Lars Iyer: "How refreshing it is to be insulted"

An interview with the cult author about Exodus, the final novel in his trilogy about philosophy and writing.

W. reads me a passage from one of Guy Debord’s films:

It must be admitted that none of this is very clear. It is a completely typical drunken monologue, with its incomprehensible allusions and tiresome delivery. With its vain phrases that do not await response and its overbearing explanations. And its silences.

‘That’s how you should preface everything you write’, W. says.

(Lars Iyer, Exodus, 2013)

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Exodus is the final novel in the trilogy by philosophy lecturer Lars Iyer, which began with the Not the Booker Prize-shortlisted Spurious (2011) and continued with Dogma, published last year by Melville House. All three follow two academics and would-be authors – one called Lars Iyer, the other W. – as they attempt to cope with the closure of university philosophy departments and what they perceive as the wider, terminal decline of European culture, bound by their inability to overcome their own creative and political impotence.

The trilogy has attracted a cult following amongst readers who empathise with the characters’ conviction that no future philosophy could be as influential as that of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche or Weil; no literature as resonant as that of Kafka, Beckett or Thomas Bernhard; no filmmaking as visceral as that of Werner Herzog or Béla Tarr. The other reason for their success is Iyer’s skill in distilling this despair: where others may have produced long, hand-wringing tomes as they tried to diagnose the reasons for literature’s diminished status, Iyer boils the situation down to two frustrated friends bickering – the main use for W’s understanding of Western philosophy and culture is to insult narrator Lars in a series of harsh, hilarious ways.

Juliet Jacques: What made you choose yourself and W. as the central characters in this trilogy? Did you feel that their (your) impotence was emblematic of the position of the would-be writer-philosopher under late capitalism?

Lars Iyer: The books started as a blog which I wrote to amuse myself and my friends, especially in difficult times – not on a personal level but more broadly. I wanted to present the characters and their friendship – or frenmity  – within a political and intellectual context. My characters, W. and Lars, are friends because they share an intuition that there's something wrong with the world, and, however foolishly, they aim to address that wrong, if only within the space of their friendship.

Are they doomed from the start?

I don't think so. The novels never show them falling out; their friendship is the thread that runs through the trilogy. This friendship is anything but doomed; it is based, it is true, on an awareness of a certain failure – of both characters having failed in some way – but that awareness is also its source of life. W. and Lars joke and laugh about their failure. And since, in their eyes, they’re continually failing, there is always more to joke about. To that extent, their friendship is full of hope – endless hope. Failure never has the last word.

And the hope is not insulted by W's insistence of putting the entire Western canon at the service of belittling Lars ...

Lars narrates the novel. That very act of narration shows, I think, the enjoyment that he has in being insulted in such a virtuosic manner. W.'s insults are magnificent – they’re so inventive, so alive! Lars, as narrator, feels that vivacity. How refreshing it is to be insulted in a time when we’re all supposed to be so cloyingly nice to one another! And how wonderful to be paid the compliment of a finely-crafted personal insult!

My favourite is the placing of Lars below Diogenes [the Greek philosopher whose name became associated with self-neglect and hoarding] in Dogma.

Diogenes is a very noble figure – a man who lives firmly according to his principles. For W., Lars is someone who lives according to no principles and is almost entirely unwitting. But, for W., Lars has an importance in our age equivalent to that which Diogenes had in his. Lars registers the horror of our age in his guts, as W. puts it. W.’s task is to understand this horror, to render it explicit, to understand the ‘message’ that Lars is, and to pass this message on.

Is writing futile? If so, why do it?

I don't think writing is futile. There's something immensely important about the sheer act of communication. Your question puts me in mind of what one critic said about Beckett: that, in his work, everything is subjected to critique except for the desire to communicate. That’s the one thing that is unquestioned in Beckett, and still holds over his most abject characters: the urge to express, the urge to have your say.

Why is this unquestioned?

Because Beckett’s work, and literature in general, depends on the desire to communicate, which is to say, on a kind of hope.

