Geoff Dyer was in Manchester last night, giving a talk as part of the programme of a local photography group. He mostly just described the content of his recent photography book, The Ongoing Moment. It’s a narrative reflection on canonical photographic images, particularly those of Dorothea Lange. I’m a little ambivalent about photography based writing; it can be interesting and useful but can also meander into contingent and contrived commentary that has a tenuous relation to photography itself, so its value is little more than a postmodernist conceptual game. I haven’t decided about The Ongoing Moment and what value I think it has, although I find Dyer quite interesting. He uses the existence of hats in Lange’s photos as a motif to explore across a wide range of photos, like a Barthes punctum. At one point in the discussion the relation between text and image was discussed, and the consensus seemed to be such standard photo criticism is quite a tiresome project, both repetitive and circular. The notion of authorship also arose and Dyer arguing, in relation to this, that it’s not clear how to define a photo: does the meaning come from the photographer, or from what the photo contains? ‘Ownership’ is perhaps a better way of describing that, where you can interpret Lange’s work as either a sociological or an artistic/photographic project. And of course the answer is, it’s neither one nor the other exclusively; that this is one of the ambiguities of photography.
Dyer call himself an intellectual nomad and academic gatecrasher, and in that respect he reminds a little of Colin Wilson who carved out a literary career in a similarly independent way. It’s an interesting idea that you study, research and write books outside a university context. When interviewed, Dyer once quoted Nietzsche who abandoned his university job and became a vagabond and renegade, hostile to those who “study and prowl around a single domain simply because it never occurs to them that other domains exist. Their industriousness possesses something of the tremendous stupidity of the force of gravity: which is why they often achieve a great deal.” He preferred the type “who never penetrates into the depths of a problem, yet often notices things that the professional with his laborious poring over it never does.” Indeed. To which I would add, some academics undoubtedly achieve “a great deal”, but it’s a great deal of nonsense. I’ve seen too much word-spinning where idea-making becomes an end in itself, divorced from what philosopher Willem Flusser called “reflective thinking” where you maintain a disciplined self critical awareness, on the basis that thought is actually a limited tool: not an endlessly malleable form, satisfying for its own sake. Thought should thus question itself, which is part of a philosophical tradition in India they call Jnana Yoga. I’m not suggesting Dyer does this; on the contrary he does something very different which is to construct semi-critical narratives blending fiction and analysis. He calls this imaginative criticism
He’s also a novelist and he takes that sensibility to more academic domains; he admires both Barthes and John Berger who had a similar literary strategy.
I read his novel Paris, Trance and wrote a review, a few years ago, that I’ve posted below.
Paris, Trance concerns the life of Luke Barnes, who has gone to live in Paris to write a novel. Instead of that, he makes friends with Alex and they both find girlfriends: Nicole and Sahra. Dyer is not derivative, but his interests and influences are very clear. He has written a biography about DH Lawrence, and the foursome in this book remind you of the central characters in Women in Love. There is no homosexuality between Alex and Luke – either explicit or sub-text – but their friendship is an exploration of male to male companionship. They know they like each other: “People talk about love at first sight, about the way that men and women fall for each other immediately, but there is also such a thing as friendship at first sight” (p 28). They are both mildly obsessive about films, and enjoy quoting notable lines like Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner) “I have done…questionable things” (p 201), and recounting the visual themes and tropes that express cinematic language.
The four young people do take drugs, but the title of the book is more symbolic than anything else. In relation to real life drug taking, the novel raises the question as to what drugs actually do, and why people take them. They are a retreat from reality, equivalent to normal i.e. widespread mechanisms of psychological retreat. A critic described Dyer’s book as “A Tender is the Night for the ecstasy age”, and Dyer himself quotes Scott Fitzgerald at the beginning. Luke is similar to psychologist Dick Diver in the way his life disintegrates for no obvious reason, which becomes a philosophical question: “By letting things occur as they did he believed he was penetrating more deeply into himself, getting closer to his core…he was being faithful to some part of himself, to his destiny” (p 242). The tone of the book is pensive and wistful throughout; particularly so when it describes Luke’s unhappiness.
Some critics believe that in Tender is the Night, Diver’s wife is the reason for his own descent into perplexing unhappiness. Their relationship inverts, as she becomes stronger (she was originally his patient) and he declines. Her name is Nicole. However: equating Dyer’s book with the Fitzgerald work modern drugs is too narrow and simplistic.
