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Living in the End Times

Lars Iyer interviewed by Markku Nivalainen.

 

 

Lars Iyer’s Nietzsche and the Burbs is a darkly comical novel about life in a time saturated by an impending sense of doom. But it is not the kind of doom prophetic western thinkers have traditionally been anticipating with either horror or glee. Not only does the suburban apocalypse lack a bang but even the whimper is eternally deferred. We are left with a reality where nothing really happens but which at the same time sustains a cultural condition that is different enough from its previous incarnations to make the past feel redundant and the future unwelcome. How to live in the end times?

The story focuses on the lives of a group of disaffected sixth-form students who seek to live out their answers to that question. During their last summer at school a brooding new pupil shocks them awake from the torpor by his self-proclaimed active nihilism, which soon earns him the nickname Nietzsche. Could this be the leader who can show the way out of the seemingly unescapable suburban existence?

Like Iyer’s previous novels, Nietzsche and the Burbs defies easy definitions by embracing paradox wholeheartedly. It is as much a work of philosophy as it is a work of fiction. It delivers a serious message of hope and compassion while also being dark and hilariously funny. And it reveals the stupidity of perceived cleverness and the cleverness of what is often overlooked as stupidity. Iyer kindly allowed me to pick his encyclopaedic brain on some of the themes that run through his literary oeuvre and the shape he has given them in Nietzsche and the Burbs.

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3:AM: The Spurious trilogy stars two philosophy professors who talk about contemporary philosophers with great admiration. Wittgenstein Jr is set at Cambridge and the perspective is that of the students who call their tutor Wittgenstein. Nietzsche and the Burbs features sixth-form students who dub their self-proclaimed nihilist classmate Nietzsche. Are you going to follow this trajectory and perhaps write about Schelling in a secondary school?

Lars Iyer: I did have the intention of writing about primary education in a novel called Lil’ Leibniz, but that’s on hold. Next up instead, a novel about philosophy PhD students prevaricating their lives away in cafes. Working title: Simone Weil.

3:AM: That sounds brilliant. There’s an E.M. Cioran interview you shared recently via your blog where he takes great pride in managing to get through life without really doing anything. Traditionally, the life of the mind has involved a certain level of idleness. It has become increasingly difficult to even think of a situation in which one might be able to think and have time.

LI: What a luxury: time to think! It still survives in academia in the form of paid sabbaticals, but these are usually subordinate to the goal of completing a book or win funding. ‘The Sabbath is not simply a time for rest, for relaxation,’ Wittgenstein writes. ‘We ought to contemplate our labours from without and not just from within.’

Why ‘contemplation from without’? Because it’s when you remove yourself from the claims of the work day, from work time, that you can ask questions concerning the value of it all. Whence the stream of questions that the characters ask in a kind of chorus when they’re out of school, whether they’re in the woods, smoking dope in Joel Park or drinking on Art’s broken patio.

3:AM: They certainly are a truly philosophical chorus in that every answer they are provided with is instantly turned into a new question. There is an amusing moment with their friends wondering why the band members are kowtowing to the new student, and Chandra defends himself by saying that Nietzsche is simply providing them tools for articulating what they had always felt.

LI: I think Chandra’s view is quite plausible. Even before they get to know Nietzsche, he and his friends have an inchoate Nietzschean philosophy of their own. My Nietzsche intensifies their thought, directing and disciplining it, showing them how it implicates their whole lives. They say they despair, but do they really despair? They say they want to escape the suburbs, but do they really want to escape?

In Greek tragedies, the chorus sang (and danced), sharing in the action of the main stage in its own way. The mood and tone of the lines they sang complemented what appeared on stage. And in a similar way the characters surrounding Nietzsche enact philosophy (his philosophy, theirs; the amalgam of the two), testing it, bringing it to life. As Scott Neuffer notices in his review of the novel: ‘The characters don’t just talk philosophy; they embody it in their decisions and actions. They test their surroundings with radical ideas’.

