Plato, Badiou and I: an Experiment in Writerly Happiness

By | 1 November 2016

But this want was, perhaps as Badiou would have it, a submission of Thought to Desire. The honeymoon period of gaining some experience as a performance poet waned in 1998 when I began to wish for more recognition for my work. By the time I finished my undergraduate degree in Creative Arts I had become obsessed with getting published in prestigious literary journals and writing a narrative verse that would rival the success of the sensational poetry bestseller of this period, Dorothy Porter’s The Monkey’s Mask. I did not think – that is, I did not logically reason with myself – about the desire to write a narrative verse or the urge to be published; I simply accepted, as a good member of a capitalist society in which the innate goodness of success is accepted unquestioningly, that the fulfilment of my desires was an absolutely good objective and that interrogating this desire was irrelevant and unproductive.

And precisely as Badiou would have it, I was soon overwhelmed by ‘the lethal duo of resentment and guilt’

As letters and emails of rejection from editors and publishers carpeted my desk and choked my email inbox, I came to feel not only disappointed with myself but also resentful of others who were getting published. My unhappiness was not caused by mere envy; it was the outcome of the inversion of the pleasure of success. And, unable to act the part of the proper tyrant – that is, to exorcise my resentment by actually hurting those more successful than me – I came to feel immensely guilty. Guilty for not achieving the apparent successes seemingly achieved by some other poets of my generation; and then doubly guilty for recognising that I harboured ill feelings towards my fellow poets for no reason other than my own failures.

I was, in short, at the mercy of the agency of Desire. My early years as a struggling writer in Melbourne entailed more than a quixotic struggle for unprecedented artistic brilliance; they constituted a struggle with the consequences of guilt and resentment, with vicious loneliness, depression and alcoholism.

In Badiou’s contemporary revision of Republic, it is the capitalists who best personify subjects devoted to the agency of Desire. On par with these subjects – ‘whose object is profit’ (Badiou 2012: 299) – are ‘the ambitious people, whose object is fame’ (Badiou 2012: 299). Such people, whose subjectivity is dominated by the agency of Affect, have ‘a desperate craving for honours and victory’ (Badiou 2012: 307). These too are not happy, for the Affect agency ‘will make them envious owning to ambition, aggressive out of vanity, and angry, so unstable is their temperament’ (Badiou 2012: 307).

And I believe it would be fair to say that, once I eventually began to achieve some success as a writer by having pieces published and getting paid for writing or writing-related work, I did not become happy. Emerging from the tutelage of Desire, I fell under the sway of Affect. I became excessively preoccupied with how my works were received by others, by how I was viewed by others, and by the maddening impulse to affect the world around me through my writing.

I self-published my first book, an experimental narrative verse, in 2002, when I was twenty-six. This was a cathartic experience. No longer burdened with a manuscript for which I had received so many rejections, and now the proud author of a cheaply printed book which was shelved – after much pleading – in three bookshops in Melbourne, I could convince myself to see myself as a real writer. My poems and book reviews started appearing in journals and a couple of years later I was asked by a highly reputable literary press to send them a manuscript of poetry for publication.

I was, of course, ecstatic; but the joy of having a desire fulfilled was soon annulled by anxiety. I lost asleep wondering about when exactly the book would be published. I agonised over whether or not the book would be distributed properly. I hoped to god – even though I’ve never believed in a god – that my collection would receive unbelievably good reviews. I imagined the sorts of thing I wished the reviewers would say in their commentary: the arrival of a major talent … a ground-breaking work of cutting-edge literary radicalism … a new chapter in the history of modern poetry …

My collection of poems was published in a timely manner and distributed adequately, but, alas, it received only two short (online) reviews, one of which called the poems flat and monotonous. The other review was more appreciative, but claimed that my work was unnecessarily confronting for a book of immigrant poetry. Newspapers and print magazines did not review the book, and it was not considered for any literary awards.

I was devastated. My writing had once again failed to bring me any happiness. But my current misery had much less to do with guilt and resentment than it did with my being deprived of honours and victory. Thankfully for my liver and kidneys, I was living outside of Australia at this time, and could not dampen my unhappiness by drinking with equally unhappy friends. And when in 2008 my fourth book and first novel was published, I started to feel as though I had finally transcended the hardships of the first decade of my writing life. The book was The Pick of the Week in The Age newspaper. I was interviewed on ABC Radio National. Was this to be the beginning of my life as a happy writer?

Justice and intellect

It should not surprise us that in Republic, since unhappiness assumes a political figure – the tyrant – happiness too takes a political embodiment: ‘the most just of men is also the happiest’ (Badiou 2012: 297). But what does justice mean, precisely?

As the cliché would have it, justice is blind; and, according to Badiou’s formulation of Plato’s discourse, such a metaphorical blindness would make the subject ‘essentially disinterested […] not the least concerned about profit or conspicuous social success’ (Badiou 2012: 299). The happy subject, therefore, is not one animated by the agencies of Desire or Affect; but one ‘whose object cause of desire is truth’ (Badiou 2012: 299). Such a person pursues ‘“the true life” rather than just “the most enjoyable life”’ (Badiou 2012: 301). And for Badiou / Plato / Socrates and his disciples, happiness may be attained when ‘you recognise the True as it is in itself and you construct a sort of eternal life for that joy through the process of thought’ (Badiou 2012: 299).

Does privileging the agency of Thought within one’s subjectivity alone result in happiness? Can it be said, as Badiou’s Socrates puts it, ‘that only the pleasure of the person who gives himself up to thinking is pure and fully real’? (Badiou 2012: 302)

After the publication of my first novel, I embarked upon a much more intellectually rigorous and properly thoughtful writing project. I started to read philosophy in earnest. Michel Foucault was of particular interest to me at this time; and, mesmerised by his ideas about knowledge and power, I decided to write a book in which the recent history and contemporary politics of my troubled birthplace, Iran, were subjected to what Socrates describes to his followers as ‘the instrument that’s required to arrive at sound judgement’: ‘proofs and, more broadly speaking, rational argumentation’ (Badiou 2012: 301).

Denying my sadly lingering desire for success and my yearning to affect others, I devoted myself to collecting information and developing a strong, cogent thesis in my first foray into the genre of creative non-fiction. I spent a couple of years studying the history of Iran in great detail and interviewing my mother about the life of my grandfather, whose story I would use as the prism for narrating the tumults of modern Iran. I developed what I felt was a compelling perspective on the crises and traumas of the Middle Eastern nation, and used my literary skills, for all their worth, to prove this argument.

The book was published in 2010. I was not overly concerned with its success in terms of sales or with its reception by the literati – my subjectivity in relation to the book was not, in other words, ruled by the agencies of Desire or Affect – and I was pleased to now see myself as a serious writer, one dedicated to the dictates of Thought.

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