Nietzsche and Michael Jackson Have a Connection, as These Acute Essays Show

Trial By Ink, From Nietzsche to Belly Dancing, Yahia Lababidi, essays, Common Ground Publishing, 143pp, 2010.

The wood that finds itself a violin is an utterly charming conceit. It’s Lababidi’s subtitle, but it comes from the poet Arthur Rimbaud, who wrote, “Too bad for the wood that finds itself a violin.”

Here in this first essay Lababidi is trying to come to terms with the horrific sacrifices by artists to make art. The success of the essay, in spite of its difficult choreography, is that it conveys the suffering incurred by the gift, a suffering that explains the immense power of the Crucifixion to bring the mind to order in the midst of chaos.

In “A Prayer of Attention,” his second chapter, the author gives a picture of a student awakening to the splendors of books. It’s interesting not least because it flies in the face of a growing impression that we attend college to certify ourselves rather than to learn how to learn. Here is a distinctly and refreshingly opposite view-a young man going to college not to pick up employable skills but to embark on a great adventure. As higher education fortifies itself out of the reach of the hoi polloi this world view becomes poignant, if not quaint.

I think I know how to write about a volume of poetry, or at least I have some qualifications. I don’t know how to approach essays like these and certainly not philosophical discourse. But I was emboldened to read Trial By Ink and to react to it because so much that passes for essay is actually tract and sometimes screed, and I thought it would be refreshing to read something more akin to Michel Eyquern Montaigne. I decided after reading the first three chapters to pursue an extrapolationist angle: how is this relevant to what is happening under our noses?

In his third chapter, “The Great Contrarians,” Lababidi writes of Friederich Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde. Almost immediately I began thinking how authors who raised ontological questions might be received in today’s publishing environment, defined as it is by marketers and lawyers. Wilde’s wit might have distracted the marketers from his unsettling asperity, but Nietzsche would have to be co-opted, as he often has, by manipulators with an agenda. Fanatics would once again find a way to use him.

Chapter Seven is an homage to Brian Turner’s 2004 Here, Bullet, an extended meditation on the Iraq war in verse. I have written about Here, Bullet, too, and while I seem to admire Turner’s poetics more than Lababidi does, I also missed salient insights that Lababidi celebrates, such as the almost magical transformations in us that occur when we consider death with a clear eye.

Trial By Ink, a miscellany of extended and flash essays, is in its totality surprisingly ambitious. Lababidi is hip and, accordingly, his essays on pop culture are more memorable than his nonetheless insightful essays on people who have long figured in the history of thought. For this reason, I would have preferred that the pop culture essays precede the more academic work, if only to insure the reader’s perseverance.

From Susan Sontag, murder and sexual deprivation to mathematics, silence and contrarians like Wilde and Rimbaud, Labadidi reminds us of the forensic scientist who puts under the microscope everything the rest of us are inclined to overlook. He is doing what journalists ought to be doing and are doing less and less because their bosses don’t want to foot the bill. The journalistic establishment has built an elaborate rationale for its way of doing things, but this is what it should be doing, raising the issues that make us think rather than opine.

He is particularly astute when he challenges our popular assumptions, as he does in “The King Is Dead, Long Live the King,” not an especially helpful title for a telling reappraisal of Michael Jackson’s place in our collective memory. Labadidi has compendious knowledge of pop culture. Here he recalls how the fabulously successful song “Billie Jean” was initially turned down by the categorist moguls at MTV because of their discomfort with black artists.

In its totality, Trial By Ink makes the case that our culture cannot be understood by what the popular media say about it, because they are shapers and tastemakers, and therefore inherently unreliable. It makes the further case that this is why we must have books, in whatever form they may take in the 21st Century, because in their absence our understanding of ourselves is mortally shallow. The essay is not punditry, and we confuse the essayist and the pundit at our peril. But in every case-I wonder if Labadidi would agree with me-the provider of the vehicle, the publisher, is in varying degrees an influence, and a truly cultured society will stop pretending that the vehicle is neutral.

Trial By Ink teems with ideas and authorial ambition, and this becomes both an impediment and a feat: impediment because the reader’s mind is invited to swim in a cauldron, feat because it is rare for an essayist to take on so much so usefully.

Labadidi is passionate about culture with all its warts, but he approaches it like Alexis de Tocqueville-a visitor beguiled, dismayed, bemused, admiring, disturbed. He is rather like a crow, lifting glittering things and bedizening a strange nest of ideas and observations with them. Take, for example, Rap music is CNN for black people, a remark by Chuck D, “Public Enemy.” Labadidi opens Chapter 21 with this quote. It’s about the Egyptian singer Shaaban Abdel Rehim and the author’s frustrated efforts to interview him. But it’s really about pop culture, and the Chuck D quote almost derailed me, because I don’t agree with it. I think rap is everything CNN is not, telling it like it is instead of offering a “lite” version. It’s a good essay with which to close this provocative collection, because our grasp of pop culture is as elusive as Labadidi’s interview with Shaaban. We are so caught up in it that we can’t see out of it or into it. It’s a maze, and we’re lost in it.

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