Yahia Lababidi remembers late nights in his dorm room at George Washington University, tossing in bed as the voices of Wilde, Rilke and Kafka reverberated around him. Words or phrases, even the tiniest snippets of philosophy, would teem, pulse and swirl to a boiling point, until he could no longer resist formulating his own response, entering the conversation. “They were literally bouncing off the walls,” he told me, “I would go to bed with a stack of napkins or receipts, and I would never put my glasses on because if I put my glasses on it would scare the thought away. The fox would not leave its hole if the hunter was outside.”
But he persisted, and his haphazard notes, over time, became numerous and provocative enough that multiple professors and mentors encouraged him to compile and try to publish them. The result was Signposts to Elsewhere, published in 2008, containing his meditations, in the form of a long list of aphorisms, on what he sees as the central human questions: “We’ve always been wrestling with the same things…It’s still a human being, in a body, trying to deal with other human beings, in a society. It hasn’t changed that much…I’m more interested in those who can distill the matter to its essence.” Just such a project begins in Signposts, where Lababidi liberates the essence of these ideas from the shackles of cliché, which, he believes, are truths that have “lost the initial shock of revelation.” The aphorism is “not just an aesthetic thing, but an edifying thing. They are truths with an –s that we stumble across and hopefully try to live up to some of the time.” Not greeting card rhetoric, but, actually, “we think in aphorisms. If we quote the outcome of our thoughts, they are aphorisms.” Consider the following, from Signposts:
The thoughts we choose to act upon define us to others,
______the ones we do not, define us to ourselves.
Opposites attract. Similarities last.
Time heals old wounds because there are new wounds to attend to.
With enigmatic clarity, Life gives us a different answer
______each time we ask her the same question.
The primary challenge for creators is surviving themselves.
A good listener is one who helps us overhear ourselves.
Previous iterations of these ideas have probably occurred to us, but the delicacy of Lababidi’s aphorisms resides in the fact that, as James Richardson asserts in his foreword to the book, “Unlike the poet, [the aphorist] doesn’t worry whether we’ve heard his exact words millions of times. Nor does he have the Philosopher’s care for consistency. He doesn’t mind that today he warns ‘Time is money’ and tomorrow contradicts that with ‘Stop and smell the roses.’ He has neither the ambition nor the naïveté of the systematizer, and his truth, though stated generally, is applied locally. When he says ‘Like father like son,’ he doesn’t expect anyone to object, ‘Wait, I know a son who’s not like his father.’ He means that right here, right now, a particular son has behaved just as his father might have.’” This dialogic interplay between the universal and the local provide the aphorism its applicability (and popularity). It has a special quality of speaking to the particulars of life while remaining unstuck from time and space.
After Signposts to Elsewhere, Lababidi turned to poetry, for which he is now more widely known. He has published in World Literature Today, Cimarron Review, Agni, Hotel Amerika and many others. Two poems are currently up for a Pushcart. Recently, however, Lababidi has returned to the figures who originally inspired him. Evoking Azar Nafisi, he asserts, “It was these ‘dead white men’ that really did a number on me. It wasn’t a matter of influence, but of initiation. They are closer to me than my own blood.” Lovers of literature have had similar moments. Mine was weeping over the end of The Brothers Karamazov, under a dim desk lamp, with my college roommate sleeping nearby. As budding thinkers, we want to let our copious thoughts, despite whoever else may have already had them and articulated them much better, out into the open. In short, to write. Lababidi remembers how his notes in the margin became journal entries, which became essays, which, we now see, became a book.
Trial by Ink: From Nietzsche to Bellydancing (2010) is the type of book critics want to write. It is an intellectual memoir, a sharing of one’s own personal engagement with those who have had a dramatic impact. In the spirit of Susan Sontag (who receives an entire chapter), Lababidi replaces systematizing and arguing with a Montaignian (whose idea of the essai opens the Preface and serves as inspiration for the title of the book) of figuring things out as we go along. “I’m always in a state of discovery and beginning,” he told me, “what I think I know, I’m trying to communicate. You have to get out of your system whatever is yours, whatever speaks to you.” This, for him, is a refreshing departure from the work of academics, who too often “go to the same well to drink, excluding the regular people who perhaps may be more curious. If you give it to me in a way that is forbidding, I’m not interested.”
Trial by Ink, therefore, strives for the opposite. He stresses as much in the Preface:
This…is a subjective work where I attempt to evaluate what I care for and generally test my responsiveness to literature and culture. In the course of such investigations particular judgments emerge, expressions of taste and values. They are my trials, where I am simultaneously scratching my head and my pen across the paper, to determine what I think about a given subject….In turn, what you have before you is a catalogue of interests, possessions, exorcisms and even passing enthusiasms, derived from what I was thinking, reading, watching, dreaming, and living over a seven-year period.
I envy the intellectual freedom, which Lababidi takes up here, to, say, write about Dostoevsky, without the requisite knowledge of Russian language or history, simply because I love him so much. Lababidi has such a relationship with Nietzsche, Wilde, Rilke, Baudelaire, Kafka and many others. He reminded me, though, that to do this, one must always come from a place of relative authority. “Not to dis the blog,” he says, “but they are not essays.” They don’t partake of the type of “deep and continuous mining” and “literary soul-gazing” that are the rudiments of a trial, of an essay.
