Hilary Lawson on error, philosophy and TED: “It’s really a business conference organisation”

Preview: How The Light Gets In.

If you walk north from the main festival site at Hay, through the town along Broad Street onto Heol Y Dwr, you’ll come to a separate enclosure. Inside there are small tents, a three-chambered pavilion, food and music stands, fronted by a repurposed 18th century chapel. You won’t find any readings or book signings. Instead, you’ll find little arguments.

How The Light Gets In, the annual festival organised by the Institute of Art and Ideas, aims to use music and philosophy to destabilise the reigning orthodoxies of modern thought. We no longer live in a religious age, but rather, as John Gray has argued, an age in which secular humanism – with its faith in human and technological progress – is the dominant mode of thought.

The festival was named for Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in”, and this year’s theme, “Error, Lies and Adventure”, has been chosen to inspect the cracks. Terry Pratchett, AS Byatt and Terry Eagleton will debate the usefulness of fantasy to human understanding; Will Hutton, Shirley Williams and Cory Doctorow will ask whether we have reached the final days of the American Empire, and Oliver James, Frank Furedi and Richard Bentall will discuss the roll of power and influence in psychiatric practice. These are just three of over four-hundred events.

I spoke to Hilary Lawson, author of Closure (2001) and founder of the Institute of Art and Ideas, about “error”, TED and philosophy.

How did this year’s theme come about?

Each year we go for a theme to structure our events. We try to go for themes that we think are contemporary and at the edge of current thinking. One of the ways in which the festival is a little different from others is that we don’t simply identify well-known people in relevant fields and invite them along to talk. That’s not how we function. We identify what we think are the big intellectual themes, break them into smaller debates, and set about deciding who’s saying the most interesting things about each topic.

In the case of “error, lies and adventure”, there are lots of different layers. The first is that we tend to regard error as being something to be avoided, certainly in public life. Instead we should be looking at error as a way of realising that there’s something wrong with the way one is doing things which provokes new challenge and adventure. I think there was bigger philosophical thought … do you have any philosophical background yourself?

Not especially. My reaction to the theme was to think about the usefulness of error: that not every problem is a deviation which can and ought to be “fixed”. There’s also the serendipitous nature of acquiring knowledge – the hazardous, random aspects of the learning process. A lot of the time we have no control over the way knowledge is spread and I kind of like that. Sorry, that’s a long answer … I don’t have any philosophical training.

But it’s all related. One of the things we have been exploring in the biggest broad-brush sense is where does culture go after postmodernism? If you’re drawing huge brush strokes through decades of thinking – what is going on at the moment? Well, we had modernism and scientism and the belief that science would eventually uncover the truth about everything – and though there are some people who still think that is the case and indeed most of the media still operates in that frame – intellectually speaking, postmodernism and relativism have become more dominant. That’s left a lot of people intellectually lost.

To operate in a postmodern space where there are alternative ways of holding the world and there’s no objective truth is not entirely satisfactory. We have to get things done. We have to decide what matters and what works and all of those sorts of things, but we can’t just revert to some previous modernist notion that we’re going to discover the secrets of the universe tomorrow and that we might just lay them out in an educational form.

So, we could put the rigorous optimism of say, TED talks, at one end of the spectrum, and the useless polarisation of the sciences and humanities at (undergraduate level at least) in our universities, at the other?

I think that the academy has lost itself. As far as philosophy is concerned the academy is still operating with a framework which is one-hundred years old: a sort of Russell-Wittgenstein framework. A belief in clarifying what you mean by your words. This may have been exciting 100 years ago but it certainly isn’t exciting any more. When we started which was four or five years ago I think the primary perception of philosophy was Monty Python’s football match – a sort of joke. You certainly wouldn’t take philosophers seriously, they were just people to be laughed at, couldn’t even manage to kick a football. So our thought was, “this is crazy, it is obviously the case that we are all philosophers in the sense that all we wonder what it means to be alive and what’s going in the world and what’s really true.”

A lot of discussion of science in the media is both misrepresentative and false. I’m particularly irked by the news stories which say “well, y’know, the geneticists say this about our behaviour and so therefore case closed.” A first rate geneticist will in fact tell you our behaviour cannot always be explained by such easy assumptions.

We have lots of science debates, but our science debates aren’t about presenting science, rather, they’re examining whether this is a good way of going about things and asking what are the challenges to it. So in fact, the closer you look at science you see it’s full of underlying arguments and, as it were, black holes in thinking – rather than it being presented as a monolith of knowledge which is gradually uncovering the truth. What we’re trying to do in those situations is identify the big issues which lie behind the developments around science and to examine them and challenge them.

One of the ways in which we differ to TED is that they focus on giving individuals a platform (and I would say, those individuals frequently have commercial interests as well and a particular point to make – it’s really a business conference organisation.) What we do is try to focus on the debate. We do have individual talks, but we don’t let them do that unless they’re also prepared to be in debate and its debates that drive our festival programme and the IAI site.

It’s easy to forget that half of the festival is dedicated to music. Does having live music, in some way, help the intellectual atmosphere along?

The reason we have music is that if you go into a lecture hall, it's rather po-faced. There are all sorts of status and hierarchy issues in the lecture hall. Our venues are relatively small - our biggest venues have an audience of about 250 - so if you’re in our audience you can ask a question or make a point without it being a vehicle for the handful of people wanting to promote themselves. If there is some music drifting in from an acoustic set happening outside it stops people thinking “gosh that’s the professor of Physics from Harvard I can’t possibly have anything to say to them” and it somehow encourages space where people really talk to each other.

Really it's how student life should work: we have our debates and talks during the day, and in the evening we have a party. Of course, some of the best conversations happen in the evening. You see our speakers shouting to each other on the dancefloor about a debate that they’ve been in.

Is there anything you’re particularly looking forward to this year, as distinct from last?

People frequently say to me “what’s the thing you’re looking forward to most” and I say “well, we’ve got 450…”, it’s not really reasonable to be looking forward to one. We didn't mention it before, but the third layer to the theme is that if you operate in a postmodernist space, one of the puzzles is that the reason people get lost is that it looks as if anything goes. If there’s no objective truth how do you discriminate between one thing and another? One question that’s interesting there is the question of error. There may not be objective truth but there clearly is error.

Error seems to be a starting point for so many things. The discovery and imagination that has come about through error, for example. Joyce relished mistakes – there are all those great anecdotes about the mistakes in Finnigan’s Wake, which he kept and still exist in the book today. It also has moral connotations. These are, I suppose, further layers.

We’ve tended to focus on trying to avoid error and just trying to present things as “truth”, but in an odd sort of way its almost the reverse, that we can never arrive at an ultimate truth. What is interesting is that we can say things that are in some way wrong. How does that work? How is it that the world enables us to get things wrong, but it somehow doesn’t enable us to get things right?

How The Light Gets In will run from 23 May to 2 June in Hay-on-Wye.

Let there be light. A bookshop in Hay-on-Wye. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism