About The Author
Two philosophy professors, one named after the author, one simply named 'W.' travel back and forth between Plymouth and Newcastle, insulting each other, attempting to finish impossible-sounding essays and trying to solve the damp problem in Lars' flat. Nothing much happens, brilliantly.
What began as light relief on a philosophy blog written by Lars Iyer has now spawned a whole trilogy: the first, Spurious, was a mini-marvel of hope and hopelessness, introducing the world to two of the best 'frenemies' you are ever likely to come across. In the follow-up, Dogma, the two hapless professors try to establish a new thought movement in the USA, embarking on an increasingly nonsensical lecture tour and leaving pieces of their minds on a succession of
Exodus, the final part of the trilogy, again sees Lars and W. touring, but this time around the UK. It is safe to say they are not impressed by what they find.
We spoke to Lars, himself a senior lecturer of Philosophy at Newcastle University, to establish a few things about life, literature and most importantly, Peanuts.
Questions & Answers
Exodus is the third in a trilogy - will we be seeing more from Lars and W. (and perhaps those elusive Essex post-graduates) in the future?
That's all from Lars and W. for now. You have to know when to quit! Think of the last few seasons of The Sopranos! Having said that, there are some interesting real-life events coming up which might lend themselves, one day, to fictional treatment. For example, we're bringing some of the Italian philosophers I mention in the trilogy to Oxford in April. And there are some parts of the backstories of Lars and W. still left unexplored ...
This book is almost as long as Spurious and Dogma put together, and feels more expansive somehow - was there a reason for this wider scope?
I wanted to say everything, in some way. To say it all in this strange new style I've developed, to say everything it can allow me to say. And I wanted to draw together everything I'd written so
far, to follow all the hares to their lairs....
Would you say Exodus is a more serious work than the previous two novels? There seems to be a more overtly political aspect to this one. Do W.'s feelings about the current state of academia in this country chime with your own?
The trilogy is set in neoliberal Britain in the mid- to late 2000s, but I also wanted to explore the way its characters had been shaped by the turn to neoliberal capitalism in the Thatcher years. There's some of this in Dogma. But Exodus deepens this account of the characters, depicting a younger W. studying in the 1980s, as part of a group of highly politicized and utopian Essex postgraduates, and a younger Lars, studying in the late '80s and early '90s in a rapidly regenerating Manchester. For his part, W. still burns with the desire for politics, but the case of Lars is more difficult to determine. Lars seems too ravaged by what Wendy Brown has called 'quotidian nihilism' - a general, barely individualised sense of despair - to have any real faith in political transformation.
You ask me whether I share W.'s feelings about academia. Like many others, I am worried by what Bill Readings long ago diagnosed as the collapse of the 'idea of culture' on which the modern university was based. The notion of 'excellence' that replaced this older ideal is a technocratic one, being concerned with narrow notions of productivity and market performance. For me, as for my characters W. and Lars, the humanities are in danger simply of servicing neoliberal capitalism, training students to fit in with the new 'knowledge economy' rather than encouraging them to more general ethical and civic reflection, and weeding out would-be academics who are not content simply to produce yet more academic papers, monographs and funding proposals.
You've mentioned daily cartoons like Peanuts as influences in previous interviews - and certainly there seem to be some elements of Garfield and Jon's relationship in that of Lars and W., a kind of outwardly relentless cruelty punctuated by moments of affection... do you agree? Would you consider printing Spurious as a cartoon?
I've always thought of the W. and Lars material as a kind of comic strip. That's how it functioned on the blog, back when I wrote in a greater variety of styles - it was supposed to be a kind of light relief, my equivalent of the 'funnies' at the bottom of the newspaper page. I wanted it to work in exactly the same way as Schultz's Peanuts and George Herriman's Krazy Kat: each daily 'strip' (in my case, each W. and Lars blog post) was to be free-standing enough to introduce new readers to these characters and their situations, but, at the same time, part of a longer story arc, part of a larger 'mythology'. When I found it difficult to come up with new twists on the W. and Lars relationship, I reminded myself of Schultz and Herriman, and what they were able to do with a tiny number of characters and a restricted range of situations. But the trilogy could not be printed as a cartoon, for the same reason that it couldn't be made into a play, or a film: so much of its effect depends on a narrative distancing, which means we can never be sure of the veracity of W.'s account of Lars. Is Lars really as fat as W. suggests, or as stupid? For me, it's vital that the audience is unsure about the answer to these questions.
All three novels are written from an interesting perspective, from Lars' point of view but mainly reporting W.'s speech - yet somehow it feels natural. Why did you settle on this way of writing?
