Yahia Lababidi is an internationally-acclaimed aphorist, poet, essayist and, basically, a fantastical wizard of words. His books - including his award-winning debut Signposts to Elsewhere - aren’t for the faint of thought, however...
Yahia Lababidi's mystical, über-quotable verses require a keen-eye, a poetic ear and an almost-enlightened state of mind to really absorb. Or you could just get really stoned before reading them. Following the success of his first book, Yahia Lababidi shot to cult stardom, with his collection of literary and cultural essays, Trial By Ink: From Nietzsche to Belly Dancing, and his poetry collection, Fever Dreams, sealing the deal. His latest literary release, The Artist as Mystic: Conversations with Yahia Labidi, is a collaboration with author Alex Stein, based on a series of dialogues between the two writers. In this interview, originally published on CrossTimbers, he talks about mysticism, ancient philosophers and Pokemon. Okay, maybe not Pokemon, but this is seriously interesting stuff…
Yahia Lababidi’s ability to traverse cultures, disciplines, and even time itself has garnered him considerable attention and praise. His published works include a collection of aphorisms, Signposts to Nowhere (Jane Street Press, 2008), a book of essays on a startling array of topics, including literature, popular culture, and the Arab experience, Trial by Ink (Common Ground Publishing, 2010); a book of poems, Fever Dreams (Crisis Chronicles Press, 2011); and, most recently, The Artist as Mystic (One Such Press, 2012), a collaborative conversation with fellow aphorist and writer Alex Stein. The illustrations that accompany our own conversation with Lababidi are visual conceptualizations of a few of his newer, yet-to-be-published aphorisms.
Rob Vollmar: You grew up in Egypt, and your family is of Lebanese descent. How long have your parents lived in Egypt?
Yahia Lababidi: My father is Lebanese, and my mother is Egyptian. They were based in Lebanon and left around the time I was born. I was born in Egypt. They left because of the civil war. Their house was taken over, and my dad still speaks of how the family photo albums were defaced. Recently we went on a visit. We went by to see this idealized, fantastic place that I grew up with. It was conveyed to me by my father and the stories that he would tell me how it was the Switzerland of the Arab world. You could go skiing and then drive down and be at the beach. I don’t know Lebanon. I only visited it as an adult when I was working with the UN seven or eight years ago. I was sent there on a trip, and that was my first proper understanding of it as an adult. I remember thinking, “Good god, it’s so physically beautiful” in comparison to Egypt, which has an austere beauty with the desert. I liked the more relaxed morality of Lebanese culture. The piece I wrote in Trial by Ink [“Dancing on the Graves”] was my love letter to that experience as I was able to acknowledge that side of my background.
RV: I thought the premise of The Artist as Mystic was provocative because it draws a bond between two ideas that both resist easy definition. We’re left at the beginning with something of a cypher, like “X=Y”, but with only a hazy sense of what data we might use to solve that equation.
YL: That’s exactly how the project began. Alex was kind enough . . . and you must remind me to talk about him more as we go along because I wouldn’t have been able to do this book without him. He gave me the permission, unlocked something, that allowed this to come out because I was thinking about these things in a way that was too intimate, too shy to venture out– especially a concept like mysticism. I mean, good God, I come from a culture where I was forced to resist this type of thing because it was so loud and clumsy. I thought, “No, this is something private. You keep it to yourself.” So when I found that I was having my own thing to say about it, I couldn’t imagine saying it in a public way. As a result of this project or experiment that he and I had, it seemed safe to come out.
RV: We normally draw a circle around mysticism as something belonging to spirituality, more broadly, but to religion, more specifically. The majority of the writers that you are taking a look at in these conversations are people who have almost aggressively rejected that but still maintain—and you talk about this with Nietzsche and Kierkegaard—a religious tim-bre to what they are writing.
YL: Yes! They are denouncing, overthrowing. People who are not so familiar with these writers and who are strictly religious find this to be the height of arrogance that I dare to present these particular guys as mystics.
I think, if I’m allowed to say this, that mystics are rebels. They are certainly the rebels of the religious community. That’s why they have been denounced as heretics. Whether they are coming from a philosophic tradition or a mystic tradition, they are going further than orthodoxy permits.
