Photo credit: David Hall

With My Weil Lars Iyer draws his second trilogy—or “triptych” as he has previously described it—to a close. Like the Spurious trilogy, we roam the wreckage of the modern British university, where proper European philosophy is on the decline and Business Studies reigns supreme. This time we follow a group of postgraduates in “Disaster Studies” at a middling to lower-tier Manchester university as they prevaricate, roam the Zone-like Ees, drink picklebacks at Ruin Bar, and find every productive manner of avoiding writing their dissertation as a matter of principle—philosophical, artistic, even theological, as Iyer expands on below. As with all of Iyer’s novels, My Weil is that rarest of achievements, a place where ennoblement and abasement mingle, where profundity struggles to find its place in the ruins of our intellectual and cultural institutions, in short, where a space for thinking about our condition is opened. It is also tremendously funny. In what follows we discuss Iyer’s “loving tribute” to his own postgraduate days, to a “world and its mythology” which have faded from the scene, and to the spiritual yearnings which lay behind these modern comic masterpieces—the kind of book that I recommend to everyone I know and you should as well.

Michael Schapira: In our previous interview, I asked you about your relationship to the real Wokingham [the setting for Nietzsche and the Burbs] and a bit about how you might characterize the British suburbs to non-British people [though having moved to Scotland I feel I should say English suburb and non-English people]. I assume this might be a more involved answer, but what is your relationship with Manchester, and what should a non-English person know about its status?

Lars Iyer: My relationship with Manchester? I went there to study because of the music, because of what I knew about mancunian culture through the music. It was one of the most mythicised of cities. The period most mythicised: the late ‘70s through to the early ‘90s; from the doomy grandeur Joy Division through New Order, Buzzcocks, Magazine and The Smiths to the scruffy street-funk of The Happy Mondays.

Manchester, locals tell you, always did it first. It was the first city in the world to industrialise—one of the seats of the Industrial Revolution—and the first to deindustrialise. The late ‘70s Manchester of Joy Division was deprived, dour and grimy, far fallen from its nineteenth-century prosperity, its monumental Victorian architecture soot-black, its post-slum-clearance ‘60s blocks—cheaply built, all corners cut—shabby and crime-ridden. The same bleak Manchester was transfigured in the music of The Fall, whose leader, Mark E. Smith, was a visionary mancunian Blake.

And it was one of the first cities to reinvent itself post-industrially, too. The decline of local government power and Tory centralisation in the ‘80s saw Manchester’s municipal socialism give way to municipal entrepreneurialism, to public / private partnerships, to pragmatic neoliberalism. The yuppie ideology of the South seemed to have claimed the North. But the North fought back in the anti-aspirational Smiths. “I’ve never had a job because I’ve never wanted one,” Morrissey sang in 1984.

By the late ‘80s, when I arrived in the city as a student, regeneration was imminent. But unregenerated Manchester had one last surprise: ecstasy and rave culture, the buzzy nightlife of the Haçienda and the six semi-hooligan chancers called The Happy Mondays. Gentrified, rentier-dominated cities don’t have stories, by and large, so the myth ends there. In fact, a kitschified and reduced version of the myth became part of the regeneration even as the city lost the conditions that produced its great music.

I stayed on in Manchester as a postgraduate student, and have fictionalised that period in My Weil. I lived in Chorlton, like my characters, a mostly well-heeled Victorian suburb five miles or so from the city centre, in the real-life counterpart of Michael’s house. I had a full PhD studentship—very fortunate. I used to begin the day at a café, like my characters, go back to my room to work, and, in the afternoon, sometimes wander the Ees—a scruffy area of countryside along the river Mersey.

An arts and humanities PhD student lifestyle is not for everyone. Unstructured, open-ended days—here in the UK, there is no taught component to doctoral study, so you have to motivate yourself to read and write. Omnipresent guilt that you’re not working hard enough whenever you’re away from your desk. Little money and poor prospects: the chances of finding a fulltime academic job can be slim, especially if you’re from a lower league-table university.

