A philosophical review of Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

Geoff Dyer’s novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, published in 2009, might just as well have been a play or a dialogue. The first part takes place in Venice, the second part in Varanasi. The protagonist Jeff Atman–yes, that is his surname–is a freelance journalist who writes about art, music, and celebrity. He attends Venice Biennale in 2003, one of the largest art exhibitions and bacchanalias of the year. Some time later, in Part 2, he is commissioned to write a 1200 word travel piece on Varanasi. His assignment has him there for 2 weeks; he stays on indefinitely.

The novel could be construed as a dialogue between Parts 1 and 2, and the form of the dialogue would be an antinomy. In philosophy, an antinomy is a special kind of conflict between diametrically opposing views. In this case, Part 1 poses hedonism, the apotheosis (pun intended) of a certain strand of western civilization, while Part 2 exhibits the way of spiritual enlightenment. My conclusion is that the antinomy does not reveals a Kiekegaardian “leap of faith” in which, without criteria with which to decide, one must make a radical choice between hedonism and enlightenment. Rather, it shows that both options are one-sided (“one-sided” in Hegel’s sense), both therefore wrong paths to follow.

As it is portrayed in the novel, the present-day Venice is a site of decadence where art has become an endless game of provocation and where pleasures seek satisfaction and terminate in boredom and dissatisfaction. The source of Jeff’s unhappiness, we gather, is unquenchable desire: desiring the wrong things, desiring too much, desiring too much of the wrong things, all of which leads to disquietude and dis-ease. This has been Jeff’s life up to his mid-40s.

In Varanasi, a holy city located along the River Ganges, something strange happens. Slowly Jeff loses his identity (the hard edges of his memory, his anxieties, his individual pursuits), his sense of time (which is replaced by eternity, the ever-present), and his desires (his longing to possess objects, sexually or otherwise). He shaves his head, bathes in the fetid waters, speaks in Koans. And yet, although he is freed from desire, we are led to ask: in what sense is he still human, in what respect still among us? One senses a lassitude, an inertia, a great enfeeblement of the embodied spirit, as if death–its rhythms, its eternity, its turn-and-turn-about–could bring relief but no unity of the person.

In sum, Venice represents the mental dis-ease of the individual ego whereas Varanasi symbolizes the enfeeblement of the whole person. It occurs to me that the way to overcome this antinomy is to meditate more fully on two thoughts–Epicurus’s that one must satisfy the right desires and Aristotle’s that one must love what one desires. To meditate on these thoughts is to discover that one can be of the world without being beholden to the world.