They are saying things like “I am God,” but they are not saying it in an irreligious way. They just don’t want any intermediary. They don’t want any dogma. They don’t want any middleman. They are lusting for that contact and the immediacy. The meshing. The union. Nothing less will do. They brandish the faith of the heretic. These are people who found that everything around fell short of their exacting standards.
RV: Every religion has its mystic strain. I think of it, then, that a religious system has space in it for people who want to intersect with its ideas on a number of different levels. Some people may just need it to order their daily lives and give them meaning. It’s almost like the way we use the internet. Some people want to use it to keep track of what their cousin is doing in another state. Others may want to use it as a tool for discourse. Rather than saying, “This way is good and this other way is more shallow somehow,” instead we can just recognize that this is the richness of the religious experience. It has built into it the nuances that can feed these different hungers.
YL: Yes, and different degrees of hunger, too. The mystic is someone who is interested in interdisciplinary ideas. In the larger sense of the word. Religion is a guidebook or an alphabet, but the mystic is one who scrambles all of that to create new words and new sequences. It becomes a launch pad into a greater unknown. Religion might be the runway and the mystic has taken off. This might sound condescending, but I don’t mean it in that way. The mystic is much messier also, but in that messiness he is intensifying what it means to wing it on your own. That’s the path of someone who is picking up ideas in an interdisciplinary way here and there versus the security of knowing, “I am here. I major in this and only this, and this represents the truth and this is how it is.” There is a security in that, to be sure, and certainly there are values and goodness too. Once you decide that the open sky is your home, then it becomes trickier to find somewhere to perch and make your nest.
RV: In the conversation, Kafka and Baudelaire are grouped together. You refer to them as The Invalids. This took me on an interesting train of thought as I was reminded of shamanic traditions in pre-civilized cultures. The shamans are people who have typically been wounded themselves. In recovering from that experience, they are given the tools to help people who haven’t wandered into this territory get back to a place where they can function, even though the shaman may never return to that place where they can function in a traditional societal sense.
YL: What you were saying about the shaman, I think is true for this lot, for this bunch of the wounded. There’s a quote from Jung: “It is only the wounded physician that heals.” Jung is certainly someone who is susceptible to pre-civilization thinking, as you call it. He is someone who speaks of our “archaic residue.”
Whether it’s Pascal, who is another great thinker/mystic type, or where Kafka found himself—most of these guys are, for some reason or another [wounded] . . . I mean, Kierkegaard speaks of his wound in a very enigmatic way in his correspondences. “If it weren’t for my wound . . . ”
Another part of it . . . and maybe this is a simplistic way of saying it but also, I feel, true—is that it accounts for their great sensitivity. We tend to heal—all of us—and part of healing is a kind of deadening to feeling.
But to live as an open wound is to always be hypersensitive.
RV: The conversation that you have with Alex about Baudelaire reads like a cautionary tale about what happens to those who are clearly called to this mystic state of being and yet won’t or can’t surrender themselves to it. A quote from your conversation reads that “before approaching that mystic condition, one must accept the diminution of the constructed self. The dissolution of the personality that comes with honest admiration, that diminution was too high a price. In the end, he would not pay it, not even though the alternative was madness.”
YL: That’s what drove Alex and me mad about Baudelaire, each in our own way. We both wrestled with him. When it came time to do this piece, to have this conversation about him, in this context, that was the great waste and the great pity. Sartre, for example, has his own take. Who else—who is that French maniac?—Jean Genet has his own take. Everyone has his own take on Baudelaire. They all wanted to claim him, as a philosopher or as something else. For this project, to claim him as a mystic is to realize the great loss which he realized if you read him as we read him. One can, of course, read him however one chooses to read him. He is a bit of a cautionary tale because it ends badly. It ends with someone struggling desperately towards the light, asking to be whipped (a friend of his is the one who whips him). He is speaking to himself at a feverish pitch in his diaries to transform. To finally take what Kafka calls the “point of no return,” that is, the point that must be reached. In Baudelaire’s case, he is cheated of that because of syphilis, the degenerative state he arrives to, He doesn’t recognize himself in the mirror anymore. He is basically losing his mind. And to see what sort of a pathetic struggle was taking place, yeah, it is a cautionary tale, but at the same time, who is to say that the struggle itself is not the utmost that a person is capable of? So when you very kindly said he didn’t or couldn’t make this commitment, maybe he did just by struggling wholeheartedly. Maybe that’s the most that can be asked of him given the circumstances.
