Review of The Artist as Mystic: Conversations with Yahia Lababidi

Cover of The Artist as Mystic: Conversations with Yahia Lababidi

The Artist as Mystic: Conversations with Yahia Lababidi, by Alex Stein, Onesuch Press, 2012.

Conceived by Alex Stein, U.S. writer, illustrator, and author of Made Up Interviews with Imaginary Artists (Ugly Duckling Press, 2009), and Egyptian-American writer Yahia Lababidi, whose most recent publication is a poetry collection Fever Dreams (Crisis Chronicles Press), The Artist as Mystic is a book in the category of creative non-fiction. It is neither a collection of academic essays nor superficial interviews, but an original reworking of meeting of minds. In captivating “lyric conversations” Alex and Yahia “explore the lives and art of ecstatic poets,” “of tortured and ecstatic souls” namely the authors Kafka, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Rilke, Kierkegaard, and Ekelund.

Both Alex and Yahia are ardent practitioners of aphorism and this influences the scope of these “conversations” which often stem from aphorisms of the authors discussed. As defined by The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Theory (Fourth Edition) this genre “exposes at any rate a part of the truth, and is an aperçu or insight,” and “is of great antiquity, timeless and international.” Writers who are known for their aphorisms include Aristotle, Pascal, de Tocqueville, Chaucer, William Blake, Goethe and others.

Some of the essay-conversations of this short but rich book (available in paperback and ebook) have appeared in issues of literary magazines: “The Prayer of Attention” and “The Exquisites” in Agni and “To Go and Seek the Twilight Hour” in Gulf Coast Review (2011.)

Taking their inspiration from the private journals, letters, recorded conversations and oeuvre of the chosen authors, the dialogue between Alex and Yahia assume a tone that is not everyday and spontaneous but rather polished and elevated. The tone may seem a bit precious at first but it becomes a pleasure to read these pages in small doses. Time is essential to digest the insights into Kafka, Baudelaire, Rilke, Eklund et al..

Yahia tells Alex, the “interviewer,” that he discovered the poet -aphorist Vilhelm Ekelund (1880-1949) of Sweden through a Swedish friend. He soon was reading and researching Ekelund’s writings which had propelled this poet to fame in his country at twenty-three years old. Yahia’s fascination was not only with Ekelund’s connection with Nietzsche who had a life changing effect  but also that he was a “mystic.”

This aspect, as the bland title of the book asserts, is the profound spiritual object of these conversations.

In Part Two: “I’m Afraid My angels Will Take Flight As Well,” Yahia begins: “The solitude seems to be the key to everything. For Nietzsche, for Rilke, for Ekelund. Solitude enough that they can hear the echo of their longing returning as a concentrated drop, direct from heaven.”

Although Alex Stein is an illustrator, it is not specified if he did the front cover painting which shows the figure of a man disfigured more or less, and may be repellent though in the sense that The Scream is repellent and disturbing. The image of “tortured ecstatic souls” is projected onto the cover and the works of such souls analyzed inside.

For the discriminate reader who desires to delve deeper into Baudelaire, Kafka, Rilke, et al. with these two intense literary minds who complement each other, The Artist as Mystic can be highly recommended.

Anne Cimon is a Montreal freelance writer. She has published four books of poetry including the bilingual edition An Angel around the Corner / Un ange autour du coin. Her most recent book A Room on the Mountain is a novella set in Montreal.