The Artist as Mystic: Conversations with Yahia Lababidi by Alex Stein is first and foremost a tribute to the literary forbearers of the previous century. A passionate analysis of some of the European intelligentsia — mostly Rilke, Kafka, Baudelaire and Nietzsche — the book is a collection of essays in which Lababidi tells Stein about how these writers, who played a major role in shaping our intellectual landscape, have influenced his writing.
An American poet of Egyptian origin, Yahia Lababidi has published Signposts to Elsewhere and Trials by Ink, both of which were critically acclaimed. Alex Stein is the author of Made-up interviews with Imaginary Artists, and the authors have collaborated for this book, which is a collection of previously published essays in the form of lyrical conversations, introducing the reader to a new pathway in literary appreciation.
About this curious project, Stein says, “My choice to help create a book of conversations, rather than one of traditional essays, was a choice intended to help me make peace with the strange, familiar figures our conversations (have) examined (those brilliant, condemned souls) and a choice intended to help me see them more clearly. I came to the form called “the interview”, as a poet. A conversation, rightly understood, between persons of affinity, need never be anything less than a poem.”
Referring to the cultural atmosphere of their times and even their personal histories, and analysing their literary contributions, served in platter of lyrical conversations, Stein and Lababidi delve deep into their favourite authors, seeking where one draws the line in looking to literary figures for answers. For instance, Lababidi finds that Kafka’s writings, mostly existentialist and surreal, are deeply personal.
He feels that what we read in Kafka is a universalised sensuality, a shy experience of the self as the other. And one finds in Baudelaire a tendency to mysticism, which is quite different from that of Rilke or Rumi, whose exalted poetry is an altogether different realm. Kafka’s dream prose and Baudelaire’s poetry are compared, and are found to come to their similarities from opposite ends of experience. In such confabulations about those great minds that have aroused the intellectual curiosity of generations of literary enthusiasts, the duo finds that true poets are connected to one another by a mutuality of intention, a rage for transformation.
For Indian readers, Lababidi says, this book might appear to be a meditation on the philosophy and poetry of certain Western literary figures. But he emphasises that it is more than that. “It is an intimate conversation that Alex and I are having within ourselves and with one another, about what we believe to be sacred in literature, and, in turn, through literature, the world at large. It is our wish that these mystical musings resonate with our Indian audience since, ultimately, this is a domain that belongs to all of us, and where Western traditions are in many ways still catching up with the rich insights of the East,” he adds.
Steven Wlazly of Onesuchpress, the (Australian) publisher of the book, says that these conversations constitute what Australians call a “songline” — a set of sacred songs that allow the reader/ listener to navigate through an unknown terrain. “If others could recreate the intimate experience of this text, this form of writing could easily become popular. I expect however that writers with understand and precision required to pull it off will be rare.” He expects this book to do well in Asia, “being as it is, the birthplace of both philosophy and mysticism.”