RV: As you move into the next section of the conversation, you begin talking about another group, The Exquisites, beginning with Nietzsche. Structurally, it feels like the conversation moves into another territory. It feels like we are talking about people who more fully inhabit this archetype of the artist as mystic.
YL: I thought it was useful, in this conversation, to regard them as one because of their great affinity. I find these slightly hokey affinities. Oh, these two guys they were both born the same year. Oh, they were both Libras. I’m susceptible to this kind of nonsense too! With Nietzsche, Rilke, and Ekelund, it’s quite deep. In Rilke’s case, they share a girlfriend, and it’s beyond a girlfriend with these guys. It’s beyond a soul mate. It’s very deep. Salomé is endlessly fascinating for me, and, in the case of Ekelund, who, in many ways, was not participating with the world at large, he was talking to Nietzsche in a way that you don’t necessarily speak. Even for a dead relative, you wouldn’t necessarily assume that kind of familiarity. There is something about those three, when I throw myself in the mix, that makes a particular kind of sense. If nothing else, it crystallizes the type that I’m hovering around in trying discuss the artist as a mystic. Ekelund spells it out. He says the real poet is a mystic and no less.
RV: It is interesting that with Nietzsche, more so than Rilke or Ekelund, the end of his story is really not that much more uplifting than what we got from Baudelaire. Even though the mechanisms of that dismantling were different. He does spend the last ten years of his life—
YL: And it may also be syphilis. We don’t know definitively but it may well have been syphilis. It’s certainly a humiliating madness if nothing else.
RV: So we look at Nietzsche’s progression through his mystical experience. Is that a positive story? Is it another cautionary tale?
YL: With this particular one, yes, it is a cautionary tale, but there seems to be more to it. He took on so very much, or so it seems to me. There are some, like Tolstoy, who just dismiss him as stupid and mad. Just like that. And that’s the end of it. There’s no more. He’s not interested in the nuance. For me, there is something heroic about Nietzsche that is not heroic about Baudelaire. Baudelaire is a terrific poet. Nietzsche was not. Nietzsche was something else. There is something heroic about the spirit even with its nonsense and noise—and there’s plenty of that—and that’s my difficulty now with him is how he was stuck on a certain rebelliousness even if it meant cutting off his nose to spite his own face.
In spite of himself, though, he took on a great deal more, so that you can almost set the person aside. If you were just going in there with your archeologist’s brush to excavate this site, there’s so much more there that you can take and run with in so many different directions. As people have done. I mean, he’s been claimed by everyone of every persuasion possible. Yes, it is a cautionary tale because it ends the way that it ends. It’s full of noise and nonsense. You were asking me about Baudelaire, if I could sort of take him and rewind him or make another story of him. In Nietzsche, I see Rumi. I see Rumi in him. It’s odd perhaps to say that. Whatever that means. Maybe I’m back to my hokey horoscope thing. Maybe it’s a Libra thing. His version of contradictions, his version of radical ecstasy, his version of scholar become poet is realized in a Rumi.
RV: You actually go into much greater depth about Nietzsche in Trial by Ink than in these conversations with Alex. I wonder if you could lay out what you see as the connections between Nietzsche and Rilke?
YL: I did have that monstrous essay, and by monstrous, I mean in terms of the demands that it places on the reader, in Trial by Ink about Nietzsche and Wilde. That was just me getting that out of my system so I didn’t feel like I needed to do it again. Nietzsche and Rilke, if I had to sum them up—and I have the mind that, whether or not I like it, tends to collapse things, distill them into a handful of words—I’d say it’s an aesthetic ecstasy and that’s what Ekelund . . . he can tag along for aesthetic ecstasy. He can hitch a ride there. He arrives at the same place taking the same caravan that they ride. For them, beauty is not a skin-deep thing. They arrive at this place which demands transformation.
Nietzsche talks about the Overman as the necessary…if it wasn’t for overcoming, he wouldn’t have bothered. This is someone who would have, as he perceived it, would have checked out a long time ago.
Transformation is the bait that keeps him going. He believes in it, and he believes in it in a big way. He believes in it through the aesthetic experience—even though he’s very conflicted about the aesthetic experience and [thinks of] the artist as inferior to the philosopher because he’s sort of stuck on beauty.
He’ll never clear that hurdle, but then there’s a deeper beauty past the music of the language or particular images that they create. It’s this deep belief in beauty as their way out. Their way to mysticism really and nothing less. Their ecstatic experiences are aesthetic ones.
