Dogma by Lars Iyer
“You should never learn from your mistakes”, declares W. in the opening line of Dogma, the sequel to Lars Iyer’s cult philosophical comedy, Spurious. Fans will be reassured to know that neither W. nor Lars seems to have learned much between then and now: they still hang around in pubs abusing each other and waxing grandiloquent about the End of Days; they still haven’t really figured out Rosenzweig and Cohen; they still haven’t had an original thought; and though Lars’ apocalyptic plague of damp may be in recession, it has been replaced by a chronic infestation of rats. All in all, what with academia falling ever further into disrepair and W. on the verge of losing his job, if anything things have become even more hopeless.
Like its predecessor, Dogma revolves around the suffocating inertia of Lars and W., its tragi-comic double-act. The characters move around a bit more than in Spurious, but – like the dancing chicken at the end of Werner Herzog’s Stroszek, which W. adopts as a symbol of the idiotic ‘dance of the cosmos’ – it is movement without progress, without sense and without cease. As well as visiting each other in Plymouth and Newcastle, this time the pair embark on an ill-fated lecture tour around the Deep South, visit Oxford, and go to worship at the shrine of their latest ‘leader’, the misery-folk recluse Josh T. Pearson, at a music festival in Somerset (which those of a certain cast of mind will recognise as ATP).
Dogma, the disastrous philosophical movement that gives the book its title, is Lars and W.’s latest attempt to devise an outlet for their energetic hopelessness. A quasi-religious movement devised (naturally) in the pub, Dogma will reconnect philosophy with lived experience; which in Lars and W.’s terms means primarily suffering. Invoking, with grand solemnity, philosophical and artistic movements from Hegel, Holderlin and Schelling to OULIPO and Dogme95, Lars and W. declaim their manifesto over Magdalen Bridge: Dogma must be spartan, drenched in pathos, suffused with self-immolating sincerity.
Except, like everything else they do, the movement is always-already a joke, giving rise to a succession of farcical and increasingly inebriated public performances. ‘Man must be torn apart again and again by the plowshare of suffering’, reads the quotation on the blackboard at one of the Dogma presentations. By the seventh time round, Lars and W. have trimmed their message down to a single projected word: Dereliction.
While Dogma contains more in the way of actual events than Spurious, any semblance of a plot is primarily a canvass for Lars and W.’s incessant squabbling. Like its predecessor, Dogma is above all a goldmine of ingeniously abstruse insults, and as a result it is frequently piss-yourself-on-public-transport hilarious. W’s capacity for rhetorically amplifying Lars’ most incidental shortcomings - mobilizing the entire history of Western thought in the service of hammering home his stupidity, lack of personal hygiene or shit dancing - has lost none of its virtuosity:
Socrates knew he knew nothing: that was his wisdom, and the beginning of his wisdom, W. says. But there’s a difference between knowing nothing and knowing nothing, he says. There’s a difference between knowing you know nothing only to sally forth from your ignorance, and wallowing in your ignorance like a hippo in a swamp.
If Dogma as a whole is in many ways a reprise of Spurious, on a smaller scale the technique of both novels is also one of repetition. Consisting of fragments and snapshots rarely lasting more than two or three generously spaced pages, Lars and W. move through endless variations of the same (normally pissed) conversation, always trapped in the same hopeless philosophical cul-de-sac. If modernism is underpinned by a sense of having arrived too late, Lars and W. are seemingly too late to have even arrived - to have genuinely occurred - at all. Even their despair is disembodied and secondhand, a dim echo of someone else’s hopeless struggle for authenticity. Their self-consciousness renders every gesture a cliché, every histrionic expression of despair a redundant parody of a continental tradition that remains out of reach, laughing down at them from on high. Whereas Kafka had despair and meaninglessness, W. and Lars – two Brods cut adrift without a leader – have only idiocy.
If this all sounds painfully high-minded, it both is and isn’t. Yes, Lars and W. pepper their conversation with references to serious philosophers, from Kant and Hegel to Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Blanchot, and serious artists, from the continental modernist pantheon through to Von Trier and Werner Herzog, Bela Tarr and Laszlo Krazsnahorkai. In a sense, though, W. and Lars are drawn to this austere Old World tradition due to their own profound incapacity for seriousness. If Dogma is a novel about the endgame of Western philosophy, it is also very much a novel about two painfully British blokes taking the piss out of each other in the pub.
Iyer has written in recent months of his conviction that the body of literature to which Lars and W. are so thanklessly devoted is a corpse that cannot be revived, and indeed any attempt to write a great literary work is ‘a form of necrophilia’. Dogma isn’t a literary masterpiece per se, so Iyer can probably be spared that particular accusation. However, the effectiveness of the way it uses its own form to evoke simultaneously the sincerity, pathos and profound ridiculousness of his characters’ opinions, in itself goes some way toward providing an argument against Iyer’s pessimism.
Indeed, taking Dogma’s implied argument that its very limitations are a symptom of its wider diagnosis, strikes me as both over-generous and ungenerous at the same time. The inadequacy of Iyer’s works in the face of The Castle is not necessarily proof of the unattainability of the latter; yet they still have plenty of value to say about the experience of the condition they describe. In writing a novel about a ridiculous failed attempt to re-engage a philosophy of experience, Iyer’s novel succeeds in opening a space for empathy – even if it is merely one of shared hopelessness.