-Matas, Bolaño and Bernhard are inspirations, fellow travellers. They understand the situation we’re in.

You ask me about the role of thinking in my trilogy. Thinking is a very elevated term in continental-European thinking. For Nietzsche, for example, it is associated with an extreme emotional intensity, with a passion and pleasure, that has a transformative power for the thinker. As one commentator says, there is a whole ‘love story’ in Nietzsche’s relationship with thinking, full of ‘misunderstandings, discord, jealousy, desire, revulsion, fury, anxieties, and rapture’. And so it is with W. and Lars (particularly W.) in their love story with thought.

According to W., Lars has a privileged relationship to what he calls ‘non-thinking’ (remember, I’m playing this for laughs in the trilogy; this is supposed to be funny!) The prefix ‘non-’, W. insists, isn’t simply privative; it doesn’t mean a lack of something. Non-thinking is not the same as not thinking. Rather, the prefix is meant to point to a kind of chaos which destabilises the term to which it is added. ‘Non-thinking’ indicates an instability that is inherent to the act of thinking, in which thinking becomes chaotic and unbounded. For W., Lars’s ‘non-thinking’ is linked to the damp and rats in Lars’s flat, to the noise in Lars’s office, to Lars’s obesity, and so on – things which W. claims to find horrifying. On the other hand, W. suspects that Lars’s ‘non-thinking’ might be a more vigorous form of W.’s own version of philosophical thinking. W. and Lars are a version of the classic comic double-act, the straight man and his double – and, as is often the case with such double-acts, the fool, Lars, is wiser than he seems.

You ask me about the relationship between philosophy and literature with respect to thinking. Well, one manifestation of the chaos in question is the fictional blog on which Lars, the narrator, records his impressions of his adventures with W. Another, implicitly, is the very trilogy itself – that is, a work of what is ostensibly literary fiction. My hope is that the formal features of my novels (repetition, focus on failure, narrative claustrophobia, etc.) distance them not only with respect to the conventions of contemporary literary fiction, but with respect to literary fiction as such. A laughing distance. A light distance.

You mention the centrality of comedy in the trilogy, but you also hint at the role comedy might play in the problematic status of contemporary literature. This is perhaps manifested in the sense that not only is a certain lightness made available through the seriousness of the problem that faces the contemporary novelist, but also that in this lightness there is a certain seriousness. As you say, Lars' non-thinking is neither simply privative nor simply slapstick, but rather emblematic of a kind of chaos that, as it evades any mere form of instrumentalisation, might itself be worth preserving - and perhaps in the name of literature.

I wonder if you can speak a little on comedy - and irony - in reference to the condition of literature in general, and the trilogy specifically?

W. claims that Lars is engaged in all kinds of activities for which the prefix ‘non-’ is relevant. W. claims Lars is a ‘non-dancer’, that he is ‘non-religious’, by which he means that Lars renders chaotic – wild - the usual forms of dancing and religion; that Lars disturbs the usual ‘economy’ that organises these practices. The same holds for Lars’s supposed ‘non-writing’. My trilogy is narrated by a fictional ‘Lars’. W. links Lars’s blog directly to chaos; Lars, for W., writes a kind of ‘non-writing’. If we take W. seriously on this point, the novels themselves might be understood to have an important relation to ‘non-writing’, perhaps to ‘non-literature’. The novels themselves cannot simply be chaos – they can’t incarnate or realise non-literature, as it were, since literary works of any kind always depend on a certain order – on grammar, word-meanings and so on. But the novels can attest to chaos in some sense; they can welcome and even affirm it. This affirmation, such as it is, might be understood to be enacted in my novels through a wild kind of humour –a black comedy that also laughs at the conventions of literary fiction.

Of course, there is a whole tradition, or counter-tradition, of blackly humorous, unconventionally-structured novels at the edges of the literary tradition. Thumbing your nose at the conventions of the novel is very much part of the tradition of the novel. But the strength of a counter-tradition depends on the prestige of the tradition it apes. And when this prestige has come to wane.... ‘We have no great literature’, Krasznahorkai says in a recent interview. ‘But readers need [his novel Satantango], not as medicine, not as delusion, because they need someone to tell them there is no medicine’. I would love to say the same of my novels: readers need them to tell them that the time for literary novels is over.

I want to ask a question in reference to contemporary Britain; a context which is central to the trilogy. I wonder if this ironic or literary tension, between thinking and non-thinking, represents a certain kind of British thinking? That is, a sense of inadequacy when confronting the European tradition of philosophical questioning and the framing of this in a self-conscious or ironic form.

I wonder if we might discuss this performative aspect of your work in reference to the relation between philosophy and literature and, specifically, philosophy and British literature, where philosophy has been seen more commonly as relating to literature as literature's 'said' (theme or content), whereas in the continental tradition, philosophy might be seen to relate to literature more in the way of literature’s 'saying' (literature's performing what it is as literature)? There certainly seems to be an intensely interesting fusion and frustration in the novels moulds together the sense of philosophy as 'said' and as 'saying'.