You have Rilke in a much quoted poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo” saying that even in admiring a work of art, the art demands that you must change your life. If there’s one thing—and it goes beyond connective tissue, it’s an umbilical cord that snags tight between these two—is this idea that it is not possible [just] to admire beauty, and they were both goners for beauty. The manufacturing of beauty and the observation and distilling of beauty. But once they’d begun that, it had to end with, “You must change your life.” That’s the higher law of beauty.
RV: Kierkegaard has an almost messianic quality about him. I was interested in the sections where you talked about how he was so engaging in public and then would have these brooding, intensive periods at home.
YL: That really fascinated me as well. I will say, again since he’s not here, Kierkegaard is probably closer for Alex than any of these other fellows. He’s the one that Alex has studied the closest and, I think I can say this, that he feels the greatest affinity for. After our conversations, I did read Alex. I’m reading him now among other things. It’s interesting to me, after the fact, to read that he’s been talking to them, throughout his books, but in another way, in another language. So Kierkegaard meant a great deal to him. I could tell that he was happy to do Kierkegaard when I suggested him. I could see that this was one that meant a lot to him. The messianic side is one that he admires him most for.
It was really Alex’s conclusion, not mine, when he says, “What a great loss for the pulpit not to have had him.” I never thought it through to that extent. What would he have looked like actually within the system? When Alex wrote that—I have to say, the way we do this is I get his stuff and print it out. I curl up somewhere in the corner of the room, under my bed, in the dark, and I read them. And re-read them. And I imagine what I felt and what he’s thinking. In my innate, snooty rebellion, I stopped at that. The apartness of [Kierkegaard’s] mysticism and then to imagine him within the system, I’d never gone so far as to do that until I came across this book, this journal, by a cousin of his that was not meant to be published during his lifetime. For some reason, George Washington University library has a hold of it. It was just good luck that I found it right before the conversation with Alex. And, in reading it, the way that books can do if you read them closely enough, if you lean into them, he came to the fore.
I’d read in his journals about how he was the life and soul of the party. Everyone hung on his every word. Witticism was just pouring from his mouth. But then he goes home—and he wanted to kill himself. I understood that. I was 18 at the time, and I had this juvenile affinity with the masks we put on. You go out. You’re in company. You have fun. You’re excited, but you go home and you are existentially alone and brooding and you’re deep and the rest of it. It was interesting, though, to see to what extent that he was good company. He took it upon himself to keep this wound of his to himself so that even those closest to him were very surprised in reading his papers to come across that. He was always available.
Even when he had become a figure of public ridicule, he’d set himself for this with the local paper by presenting himself so that they could take him on for his views and caricature him—this negative attention or publicity that he got—even then the street was a kind of theater for him. He had one of those personalities, extroverted personalities, gregarious personalities, exhibitionist also, that liked to play with people the way that Socrates liked to play with people. The difference was he also had enough of, whatever this was, discipline, self-discipline, compulsion to write it down in his brooding moments. He could have been another one of these people who just took it to the street, just challenged people with these verbal and mental games. He seemed to pretty much live this way. Perfect strangers he would approach and “hook them with a look” as he was fond of saying. He had enough faith in human nature, whether it was a child because he was very much a child himself, he could find a way into them. Find a point of contact to speak and engage with them. His business, his great existential quandaries was really his business and that’s probably why he couldn’t share this with Regina, because once you let someone in, a spouse or a partner or a lover, it’s hard to keep yourself from them that way. But he could do it with everyone else.
RV: It’s tempting as we are drawing that comparison to Socrates to recognize that Socrates didn’t write anything down for us. It’s entirely possible that he had that same kind of internal dialogue that was very different from his external dialogue. The external dialogue is, perhaps, the symptom by which we can diagnose the internal—
YL: Condition! No, I’m writing this down. The external dialogue is the symptom by which we can diagnose the internal condition. That’s a neat little aphorism for me, right there.
In Socrates’ case, whatever the internal condition was, you have to think, however gregarious the public figure was, you have to think that he didn’t believe in language. Even in himself. He believed in the thing as a breath that challenged and, potentially, nourished, but he’s also a person who concludes in this very sublime manner by saying, “I go to death and you go to life and who knows which is the better of the two? That’s an enigmatic thing to say. The fact that he didn’t write is not for lack of thought. To arrive at that condition means that, for some reason, he must of thought it not worthwhile.