3:AM: Something similar happens in Wittgenstein Jr, perhaps more explicitly: Wittgenstein is surrounded by a chorus of admirers who try to live out his thought. What determined your approach to Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Simone Weil?

LI: All three philosophers sought to embody what they thought.

My Wittgenstein was born of a love of the real philosopher’s writing style — the rhythms and music of his prose, the intense pithiness of his formulations, as well as an interest in the ethical and religious repercussions of his work. The biographies of Wittgenstein were also important to me since they include excerpts from letters, personal reflections, otherwise unavailable.

My Nietzsche reflects my guarded love of the real philosopher’s thought. The ‘existential’ dimension of his philosophy — the themes of nihilism, the death of God and so on — is well known, even too well known (although isn’t always well understood). I’ve tried to show how these themes elucidate current issues — in particular, the nihilism of contemporary life, of the suburbs. Less familiar are the perturbing questions the real Nietzsche raises about morality — about pity and compassion. Is pity really nihilistic because it flatters us, because it makes us feel better than we are? Is compassion simply condescension which prevents sufferers using their pain as a spur?

My Weil … I’m not quite sure about her yet. Once again, the question of compassion will be important, which is part of her religious philosophy.

3:AM: I enjoy reading festschrifts and obituaries because biographies of philosophers are quite scarce. I have read numerous essays simply because I found a titbit about the author interesting.

LI: Modern philosophers often reject the importance of biography. ‘Aristotle was born, wrote and died’: that’s all we learn about the life of the Greek philosopher in Heidegger’s early lecture course. But the lives of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Weil are significant because they sought not only to think but to enact what they thought, to live their philosophy. This doesn’t make them perfect or exemplary human beings by any means, but it gives their thought and lives an ethical importance.

3:AM: This ties to certain themes that are I think are present in all your novels: the search for a leader, alienation, and the vacuity of large parts of contemporary culture. In the last two books, the change of perspective from teachers to students show these in a different light. I find it particularly interesting how some of the teachers in Nietzsche and the Burbs seem to share the apocalyptic views of Lars and W. But the students are unfazed. The teachers are mostly afraid of the prospect of economic or climate-related cataclysms, although some of them are not that eager to admit it, but the students take the impending apocalypse almost as a fact. Is it a generational thing, like Adorno’s confusion over the student rebellion?

LI: Everyone knows this civilization is over, as McKenzie Wark likes to say. Climatic and financial disasters are at the gates. The pupils at Loddon Valley school know this; so do their teachers. Mr Pound, head of sixth form, puts his faith in entrepreneurial spirit; Miss Lilly in recycling. Mr Zachary is plain depressed — Gaia is in trouble. Mrs Scotswood, nicknamed The Old Mole, revels in the prospect of the financial ruin of south of England. Mrs Sherwood teaches the pupils Endgame to prepare them for the worst. Mr Varga, meanwhile, is wryly fatalistic about the coming horror.

As for their pupils: they love out-glooming their teachers. Let it come down!, they think, at least early in the novel. Release the apocalyptic beasts! My teen characters want the apocalypse. They embrace the prospect of destruction — even their own destruction.

At the same time, my teen characters are looking for something to live for — an ethics, a way of life. The new boy at school, who they nickname Nietzsche, seems to point a way… In this respect, my pupils are not so different from W. and Lars in the Spurious trilogy. Adorno: ‘He who imagines disasters somehow desires them’ . W. and Lars can indeed seem to desire the disaster (Lars could even be said to embody it, for W.) At the same time, they hope for a leader who they follow out of the desert of what they take to be their captivity.

3:AM: It sometimes seems like there is too much talk about the end times for us to take it in. The students are all irony, and as a group, the teachers are very confused. The Old Mole and Mr Varga are both brilliant characters and I find their positions the easiest to identify with, possibly because they are neither overly optimistic nor anxious. The students’ responses to the teachers are funny in the way they amplify, or distort, the message and throw it back to the sender. I no longer have any idea how adolescents might see the world, but your depiction of their experience is quite different from mine in its darkly humorous blending of fantasy and dread.