Then there’s the problem of losing contact with old friends, contemporaries who are busy moving on in their careers, settling down, buying houses. You can’t keep up—you’re too poor to keep up with their lifestyles but nor do you especially want to. Your head is elsewhere—occupied with your studies, with the struggle to write, and with the academic scene of reading groups, guest speakers, symposia, conferences, and so on which means little to anyone but fellow academics.

Then there is the risk of disappointing yourself with your writing. Can you ever live up to the thinkers you admire? Is your dissertation any more than a patchwork of paraphrased secondary commentary in inelegant, stilted prose, complete with gauchely obvious-but-necessary signposting (In this chapter, I will . . . My aim in this section is to . . .)? Will you ever acquire the languages, ancient and modern, that you need for your studies?

For myself, I found PhD lifestyle a boon. After a couple of years in the south of England, living with my parents post-graduation, my life had a direction. A dissertation is a satisfyingly vast thing to put together. I was picking up skills (not as developed as they should have been) of academic writing, of presenting an argument. I was being made to take philosophy seriously; the department where I studied was an intense and focused place, with high academic standards. My work was carefully read and commented-upon, line by line—no room for bluster! There really were standards in the world: a great relief. And I was around people who lived intellectual lives, who took things seriously—so it really was possible!

And those times of wandering in the afternoon, of meeting new people in Chorlton cafes, broadened life beyond my study-bedroom. Friendships. Affairs. Adventures of various kinds. Such a variety of people. So much suffering, madness, tragedy. So many lives gone wrong. Signs of poverty and violence everywhere. Most of what I saw in Manchester I gave to Johnny in the novel.

Raymond Williams has my favorite definition of tragedy—”the loss of hope; the slowly settling loss of any acceptable future.” This is in some sense the mode of your postgraduates, and it is counter-posed by two characters—Simone, and Michael, who for different reasons are not oriented towards this unacceptable but inevitable future. In Michael’s case the reasons seem in part generational, that he wasn’t constantly squeezed and pressured for following his interests where they took him. He could, in short, secure a bit of property along the way, which as you said above was a great benefit to others in more precarious situations. If I’m right in saying that your postgraduates know that Michael isn’t providing a realistic model for exiting their tragic mode, what does he have to offer them? Maybe another way to put this is, what kind of intergenerational learning is on offer when the university, or other cultural mediations that would have connected young and old, Michael and the postgraduates, different hives of cultural and religious and educational activity in the city of Manchester, have been so steadily eroded?

To lose hope is to lose purpose and the sense of being someone. In a recent book [Apocalyptic Political Theology: Hegel, Taubes and Malabou: Political Theologies], Thomas Lynch argues that it is this very dissolution and groundlessness that might “open the possibility of new possibilities.” Not possibilities, mind you, but the possibility of possibilities. To give up hope in this world—even to hope for its destruction—can be liberating. Because there can be no reforming it, because nothing new can occur given its structuring antagonisms, the only option is to desire the end of the world.

This is the position some of my postgraduate characters share. The world is either too violent and corrupt or too smugly middle-class for them. They’re debt-ridden, without prospects, lacking all respect for worldly authority. They have little investment in the world as they find it. And yet they have trust and faith in their studies, in artworks (even if, in the latter case, it’s disavowed.) Sure, they place their hopes in the end of the world, but they also hope for something else—for the possibility of new possibilities.

In this regard, we might think of them as modern Gnostics.

Gnosticism, wrote Eric Voegelin to Marshall McLuhan in 1953, happens when reality has “become senseless to the men who live in it,” where “responsive spirituality is not vital enough to . . . find order in new communities outside the prevalent political order.” So it is with my postgraduates. Reality is senseless. They’re saturated with disgust. Granted, they suffer the world together—they’re part of a community of PhD students. They’re not entirely alone, and can work with their repugnancy to articulate and share an ethos, a way of living.

But what form does this ethos take? It might seem that my postgraduates are nihilists, but this is not the case. For the nihilist, the transcendent is entirely absent and therefore gives no meaning to immanent life. For the Gnostics of antiquity, however, the transcendent is quite real, albeit beyond the world, and can give meaning to immanent life insofar as humans try to live against the world. This also holds for the modern Gnostic.