RV: I look at the ancient Greek tradition, between Pythagoras and Socrates, and I find it curious that many of those thinkers found language to be almost too debased. It was untrustworthy. As soon as we fix something into words—
YL: It’s lost in translation!
RV: One of the things that you touch upon in the book and in the format of The Artist as Mystic is that conversation brings out aspects of communication that we don’t get through an e-mail interview because you have a certain degree of preparation that you do in advance of an interview in planning but conversations have a way of evolving.
YL: I’m a huge fan of conversation just because of the spontaneous aspect. Whatever it is that you’ve been thinking and being, you can put in your mouth in the moment; then it also surprises you because the other person draws out things that you can’t get to by yourself. The dead interview is the one that is flat on the page. For me, a conversation is full of surprises.
RV: Given that both you and Alex are aphorists, what did you discover in your conversations about the essential nature of the aphorism serving as a bridge between poetry and philosophy?
YL: That’s a good question. Let me start with Ekelund. The form you choose, or the form that chooses you, the form that presents the idea best, is not incidental. It carries significance. The fact that he chose to express himself in aphorisms means that not only did he share Nietzsche’s way of thinking but . . . the aphorist mistrusts language and self on a deeper level. The aphorism is something that you can rescue from both the mistrustful self and mistrustful language. This is really the first time I’m saying this, so I’m thinking it through with you. That is what aphorists have in common. It’s not the philosopher’s certainty to sit down and lay out systems. It’s open-ended, like has been said earlier. It’s the person who, even if the thought itself is devastating, would like to tickle it and twist it at the end before they send it out. So there is something of the short story writer there. Because it’s so condensed, you have to, of necessity, have something of the poet’s ear for language. If poetry is considered prose—that is, prose that is considered, then every word has to count in an aphorism as a vehicle for the idea to take off or to be sent out. It has to stand on its own. It really has nothing. There is no introduction to it. Nobody comes in and says, “I’d like you to meet my friend so-and-so the aphorism.” It just arrives, unannounced, and then leaves unannounced too.
RV: The aphorism doesn’t leave you an avenue for argument. You can’t go through it and discuss or even dismantle it structurally. It just walks into the room, makes a statement and then leaves. And it leaves you with yourself.
YL: And leaves you with yourself! It walks in and ruffles the room. Where there was complacency, where there was apathy, where there was disinterest, suddenly you are asking, “What was that?” or “How do I feel about that?”
Lots of times, aphorisms—and certainly epigrams, maxims, whatever you like—are half-truths. They are clever, witty, dressed-up jokes with a mind on them.
They are not absolute truths. They are just enough of a truth that they can, as you say, get you to think for yourself about where you stand in relation to them. If they can stir thought, that’s all they really aspire to. The enemy of the aphorism is the cliché, the ready-made idea. That’s where aphorism are, by their nature, slightly subversive. They have that twist. They take received wisdom and flip it on its head. They show the opposite of what you thought was truth, the underside of it.
RV: When I think the presentation of Socrates that we get from Plato, it’s rare when he goes on a diatribe and says, “This is how this thing is.” It is more common for him to take something that someone has just said, reformulate it as a question and then hand it right back to them.
YL: It’s this open-endedness. More and more, I’m finding that it’s the rigidity of conclusion that one wants to avoid, especially in the larger conversation. If you want to leave room for others, any others, do leave room for them to participate.
RV: I wanted to speak with you about The Artist as Mystic for Crosstimbers because I felt like it cut to the core of interdisciplinarity. In specialized education, you are being trained to think as one kind of person. You are one thing or another. Not even literature is immune to this.
YL: I’ve always been a generalist at heart. Interdisciplinarity is huge because it saves us from specificity, which is nice but only for a short while. The idea of only one way is no good. It’s no good in religion. It’s no good in nationalism. It’s no good in literature. It deprives you of the multiplicity of possibilities.
Interdisciplinarity says, “There is truth here and here and also over here.” You can make a dense weave of these different strands and bring them into agreement in a larger conversation, a larger sense of possibility. That’s something I believe in and I believe in it deeply. Whether it’s literature or beyond, I could never choose one way or the other.
You can get your hands on The Artist as Mystic: Conversations with Yahia Lababidi on Amazon.com here.