The Prayer of Attention:
A Conversation with Yahia Lababidi
by Alex Stein
Yahia Lababidi is the author of Signposts to Elsewhere (Jane Street Press), selected as a 2008 Book of the Year by The Independent (UK). He has two books forthcoming: The Great Contrarians: A Study of Nietzsche and Wilde (Thee Hellbox Press) and a collection of literary and cultural essays, Trial by Ink (Common Ground Publishing). A selection of his aphorisms appeared in AGNI Online in 2009.
Yahia believes the condition of the artist is exalted.
“Even if the artist lives in disregard?” I ask.
“Yes,” Yahia insists.
“Even if he is scorned and impoverished?” I ask.
“Still, yes,” says Yahia.
“What does that mean, then—exalted?” I ask.
“It means,” says Yahia, “called to service.”
“Oh,” I say, a sinking feeling coming over me, “you mean that soldiery of light, that brigade, born to march into the
Valley of the Shadow?”
“Yes,” replies Yahia, “precisely!”
There is a moment in the life of Rimbaud when he comes to realize that he is a poet, but that it is not his fault. He writes: “It is wrong to say, ‘I think.’ One has to say, ‘I am thought.’ I is another. Too bad for the wood that finds itself a violin.” For me, that tells all. I haven’t studied the lives of the mystics as closely as I have the lives of the artists but I do see the correspondences. 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. Imagine! To hold something more dear than one’s own happiness. That cannot be a voluntary thing. We want, as much as we can, to be happy. Isn’t this true? Yet there are these strange, luminous creatures who recognize that there is something to which they must submit, in order to be fully realized. It is the wood finding itself a violin.
Kafka is another. Another artist as mystic. Another who recognizes this affinity. In his journal he writes, “This tremendous world I have inside of me. How to free myself, and this world, without tearing myself to pieces. And rather tear myself to a thousand pieces than be buried with this world within me.” Again, the calling. Again the gift-slash-curse privileged. The whole life structured toward developing the necessary faculties, the necessary conditions. Rimbaud must be drunk and whoring all the time, Kafka has literally to abstain and deny himself everything.
Might I be permitted one more quotation? Kierkegaard. He was another who saw his life very much as a sacrifice. “A little pinch of spice,” he writes in his journal. “Here, a man must be sacrificed. He is needed to impart a particular taste to the rest.” He is just a concentrated flavor, that is to say. He doesn’t take it personally. In another place, he writes something to the effect that, a writer is lost when he confounds himself with what he has produced and ceases to think of himself as merely an instrument. All of these lives, all of these sometimes protracted convulsions of living, contain something of a renunciation, a continual giving up, or self-limiting, at their core.
I have sought out such artists, combed their thoughts for these instances, because, from very early on, they helped me to make sense of my own sometimes reluctant yearnings. In their lives and words I heard the echoes of my own submission. Through them, I received confirmation and solace.
I was eighteen years old when I began to guess that I too might be a writer. The change stunned me. I had known myself one way and that knowing was silenced. I had been loud and cheap, interested in the noise of the world and in adding to that noise, and now I withdrew and began asking myself if there was a specific purpose to my being and if that purpose had to do with writing. I didn’t want to have anything to do with anyone until I could figure out what was happening. Eventually I understood that I was never going to figure out what was happening. Some things, some people, some ways of living just fell away.
I was attending college in D.C. I went through several roommates, almost without noticing them. I was absorbed with books, those dead friends who were telling me: “Come, let’s go this direction, let’s try this pathway . . .” The books were almost always accidental. I don’t know how to say where they came from, except to quote from Rumi: “What you are seeking is also seeking you.” One led to another. A series of spirits come to try and draw my own spirit out.
Kafka was the first. I remember reading “A Hunger Artist.” In total immersion, my long frame crouched, like a shadow or a gargoyle, against the wall of my dorm room. I didn’t know then that Kafka had revised this as he was dying and that it was a parable for his spiritually dissatisfied life, but it struck me, at eighteen, as the most profound encounter I had yet had with myself. You know the story, of course. No one is interested any longer in the hunger artist. Professional fasting has lost its cachet with the public. The hunger artist is wasting away, forgotten, in the dirty straw of a carnival cage. Weakened almost to the point of death by his fanatical pursuit, he is at last removed by the overseer, and his place taken by a vital, bright-eyed panther. “I always wanted you to admire my fasting,” the hunger artist tells the overseer. “We do admire it,” the overseer replies. “But you shouldn’t admire it,” the hunger artist continues perversely, “because I have to fast, I can’t help it. It is just that I couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had found it, I would have stuffed myself like you or anyone else.” That was the thought that undid me. That this spiritual food that one was craving simply could not be found. And that nothing else would do. Better to starve, then, says the hunger artist. Better to starve and to make of that starvation one’s nourishment.
