The Artist as Mystic: Conversations with Yahia Lababidi
Alex Stein & Yahia Lababidi
86 Pages, $9.98
In Alex Stein’s book, The Artist as Mystic: Conversations with Yahia Lababidi, there are two central topics—conversation and the artist-mystic. Conversation and its relation to artistic-mysticism manifests in the magical coming-together of an artist and his inspiration; Stein and Lababidi describe this inspiration as conversation or a commune. Artistic-mysticism denotes firstly a form of self-induced suffering and sequestration and, secondly, a notion of attention. Stein writes: “I kept trying to clarify to myself this idea of the artist as mystic, the artist and the mystic and their disparate ways of summoning the spirit, and I kept coming back to the idea of attention. Attention is the artist’s mode of prayer.” This is the most beautiful moment in the book. Here, we have a true convergence of the artist and the mystic in this notion of attention. What follows is an investigation into the different mystic ways and words of several authors who have inspired or intrigued both Lababidi and Stein.
This book becomes, in effect, a homage to these masters. Stein remembers that while writing the book he could hear Lababidi’s voice telling him to: “Make of your art an offering to those spirits (“literary masters” as Yahia calls them) with whom you would commune.” Stein weaves conversations between himself and Lababidi about Nietzsche, Kafka, Bataille, Kierkegaard, and Rilke, among others into a compiling of thoughtful reflections on what it means to do art and to be an artist, or more specifically, an artist-mystic.
For Stein and Lababidi conversation is much more spiritual than a Socratic dialog or the Hegelian dialectic. The spirituality or mysticism inherent to conversation in Stein’s book is the way in which conversation is inspiring. Conversation is a moment of commune in which an exchange of spirit happens, and the duality of dialog renders down to a monad of thought. In many ways, though they are the titular aspect of the book, the conversations between Stein and Lababidi are not the focus. Rather, the implicit conversations with those dead authors for whom the book is an offering are the focus. For Stein and Lababidi these references in conversation to these late thinkers and artists is akin to a conjuring, bringing with it a revelatory or mystical magic which compels those conversing toward art.
Being an artist-mystic, like those late “literary masters,” is a specific way of life typified by self-denial and suffering. This way of living, according to Stein, “cannot be a voluntary thing”; it is duty which neglects and ignores personal happiness in service to art. To Stein, “the life of the artist may not be apparently monastic, or holy, but there is the same sense of sacrifice, of vocation, of having been entrusted with something greater and dearer than one’s own happiness.” This sentiment follows Lababidi who says that the artist is “called to service” and “exalted.” There is a great deal of play between Christian religiosity and a kind of eastern self-denial throughout this book, however I don’t think it would be right to characterize Stein’s mystic as a version of the Christian monk. Rather this artist is someone inspired and willing to suffer to create art. This investigation into personal suffering and anguish is particularly interesting in relation to the importance which both authors put on conversation and “communal destiny.” Suffering for the sake of art or in the service of art sequesters the artist from the rest of society as a sufferer, while the idea of mysticism and communing with dead “literary masters” introduces these hyper-individuals to one another. There is an implicit play, then, on the idea of the conversation between a group of people who see themselves as rejected in some sense or, at least, have removed themselves, from society and thus are not predisposed to conversation.
The thinkers and authors Stein and Lababidi mention become case studies for their overarching thesis about artist-mystics. For example, they see in the philosophy of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche the same anguish in the face of self-induced suffering for the sake of art that appears in the literary work of Baudelaire and Rilke among others. Lababidi talks about watching Bataille in an interview: “But there he was, this shifty, shifting creature who looked as though he could be anything from a pedophile to mass murderer.” Lababidi’s characterization clearly puts Bataille outside of the norm of society, an outlier of law (murderer) and of socially acceptable practices (pedophile). Thus, for Lababidi, Bataille is an artist who refuses to acquiesce to social institutions. This construction is only confirmed or at least enhanced by Bataille’s own writing which focuses on death and necrophilia among other things. Lababidi and Stein see this peculiarity as a demonstration of Bataille’s mysticism. As Lababidi says, Bataille himself refers to writing as “dabbling in the black-arts.”
Stein and Lababidi are looking for a mystic quality that manifests in the writing of the author but also comes across in his actions and biography. Stein says that “it is this detachment, in its variety of permutations, that I admired in the lives of the artists whom I would eventually take for my models.” “[Kierkegaard, for example] determines to himself that he is ill-suited for marriage. He no longer believes it would be ethical to drag another person into the inward life to which he believes he has been called.” He breaks off his engagement with the woman who will turn out to be the love of his life and retreats into a mystical inwardness necessary for him to produce thoughtful and revelatory work. Of course, there is no way of knowing if Kierkegaard’s diagnosis of love-as-distraction was correct; but the question of how much writing he would have produced had her married will forever linger. As Lababidi puts it: “Maybe [Kierkegaard] thought that because he made the sacrifice, she would be returned to him the way faithful Abraham’s son Isaac is spared and returned to Abraham.”
This conception of mysticism and self-denial returns during the discussion of Kafka. Stein includes the following aphorism by Kafka:
“There is no need for you to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t even wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it can’t do otherwise; in raptures it will writhe before you” (Kafka’s Aphorism 109).
According to Lababidi, the world Kafka refers to in this specific aphorism “is the ‘there-world’ into which he enters to write, as the yogis enter theirs to breathe.” Lababidi’s comparison between Kafka and yogis suggests that Kafka’s mysticism takes the form of a trance or meditative state, that the ‘there-world’ is an achievable form of awareness or attention. In Lababidi’s words, the ‘there-world’ is “a paradox, like the snake that swallows its own tail until it has swallowed itself entirely. A double joint in time, or a space that is only a bit of fabric that gives, and one can just slip on through it.” Thus the ‘there-world’ is an escape of sorts—a break from reality.
There are nonetheless similarities between Kierkegaard’s choice not to marry, Kafka’s world, and Bataille’s unsettling topics. These all represent modes of escape. But it is crucial that these not be seen as ways of escaping from torment or suffering. Rather they are ways of escaping from a fixedness. In these moments of escape, “inspiration is able to move with more agility and vision to engage with more dexterity.” This is not a physical escape from X to Y, but a transformation of attention; rather than travel to a new place, we are looking at the world differently.
Stein rightly notices that art is a manifestation of what the artist is paying attention to, and correspondingly the mystical moment for yogis and for Kafka, as it were, is a certain way of directing attention toward something. The artist-mystic never goes to the there-world, for we are always already inside it yet un-attuned to it. Stein and Lababidi’s book investigates the way the artist, be he a phenomenologist or a poet, “prays” to that which is already before us in a more attuned and spiritual way.
Jacob Glover is a pursuing an MA in Classics at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.