Yahia Lababidi’s Trial by Ink is an engaging book of contrasts and contradictions. Starting with an array of essays on literary giants, he moves on to popular culture and several fascinating essays on the Middle East, always with an eye for the paradoxical in both the characters and customs he writes of.
The yin and yang starts early with Wilde and Nietzsche, the “Great Contrarians.” In these two figures, Lababidi sees many similarities, particularly in the willful creation of their own persona—or masks. Both somewhat at odds with the climate and environments they were born into, they tried to free themselves, one through a life of deprivation and study, the other through a life of abundance. They shared a horror of limitations and were bewitched by the “magic of the extreme.” Nitezsche seems to have fought limitations more in his writings and speech than in his actual behavior. Wilde, on the other hand, practiced what he preached. As he writes in Dorian Gray, “He lives the poetry that he cannot write.” Lucky for us, Wilde did manage to write poetry, but Lababidi has hit on an intriguing phenomenon that reminds one of W.B. Yeats, “The Choice”: The intellect of man is forced to choose/ perfection of the life, or of the work. From this essay, it would appear that Nietzsche and Wilde chose differently, or perhaps it is more correct to say that Wilde saw his life and work as being one and the same, all part of his persona. If it were true that people could construct their lives to conform to their aesthetic, then Wilde and Nietzsche would probably have ended the last chapters of their lives differently. However, reality, the ultimate limitation, often gets the last line here.
This horror of limitations continues in the essay on Herman Melville’s short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The story is of a meek copyist, who yet manages to terrify his employer with his strange refusals to work or commit to any semblance of normality.
Lababidi rightly wonders, as does the reader, what it could be that drives the character to what amounts to a passive rebellion, ending in a drawn out form of suicide. The lowly, doomed copyist is very much at odds with the larger-than-life writers that Lababidi profiles. Nevertheless, we learn that he is a figure with literary ancestors, often pointing out the basic absurdity of life.
One service an essayist can render is to help us rethink or reevaluate a famous figure and introduce us to a lesser known one we may have overlooked. Lababidi does both and it begins in the first section with the poet Brian Turner. Turner is an American soldier whose collection, Here, Bullet, documents the Iraq War in a moving and immediate way. Hopefully, Lababidi’s essay will draw more people to this collection.
The second section on more contemporary figures of popular culture also invites us to look at some giants of the world stage, particularly Michael Jackson. A truly global super star, it’s worth remembering and pondering his huge popularity across continents and cultures. The isolating nature of his fame is a theme taken up again with a look at solitary figures such as Morrissey, Leonard Cohen and a disturbing essay on serial killers.
Morrissey and Leonard Cohen are notorious recluses, but ones whose isolation appears to have helped produce work of high merit. Here, Lababidi draws up another interesting riddle for the reader. Why does isolation turn some to violence and anti-social or self-destructive behavior while it inspires others to artistic heights? In his musings on silence and fasting, Lababidi sees that silence can lead some to great interior depths, but for others, too much silence can be dangerous: “To say it once more, striking out fearlessly into treacherous, interior territories is not for dilettantes; deep and prolonged silences might prove the undoing of those who flirt with it, ill-equipped.” As with art, perhaps silence also requires a certain degree of talent.
For two-thirds of the book, we get a look at talented people, the exceptional in history and our own time, great artists and geniuses. In the last third, we take a welcome break and see the clamor and rollicking inconsistencies of everyday people. A great accomplishment of the book is Lababidi’s ability to take the reader on a personal look at a culture that would be foreign to many Westerners—the East, as well as the denizens of these lands that one rarely hears about: the plastic surgery, glamour-obsessed urbanites of Beirut, the devout Muslims who spend their days fasting during Ramadan and their nights watching game and variety shows. It is refreshing to get a glimpse of quotidian Muslim culture, and to see how tradition and religion can sometimes come into conflict, such as in the ambiguity of the belly dancer at the wedding. Her sensual presence is a must at these events, yet something of a reproach to the virginal bride and the sacred rite of marriage that has been performed. These incongruities present in people, in laws, customs and even whole societies are revealed in Lababidi’s collection of essays.