I agree with this. The first of three parts of Trial by Ink, titled “Literary Profiles and Reviews,” exhibits his mastery of and, frankly, unique and refreshing insights into his masters. He works most provocatively when he puts figures, who, on the surface, don’t seem to have much to do with each other, into an intricate dialogue with each other. Just this occurs with Nietzsche and Wilde. Chapter 3, “The Great Contrarians,” is a lengthy comparison of the two, on the levels of style, their affinity for and belief in the importance of appearances, and their threshold for pain and suffering, especially since they each met with similar types of struggles, including certain levels of moral degradation, which have had occasionally negative effects on their legacies. One need only, as Lababidi does, compare the content of their aphorisms (they were both virtuosos of the form) to begin suddenly to see uncanny similarities:
What fire does not destroy it hardens – Wilde
What does not kill me makes me stronger – Nietzsche
The simple truth, is that not a double lie? – Nietzsche
The truth is rarely ever pure and never simple – Wilde
Public opinion exists only where there are no ideas – Wilde
To say it again, Public opinions, private laziness – Nietzsche
We possess art lest we perish of the truth – Nietzsche
The telling of beautiful untrue things is the proper aim of art – Wilde
Conscience and cowardice are really the same things – Wilde
Not to perpetrate cowardice against one’s own acts!…
The bite of conscience is indecent – Nietzsche
Discontent is the first step in the progress of a man or nation – Wilde
Every great progress must be preceded by a partial weakening – Nietzsche
This type of analysis occurs across the first part of the book. Whereas it might not be critically expedient to place Nietzsche, Wilde, and Susan Sontag into a dialogue, this is nonetheless how they speak to Lababidi. And that’s all he’s worried about. Consequently, “I was told not to write this book, in the sense that it was ‘unpublishable.’ Who didn’t tell me that? Academic publishers thought it was too literary. Literary publishers thought it was too academic. I was stuck.” Perhaps. But, ultimately, Lababidi’s book occupies a space of dialogic freedom in which the personal and the critical mesh with refreshing enjoyment.
The cultural dialogue continues in the second and third parts (“Studies in Pop Culture” and “Middle Eastern Musings,” respectively). While Part II contains interesting ruminations on Michael Jackson, Leonard Cohen, Morrissey, serial killers, and the values of silence, Part III was particularly illuminating. Here Lababidi returns to his Muslim heritage in Egypt and Lebanon (where he spent a good amount of time growing up). His discussion juxtaposes the repugnant effects of draconian sexual repression in Egypt (especially contrasted with ritual belly dancing) with the Lebanese’s zest for life in the face of seemingly constant and imminent death in a way that can enlighten a Western reader to the diversity of the “Muslim World,” a term Dr. Nafisi derided at the Aspen Institute’s Cultural Diplomacy Forum, for obvious reasons.
Lababidi was at the forum as well, and was intrigued by Nafisi. When I reached out to him to discuss Trial by Ink, he responded with the type of enthusiasm Nafisi showed me. “Conversation is very close to me,” he asserts, not just the type of conversations he has with the likes of Nietzsche, “who is very much alive,” but with contemporaries and collaborators. He was generous enough to meet with me about his work, and about this type of work in general. At the end of our discussion, I asked him what was next for him. In addition to more poetry, he says, “I am returning to these conversations in a much more direct way.” Namely, he is continuing his conversation about his conversations with Nietzsche, Wilde, Rilke, Baudelaire, Kafka, and others in a strictly dialogic way. Chapter 2 of Trial by Ink consists of a back-and-forth with poet and critic Alex Stein about these figures. Like the college-aged Lababidi who refused to put on his glasses so as not to scare away his thoughts, “I will call Alex in the middle of the night, without turning the lights on, and just speak.” The result is a series of conversations (I hesitate to call them interviews) between the two that digs deeper, that “mines” for answers.
From my time with Yahia and by reading the early stages of these new dialogues, it is apparent that face-to-face conversation, where one can engage another on more dynamic and intimate levels, suits the type of broader cultural and intellectual dialogue he has spent his career trying to foster. He doesn’t mind living like an aphorism, unstuck from time, space and generic classifications, asserting, “I don’t think of myself as an aphorist. I don’t think of myself as a poet. I don’t think of myself as an essayist, which leaves me with nothing to say, so to speak…but I’m clarifying something that I suspect I see. I don’t get why from 18 to 22 I chose aphorisms, or aphorisms chose me. It seemed like the most instinctive way to talk, to communicate…at some point it shifts to poems…words have a life of their own…ideas have a life of their own. They decide how to dress themselves…the form doesn’t matter as much as trying to communicate a territory that on some days I have been privileged to have been shoe-horned into.” This openness has organically led him to the dialogic form as the best (only?) way to convey what he sees as the real essence of all these thinkers, “and this is where I wish that the lights could dim and I could whisper it into your ear so no one can hear. This is about the artist as mystic. If you think it’s mad, it’s mad. If you think it makes sense to you on a personal level, then it does…If it works as literary soul-gazing, take it. If it works as pure fiction, then it does.” The ambition, and the already apparent spiritual depth of this new trial, is titillating, the type of book I want to write. But what happens when the conversation is finished? “Ten years of silence, under a rock somewhere.”