Reviewed by Sam Buntz
[Yahia Lababidi and Alex Stein, The Artist as Mystic: Conversations with Yahia Lababidi, Onesuch Press: 2012].
The Artist as Mystic is a form of modern-day “table-talk”, really—since it takes the form of a conversation between poet-aphorist-essayist, Yahia Lababidi, and his friend Alex Stein. There is no reason why interesting people talking about interesting things with one another shouldn’t be a common mode of non-fiction, and Lababidi and Stein need to be admired for breathing life into this previously moribund literary form—for making it new, and for broadening our conception of what’s possible in contemporary literature and literary criticism.
Lababidi finds—or, rather, is found by—writers from the Continental European tradition. Kafka, Baudelaire, Rilke, Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Kierkegaard, Vilhelm Ekelund: these are the spirits to whom he turns. (This list happens to include most of the writers whom Harold Bloom, in Genius, deemed “ascetics of the spirit.” Also, although the book focuses on this Continental tradition, British and American writers like C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot are mentioned, as well.) He doesn’t approach literature purely as a source of amusement—whether as a popular diversion or as a high-class game for intellectual dilettantes. Literature, in his eyes, is primarily a form of communion: a way of exploring how consciousness relates to its world, and of breaking down the duality between consciousness and its environment. Emerson once wrote that there are only “two absorbing facts—The Self and the Abyss.” Lababidi’s favorite artists are pioneers who seek to cross the divide between these two facts, and—what is more—bridge it. They shine a light into that Divine Abyss, exposing wonders as opposed to terrors.
The book’s observations are cast in a personal light. Lababidi draws a connection between his own immersion in literature, as a reader, and the experiences of Kafka, Nietzsche, and Co. He’s not claiming their status for himself, but he is stating his aspirations as a passionate student of literature: he’s looking for the heights, for the same exalted vantage point that permits one to gaze into the invisible. He wants to discover what these artists have revealed—their higher intimations. This turns out to be a strenuous quest in itself. He writes: “I have sought such artists out, combed their thoughts for these instances, because, from very early on, they helped me to make sense of my own sometimes reluctant yearnings. Through them, I received confirmation and solace. In their lives and words I heard the echoes of my own submission to ideals that seemed at times almost too dauntingly resistant.” Again, this is reminiscent of Emerson: “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” If I had to summarize what “The Artist as Mystic” is about, I would cite that quote and say that Lababidi’s book quests after the sources of the same alienated majesty.
Lababidi demonstrates that what the artist and mystic have in common is the manner in which they apply their attention. Both figures are attempting to yoke their minds to some starry chariot: but the mystic works in an entirely internalized medium, re-forming the core of the self, while the poet projects his or her transformation onto paper. The conversation swerves amiably, and (paraphrasing Thoreau) never attempts to turn what ought to be a meandering brook into a straight-cut ditch. The wandering nature of the book is part of its charm: it explores numerous avenues of conversation, all intersecting the wider boulevard of art-mysticism, the central thoroughfare of prayerful attention. For instance, Lababidi and Stein discuss how Kafka’s physical and mental ailments somewhat paradoxically allowed him access to a spiritual wholeness as a writer. Temporal weaknesses permitted an eternal strength to manifest itself. Their observations on this point reminded me of Leonard Cohen’s lyric from the song, “Anthem”: “There’s a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”
Lababidi and Stein use the great 19th Century French poéte maudit, Baudelaire, as an example and a counter-example. Baudeliare has this strange urge to be a mystic—apparent in his poetry—but tended to spend a lot of time dandifying in front of the mirror and paying for prostitutes. He seems to be a failed case of the artist-as-mystic, though not of the artist-as-artist: he cultivated his worldly personality at the expense of the fully awakened attention (which, nonetheless, fascinated him). Instead, he fractured his attention, allowed the pieces to be swept away by the wind. Baudelaire tried to salvage it at the end—a process Lababidi discusses in intriguing detail, quoting passages from Baudelaire’s journals—but there wasn’t enough time for a complete transformation, for a full integration of the scattered self.
After some discussion of Nietzsche, the book turns to a more-genuinely mystical poet: Rilke. Although, like Baudelaire, Rilke had physical ailments and mental distresses, when sitting down to write, he left his bodily fragmentation behind. He reached towards the fullness of attention—this presumed contact with another plane—which Baudelaire wanted to realize, but simply couldn’t. Lababidi observes of this school of literary practice: “It is not so much writing, sometimes, as it is the recovering of the territories lost in what Christianity calls ‘the fall.’” The artist somehow manages to re-integrate the shattered image-of-God, broken during this cosmic catastrophe, which occurred outside of history. Rilke’s mystical art allowed him to speak with authority, and make the kind of spiritual statement quoted by Lababidi: “We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, and store it in the great golden hive of the invisible.”
But whether it ends with the supreme satisfactions of art-mysticism or something less exalted (as in Baudelaire’s case), the path is not an easy one—as most of the book’s examples testify. One quote from Lababidi, in particular, sums up his characterization of the artist-mystic’s work: “The solitude seems to be the key to everything. For Nietzsche, for Rilke, for Ekelund. Solitude enough that they can hear the echo of their longing returning as a concentrated drop, direct from heaven. They want to catch it before it lands, before anything human mixes with it.”