What would happen to literature if we questioned that desire itself?

Even if white space – silence – is incorporated into a literary work, it is still part of a more general attempt to communicate, in which there is a sender, a message, and an addressee. Any ostensible break in communication is also part of communication.

That recalls Stewart Home's Art Strike – suggesting that the most radical (or career-furthering) thing that an artist can do is refuse to create.

Even when John Cage incorporates silence into his work – or rather, moments, such as in 4’33”, when ambient sound is allowed to speak – this takes place within a context of an act of communication. Even noise, in which nothing is being communicated, can be part of a message.

Your manifesto, published at The White Review, traces a line from the medieval period, when writers were almost entirely aloof from their societies, to the present, where social media and other technological advances make it almost impossible for writers to maintain any detachment. Is this level of integration a barrier to literary production?

For me, it was very difficult to enter the world of social media. I had a blog, but it was anonymous and one of the great advantages of blogging was that the assessment of what you wrote did not depend on some preconception about your identity, on the part of the reader. However, when it comes to writing fiction for an independent publisher, you are, I think, obligated to enter into modern techniques of publicity, which involve social media. In so doing, I asked myself how I could maintain, across a number of media platforms, a persona that was consistent with what I wrote. Maurice Blanchot, the French novelist and critic, achieved that consistency by refusing to submit photos to his publisher’s files, and granting only one interview in his life. I admire that achievement; but, of course, my writing is of a very different kind. Still, the question is a troubling one for me: how do you deal with social media, if you are not going to withdraw from it altogether?

I shared this position entirely when I started using Twitter, especially as I wrote this Guardian column in which the assertion of differing facets of my personality was a tactical attempt at rendering stereotypes of transsexual women as Stepford wives untenable. As I got drawn in, I found it impossible to maintain a consistent persona, and then I quite enjoyed its resignation, and the space to be flippant, or to talk about the unexpected.

It was a stroke of good luck that my characters can be trivial and foolish, so being consistent with what I write is, to that extent, no problem! But the challenge when it came to my public persona was to marry the "low" cultural concerns of my characters, their bickerings and foolishnesses, with an appropriate seriousness.

I'd just like to haul you up on “appropriate seriousness”, especially given how comic these novels are …

In various ways, I’ve sought, in the novels, to register the miseries of those who suffer, or who have suffered, as a result of capitalism. I’ve tried to puncture the surface of the trilogy with quite straight accounts of the conditions of cotton-mill workers in nineteenth-century Manchester, or of precarious workers, failed asylum seekers and slum-dwellers in today’s neoliberal world. I’ve even tried to anticipate the suffering to come – the horrors that will be unleashed because of climate change. This suffering and misery demands seriousness, and a fervent desire for political change.

I'm glad you've said that – I grew up in the Nineties, after the fall of the USSR, post-Thatcher and Reagan, when there was a sense that we had survived the worst excesses of ideological politics, and in which irony and flippancy became very strong cultural currents – after 9/11 and the global financial crisis, this no longer felt appropriate. Does a similar sense permeate your work?

There was that dreadful idea in the Nineties that history had ended – that we'd reached an ideal form of societal organisation, and that everything was fundamentally okay. It was the "Sunday of Life"; time for irony and flippancy. History began again after 9/11; the party was over; time to put irony, flippancy and other toys away… But that’s how it seemed only to those who weren’t paying attention. Things were always serious! Things are serious. I do my best to show this in my novels.

Has the insistence of liberal democracies on ignoring rather than censoring literature effectively deprived literature of its power? If so, do you think this was intentional?

Certainly, if we look at the experiences of countries of the former Eastern bloc, literature had enormous value under periods of direct censorship. This value seemed to disappear almost as soon as capitalism was allowed free reign in these countries. Capitalism can destroy all seriousness. Literary and artistic dissent are very easily accommodated (you only have to read Sinéad Murphy’s The Art Kettle for a sense of this).