What is transcendent for my postgraduates? They’re not sure. But they have a sense that something could break into from without. Perhaps this “something” might destroy the world. But it might lead to something through that destruction: to a new possibility of possibilities. This is their Gnostic hope against hope.

This impulse is revolutionary.

Jacob Taubes argues [From Cult to Culture: Fragments Towards a Critique of Historical Reason] that ancient forms of Gnosticism return in modern scientific, religious, and political revolution. Modernity is a quintessentially Gnostic age, the age of the “critique of all existence”—the prototype of every revolutionary movement in history, every avant-garde, every anarchism. The modern revolutionary wants to negate, abolish, and change current political, atheistic, or religious realities. Indeed, the Gnostic revolutionary (and all modern revolutionaries are Gnostic) wants to destroy worldly reality as such, pursuing negation as an end in itself.

It is here, seemingly paradoxically, that sense and purpose can be found. For Taubes’s modern Gnostic, the possibility of destroying the present world, of total revolution, gives meaning to human life. This is because the Gnostic revolutionary cannot completely negate and destroy the world, but has to live within it in active revolt. A distinct Gnostic ethos arises in the antinomian attempt to live against the norms and standards of the world.

This, indeed, was the attitude we find in the fascinating cases of Sabbatai Zevi and Joseph Frank as recounted by Gersholm Scholem, or of Paul of Tarsus as recounted by Taubes, and perhaps in the life of Taubes himself.

And it is this attitude that my postgraduates seek to reinvent in our times. They live against the contemporary academic world—against its standards of productivity, its privileged methodologies (indeed, against methodology itself), against networking and careerism. They set themselves against the usual model of the productive and keen-to-forge-careers PhD students, embracing a life of dissoluteness, prevarication, and wandering in the Ees.

Nihilism, you might think. Not so. For their hopelessness generates a peculiar kind of hope; their sense of the meaninglessness of the academic world around them can itself offer meaning. The very experience of there being no acceptable future for them is what gives them a future.

Their distinctive ethos is the driver of their drinking, their morose discussions, their black humour, their humour-filled disgust. They mean live a life of general unproductive revolt for as long as they can sustain their community of unworking or worklessness [The Inoperative Community] outside the prevailing political and ideological order.

Writing to the Corinthians, Paul of Tarsus uses the expression “as though not” (hōs mē) to show this early Christian community the attitude they should have towards worldly relations and actions:

The appointed time has grown short. From now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. I want you to be free from anxieties. (My emphasis)

Paul expects the return of the messiah, the second coming, the Day of Judgement. For the modern Gnostics of my novel, the appointed time will never come, yet the logic of the “as though not” can still be applied. Let those who have PhD scholarships be as though they had none, and those who write PhD dissertations be as though they were not writing, and those who attend academic conferences to network be as though they were not networking . . .

A world-overturning ethos; a way of living against the productive and deferred-gratification-demanding world: this is the rabbit my postgraduates pull out of the Gnostic hat, thereby saving themselves from what Williams calls tragedy. 

You’re right to suggest that Simone and Michael offer alternatives to this postgraduate Gnosticism. Simone’s acts of charity in working with the homeless appear to reveal another source of meaning. My postgraduates argue that it’s a concealed death-wish—Weilian “decreation” (the loss of ego in charitable giving) is ultimately a kind of suicide. (They’re wrong.) For his part, Johnny wants to save Simone from the streets, to start a romance. Erotic love might save her from the dangers of charitable love (and it might save Johnny himself).

Michael is more of a traditional Christian, albeit with a twist, holding onto the ancient idea that the Day of Judgement will come and God will save everything worthwhile. For him, everything good in Manchester will be preserved in the coming New Jerusalem. My postgraduates are suspicious. It’s all very well for a financially-blessed boomer to dream of the Kingdom of God . . . Johnny is even more doubtful, worrying that the power of evil is too great and has corrupted the world, making it unsavable.