The narrative technique I use in the trilogy is very much in service of its tragicomic vision.
Lars, the narrator of my trilogy, allows us to hear a great deal about W.'s hopes. W. believes in the possibility of writing a great philosophical work or being part of some great revolution. Lars, who we only know through W.'s commentary, does not seem to share this hope. Lars seems to have experienced 'quotidian nihilism' to a much greater degree than W., and is perhaps better acquainted for that reason with the 'truth' of our contemporary situation - the 'truth' of neoliberal capitalism and climate change.
I wanted to convey to the reader a sense both of the political and philosophical energies W. feels able to summon, and of the failure of those energies. To be sure, there is something comic about W.'s setbacks, and the way he always seems to recover his hopes. But I hope that there is also something tragic about his despair, especially when W. recounts anecdotes that Lars has told him, which seem only to show how hopeless things are.
The narrative distance that I employ in the trilogy allows Lars to keep the final tragic (or more-than-tragic) word, even as it also allows the readers to encounter the force and seriousness of W.'s utopianism. Hope tempered and hopelessness regretted: that's what you find in my characters.
You've touched on the philosophers that are frequently mentioned in all three books. Did you feel it was a risk to include some of the more esoteric references, that the average fiction reader may be unfamiliar with?
There's no need for the reader to have any idea who the many names are who come up in the novel. I picked many of the philosophers and writers my characters discuss and quote from because of their very obscurity, and their lack of relationship to contemporary Britain. More generally, I wanted these names to suggest a vanished world that the characters hanker after, a world in which the kind of hopes W. nurtures would not seem so absurd.
W. is convinced that the world is about to end, at times almost hopeful for it, and that 'the language of the end times is wholly appropriate to our times'. Do you think that the end of the world is something that we all secretly crave?
My characters do indeed believe that they are living in the 'end times', just as many thinkers have believed before them. But there is a crucial difference between W. and Lars, and the millenarians that Norman Cohn has written about in his Pursuit of the Millennium (a book I explicitly reference in Exodus): my characters cannot believe that the apocalypse will actually reveal anything, will actually make things clear. Etymologically, the word, 'apocalypse', suggests a kind of unveiling, a revelation. The apocalypse is supposed to show God's plan for the world. But what if there is no plan, and nothing to reveal? It's no wonder that W. and Lars sometimes give in to despair!
Of course, as the work of Cohn shows us, there has always been a not-so-secret desire for the apocalypse. It's the moment of judgement, when the wicked are punished, and the meek rewarded. Yes, the apocalypse involves destruction, but it is a destruction in the name of a new hope, a destruction in the name of the Messiah, of the messianic age. The apocalypse is a moment in which the Messiah intervenes in human history. But what happens when you have no faith in a final judgement, in the coming of the Messiah, or in the opening of the messianic age? Instead of the 'end times', there is only an endless end, the continual resurgence of chaos and meaninglessness.
The endless end: this, in many ways, is our situation, in contemporary Britain and elsewhere. Even secular forms of the faith in the Messiah, such as the belief that income inequality is decreasing, or that wealth will trickle down to the poor, or that we might come up with a way of managing climatic change, have begun to fail. In some ways, W. and Lars are canaries in our coalmine, facing what it is difficult for us to confront.
There is a yearning for other places in other times that dominates all three novels, and especially for 'Old Europe'. Kafka's Prague, Kierkegaard's Denmark... Yet Lars and W. are permanently grounded in monotony - lager on trains and reduced-price sandwiches. Was it important to you to harness them to the here and now, even as they try and escape it?
Yes, W. and Lars find themselves mired in the 'endless end' of ordinary life in neoliberal Britain, with all its petty frustrations. W., in particular, dreams of being part of a larger community - whether it be founded on political activism, in the manner of the Autonomia group of Mario Tronti and his friends, or on something more nebulous, as when W. dreams of migrating to Canada, or undertaking an expedition to the legendary land behind the North wind. W. longs to have a whole army of thinker-friends; some great unguessed-at politico-philosophical leap might be possible then, he hopes. Instead, he finds himself stuck with Lars on a train ...!
Absurd as W.'s dreams might seem, they do communicate a legitimate sense that, in these times, life is elsewhere, that a whole cluster of philosophical, artistic and political possibilities, linked to what my characters call 'Old Europe', to European Modernism, has disappeared. By bringing together the dreams of this vanished Modern Europe with the mundane world of contemporary Britain, I want to indicate just how remote these vanished possibilities have become. I want the audience to feel these possibilities too, and to feel the sadness of their passing.