Across the trilogy, you seem to suggest that the greatest barrier to a meaningful, relevant literature of the present is the literature of the past, which had a very different relationship with politics and wider culture.

In some sense. For me, what writers up until the period of late modernism could rely upon was the prestige implicit in the idea of literature. What contemporary writers, in my view, need to contend with, is the marginality of literature within our culture. Kafka did not believe in religion but he could still believe in art. That same belief in art today, if not grotesque, is based upon a great capacity for denial.

Have the new forms of the 20th century – from cinema to video games – taken potential writers and audiences away from literature? How can literature in the Modernist tradition claim to be the harbinger of new ideas when there are so many newer forms?

High Modernist literature employs some techniques found in cinema – montage for example. One task might be to incorporate some of the techniques implicit in blogging into literary practice, not simply to enrich literature but to bring it down a peg or two. For me, that’s what I would seek in a contemporary work of fiction – methods of communication which are similar to what I find in the new media.

One problem with that, I've found, is that this media can move so quickly as to pre-empt literary production, which is traditionally a slow practice. To give an example: in summer 2011, I started to plan a novel which would be written as a cacophony of blogs, some for the mainstream media, some independent, in dialogue with each other, about how the mainstream media used the concept of free speech to preserve its own power. Before I even got as far as devising the plot from this, the Guardian published on the hacking of Milly Dowler's phone and we got this rapid discourse that led us to the Leveson Inquiry, and I soon abandoned the novel because it could never match the swiftly unfolding reality.

I see that, but new media are not only about speed. One thing that blogging has facilitated is people, who had no other access to channels of communication, writing whatever they wanted and finding an audience for it. For me, new media provide a way of discovering and legitimating your own strangeness, of pursuing your interests and desires in public…

So maybe, we can say that blogging does interesting things to the ‘time’ of writing, of literary production. For me, what made the form of a rolling blog so exciting thing was that even I didn't know where it would go. That gives it something in common with the 19th century serialised novels – the reader couldn’t skip ahead to see where the text would go, and perhaps the writer didn’t know either.

That's very interesting. For me, certainly, composing fiction using a blog allows me to gauge reader responses on a daily basis: I can see what they ‘favourite’ or quote elsewhere. I enjoy the sense of being part of something, with my readers, even if I have never allowed comments on my blog. I’m sure that the sense of writing for a community – a community that I have constituted through my blog – must have a significant effect on the direction of that writing.

So what might come to epitomise contemporary literary fiction, or change it, is this dialectic between writers and their readers?

Perhaps what blogging encourages is a kind of autofiction, a variation on autobiography or memoir, where the author becomes a character him- or herself, a performer in some sense. In this way, you can foreground a kind of imposture in the very act of being an author. You can undercut your own status as a would-be auteur with all the high seriousness this can entail. This is part of attesting to the marginality of literature in contemporary culture, and the inappropriateness of older senses of "being an author".

Are there any contemporary authors you particularly admire?

Art Spiegelman's In the Shadow of No Towers, published in response to 9/11, was a magnificent work – very telling in its use of a kind of black humour. I also wonder how another post-9/11 artwork, Scott Walker's The Drift, might inspire writers – in its fragmentary lyrics, in its rapid shifts in tone from horror to humour, from obscure historical references to direct cries and whispers.

After modernism and post-modernism, can you see any way forward for literature? Or was post-modernism's self-consciousness and self-referentialism a dead end?

A quick answer, and perhaps a silly one: perhaps post-modernism is premised upon the support of the university – upon academia and institutional validation, and upon the prestige of the idea of "literature". This may be naive, but I dream of a ‘literature’ arising from people’s discovery of strange things about themselves before an audience. I still find a kind of literary height in Hélène Cixous’ work, for example, which holds itself above the ordinary world – or perhaps my ordinary, British world. I have always found her painful to read because of this – because I would like such a height to be possible, because I want literature to be exalted, but feel such height to be impossible, and for literature to be exhausted. I want to believe, but I can’t believe...

The work of Art Spiegelman, whom Iyer admires. Photo: Getty

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era