So what is to be done? My postgraduates make a film that bears witness to their own faith and trust, their own Gnostic ethos. And Johnny writes My Weil, which is a similar testament to the inoperative time he spends with his fellow postgraduates. In both cases, something is intended to be passed on through these artworks. And it is in this attempted transmission that we can see the possibility of the intergenerational learning you mention. Both artworks are messages in a bottle to those who come after. Acts of friendship for unknown viewers, unknown readers which might instruct them on how to live . . .

Here is Tarkovsky from Sculpting in Time that I felt captured the Weil/Tarkovsky coordinates for the postgraduates in My Weil: “Only when a person is willing and able to trust the artist, to believe him, can he be sensitive and susceptible to art. But how hard it sometimes is to cross the threshold of incomprehension which cuts us off from the emotional, poetic image. In just the same way, for a true faith in God, or even in order to feel a need for that faith, a person has to have a certain cast of soul, a particular spiritual potentiality.”

Is the postgraduate (the British postgraduate) a particularly good candidate for Tarkovskian trust?

Trust in the artist, faith in God: both, for Tarkovsky, require a particular temperament or “cast of soul” if we are to encounter what we need from art. But what is it that we need? What are we looking for? Is it a version of the transcendence that the modern Gnostic seeks? A way that the world as we know it might be shattered from without?

Watching Tarkovsky’s films back in my hometown was for me an event of this magnitude, in the same way as reading Dostoevsky or listening to the music of Shostakovich.

And something akin to such faith, such trust, is there in my postgraduates, studying for PhDs, writing long-form dissertations which, although they are guided by their supervisor, is very much a solitary pursuit.

Where will their studies take them? Of course, as anyone engaged in long-form intellectual endeavour will know, this usually only reveals itself towards the end of the project. Only retrospectively does the path they followed—the Greek word for which, hodos, is the etymological root of the word, method—become clear.

And with my postgraduates, as working class people demanding everything from philosophy, there’s even more at issue. For them, writing a true work of philosophy would be a revolution, a shattering of the world. “If a man could write a book on ethics which really was a book on ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world,” wrote Wittgenstein. It’s a similar thought.

This is why the postgraduates of my novel distrust the compulsory methodology class that they are forced to take. It seeks to specify in advance what can only be experienced retrospectively, what hints at itself before completion only uncertainly, waveringly, in trust and faith.  

Methodology class makes no room for the threshold which is so important to Tarkovsky, that voyage through uncertainty that is at the heart of PhD study. Like the figure of eros in Plato’s Symposium, my postgraduates exist in a liminal state between poverty and plenitude, wandering without being entirely sure what they’re searching for.

The word study is etymologically linked to the word stupidity. The student—and in particular, the postgraduate student—doesn’t know what they’re doing, but must persist in a kind of faithful stupidity. This can lead to stupor, which shares the same etymological link, but that’s part of the process: you have to trust it. To be a genuine postgraduate student, you must be unsure about what you’re doing, you must cultivate the faith and trust that are also part of the Gnostic ethos.

This is the “passion of studious solitude” of my PhD students. A passion so extreme that actually beginning their dissertations would be a betrayal of the object of faith to which my characters are devoted. To write anything at all would be to desert the threshold on which they seek to remain, to forgo the nurturing stupidity of their piety.

I play this for laughs—and it is funny. (My Weil is supposed to be funny, notwithstanding my high seriousness in interview.) But of course it means my students should be excellent candidates for Tarkovskian trust when it comes to artworks and even to religious faith. But this isn’t quite the case. Because they distrust the trust they feel in the artworks that are important to them, especially Tarkovsky’s films. They don’t have faith in the faith that draws them to the “emotional, poetic image.”

Why? They’re British—and there’s an automatic British distrust of what is taken to be pretension. And they’re working class, which deepens their distrust of trust even further. They’re unsure of themselves, frightened of what they love. The high seriousness of Tarkovsky’s films feels alien to them. It’s as if their faith and trust have been entirely used up in their studies in European philosophy. There’s nothing left over for art!

Only my character Ismail is able to cultivate trust in art, which is why the other characters make him a figure of ridicule. They even form a collective to prevent him from taking his artistic ambitions too seriously, taking over his filmmaking. They laugh at Ismail, which of course means that they also laugh at themselves.

