On Geoff Dyer’s unsatisfactory philosophy of life – Part 2

You can read Part 1 here.

If the question is whether Dyer is a great stylist, then answer is unequivocally yes. If it is whether he is a brilliant comic writer, the answer is also yes. However, if the question is whether he–that is, the Dyer of his writings, the persona contained therein–is a successful liver of life, the answer is unfortunately no. My philosophical criterion is at once quite narrow and unfathomably broad: quite narrow in that it remains agnostic about the questions that writers typically ask each other; yet unfathomably broad in that it takes as the most basic question that of living well. And if the subject we’re examining fails to provide us with a philosophy of life that we can live by, then, judged by this standard alone, he–Dyer–has failed.

Dyer has failed. How did this happen?

*  *  *

The story begins, in a way, with Kierkegaard.** The author of Either/Or poses a question: Should one live an aesthetic way of life or an ethical way of life? An aesthetic life is punctuated by beautiful experiences while an ethical life conforms to bourgeois Christian ideals of being dutiful, raising a family, etc. The Kierkegaard of this work presumes from the outset that one cannot lead both forms of life at the same time–hence the either/or of the title–and he takes it as an unquestioned assumption that the choice is fundamentally groundless. That is to say, there can be no ultimate criterion, no first principle, no good-enough standard by which to determine whether one ought to live one way rather than another, whether aesthetically or ethically. There is one final feature: the demand to choose.

Notice the structure: a choice between X and Y combined with the groundless nature of the choice. For Kierkegaard, the demand to choose entails a “leap of faith.”

To understand how Kierkegaard got to “the leap of faith,” we have to go one step back. Implicit in Kierkegaard’s metaphysical understanding is the notion of a Primordial Chooser who is standing outside of space and time, as it were, and who is gazing upon a choice. But this scenario, which is essentially a thought experiment for Kierkegaard but which becomes something akin to a lived experience for intellectuals of Dyer’s generation, is only possible once the material conditions of everyday life have changed.

Come back, now, to Dyer who is coming of age in the 70s. Post-WWII austerity measures in Britain are beginning to wind down. Industrial capitalism, due to the Green Revolution, has flooded the market with cheap food in superabundance. Fossil fuels, after the oil crisis, have transformed western civilization. Meanwhile, a patronage system, though by no means an ideal one, is firmly in place. One can live by one’s pen, supported by writing pieces here and there for print magazines, by writing books for large publishing houses, and by living frugally. So, there is an emerging creative class able to live not by its hands (remember the superabundance of food; think also of the driving force called fossil fuels; etc.) but by their wits.

One further condition: nomadism. Industrial capitalism, since the 18th C., has opened up movements of all sorts: international trade, migration, vacationing, traveling writing, and so on. It has also, as Polanyi points out in his classic work The Great Transformation, unstuck individuals from their traditional communities. We are seeing this happen now in China and in Mexico. Migrant workers are moving from the country to the city in search of factory work that will support them and their families back home. Dyer too is a nomad. He no longer identifies with his working-class background, and he is, among his fellow literati, reviewers, and travel writers, alone in the modern world.

Let’s gather together the threads of the argument. Under these material conditions, Dyer becomes Kieregaard in actuality.

  1. He is a Primordial Chooser.
  2. He is a nomad, a creative type without home or loyalties or traditional ties.

The chief difference between Dyer (or: Dyer–Foster Wallace–Franzen) and Kierkegaard is that there is no demand to choose underlying the primordial choice. Hence the vacillation.

*  *  *

In Part 1, I sought to establish the “scene of vacillation.” On this, I wrote,

A person wants X, but he also wants Y. This person wants both X and Y at the same time. Does he want X more than Y? He thinks. No, he wants X as much as Y. He wants both at once but cannot, upon further reflection, have both at once.

“To vacillate,” I continued,  “is to be unable to make up one’s mind about X and Y, to be unable to throw one’s weight behind one or the other, to pursue wholeheartedly X rather than Y (or vice versa).”

The scene of vacillation sets out the terms of Dyer’s predicament, the rant being one of the logical outcomes. Much like Lawrence, Dyer complains because in choosing X,

  1. X proves ultimately unsatisfactory; or
  2. the desire for X (say, the perfect doughnut) remains unfulfilled; or
  3. the desire for Y, itself unfulfilled, looms large in his waning enjoyment of X.

In a word, the rant is a symptom that our desires can never line up with the world’s offerings. Anger is rage at the unfairness, the cosmic unfairness, of it all.

*  *  *

After a time, vacillation and ranting must give way to exhaustion. Dyer implicitly places his work on Lawrence within the European tradition of “life-exhaustion.” Rilke, he writes,

stayed in many of the same places as Lawrence and the overlaps of itinerary and tone alert us to the way that Lawrence’s letters—and Larkin’s too, perhaps—place him in the European tradition of the literature of neurasthenia, of anxiety, fretting, complaint. This tradition—more accurately, this strain—culminates in Thomas Bernhard, the Austrian writer who dedicated book after book to an exhaustive and exhausting catalogue of what Lawrence, writing (appropriately enough) from Austria, termed, ‘the life-exhaustion feeling’.

Later on, in the midst of a long complaint about illness, the flu, the common cold, eczema, his lower back, his ailing knee, Dyer concludes (though ‘concludes’ is not the word),

And I shouldn’t be thinking about my knee or the exercises [to heal the knee], of course; I should be getting on with my book on D.H. Lawrence, instead of which I am fretting about my aches and pains. My knee is not the problem, that’s for sure: it’s a symptom of this larger disease, this inability to carry on with anything, this rheumatism of the will, this chronic inability to see anything through.

Can you see the endgame? The endgame of this way of life is “rheumatism of the will.” Vacillation –> Rant –> Existential exhaustion. How could things end otherwise when seen from the vantage point of lived logic, pure and simple?

*  *  *

Dyer is too clever by far: clever without being wise. In one of his essays from Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, he writes that after he left Oxford in 1978 he spent a few heady years reading Barthes and Foucault. Had he instead chanced upon MacIntyre’s After Virtue, which was published in 1981, and had he read it in the spirit of the lectio divina, he would have avoided a life of paralysis, of stunning exhaustion, the way of nihilism. In After Virtue, MacIntyre shows that modernity made a wrong turn when it separated the self from its social roles, thus leading to social alienation, and when it abandoned the notion of a telos, that final end toward which we strive. The two–embedded social roles and an established telos–are intrinsically related. The two modern problems, alienation and nihilism, are related as well. Exploring how this is so and what can be done is the nature of my life and the aim of my work.

End Note

** In this as in much else, I am following Alasdair MacIntyre’s lead. More on his book After Virtue at the end of this post.

Further Reading

John Tierney, “Do You Suffer from Decision Fatigue?” New York Times Magazine.

Andrew Taggart, “On Woody Allen’s Modern Philosophy”


—. “A Philosophical Review of Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi