Monday, February 18, 2013

The consternation of philosophy: Exodus by Lars Iyer

So then, Lars Iyer's Exodus, the third in a trilogy of enchantingly morbid novels. Let me start by saying that a review might be the wrong response, heedless of how the form disarms the reader even as it provides generic options in which to contain what is otherwise a very odd book.

As readers of Spurious and Dogma will know – and will delight in the knowledge – this is a series in which monologic perorations, complaints and lamentations over the state of contemporary philosophy and the destruction of academic philosophy by the forces of capital constitute the bulk of its content. Impotent outrage propels the narrative. A review might then resort to judging specific qualities: how funny or sad one finds the overall effect (it is very funny and quite sad), how resourceful the writer is in the detail (inspiringly so), or how the book "succeeds" in whatever the reviewer has decided it seeks to achieve (I haven't decided yet), with some comparisons thrown in to demonstrate archival awareness: Laurel & Hardy, Waiting for Godot, Beavis & Butt-head. A trilogy of comparisons! And this is the thing: the trilogy itself operates in the light and shadow of such double acts, suggesting a certain generic inheritance and continuity. But not one of them features impassioned speeches featuring Kierkegaard, Franz Rosenzweig and Philip K. Dick's gnosticism. How does it inherit from them?

W. is an academic philosopher clinging to the hope that philosophy can be reborn, to live as it had once done according to the legends about which he declaims to his fat friend Lars, another academic philosopher: Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Gilles Deleuze. Look to the gods of Old Europe, he cries. Except W. believes that Lars is not up to the task; he'll never produce an original idea to justify his position let alone soar to the heights of Old Europe. Quite the opposite in fact. W. says Lars is a prime example of what is wrong with contemporary thought: rampaging through the history of philosophy like a bull in a china shop, producing cliché and commentary to contaminate great thought with careerism. Meanwhile, W. has been sacked. For all of W.'s disgust, readers of Dogma will remember that it was he who charged Lars with recording everything he says and then reporting it to the post-apocalyptic world. Lars is thereby not only Plato to W.'s Socrates, Boswell to his Dr Johnson but also Theoderic to his Boethius, metaphorically throttling him at dawn.

In Exodus, as the title suggests, they go out into the world – well, towns and cities in England and Scotland – to attend conferences in an attempt to resist the decline and seek signs of renewal. Plymouth, Oxford, Colchester, Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh. Except everything is told through Lars' reports: W.'s neurotic exclamations, demands and defeatism lard any sensuous presence in their locations. This is a novel in which only the Last Philosophers are described in their natural habitat. W. wants to imbibe the behaviour of his heroes, to become a method thinker. On a picnic, he insists they drink schnapps, specifically Aalborg akavit, which Kierkegaard might have drunk, and herrings and crispbread, which Kierkegaard might have eaten. Then the writing might start to open itself:
We begin with the finished product ... and we work our way back to the mind of the thinker who produced them. But not only to the mind! To the cultural world of the thinker; in this case, to the cultural world of nineteenth century Denmark. And to the physiognomy of the thinker; in this case a melancholy disposition, a heaviness of the soul. We must move from the outward to the inward, W. says. Only then, having reached the secret centre of the work, having come to its engine room so to speak, might we work our way back out again.
But would Kierkegaard ever have picnicked?

This then is a wandering in the outward. W. quotes Marx saying exactly this about his own generation, which must sacrifice itself for those who may be able to enter a new world free of capitalism. So, in order to renew philosophy, W. and Lars must sacrifice themselves, which might mean getting blind drunk on Aalborg akavit rather than studying Kierkegaard's complete works.
Of course, one mustn't start reading too soon. W. is adamant about that. One mustn't simply devour an oeuvre, tempting as it may be, the many-coloured spines of Kierkegaard's works in the Hong and Hong edition, lined up on my windowsill, as inviting as boiled sweets.
               One cannot just begin at page one, and then read one's way to the end, W. says. There must be a kind of pause before reading, a dwelling in the space opened by the fact of Kierkegaard, by the fact of his writing, by the fact that he lived.
              That Kierkegaard wrote: we should pause before that, mulling it over.
The Spurious Trilogy as it must now become known might be this pause before the fact of philosophy, revealed here as a pause itself, a dwelling inside this space of writing, the secret centre of all work. Perhaps this is the location of W.'s despair and why he asks Lars to record everything he says, knowing it too will fall into the silence of writing, a silence which only Lars can betray.


  1. Very nice, Steve. Looking forward to reading this.

  2. I think, if to think is a thought that I can have, that your review of Mr Iyer's work is a blackened shroud, if you like a hand me down gown, From what Mr Iyer is possibly saying etc.

    Maybe I am Lars, but I doubt it. I mean, who knows the mind of Kierkegaard. Who knows why Nietzsche hugged a horse. I don't: I don't actually care too much.

    It is as W. says, impossible to read all that I need to read to form an opinion even. And by that I do not mean an even opinion even.

    all shite is bollocks all bollocks is shite.

    Mr Iyer disabuses the notion of literacy. He throws it in the bin. He is the natural successor of EA Blair, well for me at least.



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