Tuesday, August 29, 2023

The disaster of writing: My Weil by Lars Iyer

"When a plane crashes, a bomb explodes, a city floods or a pandemic begins, Lucy Easthope's phone starts to ring" says the blurb to her recent book subtitled Stories of Love, Loss and Hope from an Expert in Disaster, and goes on to report rapturous praise from critics and common readers alike, that it became a Sunday Times bestseller, a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, and was chosen as a book of the year by The Telegraph and New Statesman. Disaster is good for business.

It's also good news for academic departments assailed by reform in the public sector, as studying disasters provides an ideal opportunity to supply measurable outputs demanded by university management. The journal Disaster Studies for example publishes papers "that examine how disasters are anticipated, experienced, governed, and understood". The range of events listed suggests a disaster can be more than atom bombs and asteroids, leaving room for all kinds of events requiring examination. In Lars Iyer's latest novel, the Philosophy department of a Manchester university has been rebranded as The Centre for Disaster Studies to surf the neoliberal Tsunami. For its PhD students, this is fine.

The new title has the double advantage of more accurately describing philosophy not as a love of knowledge and the pursuit of wisdom but recognition that the stars have fallen (the etymology of 'disaster'), and also of concealing the abyss between Philosophy and Business Studies, the pseudo-academic discipline gradually replacing the Humanities, allowing the students to remain hidden within the system despite their opposition. Indeed, two of them are called Marcie and Valentine, hinting at a Gnostic hope of another world, a better world, an intellectual equivalent of Lucy Easthope's practical redemption. While their studies may lead nowhere but back into Manchester's destitute working-class districts, it is resistance to the demonic world embodied by Business Studies. They look at its students – keen, smartly dressed, actually writing their theses – and ask: "Where’s their doom? Where’s their crushedness? Their diseases of the soul? There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with them."

Readers of Lars Iyer's two previous novels Wittgenstein Jr and Nietzsche and the Burbs will relish the familiar chorused voice of hyperbole as the students seek to distinguish their studies from the banality of their everyday lives, as well as recognise the passive sentences describing the students' location – The Ees. A clearing. A long-sunken basin. Water, ankle deep. – situating the students as italicised observers of a world indifferent to their hysterics. The Ees is a swampy wasteland in the city used as a dump by locals but has a mystical aura for the students: "You come to the Ees to lose yourself. To be forgotten."

Also as in the previous two novels, an intellectual doppelgänger of a long dead philosopher enters to shake things up. In this case it's a new student calling herself Simone Weil, a convert to Christianity, challenging the students' incipient paganism. "Isn't God dead?" the students ask, and she says, yes, the "God of the philosophers is dead". Instead, God withdrew from the world in order to create it and evil, the very thing that appears to prove his non-existence, is "the very thing that reveals him in his truth". God's goodness shows himself through what we do, so rather than reject the world, we should seek to do good in the world, as she does by giving money to the homeless, speaking calmly to the madman on the bus, and praying for the addicts and the drunks. 

Such selflessness, however, a giving oneself over to something unknown, something outside, is also the promise of the Ees. In this way the novel appears to set up a debate about the best way to deal with what's missing from our lives and from the world – indulgent escape or self-sacrifice? – and it would have taken place if My Weil was not itself subject to disaster. What's missing from our lives and the world is precisely what the novel as a genre seeks to provide: a space filled with presence that is also, like a literary equivalent of Wittgenstein's duck-rabbit illusion, saturated in absence. We cannot see one without the other. The anxiety this provokes is everywhere in novels, the blurbs of novels and the review pages promising all kinds of events ("an act of shocking violence") and special information contained within a novel to mitigate absence, which must go without saying. 

For James Joyce, said Beckett, "there was no difference between the fall of a bomb and the fall of a leaf”. For us, too, in reading. The intensity of My Weil's bombing campaign of ideas and expression is matched only by its leaf-like lightness, the futility of which we cannot ignore even as we lose ourselves in its comedy. The effect is to open a space, a clearing like the Ees, for the presence of the black and empty sky to be raised in a novel. 

The word 'clearing' has to be noted as an allusion to the translation of Lichtung, the word used by Heidegger as he sought to return philosophy to its beginnings in ancient Greece. It is in those beginnings, however, that he also saw the end of philosophy as the sciences that developed "within the field that philosophy opened up" turned philosophy into "the empirical science of man" governed by systems of method, what he calls cybernetics:

This science corresponds to the determination of man as an acting social being. For it is the theory of the regulation of the possible planning and arrangement of human labor. Cybernetics transforms language into an exchange of news. The arts become regulated-regulating instruments of information.

It has led to a culture in which its "technological-scientific-industrial character" has become "the sole criterion of man's world sojourn". A clearing for such a return would be the equivalent of a dead end of a forest path apparently leading nowhere that opens into the light where trees have been removed. But, Heidegger says, "philosophy knows nothing of the clearing", hence his turn towards poetry as the potential for such light.

We may see here discussion of the death of the novel in a similar context rather than one of quality and cultural relevance, as the contemporary literary novel has little more to offer than an exchange of news by other means, while the popular genres offer a happy escape into the repetition of storytelling. The end of literature follows the end of philosophy as it is usurped by the unendlicher Verkehr of information. 

In a dark night in the Ees, Valentine announces that "Only French prose-poetry philosophy can save us now" and so they read aloud from Blanchot's The Writing of the Disaster, a book whose own blurb sells it relevance to modern literature "haunted by world wars, concentration camps, [and] Hiroshima", the familiar examples of disaster, and that a new academic study applies to a reading of recent novels because in them "an understanding of critical events – death, ecological catastrophe, pandemics – is possible", but what the students read suggests something else entirely:

Between the disaster and the other there would be the
contact, the disjunction of absent meaning—friendship.

Marcie, reading (just able to make out the words):

It is in friendship that I can respond . . . a friendship
un . . . un . . . shared . . . without reciprocity . . . friendship
for that which has passed leaving no trace . . .

The relation to the other is disastrous: that’s what this book argues,
Ismail says. It’s a break with what we know. With earthly order.
Like Simone . . . , I say.
Is Simone disastrous? we wonder.
She dresses disastrously, Gita says. Those nun-shoes . . .

The novel is in this sense the disaster for us, as Simone is for the group, and as Wittgenstein and Nietzsche were before, and as is indeed the bathos of Gita's remark; for a brief time there is a loosening of the ties that bind us not only to the earthly order and that of the stars, the cosmic order, but also to the order of philosophy and literature. But what follows? The lost soul of the group, Johnny, seeks to push friendship into something more with Gita, which she says is not a wise idea. "Why not? I say. Why—really—not? Don’t you see—this might be a chance. A chance for what? Gita asks."

For the same not to be the same, I say. For one day not to follow another. For the inevitable not to be inevitable. For cog not to be locked into cog . . . Wouldn’t you like to think that we’re on the brink of something? That something’s about to happen?

A phone, ringing.

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