‘Chaos’ and ‘non-writing’, as I have called them, might be understood to operate in a manner analogous to what Blanchot calls variously ‘worklessness’, ‘the impossible’, ‘the outside’, ‘the narrative voice’, ‘saying’, etc. In both his literary-critical and fictional writings, Blanchot seeks to bear witness to a kind of chaos with which, he argues, art and literature are engaged. For Derrida, too, literature names something unsettling and strange, functioning in his work, he says, ‘as an allusion to certain movements which have worked around the limits of our logical concepts, certain texts which make the limits of our language tremble, exposing them as divisible and questionable’. For Derrida, as for Blanchot (and we could mention Foucault and Deleuze here, Nancy and Agamben, indeed a whole bunch of thinkers of the ‘outside’), literature threatens our sense of presence, of identity, and of a cluster of related terms used by philosophers.

What does this mean with respect to the relationship between philosophy and literature in the trilogy? We might be tempted by the idea that W. stands for philosophy, for the attempt to think, and Lars, for what I have called chaos and non-thinking, for what enjoys a privileged relation to what Blanchot and Derrida call ‘literature’. W. attempts to philosophise, to think, and fails; Lars bears witness to these attempts on his blog and, implicitly, in the trilogy itself. W. and Lars’s friendship would parallel, on this account, the relationship between philosophy and what Blanchot and Derrida call ‘literature’.

But this is too neat. Is W.’s notion of thinking so removed from what I’ve called ‘non-thinking’? Perhaps it could be understood as an attempt to attest to ‘non-thinking’ in some way, to show it, as W. says he would like to show Lars dancing and praying and thinking to a learned audience. In the end, W. and Lars both experience the pull of non-thinking; they differ only in their response to it. W. often presents his friendship with Lars as the obstacle to his thought – but W. also knows that this friendship is also allows him to think. Lars seems to implicitly ridicule W. in the way he narrates the trilogy, appearing to enact a kind of literary revenge on his philosophical friend – but Lars, at the same time, depends on W.’s philosophical ambitions; he’s swept up by them. Left to himself, what would Lars actually do? The fool needs his straight man as the straight man needs his fool.

You raise a question about the relationship between British thought and the European tradition of philosophy in the trilogy. The European thinkers who fascinate W. and Lars fall into several groups. There are those who attempt, in various ways to renew Jewish ideas of the messiah and the apocalypse: Cohen, Rosenzweig and, in a different sense, Kafka. These give W. and Lars an idea of religion (although Lars is said to be a Hindu – a ‘non-religion’, on W.’s account; even though W. grants on another occasion that Lars is profoundly religious!) Then there is Marx, and the Italian Marxists including Tronti and Virno. These supply W. and Lars with an idea of politics (although W. grants that Lars, with his experience of warehouse work and unemployment, is also profoundly political!). Finally, there is Kierkegaard, to whom W. and Lars turn, on Tronti’s suggestion, as providing an accurate phenomenology of despair under capitalism (although W. says that Lars knows much more about despair than W. ever will!). What is the role of these thinkers for my characters? Broadly speaking, W. and Lars want to be able to diagnose their time, and to remedy it. They want to be able to politicise their despair, understanding it as the result of broader societal and cultural forces, and to act on the basis of what it discloses. They want to address their own crisis of transmissibility, by re-forging their Old European intellectual inheritance anew, by weaponising philosophical ideas for the coming British revolution.

This is something they have in common with the generation of Essex postgraduates W. celebrates in Exodus. And in these broad terms, W. and Lars are not so different from those of us drawn to continental-philosophical thought in a context very different from that enjoyed by the thinkers in this tradition. To paraphrase Beckett, We’re British. There’s no cure for that. We’re British, which means we have to struggle against intellectual and literary parochialism, against the antipathy towards metaphysics, towards abstraction, against de-politicisation, and so on.

It seems that, acutely associated with this sense of a literature and philosophy of the 'outside', is an impression of religion as feeling or gesture in the trilogy. It is now widely critically commented that the New Atheist vanguard reflects a certain Anglo-American cultural hostility towards all that pertains to, or derives from, an 'outside' (an outside of logic, rational argument, scientific empiricism etc.).

Would you go so far as to say that the value of literature and philosophy in Britain today would be the value of holding open a space of belief, of faith, of the time of religion (which would be the time of an activity unimpeded by socio-economic forces) - if not religion itself? I also wonder if you would mind discussing a little the important relation, that surfaces repeatedly in the trilogy, between capitalism and religion?