I have mentioned the Lawrence influence, and this further applies in the eroticism of the novel. There are some graphic scenes of sexual exploration between Luke and Nicole, notable for their lack of inhibitions, despite – or perhaps because of – their (modern) youth. Paris is used as a setting, like Lawrence’s interest in Mediterranean countries: a place where you can be free from the stuffy sexual denial characteristic of post-Victorian England.
Dyer has also been influenced by Camus, and quotes him within the book. His novel reminds you of The Outsider; Luke is essentially an outsider, initially wandering around Paris in a state of loneliness and sexual frustration. And it is a philosophical novel, infused with metaphysical/existential enquiry. This reaches a climax at the end when the four people gaze out across a cliff top:
Sea and sky were lost in a luminous haze. There was no distance or direction, only the weightless flow of light. All sense of substance – of earth, weight, mass – was lost, as if they were suddenly back at the first moment of creation when this was all there was, a mingling of light and air: blue draining through gold, light dissolving into itself. As Luke became used to the glare he could see boats floating in the blue sky. The laws of perspective melted in the intensity of the light. There was no sound of surf, no noise of wind. Overhead the shimmer of gold wave gave way to a deep, clear blue. He looked back at the green grass rolling away from the cliffs, cropped short by absent sheep. He lay on his back and looked up (p 271).
The theme here – questioning visual and physical reality – is the existentialist foundation for The Outsider. Compare the above with this:
It occurred to me that all I had to do was turn around and that would be the end of it. But the whole beach, throbbing in the sun, was pressing on my back. I took a few steps toward the spring. The Arab didn’t move. Besides, he was still pretty far away. Maybe it was the shadows on his face, but it looked like he was laughing. I waited. The sun was starting to burn my cheeks, and I could feel drops of sweat gathering in my eyebrows. The sun was the same as it had been the day I’d buried mother, and like then, my forehead especially was hurting me, all the veins in it throbbing under the skin. It was this burning, which I couldn’t stand anymore, that made me move forward. I knew that it was stupid, that I wouldn’t get the sun off me by stepping forward. But I took a step, one step, forward. And this time, without getting up, the Arab drew his knife and held it up to me in the sun. The light shot off the steel and it was like a long flashing blade cutting at my forehead. At the same instant the sweat in my eyebrows dripped down over my eyelids all at once and covered them with a warm, thick film. My eyes were blinded behind the curtain of tears and salt. All I could feel were the cymbals of sunlight crashing on my forehead and, indistinctly, the dazzling spear flying up from the knife in front of me. The scorching blade slashed at my eyelashes and stabbed at my stinging eyes. That’s when everything began to reel. The sea carried up a thick, fiery breath. It seemed to me as if the sky split open from one end to the other to rain down fire. My whole being tensed and I squeezed my hands around the revolver. The trigger gave; I felt the smooth underside of the butt; and there, in that noise, sharp and deafening at the same time, it where it all started. I shook off the sweat and sun. I knew that I had shattered the harmony of the day, the exceptional silence of a beach where I’d been happy (The Outsider p 59).
In both extracts, the characters reflect on the elemental environment – the sea and the sky in particular – and how it impinges on their consciousness. Both Luke and Meursault are ultimately passive, disconnected from conventional meaning and normal ways of finding happiness.
Dyer has written a non-fiction volume about the critic John Berger (Ways of Telling), and is interested in the narrative potential of photography. He famously described the social psychology of the gaze in relation to art and gender in his own book, Ways of Seeing. Berger opens his book with the sentence: “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak”. Women are looked at, men do the looking, and this is frequently depicted in classical painting. In another of Dyer’s novels – The Search – you see his interest even more clearly. He considers the visual pleasures of relationships, which “last for as long as there are still things to see for the first time” (p 14). There are moments where – as in both Paris, Trance and The Outsider – visual reality starts to distort:
Stepping outside he looked up and saw the crane arm swinging round – though it took him several seconds to express it n these terms for he experienced the movement of the crane as a sensation rather than a perception…as it the crane were stationary and the street spinning around it, like a fairground ride (p 38).
There is a short scene in a photo booth (p 64). He meditates on an old picture of London where a long exposure has “emptied the scene of all moving objects” (p 66), and, after cycling into a dream-like town where there no people, he finds a reel of film which depicts someone stopping at a pay phone. In this case, it does not record a moment from history, but predicts his own experience, when he encounters a ringing public telephone. Later, he enters a diner where all movement has been suspended: He looks at
The complexity and abundance of activity suspended, silent as a photograph…. There was no narrative here – or there was new kind of narrative, one that ran across time rather than through it. We seek explanation in terms of causality, in terms of one event succeeding another. Here simultaneity, the way every action and person in the city was likened to every other, was the only explanation (p 114).