And yet, my novel shows how this trust and faith are present in the collective’s filmmaking. The film they make with Ismail is solely concerned with the threshold of stupidity that is part of the life of study. Their film performs its own kind of salvation of the world, keeping memory of the trust and faith that can be too quickly forgotten once a project is complete. It is my student’s version of the New Jerusalem that is supposed to come to Earth during the biblical Apocalypse.

Sticking with the Russians for a moment, Johnny, the protagonist of sorts in the book, struck me as particularly Dostoyevskian, specifically of The Idiot. His sustained ravings about the howling nihilism and apocalypticism all around reminded me of Ippolit, and in his quiet moments as a warden in the student hall, of Prince Myshkin. How has this trilogy/triptych you’ve just finished allowed you to play around a bit more with characterization in this mode, letting certain personality types and preoccupations loose and testing them against these steady figures of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Weil?

In his great novels, Dostoevsky explored the moral consequences of the radical ideas of the new intelligentsia—that class of highly educated people who were no longer content with the inherited social and religious structures of mid-nineteenth-century Russia. His genius was to explore these ideas from the inside, showing how they are concretely lived by his characters. So sympathetic are Dostoevsky’s portrayals that his characters are often mistakenly believed to embody his own ideas.

And Dostoevsky’s portrayal of the moral and intellectual struggles of the new intelligentsia remain utterly relevant. His work came to massive global prominence in the wake of World War One, in which social and religious structures collapsed in Europe. This collapse remains with us, taking different forms, which means that Dostoevsky’s writings remain as urgent as ever in their often-misunderstood war against nihilism. This is the case even in his religious interests, which seem to be at odds with a secular society like the UK’s.

In The Idiot, Dostoevsky shows how the ideals of “a positively beautiful human being” play out in the world. Prince Myshkin is tragically ineffectual, and finds his foil in the terminally-ill Ippolit, one of Dostoevsky’s great metaphysical rebels. Ippolit is sincere in seeing Holbein’s painting of Jesus in the tomb as the triumph of the death and decay over the slain messiah. But Ippolit, Dostoevsky allows us to see, is flawed; there is an egotism in the way he clings to his suffering.

As you observe, Johnny, my narrator, has his moments of Myshkin-like saintliness. He is inordinately sensitive to suffering, and is profoundly disturbed by the poverty and evil he sees around him.

Johnny’s position as an assistant warden in a student hall gives him the chance to lose himself into a life of quiet service, resembling, in his own way, the self-effacing protagonists of Robert Walser’s fiction . But Johnny isn’t content to be a perfect zero, like Jacob von Gunten. He craves the salvation of his adopted city, which is why my version of Simone Weil becomes so important to him.

Johnny rails and cries like Ippolit, but is no egoist. As the initials of his name nearly spell out, he is a Job figure, asking the great questions of the meaning of life and its possible salvation—questions for which my Simone Weil (and my character Michael) have differing answers. Johnny explores these answers for himself as the novel proceeds. In the end, he is not ineffectual at all. He isn’t a tragic figure, like Myshkin.

In many ways, as for some of Dostoevsky’s characters, this is a religious quest—it is about the ways in which Christian trust and faith play out in the world. Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God does not mean trust and faith are dead. Christianity, like Gnosticism, can help us learn to honour the trust and faith that are at the heart of artistic and intellectual endeavour.

Testing philosophies through the life of my characters is indeed what this trilogy of novels has permitted me. I’ve tried to create my own “metaphysical rebels,” bringing different philosophies to life, showing how they might fare in contemporary Britain. Wittgenstein Jr isn’t really about its titular character so much as the effect he has on others. The same goes for Nietzsche and the Burbs.

Each novel in the current trilogy traces a trajectory of trust and faith as it unfolds the practical implications of a philosophy for its characters. No coincidence that the real versions of Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, and Weil sought to live their philosophy as what Pierre Hadot called a spiritual practice—as a way of life. They were testing out their thought, too.