I thought of this transformation that I was undergoing, this shedding of old skin, as too private to explain to anyone. When I had to be around people who knew me as I had been, I hid. I put on the best mask I could find. I didn’t know exactly what was happening. It looked like a kind of crisis, but it wasn’t. Or, rather, it was, but it was a fruitful crisis. The only way I could explain it to myself, even, was in the composition of dialogues, monologues, parables and, finally—this was the form that gave me the most relief, that offered the deepest bloodletting—aphorisms. In the aphorism, I didn’t have to say “I,” I could just let the thing speak itself, so I didn’t feel compromised or embarrassed or vulnerable. A shy truth that could also be a general truth. I wrote, “The thoughts we choose to act upon define us to others. The ones we do not, define us to ourselves.” They had enough of an air of mystery and ambiguity that I could bring them out and not feel exposed. I wrote, “Impulses we attempt to strangle only develop stronger muscles.” It was with these aphorisms that I understood—accepted!—that I was in it up to the neck. I showed my aphorisms to more people than I should have. Some responded with arched eyebrows, some with indifference or incomprehension, but those who were close enough to me, my dear friends, lovers, or family, understood that I was confessing in code.
In the culture I come from, a saying is a magical thing. For my grandparents, a saying was something they were happy to hear, and if I happened to have written it, that was good too. I grew up with grandmothers, both maternal and paternal, who spoke almost exclusively, at times, in sayings. A string of proverbs. Sing-songy, witty-wise remarks. When I found myself writing such things, it made sense for me to share them. You share a saying. You quote a saying. They come in handy when you are tongue-tied. My grandmother’s sayings were mostly commentaries on the divide between men and women. How men are dogs. How the man will be lying on one woman’s breast and already considering the next woman. How love will prove your undoing, but without love what taste does life have? How, rather the shadow of a man than the shadow of four walls. Not sayings that necessarily spoke to me as a child, but the idea of speaking in sayings, and of generalizing from particulars, stuck with me.
As I think of it now, it was Wilde who first turned me toward the territory that would inform my aphorisms. I was sixteen when I read The Picture of Dorian Gray. I stole the book from a classroom in my school because I liked the cover. It showed a ghoulish, vital, aged face in a gaudy picture frame. Standing next to it, locked into its gaze, it seemed, was a sophisticated, exquisite dandy, bearing scarf and cane, looking, as they say, pretty as a picture, and as unreal as a picture, too. I was interested in traditional horror stories at that time. I read . . . well, I read Stephen King. And Dorian Gray was my point of transition. From physical horror to spiritual horror, I suppose. I took the book home and read it through in one night. Then I read everything of Wilde’s that I could get my hands on. I was writing already, but I wasn’t yet writing truly. You know Kafka’s line about literature being an axe for the frozen sea within us? The frozen sea within me was still very much frozen and I didn’t mind that it was frozen. I liked it frozen. I skated happily on it.
What impressed me in Wilde was his ability to play with serious subjects. To make light of them. I thought I could pick up that quality for myself. Tossing off, with seeming gaiety, a thought that was at base painful and dark. Born of real suffering and insight. Every part of Dorian Gray spoke to me. I highlighted almost the entire book. I underlined more passages than I left unmarked. I scribbled in the margins furiously. He said he was summing up the entirety of existence in a phrase. Anyway, he was summing up in a phrase the entirety of my existence. It was my first exposure to the philosophical concept of detachment. To become the spectator of one’s life is to become detached from the suffering of life, he suggested. That hit me. I didn’t know why, or how deeply, until a couple of years later, when I started working on my own detachment. 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. This supreme indifference, even in the hardest of times, to one’s own welfare. So long as one could pull off the alchemist’s trick of turning it into art, it no longer mattered how tortured the romance, how isolated the life, or how penniless the pocket. On the contrary, the more one gave up, the more authority was vested in the creation. The beauty lay in the tension between what one had surrendered in pursuit of the achievement and what had been achieved.