LI: I draw on all kinds of resources — philosophical, theological, political, economic — to explore the notion of the end times. Climatic crisis, in particular, occurs on a scale almost impossible to imagine. I use religious thought to try to conjure its magnitude, to evoke what it might mean. Ideas of the messiah, the apocalypse and millennialism are extremely relevant to understanding the new psychologies of the disaster, the new pathologies and thought-patterns that are emerging.

There’s financial disaster, too. I have a keen amateur interest in alt-economics, in the work of Michael Hudson, Steve Keen and others, which is reflected in the pronouncements of the Old Mole. A northerner, she’s been stuck in the suburbs for her whole career. Finally, on the brink of retirement, she might get what’s she’s always wanted: the financial collapse of the overprivileged South. A negative form of hope! Of course, her nickname comes from Marx: ‘We recognize our old friend, our old mole, who knows so well how to work underground, suddenly to appear: the revolution’. The Old Mole hopes for the end because she believes in a new beginning. In that sense, she’s not so different from her pupils…

3:AM: The Old Mole is an accelerationist! I find it difficult to square the part of me that wants to believe in the purifying capabilities of destruction with the part that is aware of the effect catastrophes have had on people in the past. It is also difficult to envision what real change might look like.

LI: The Old Mole’s hope for catastrophe has a Biblical and theological prototype. In the Bible, apocalypse means judgement and destruction — the coming to end of the current order — but is also supposed to usher in the Kingdom of God. There will be violence, but the world will be changed. A new order will arise from the destruction of the old one; a new social and political order from the dissolution of the previous norms.

Norman Cohn argues that desire for apocalypse arises in periods of rapid shifts in the social and political order, increasing inequality and insecurity. How to realise your expectations when the means of this satisfaction are lacking? For Cohn, millennial movements spring from a desire to destroy a fundamentally unjust order in which groups feel they have no future and therefore no stake.

How are we to regard these outbreaks of apocalyptic energy? For adherents of the ‘end of history’, who think that there is no alternative to capitalist liberal democracy, these millennial hopes are futile. If not this — if not our present kind of society — then what?, they ask. But my characters can see where end of history complacency has led: to financial and, above all, climatic collapse. Do they have a convincing alternative to the world in which they live? Do they know what they should hope for? Do they have a social and political programme? No. They feel only insecurity — dissolution and groundlessness. But perhaps something begins once your hopes for this world have been abandoned. Remember the autonomy that Bifo Berardi argues comes from refusal: ‘Do not take part in the game, do not expect any solution from politics, do not be attached to things, do not hope’. My teen characters look to achieve just such autonomy at the end of the novel…

3:AM: Mr Varga, who reads the students Thomas Bernhard in school assembly, seems like a distant cousin of those continental intellectuals Lars and W. would so like to imitate, and who do not seem too burdened by admin duties and the general tedium of life. The students feel sorry for him, and the Old Mole, for going to waste in a place like Wokingham. I kept thinking of him both as a subtle and loving gesture towards Europe and a poignant criticism of the modern academic industry that has no place for the old school Mitteleuropean type scholars.

LI: Mr Varga, a Hungarian teacher of history, has a central European glamour. He’s fascinated by Nietzsche’s diagnosis of the nihilism of the suburbs, giving the floor to his troubled pupil to let him speak of the possibility of overcoming that nihilism. Nietzsche helps Mr Varga, who is very familiar with idea of nihilism and the death of God, see the suburbs in a new light. Wokingham really is the fulfilment of nihilism — it’s where nihilism presents itself as such, where despair becomes the most common experience, at least among the young. (One reviewer  is unconvinced by this scene…)

How, Nietzsche asks, can we become worthy of the trial of nihilism? What new form of life would be able to affirm the suburbs just as they are? Mr Varga worries this kind of amor fati, love of fate, will lead straight to madness …

3:AM: I loved the scene. But I do also love Mr Varga, who despite his world-weariness is also full of a rather peculiar form of hope. In all your novels, hope exists in places where we might not traditionally look for it. Do you have a theory of hope that you seek to develop?