At the core of all your books is humor, of “taking the piss,” but what could also be “you gotta laugh to keep from crying”; because there is often a bitter truth that characters are riffing on. There are so many little flourishes that I love in this book, but I wanted to share one for the readers. This is at a conference where the graduate students in Manchester have been able to lure a real Continental philosopher from France to speak at their conference:

We’re like idiot twins of real philosophers. Of real European philosophers. Of real continental philosophers. Cut off from our mainland. In our own weird niche.

We’re developing strange characteristics. Like fish trapped in caves, whose eyes have de-evolved. Who’ve lost their pigmentation. Who’ve, like, atrophied.

We’ve set up our idiot shrines, with our versions of the great thinkers. Idiot-Heideggers. Dunce-Deleuzes. We’re venerating our icons. Repeating their vocabulary. We’ve made our cargo-cult versions of the European greats.

This probably goes back to your early blogging practices, but are you constantly jotting these down as an exercise in itself? But more broadly, six novels in, have the rhythms of these flourishes helped you work through certain narrative issues?

My postgraduate characters doubt themselves, their trust, their faith. They can’t take themselves entirely seriously. They are working-class students in the academy, looking at everything from the outside.

This perspective, and the resulting awkwardness they feel, means they’re eminently able to wax satirical—laughing at the conventions of academic conferences, at the two main kinds of philosophy they come across: analytic and continental, as well as at the smugness of middle-class mancunians and so on. They need this outlet: it’s their way of coping with their feelings of class displacement and intellectual inadequacy.

The passage you quote was freshly written for My Weil, seeing my characters broadening self-critique to the larger continental-philosophical academic world. I want to emphasise that their satirical views are not mine. They reflect their own class position, their own alienation.

Having said that, it also recalls a distinctive humour of self-deprecation common to UK continental philosophy in the mid-1990s. Back then, university expansion meant that unlikely people found themselves in academic positions—those who weren’t part of an academic guild, intellectual families. There was, for a time, genuine class mobility—jobs for people who really didn’t expect them, who pursued their studies out of burning interest—out of trust and faith in what they did not know.

Everything I write in my fiction is my loving tribute to that world and its mythology, which began to disappear in the mid-2000s, with department closures and the thinning out of European philosophy departments. I want to remember its piss-taking and self-deprecation, sure, but also its genuine passion and ardency and brilliance.

I’ve said that my characters are driven to wax satirical. But my response to your question would not be complete if I didn’t show how they go beyond satire.

Satire depends on old norms, on stable, dependable, and authoritative values—on a shared sense of what is just and unjust, and of the position from which to make judgement. It depends upon there being a shared world, the condition of which can be ameliorated through satire.

For example, I imagine I share with my readers a sense of the value of the humanities, a hope that they will go on. The satirical elements of my fiction can be seen as part of a hope that the humanities survive in the contemporary university and are prized for what they are.

Of course! Obviously! The trouble is my characters do not merely satirize the cultural philistinism that threatens the humanities and European philosophy. Their despair runs deeper; sure, it takes particular things as an object—like methodology class and slow-running buses—but these things don’t exhaust it.

Ultimately—and this is their Gnosticism—they feel disgust for existing as such, for being in the world in general. This is what indicates itself in the sheer hyperbole of their ranting. All those italics! All those exclamation marks! My characters are hysterical; they lack any kind of proportion; their negativism has no bounds, and this is the point.

The riffs of negativism in my fiction are descendants of the famous rants that Thomas Bernhard allows his Geistesmenschen, intellectuals who fulminate against post-war Austrian narrow-mindedness and ignorance amongst other subjects (three-ring binders, Heidegger’s peasant chic, the vexations caused by close relatives). A Bernhardian narrator inveigles against pretty much everything so wildly that he cannot help but implicate himself, too, revealing his own weaknesses and resentments, his confused desires and foibles.

Bernhard’s intellectuals are descendants of Dostoevsky’s mid-nineteenth-century intellectuals, discontent with the world as they inherit it, and playing out their peculiar philosophies in verbal screeds. But the “base” philosophy of Bernhard’s world is different to that of Dostoevsky. There are no equivalents of Alyosha or Father Zossima from The Brothers Karamazov, or Prince Myshkin. No Bernhard character has trust and faith in God.

