Excerpt: 'The Artist as Mystic: Conversations with Yahia Lababidi' by Alex Stein


From Mystic Nativity, Sandro Botticelli, 1500–1501

From The Exquisites:

Alex Stein calls poetry “the alphabet zoo.”

“We convene on the grounds of the alphabet zoo, and see what there is to see,” he says.

“They are all poets,” Alex continues. “Nietzsche, too. And Kafka. If the term is to have any meaning at all.

“The true poets, the deep poets, destiny’s poets, in prose or verse, madness, eloquence, or silence, are connected to one another by a mutuality of intention.

“This intention goes by many names, but, fundamentally, it is a rage for transformation.”

And then he sighs and quotes Baudelaire. “Anywhere! Just so long as it is out of this world.”

Part One: “If My Devils Are to Leave Me”


Yahia Lababidi: I’d had to set the frail ones aside for a while. They were haunting my mind. All the invalids. Those gilled creatures thrown upon the earth, gasping for a breath from their home atmosphere. I couldn’t bear to pity any more suffering. Each one forever on the verge of nervous collapse. I’d combed their letters. I’d inhabited their journals. I’d read between their lines. I didn’t want to return to those frailties. I was afraid of what echoing responses they might draw from me.

I imagined them, sometimes, those too-sensitive instruments of reception, vibrating to the wild thunder of some approaching stampede, which is also like the palpitations of an impending panic attack.

Nietzsche. Rilke. Vilhelm Ekelund. As I consider them, now, they appear together almost as one exquisite body. If I had to come up with a single name for this triad, it might be The Exquisites.

Or I might call them The Goners, because all of them are completely gone.

They are The Exquisites by temperament, but they are The Goners because the going for them is all in this world they have to which to cling.

Nietzsche writes, “Existence and the world appear justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon.”

Lababidi: Style was important to Nietzsche.

In an aphorism titled, “One thing is needful,” Nietzsche writes, “To give style to one’s character. A great and rare art. He exercises it who surveys all that his nature presents in strength and weakness and then molds it into an artistic plan, until everything appears as art and reason and even weakness delights the eye.”

In another one, he writes, “Improving our style means improving our ideas. Nothing less.”

An earlier sculptor of the self, Plotinus put it this way: “Draw into yourself and look and if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful. He cuts away here, he smooths there. He makes this line lighter, that one purer. Cut away all the excess. Straighten all that is crooked. Bring light to all that is overcast. Labor to make all one glow or beauty and never cease chiseling your statue. . . .”

“The style is the man himself,” writes George-Louis Leclerc de Buffon.

For Nietzsche, as for Rilke and Ekelund, to write was to cast a spell.

It begins as attention and builds into trance.

It is not so much writing, sometimes, as it is a recovering of the territories lost in what Christianity calls “the fall.”

That garden, given us as birthright, from which some say we were exiled, and others that we simply wandered away.


Lababidi: Returning to Nietzsche on this occasion, I am reminded how much he is not what he seems to be. And how much it is he who is to blame for this confusion.

I’ve been preparing myself for our talk by reading a collection of writings called Conversations with Nietzsche, a few leaves of memory from some few who had spent time with him, spoken with the man himself. If you can believe such a thing possible.

That history lives with us a while, and breathes, before it passes into its own ghost.

Lou Andreas-Salomé, the woman whom Nietzsche referred to as his “twin soul,” was twenty-one when they met. He was thirty-seven.

Nietzsche was smitten like he never had been before and never would be again.

Salomé is particularly constituted to hear Nietzsche, and what she recognizes immediately upon engaging him is his “religious” temperament.

One experienced from him, she writes, the sense “that he will step forth as the proclaimer of a new religion, and then it will be such a one as recruits heroes to be its disciples.”

Early on in their conversations, Nietzsche confides to Salomé that he considers himself a “tertium quid,” which means “a disembodied third person or entity.”

It composes, Nietzsche told her. “I am neither mind nor body. . . .”

There is never a good time to remind anyone that so-and-so eventually went mad.

Nietzsche spent the last ten years of his life mad.

His last extended act of sanity was his autobiography, Ecce Homo (“Behold the Man”).

In that autobiography there is a poem which we may call “The Gondola Song.”

People forget this, but Nietzsche penned more than a few poems during his tenure as furious world guardian and crisis-hour moralizer.

“And my soul,” the poem reads, “a stringed instrument, / Sang, touched by invisible hands.”

It is this song that bursts from Nietzsche’s lips when he has gone mad and is being escorted on a night train to the clinic.

I imagine his escort, a friend who was sent to retrieve him, a sensitive person who believes he is doing a good deed, a service to one troubled beyond bearing by the sight of a world so unashamed of the baseness of its enterprise, a world so shocking with self-deceit, a world so violent.

There is never a good time to mention that Nietzsche may have gone mad from pity.

I imagine the other passengers. There must have been some. Middle class. Tired. Deep within the play of their own private lives. At the sound of his sudden exaltation, inclining slightly toward him.

“And my soul, a stringed instrument, / Sang, touched by invisible hands.”

In Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche had written, “The most fortunate author is one who is able to say as an old man that all he had of life-giving, invigorating, uplifting, enlightening thoughts and feelings still lives on in his writings, and that he himself is only the gray ash, while the fire has been rescued and carried forth everywhere.”

Is this what had occurred? Is this what the other passengers were witnessing?

And what of the escort? That friend who accompanied him to the end of his genius and through the door of madness?

Excerpt republished with permission of the authors.

Alex Stein and Yahia Lababidi have embarked on an ecstatic series of conversations – within themselves, with one other and with their literary masters. This is an excerpt from their collection of calculated hallucinations: “The Artist as Mystic”

About the Authors:

Alex Stein is an essayist, aphorist, and illustrator whose books include Made-Up Interviews With Imaginary Artists (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009), a collection of interviews, interview fictions, and essays on the art of the interview; Weird Emptiness: Essays and Aphorisms (Wings Press, 2007); and The Life and Art of Josan (Wade Rosen Publishing), a collection of aphorisms and drawings. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, and works at the University of Colorado’s Norlin Library.

Yahia Lababidi is a Pushcart-nominated poet, and the author of three books: Signposts to Elsewhere (aphorisms) Trial by Ink (essays) and Fever Dreams (poetry). For more information, please visit his website