The setting, Yahia reminds me more than once, is a little absurd. We meet at McGinty’s Irish Pub in Silver Spring, situated in a bustling commercial environment, across from a cineplex and multi-storied shoe store. This woodpaneled simulacrum of authenticity, shutting out as much sunlight as it could, served as our original meeting place, a year and a half ago, to discuss Yahia’s book Trial By Ink. We had sipped beers and discussed his intellectual and spiritual awakenings, my recording device picking up the ambient noise of soccer, classic rock, and the increasing din of patrons. Today, the environment is a little sunnier, and much warmer, but still not exactly conducive to discussing mysticism.
The pub, and Silver Spring itself, very much constitute what Yahia, in The Artist As Mystic, a new book of conversations with fellow aphorist Alex Stein, calls the “here-world”: “Silver Spring,” he assures me in a way that only subtly hints of irony, “has restaurants, bookstores, cinema, and the general feeling that something is happening. What else can you ask for?” But the artist’s often troublesome relationship to the “here-world,” the humdrum of taking out the trash, answering the phone, and trying to live each day as a citizen, husband, etc., is a subtext of this book. Its subtitle is “Conversations with Yahia Lababidi,” but Yahia calls them a series of “lyric interviews…controlled hallucinations,” in which he “eavesdrops on [his] dreams,” then speaks them out loud to Alex. Alex, through his “creative listening,” provides the “music” of their arrangement, turning them into a viable, readable book. Their ruminations address the general topic of art and mysticism, or, the extent to which artists are able to navigate the “here-world” of lived life and the “there-world” of their own dreams.
To speak of this problem Yahia allows himself to be “spoken by” major figures whom he consistently refers to as “these guys”: Kafka, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Kierkegaard (among other minor characters such as Bataille, Eliot, and Ekelund). Just how “Any biographer is one who is clever at confessing through the mask of another…They can very discreetly tuck themselves in…They’re lending it their own breath, their everything,” Yahia uses these figures as masks through which he can dramatize his own inner conflicts. But this is the point – he reminds Alex in the introduction that “mortui vivos docent,” the dead shall teach the living, that we are always in conversation, and therefore a conversation, he tells me, was the “optimal form for expressing ideas that are too slippery for other forms…We were letting these ideas have play. You are a midwife. You show up with a body, because ghosts need a body to communicate, then as soon as you can get them to hold hands, you can say ‘please never mind me.’” But, he reminds me, “I don’t want to make the artist sound too precious because they are just a metaphor for everybody…the artist draws from the same well; he only makes a bigger show of the pulling, prodding, and partaking of its contents.” Artists self-consciously display the things that we all inherently struggle with; “[these thinkers] are talking to one another, and we’re talking through them.”
The conversations with Alex are Yahia’s way of demonstrating that “between any two artists there are more similarities than differences,” and that the closer you look, the more their affinities arise. Their affinities, Yahia and Alex argue, reside not in the life of the mind. “I was exasperated with the mind aspect,” Yahia asserts, “I’ve arrived at the very edge of my mind and it’s thin and flat and I’m not interested in it anymore.” For too long “these guys” have been examined and critiqued like specimens, the spiritual urgency of their visions suffocated beneath the trappings of the academic; “we are rescuing dear friends from a stuffy academic party and saying ‘come out!’” The Artist as Mystic uncovers just how each of these figures “comes out” to touch a level of being beyond the “here-world.”
These artists recognized that their existences were “exalted,” which means, Yahia affirms in the book’s introductory discourse, that they were “called to service…The life of the artist may not be apparently monastic, or holy, but there is the same sense of sacrifice, vocation, of having been entrusted with something greater and dearer than one’s own happiness. Imagine! To hold something more dear than one’s own happiness. That cannot be a voluntary thing.” Indeed, for some like Baudelaire, it may lead you to become a “neurasthenic idler,” wallowing in the paralysis this condition may bring. It is a lonely condition, which consists, Yahia asserts, quoting Heidegger, of “longing [which] is the agony of the nearness of the distant.” “That got me,” he says, “It seemed that it was right there. It! I could almost brush it with my fingertips. But it wasn’t right there.” For those who can break free of “neurasthenia” one concept rings true: “I kept coming back to the idea of attention. Attention is the artist’s mode of prayer…I think of those times when I fly in my dreams. I think there must be some connection between how I fly in my dreams and this state I sometimes come to in writing when I feel that I am aloft, ecstatic. The thing I want to say: In my dreams, it is blinking that brings me back to the ground…When I have fallen, I don’t know how to get back into that state. But if there is a formula, I think it must have to do with attention.”
