November 8, 2011

“Nude in your hot tub, facing the abyss” — A manifesto by Lars Iyer


Lars Iyer, author of the “viciously funny” novel Spurious and the forthcoming Dogma, has published a literary manifesto at the new UK quarterly magazine, The White Review (a different version of the essay will appear in the next print edition of Post Road.) Titled “Nude in Your Hot Tub, Facing the Abyss (A Literary Manifesto after the Death of Literature and Manifestos), the essay is mocking, erudite, comic, ecstatic, despairing, and weirdly hopeful. Though difficult to summarize, the essay posits a death of capital-L literature. Iyer writes:

Literature has become a pantomime of itself, and cultural significance has undergone a hyperinflation, its infinitesimal units bought and sold like penny stocks.

“What caused this great decline?” he asks.

We can point to the disappearances of older class and power structures. The decline of the church, the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie—those great foils of Modernist energies—have dissolved. Like Kant’s dove in free flight cutting through the air, the writer needs to feel a kind of resistance on the part of Literature, needs to work against something even as it struggles for something. And what is there to work against when there’s no one left to antagonise? We could speak of globalisation, of the incorporation of the whole planet into the world market, which has the effect of weakening of past cultural forms and national literatures. We notice the ascension of the individual to a place where idiosyncrasy itself becomes commonplace, where the self, the soul, the heart, and the mind are demographic jargon. There is little sense of a tradition to wrestle with—no agon of authorship that we associate with the writers of the past. We could point to the populism of contemporary culture, to the dissolution of older boundaries between high and low art, and to a weakening of our suspicions about the market. Writers now work in concert with capitalism, rather than setting themselves against it. You’re nothing unless you sell, unless your name is known, unless scores of admirers turn up at your book signings. We could also point to the banality of liberal democracies: by tolerating everything, by incorporating everything, our political system licenses nothing. Art was once oppositional, but now it is consumed by the cultural apparatus, and seriousness itself reduces itself into a kind of kitsch for generations X, Y and Z. We have not run out of things to be serious about—our atmosphere boils, our reservoirs of water go dry, our political dynamic dares our ingenuity to permit catastrophe—but the literary means to register tragedy have exhausted themselves. Globalisation has flattened Literature into a million niche markets, and prose has become another product: pleasurable, notable, exquisite, laborious, respected, but always small. No poem will ferment revolution, no novel challenges reality, not anymore.

Iyer is not arguing that writing has disappeared—indeed, the number books and authors grows at an “exponential” rate. and “we live in an unprecedented age of words.”

One could argue that we ought to be grateful for this new order. Isn’t it nice, after all, to emerge from your hobby shed as a fledgling novelist? So others might read you: what a surprise! That people read fiction at all any more: likewise, a surprise. Your friends and family think it’s nice, too. So you’ve published a novel! Do people still read them? Well, fancy that! For your circle of friends, the fact of having published a novel trumps anything it might contain. The fact that your name will come up on a Google search with something more than nude pictures of you in a hot tub is already something. And so the prestige of authorship gives way to the prestige of an ephemeral kind of literary careerism, one which is quickly forgotten.

What, then, is so terrible? The stalls of the marketplace provide a fascinating babble, a white noise for a well-adjusted lifetime.

But, clearly, for Iyer something is (on a deeply emotional, almost spiritual level) horribly amiss. “The dream,” he writes, “has faded, our faith and awe have fled, our belief in Literature has collapsed.”

What’s to be done? Iyer looks at three texts in which he finds a glimmer of hope for literature after Literature. He examines Enrique Vila-Matas‘s Montano’s Malady as a book that best prescribes the illness. The novel follows a narrator who feels “there’s no course of action he can follow that does not risk becoming thereby some kind of literary cliché, literary kitsch.” Iyer next turns to Thomas Bernhard, an author who also, constantly, incessantly addresses the failure to write against the backdrop of contemporary culture: “Bernhard’s frustrated narrators, never able to find time and space in which, finally, to write—in which to imitate their masters, be it Schopenhauer or Novalis, Kleist or Goethe—declare war on a culture in which such imitation has become impossible.” Finally, Iyer turns to Roberto Bolaño‘s The Savage Detectives a novel thatprovides another model for how all would-be authors can appropriately speak about our anachronistic dreams.” All three books, the essays seems to argue, save themselves by facing, in their various ways, that literature exists “after the conditions for vanguardist practice had collapsed.”

Finally, Iyer proposes a series of self-abnegating rules and principles by which one can write without deluding oneself about the nature of the modern literary task.

It’s an refreshingly unhinged essay that, at the very least, sheds light on Iyer’s own odd literary style (of which The Millions said “ought to be unreadable, but manages to be intelligent, wildly entertaining, and unexpectedly moving instead.”), and perhaps even suggests a way to cope with the inherent smallness of contemporary literary endeavor.

The White Review does not offer a comments section. I would be very curious to see what readers think of Iyer’s essay. Does it strike a chord? Is literature as healthy as it ever was, or has it undergone some strange sea change? Do you, too, feel that the dream of literature (or, Literature) has faded? And has anyone stumbled on this hot tub photo he’s talking about?