And then there was Nietzsche. I came upon his work in a college English class. There was no reason for him to be on that syllabus, but there he was. Those were the days when I would read and think without sleeping, sometimes for two or three days in a row, so that I could hold on to whatever intensity I was experiencing and magnify it. If I was reading and thinking and not sleeping, I’d enter a state that was like rocks being struck together. Sparks would rise: ideas and aphorisms. I treated all of my reading at that time as if I were being granted audience with the writer, and in order to honor that audience I had to come prepared. I had to be as attentive as possible, in order that I could sound the depths of that writer. In that way, too, I was learning to sound my own depths.
I read Thus Spake Zarathustra first. I read it like a sleepwalker. I breathed it in. A shocked inhalation, almost unconscious. When I read it again, maybe a decade later, more intentionally, in the desert outside of Cairo, it was like a long slow exhalation that let me finally examine what I had received. I went to the desert periodically. Pilgrimages to empty and refill myself. On the occasion of my re-reading of Nietzsche, I was in an apartment near the Red Sea, among mountains. One could stay in an apartment. One could stay in a hut. Or one could simply bring one’s sleeping bag and lay out upon the sands. I read Zarathustra straight through. Every time I go to the desert it is with the intention and in the belief that I am going to encounter that part of myself that is not entirely accessible in other circumstances. In the desert, there is nothing to hide behind, nowhere and no one to turn to. It is where all those crazy hermits and mystics—my people!—had their visions. It’s an extreme environment and I suppose I felt that if I flirted with that extremity, but in a committed, honorable way, a breakthrough might be granted me. If you were somehow avoiding yourself and you went to the desert, somehow you would meet. The rumblings of eternity were there, if you could just be still enough, quiet enough, and indifferent enough to your self, to your many selves, to your many silly selves. So taking Nietzsche to the desert was a gesture toward meeting both him and the him-that-was-also-me.
There, reading the lonely words of Nietzsche, I came to realize the necessity of that loneliness. Loneliness as prerequisite for the sublime sensations or epiphanies I sought. You could be alone around people, alone in your living room, but if you reached toward this elemental loneliness—alone with the sand, the rock, the water, the stars, and the sea—you could experience a deeper innocence and purity of perception and as a result become a better witness to the life inside you and around you. Nietzsche talks about “the price.” And I understood that, there in the desert. The harsh loneliness of his life had given him the richness of himself. There is a desert quality to Nietzsche’s writing, I think. It doesn’t care much for you. It may, perhaps, want you there, but it doesn’t need you there. It doesn’t seek to appease the reader. It is not eager to please. It wants only to declare its harsh, bold truths, and if you can stand it, then stay.
Heidegger said something about longing that seems to me to sum up what I am trying to express here about loneliness. After all, it is not the loneliness that matters. The loneliness is a side effect, a symptom of the longing. There was a longing in me that I didn’t realize, that I couldn’t understand—not until I read Heidegger. He said, “Longing is the agony of the nearness of the distant.” Yes! I could almost brush it with my fingertips! But it was not right there. I was trafficking with metaphysics, with mere hope, when in fact it was very far away. It was not mine. When it came within reach, which happened only very occasionally, everything was perfect and nothing else mattered or could matter. But it was not mine, this great, calming beauty. So of course I would lose it. Of course I would stumble. The agony of the nearness of the distant. That was it. That was the great thing I was groping toward, the great thing that the aphorisms, on occasion, brought me upon.
One more thing before we finish. Every time I thought of this conversation that we were about to have, this one that we are now having, an image would recur in my mind. 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. Picasso speaks, for example, of taking off his shoes before entering his studio. Like Moslems do when they enter their mosques. That was his way of sanctifying his art. The artist prays through attention. 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. In my dreams, it is blinking that brings me to the ground. When I blink, I begin to fall. When I have fallen, I don’t know how to get back into the air. But if there is a formula, I think it must have to do with attention. Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, someone has said. So long as one’s eyes are wide open, there is that chance, again, that one will soar.
Alex Stein is an essayist, aphorist, and illustrator whose books include Made-Up Interviews With Imaginary Artists (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009), a collection of interviews, interview fictions, and essays on the art of the interview; Weird Emptiness: Essays and Aphorisms (Wings Press, 2007); and The Life and Art of Josan (Wade Rosen Publishing), a collection of aphorisms and drawings. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, and works at the University of Colorado’s Norlin Library. (4/2010)