LI: ‘History means surprising events, Mr Varga said. It means something new happening. Do you see anything new happening?’ In some ways Nietzsche is that new thing for Mr Varga, but he falls short of my teen characters because he doesn’t try to love suburban fate; because he doesn’t belong to a collective through which he might redeem his suburban life.

There’s a gift of hope particular to youth, though it’s usually crushed out of them. The age of prophecy has returned with Greta Thunberg, who reminds us of the urgent necessity of responding to the problems that beset us. My characters come to share something of this urgency.

Alongside this fiery, prophetic hope, which is also a judgement on our civilization (Repent O Israel …), there is a more modest hope in my fiction, implicit in the very fact my characters speak to one another of what ails them. ‘The worst is not, so long as we can say, “This is the worst”’, Edgar says in King Lear. So long, that is, as we can address the statement ‘this is the worst’ to another person.

There’s hope implicit in the friendship between my characters, in the fact that they care share their gloom. You’ll hear the characters in my novels talking of the impossibility of hope, repeating Silenus’s wisdom that it’s best not to be born. But the fact that they can say such things, that they can converse with one another, is an opening to the future. It’s hopeful, in its way. Their gloom is lightened by their friendship (perhaps it is even belied by it, as Nietzsche suspects). Don’t we all want to have someone to talk to, someone who feels the same things we do? It’s rare enough. You have to bust through the compulsory positivity of our burnout society… This is not a license to moan, at least not about yourself. But there’s a whole art of despair, a black humour. That’s the humour of my novels, which reach out in friendship to their readers.

And that’s why I would argue my fiction is full of hope. It’s life-affirming, and, in that respect, contains optimism. As Edward Albee observes of Beckett, ‘I’ve never felt Sam to be a pessimistic playwright. A pessimist does not try to write. The true pessimist wouldn’t take the trouble of writing. Writing is an attempt to communicate, and if you’re a pessimist you say communication is impossible: you wouldn’t do it’.

Perhaps we find elements of a ‘theory of hope’ in the later philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. The directedness of what we say or write towards another person, which he calls Saying, must not be forgotten. Beyond the contents of what we say, what we write — beyond the order of what Levinas calls the Said — there is the hope implicit in the address itself. For Levinas, all communication, spoken or written, is meaningful, hopeful, as it addresses another. This is a larger point to my previous one. Levinas’s argument is not about sharing the content of what we say, laments about despair or otherwise, but about sharing the fact we can communicate. There’s a philosophy of speech implicit in all my work, from Spurious on, which draws on various Jewish modernist writers, to which my accounts of the Messiah and the apocalypse are tied. Not much to console us in these times, but still …

3:AM: W. and Lars are desperately looking for a leader in the trilogy. Wittgenstein upsets the balance in Wittgenstein Jr and makes a handful of students realise that a different way of thinking and living is possible, but he is a somewhat reluctant leader. Now you have protagonists who finally find one. And of all the people, they pick Wittgenstein and Nietzsche! The latter has a relatively bad track record in this respect.

LI: W. and Lars do indeed look for leaders. In my present trilogy, the philosophers trilogy, the leaders have arrived.

On the face of it, my Wittgenstein is exactly the leader his students are looking for. Sure, they don’t understand his thought and why it’s so important, although they admire its seriousness.
It recalls attitudes of the real Wittgenstein’s students. Here’s G.H. Von Wright:

I never took note of Wittgenstein’s lectures, but concentrated on trying to follow his train of thought. In retrospect I think it right to say that I understood next to nothing of what was going on, though I found Wittgenstein most impressive and stimulating.

The pupils of my novel respond to the sense that my Wittgenstein’s life and thought appear to be one. Seriousness of this kind — seemingly anachronistic now — is lacking in our cynical world. In Nietzsche and the Burbs, my school pupils discover some of the real Nietzsche’s themes for themselves. The death of God isn’t new to them. Nor is Nietzsche’s aesthetic theodicy, that is, the idea you can redeem suffering by creating tragic works of art.