In the trilogy, W. is comically insistent that the real meaning of religion is to be found in the Judaism of Cohen and Rosenzweig – specifically, in their attempt to give the traditional notions of the Messiah, of the messianic epoch, and related notions, a contemporary meaning. Following the trajectory of their thought, especially as it is developed by Levinas, W. claims that messianism is at play when one human being addresses another. Speech operates for W. as a kind of per formative, to return to a word we’ve already used. I am the Messiah to the extent that I address you. The messianic epoch opens for W., as for Levinas, in the instant in which I am released from my self-involvement and egocentrism. On the one hand, this is quite a banal affair; such ‘saying’ always accompanies the ‘said’ of the content of what I say. But on the other – and this is not Levinas’s claim, but that of Blanchot, his life-long friend – we can become aware of the significance of ‘saying’, reaffirming it in some way. For Blanchot, this reaffirmation marked the Events of May 1968 in Paris. The writings on the walls of public buildings, the handbills and bulletins circulating on the streets, reaffirmed the openness of speech between the protestors, and the peculiar temporality which belonged to it. For Blanchot, the Events interrupt the ordinary course of time, along with its emphasis on work and production. It is exactly this kind of reaffirmation of the messianic that my characters (particularly W.) strive for. They attempt to suspend capitalism, capitalist time (and capitalist space, too), through a kind of reaffirmation of messianism, of speech.

There is a second sense of religion in the trilogy. W. attributes a religious significance to Lars’s experience as a warehouse worker awoken to intellectual life by his reading of Kafka, and to the periods Lars spent unemployed. W. even grants to Lars the status of an unwitting seer, although he claims for himself the right to understand the proper significance of Lars’s visions. We’re back to ‘non-thinking’ again! Lars’s experiences of unemployment, of living in a squat in Old Hulme, and so on, provide us with a sense of ‘non-religion’ or ‘non-politics’. The exodus of the title of the last volume of my trilogy is, for my characters, a voyage out, an escape, in search of un- (or non-) productive times and spaces. This is what the fabled Essex postgraduates attempted to achieve, according to W. They were in full possession of a faith that W. and Lars are able to sustain only intermittently.

One of the more distracting things about capitalist culture is that there is no stupor, no time to vegetate. What I would suggest is more time wasting, less stimulation. We need time to lie fallow like we did in childhood, so we can recuperate. Rather than be constantly told what you want and be pressurised to go after it, I think we would benefit greatly from spells of vaguely restless boredom in which desire can crystallise.

That’s Adam Phillips, speaking in an interview. Perhaps, to take up your question, engaging with literature and philosophy might be understood as a way of creatively wasting time. A larger question, addressed by Debord and others, is how such time-wasting might lead to a collective engagement with capitalism.

In relation to a number of things we've discussed, from comedy, the performative, capitalism, philosophy in Britain and, indeed, religion, there seems to be an interesting use of the notion of simulation, or of semblance. As if, in these post-historical and/or post-literary times that we live in, hope remains present even in the semblance of thinking, or of literature. Of course, as literary fiction, the trilogy itself is a sort of simulation, particularly of what might be otherwise be a real friendship. (You bear an uncanny likeness to Lars, for instance.)

We've discussed how the thinking and the non-thinking structure of Lars and W.'s friendship is played for laughs, but just as their intellectual pursuit remains animated by a certain hope, so does their friendship. Indeed, their friendship might well be the hope of their intellectual pursuit - a sort of 21st-century version of Schlegel's 'symphilosophising'.

I wonder if you could explain the significance of friendship in relation to what we've discussed; that is, the potential for collective 'time-wasting', for the future of philosophy and literature in (British) academia, and the sense of a togetherness based on an ethics or politics of 'saying' and 'speaking'?

Yes, there is certainly a kind of simulation of the idea of philosophising, of writing, and politics, in the trilogy. My characters are would-be thinkers, would-be writers, would-be friends, would-be activists, and so on. By simulating the idea of thinking, of writing, of friendship, of activism, perhaps my novels can be understood as remembering more vibrant forms of these practices, of recalling a kind of potential that these practices might have. We’re back to the question of transmissibility, of what might be meaningfully taken forward from the past to the future.

You mention ‘time-wasting’. This is exactly what the trilogy focuses on: we see W. and Lars travelling on trains, and rambling through obscure British towns, lost in the everyday. Unlike Debord and his friends, W. and Lars’s time-wasting doesn’t seem to lead anywhere. W. and Lars fail in every endeavour, most notably in their attempt to begin a British revolution! Depicting characters in this way can seem defeatist and conservative – as though I were simply reinforcing the ‘reality principle’ of contemporary capitalism. But my fiction, I hope, operates in another way. In recounting W.’s and Lars’s failures alongside potted accounts of Debord and the Situationists, quotations from activist-thinkers like Dionys Mascolo and Mario Tronti, histories of British labour movements and squat life, memories of the Events of May 1968 in Paris, and so on I hope to provide a negative image of a kind of utopia.

We’ve discussed two kinds of performativity – one belonging to an idea of literature inherited from Blanchot, and another to an idea of the ethical and the political inherited from Cohen, Rosenzweig and Levinas. For a long time, in my academic work, I wanted to find the ‘northwest passage’ between these performatives – to lead myself, implicitly, from the study to the streets. This is a common goal, I think among humanities academics, who want to claim a progressive political dimension to their work, and dream of the Events of May 1968 breaking out all over again. I’ve tried to explore the problems inherent in this goal in my fiction without indulging in simple ‘autocritique’. For myself, I am not despairing when it comes to politics. Giving in to despair would be to repeat a conservativism that threatens to poison left-wing political thought – a nostalgia for the ‘grand gestures’ of politics which turn us from the very concrete and particular task of transforming our form of life.