In Paris, Trance – the superior of the two novels – Nicole owns a mirror which is “slow to work. Like an old wireless. It takes time to warm up” (p 74): it sometimes has a delay when it reflects back the person in front of it. There probably is a scientific basis for this, but one which does not produce any discernible experience. In Dyer’s novel, it is a symbol for a meditative reappraisal of conventional reality – which is, philosophically, one way of understanding photography. Nicole and Luke take erotic photographs of their coupling on a Polaroid, and Luke enjoys watching Nicole dress and undress:
However many times I see you naked I can never get over the shock of seeing you with no clothes on. And then, when I see you getting dressed again, when I see your pubic hair disappear into your knickers, when I see your breasts covered by your bra and your back by a blouse. Or I see your legs going into your jeans…maybe all I mean is I love watching you get dressed.’ ‘I like you watching me.’ ‘But you don’t watch me in the same way, do you?’ ‘I’ve never been fast enough. You’re dressed in less than ten seconds. Also watching’s not the same thing as noticing. You don’t need to watch to notice. Men watch, women notice’ (p 208).
In Paris, Trance Dyer is more interested in film than photography, in relation to its own philosophical considerations. Thus for Luke, “the cinema was a dungeon from which he could escape into a world of colour and light”, and when he leaves a showing of A Short Film About Love (which he calls “An Interminable Film About Fuck-All”), he wonders if it is still running, since he was the only person watching it. This is an old philosophical question: does something exist if there is no one to witness it?
About halfway through the novel, Dyer refers to a movie based on a book called Homo Faber, where the man, Faber, obsessively films a woman he meets on a boat “as if he were already anticipating remembered happiness. Every moment is a promise – of how it will seem on film, in retrospect, when it has passed”, that “Words have nothing to do with happiness, they can only frame it. Happiness is a question of colours: the blue of the sea, yellow fields of rape, her hair against the sky” (p 205).
Dyer considers what is ultimately his own literary creativity, in relation to happiness and reality. Photographic and film imagery reproduce what we call reality; so do words. What status do these have? Luke never writes his novel and Alex asks him why not: ‘It was just an adolescent idea.’ ‘There’s still time.’ ‘But there’s no need,’ said Luke. ‘What’s the point? Why write something if you can live it?’ ‘Because you can live it for ever, I suppose,’ said Alex. (p 219).
You enjoy reading about the two couple’s friendship, which Dyer depicts with occasional insight. On his first date with Sarah, we learn that Alex hates
The serve and volley, the I-say something-you-say-something-back of the one-to-one. The problem, as he saw it, was that, unless you got mugged or sprained an ankle, the typical formula for a first date – drinks, conversation, dinner – was designed for an exchange of histories but offered no opportunity to begin racking up some shared history. Dinner together involved two people cocooned separately in a vacuum of expectations and desires. Whereas this format – four friends having dinner – meant that, from the word go, they were caught up in events, in each other’s lives (p 88).
Paris, Trance is a meditation on relationships and happiness, and how “Nothing in the past has any value. You cannot store up happiness. The past is useless. You can dwell on it but not in it” (p 173). This kind of existential rumination reminds you again of The Outsider. Luke is an existentialist anti-hero, who wonders “if it’s possible that happiness could become unbearable” (p 266). When Luke asks Nicole what makes her happy, she says “Knowing you. Knowing, not looking. You see the distinction?” (p 233). The conversation is light-hearted banter after they have been apart for a while; Luke declares little things like wearing his new tee shirt makes him happy, but then refers to Camus when he says “Happiness is just the harmony between a person and the life they lead”.
I found The Outsider an intriguing book when I read it many years ago; I enjoyed Paris, Trance, and enjoyed discovering a new author with this kind of material, who is also interested in the psychology of the gaze. The tone of both books is very similar: the prose is simple and cool, with little passion. You do not know if Meursault is deranged or not; when he is scrutinised in court, what most counts against him is his inability to understand how his behaviour is perceived as inappropriate. In Paris, Trance, it would be feasible that Luke’s emotional detachment is the result of chemical substances. However, Dyer does not indicate that this is what happens.