It’s really only with Nietzsche’s aristocratic ethics that they struggle — his rejection of compassion and equality as a model for ethical life. True, they feel contempt for their complacent peers, but why does the memory of bullying horrify them so? Is this just weakness in turn, a lapse into conventional morality, or a sign of something else — of a faith in love, of the possibility of community, of the beginnings of politics?

3:AM: The choral approach is particularly beautiful when your teen characters wrestle with the ruthless aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Could they ever approve of a community that would accept them as members, to paraphrase the other Marx?

LI: The real Nietzsche’s thoughts are terrifying. What he asks us is to be! Even my Nietzsche can’t live up to them (though, as Paula argues, nor could the real Nietzsche). My characters wrestle with his ideas. Sometimes they reject them altogether, dreaming of a ‘philosophy of humble servanthood. A philosophy of restorative justice. A philosophy of penitential giving’ — of a return to the old morality. At other times, appalled at the state of humanity, nauseated by the present, they’re driven right back to Nietzsche’s most ruthless thoughts.

This movement of questioning is a sign of their life, their vibrancy — their passion for ‘self-overcoming’. It’s what’s most truly Nietzschean about them. My characters refuse to live the suburban lives they should want (‘Customer service, if we’re lucky. Selling insurance, if we’re lucky. Telemarketing, if we’re lucky’). But they also refuse to take Nietzsche as a counter-suburban authority figure. They test out his ideas in their passionate struggle against the temptations of ‘wretched contentment’ and of slavish devotion to a leader alike.

Art dreams of the band and of life in a commune. Chandra talks about re-enacting the death of God in order to found a new religion. ‘The death of God is greater and more divine than God…’ Merv, in a very unNietzschean turn, looks to David Mancuso’s loft parties in ‘70s New York for a template of community.

Paula, who is again doctrinally unNietzschean, also wants love to be the law. She’s thinking of romantic love, though she also dreams of life in the city, away from the suburbs. ‘Yes to the queer frontier. Yes to anywhere but here. Yes to queer bohemia.’

But all my teen characters come together in communal hope at the end of the novel. They’re going to refuse the suburbs in the suburbs. They’re going to live in exodus, contemplating the world from without. Perhaps their commune won’t last very long, but at least it’s an attempt to live…

3:AM: Apocalypse and exodus — are you writing a guide to life at the end times?

LI: A guide to life? The black humourist, Robert Scholes argues, ‘is concerned not with what to do about life but with how to take it’. But my blackly humorous work is concerned with what to do about life, and so are my characters.

When Merv speaks of disco, or of resurrection, this isn’t simply comical. Art is impressionable, changeable, but his pep-talks are full of fiery intensity. Chandra’s death-fantasies, Paula’s rapture before her lover, Noelle’s French fantasies: these are all attempts to counter suburban nihilism everywhere around them.

And in this respect, my characters are not nihilists, as my reviewers seem to think. They’re not teens to be patronized and laughed at in their folly. They’re anti-nihilists because, in their continual questioning, they renew the struggle against nihilism. As Krzysztof Michalski puts it in one of my favourite commentaries on Nietzsche, ‘Life is a constant overcoming of nihilism’ — constant because nihilism always threatens to return.

3:AM: Having discussed Nietzsche and the Burbs with people I have found that I tend to focus on or promote certain characters depending on how I feel or who I am talking to. Yet it is as difficult to talk about all of them together as it is to talk about them individually.

LI: Most important for me is their friendship, their collective life, the discussions they have, the things they try to accomplish together. They’re full of the spirit of youth, combative, unsentimental, lacking in self-pity, pushing each other to become new, unique, incomparable …

 

 

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Lars Iyer is the author of several novels, most recently Nietzsche and the Burbs. He lives and teaches creative writing in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Markku Nivalainen is a lapsed academic and occasional critic. He lives in Pontyclun, Wales, and provides administrative assistance for the Cardiff University Library.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, April 9th, 2020.