In this sense artistry borders on meditation, which requires the focused channeling of the whole being. One can see how this might lead an artist to become a bit of a misfit, or even a frail neurasthenic, or worse. So, I ask him, how do you negotiate these two modes of existence? “With extreme difficulty,” he says, “I have gross tendencies toward imbalance…But you used this great unstuck simile last time. You said I am unstuck from space and time, like an aphorism, scurrying to find some balance, always.” As for these guys, and the new book about them, Yahia and Alex agreed that “the balance of light has to outweigh the darkness.” Yahia admits that he has his moments where he is “marinated in irreality” and he’s able to work with precise uninterrupted attention. But for the most part, he says, especially as we get older, it’s harder to find those moments of sustained purity. They are replaced by what he calls “interstices,” which resemble dream states, which more or less occur accidentally, appearing like Alice’s rabbit hole. But, ultimately, the goal is “to turn an accident into a summer home, where you return with some sort of intentionality and regularity if you’re lucky.” Spending time with Yahia and, to use his words, “breathing in” his energy, I can see how important the quest for interstices is to him. He elaborates:
At the risk of sounding completely like a mad person, it’s like a dream state, whether it’s a daydream or an actual dream. It’s a noncommittal state; you’re abstracted enough in the world of ideas. It’s a diffusion of vision, not an everyday life. You abstract, you see everything around it and beyond it. Solitude helps, silence helps, reading helps, to sort of rev up. Another person helps, to sort of nudge you there. To be really fair, it’s always grasped at, it’s not like you show up and say ‘It’s me again!’ [knocking, now, on the table]…The cage seeks the bird. The violin seeks the wood. I’d be flat out lying if I said I’d found a way to go back. If anything I’m trying to find a way not to be denied going back. I know the things I need to do to not be denied from going back. Work is one way of doing it. You do what you need to do throughout the day and you don’t expect it.
His candor about spiritual things is refreshing, but most of its resonances in the book are filtered through “these guys.” To be with Yahia in conversation is to encounter the full range of his feelings on the subject. I begin to see how the book took shape, over the year plus of dialogue with Stein.
Alex used a phrase to describe the core of these spiritual movements. He calls it a “rage for transformation,” which he perceives in each of the figures discussed in the book, centering, for example, on Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” with its monumental final line, “You must change your life.” “You could have said ‘Boo!’ and I would not have been more surprised,” Yahia confesses. But it’s this desire for transformation that drives these artists beyond the “here-world” and into, yes, mysticism. Yahia tells me:
Transformation – yes brother – yeah [clasping his hands together], that’s what it’s all about. But again that’s where the writer is a metaphor for everyone. This is not some academic, esoteric, rarefied project. This is something where everyone is going about in their own ways, maybe without declaring it as such, but it is about transformation. All of these guys, if they have anything in common, that’s the ultimate thing. But it doesn’t belong to philosophy as it does to mysticism. And that’s where we’re comfortable talking about the mystic enterprise vs. the spiritual one. Because the mystic is the one who’s denounced as heretic, because he’s gone too far. There’s no measuring stick; maybe they’re the ones who have to go too far to make someone else realize what is the way. They have to declare themselves divine and then go mad and then backtrack a little bit and realize that that’s an imbalance. All of these guys somehow suspect that they are imbalanced. That’s the difference between the balanced spiritual life or the philosophical life that is very rational…and the mystic, who is reckless and very keen to arrive at once and risk everything, not caring one bit what’s at stake. And these guys interest me now [for] this recklessness, because they didn’t hold anything back, and they didn’t calculate, or care very much, for what they might lose. Everything might just be enough – it might not be enough – but it might just be enough. When you don’t give everything, that space in between might be depression, madness. You’re gambling with that.
It is a constant quest without arrival, a pushing to the edges of parameters, “using the mind to overthrow the mind. Using words to overthrow words.” “It’s a continual clearing of the way,” he muses, “You’re always mid-leap. That’s why you’re always aching. That’s because you can never relax into a normal sitting position.”
Toward the end of our conversation, it became more apparent that Yahia prefers balance to the dangers of approaching the mystical. I asked him, expecting him to reply with one of “these guys” or another like them, if he could only read one person forever, who would it be? Without hesitation, he says:
At this stage, I’m less interested in these guys than I’ve ever been. It was very difficult for me to return to them…The Book of Tao – it’s impersonal enough that I’m not wrestling with one person, especially when I have to return to [these thinkers], but I’m very aware of the all-too-human dimension behind it all. I knew that they shat, or slept, or ate, or betrayed their effervescent persona. They were creatures of their own time and they weren’t always aligned to their own version of themselves. Because of that and because of their psychosexual specificity, I’m done with that, because I’ve got my own psychosexual specificity to deal with. I’m also getting older…meaning it’s unbecoming for me to be under the sway of anyone. It’s not as necessary or valid for me. Something like the Tao is a freer space and something that I don’t want to be reading on a daily basis, but every time I return to it – I really think I’d give up all these guys for this one book.
His preference for the Tao seems to indicate a new turn in Yahia’s spiritual quest. Replacing the mad searching with a balanced rendering of the scale between “here-world” and “there-world.” But will he miss these guys? Ultimately, he finally says, “Writing is a way of looking away from something, so you can look on to something else. It’s a way of saying that they are alive and they are relevant. They are worth picking up. But it’s also a way of saying a grateful goodbye.”
The Artist As Mystic emphasizes this gratitude. It captures the earnestness and urgency of Yahia’s discourse, which is really only fully encountered in conversations like these. Since our first encounter, he and I have become friends, and he never ceases to exude a refreshing spiritual energy. He’s worth reading for that alone. But this is a viable critical/biographical work of any of these figures – Kafka, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Rilke, Kierkegaard – for the very reason Stein and Yahia claim. That is, while Yahia breathes knowledge of the life and works of these men, the main aim of the project is one of recovery. It’s not a “study” of them as much as a grateful encomium, an example of how spiritually enriching criticism and biography can be written. Therefore the book is ultimately a way for Yahia to be “spoken by” these guys, to offer his own take on art and mysticism through his formidable interlocutors. I am grateful to be spoken by him, even if for a brief interstice.