Bernhard’s intellectuals exhibit what Kierkegaard called so vividly “the uttermost of world-disgust.” In my view, which I have argued for elsewhere, this attitude can be articulated as a distinctive ethos, a negativism—as a version of the Gnosticism that I’ve already described: a way of living against the world as such.

When I wrote my blog back in the mid-2000s, academic life was a target of some of my Bernhard-inspired writing. It was a liberation. Rereading Bernhard in my thirties opened a whole new practice of writing to me—indeed, what I came to understand as a distinctive literary ethos.  

Back then, I had just found a permanent academic job. I was able to buy a flat and make longer-term plans than my former life of part-time, often hour-paid teaching permitted. Until that time, I always had the excuse of precarious working conditions, of financial insecurity to explain the shortcomings of my philosophical writings. I published because I had to; my scholarly monographs were written to help me find a job, to make my way in the academic world.

But there comes a moment when you have to confront your condition without alibi. Bernhard’s example, his inimitable style, allowed me to express my horror at what I’d written much too quickly and under too much pressure. It also allowed me to elevate this critique to the next level: to laugh at the notion that having time might allow me to write something worthwhile.

And Bernhard’s example encouraged me to take it further still: to include all my academic aspirations, writerly ambitions and so on as objects of thoroughgoing critique and more. To implicate everything, a whole culture, a whole world. Soon, spreading like wildfire, it bore upon existence itself, life itself.

Which is to say that I sought to write not satirically but in the opposite direction, as Bernhard calls it, where the object of derision was not just me as philosophical author, nor even the academic scene that allows me to present myself as a philosophical author, and nor even the culture of which that academic scene was a part. It was about the world as such; about the Gnostic feeling of the “uttermost of world disgust.”

I just moved, and in so doing may have given up the perch, albeit increasingly precarious, that I had teaching philosophy at the university level. This presented all kinds of decisions, like what to do with all these philosophy books I’ve accumulated in the past few decades that would compound our moving expenses. My attitude towards them is nicely summed up by your postgraduates: “Have we read all these books, Business Studies Guy? Not really. But we’ve been in their presence, Business Studies Guy. We’ve been close to them. We’ve kept them on our bookshelves. We’ve laid them beside us on our bedside tables. And we’ve read about them—some of them.”

Brecht wrote in “To Posterity,” “What an age it is / When to speak of trees is almost a crime.” When rent-seekers and administrators of precarious labor conditions assault a generation of those like me, it feels as if “What an age it is / When to maintain an aspirational library is almost a crime.” What happens to the libraries of your postgraduates after their time in the university, their experience of time within a university, comes to an end?

An aspirational library: that’s a wonderful phrase. Books that you might not have read, but would like to read one day. Books you might want to refer to. Or just be in the presence of. Books you just want around you. A real luxury in this world, as you say: who can afford books? Who has the space to display them?

My postgraduates don’t expect to find an academic job. They’ll gradually forget their studies, they think. Their book collection will diminish with successive house moves. Eventually, their volumes of Benjamin or Cassirer or Simondon will be relegated to charity shops.

A paraphrase of another Brecht poem: “In the dark times, will there be philosophy? / There will be philosophy about the dark times.” A philosophy about the impossibility of aspirational libraries in this debt-ridden and rentier-ridden world . . .

I love picklebacks. What made this the preferred drink of your postgraduates?

My character Michael serves wine at his house. It’s the drink of conviviality, as it was for Ivan Illych in his “living room conversations,” which were the model for the discussion-scenes in My Weil. Wine fosters philosophical conversation, as it did for the ancient Greeks at their symposia.

But my characters seek more from their drinking. They’re never so ecstatic as when they drink picklebacks at Ruin Bar. It’s as though their despair has caught fire; as though they’ve channelled Gnostic wisdom from on high. They’re in contact with the true transcendence that not only augurs the destruction of the world but shows what might be saved from it.

Each novel has a different drink: Plymouth Gin, black zombies, vodka, and now picklebacks (which enjoyed a vogue in the UK in the mid-2000s), but the role is the same: as accelerants of trust and faith.

Michael Schapira is an Interviews Editor at Full Stop.

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