Home > Conversations > The Exquisites: A Conversation with Yahia Lababidi
Published: Tue Jan 30 2018
Salman Toor, Three Friends in a Cab (detail), 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, N.Y. Photo: Farzad Owrang.
The Exquisites: A Conversation with Yahia Lababidi

Yahia Lababidi is an aphorist, poet, and essayist whose work has appeared in such publications as World Literature Today, Cimarron Review, Rain Taxi, and Philosophy Now. He is the author of a new poetry collection, Fever Dreams, an essay collection, Trial by Ink: From Nietzsche to Belly Dancing, and a collection of aphorisms, Signposts to Elsewhere, selected as a 2008 Book of the Year by The Independent (UK). Lababidi’s work has appeared in several anthologies, including the bestselling Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing and Geary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists. He was chosen as a juror for the 2012 Neustadt Prize for International Literature.

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?


Lababidi: Nietzsche came up with at least two conceptions almost over-full with crazy wisdom.

First, his idea of the Overman. “Man is something that shall be overcome,” writes Nietzsche. “Man is a rope tied between beast and Overman. A rope over an abyss….What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.”

And his idea called the Eternal Recurrence.

The concept of Eternal Recurrence is a rather astounding idea for an individual to simply encounter. Even an individual of Nietzsche’s capacities.

Nietzsche, we can agree, was not a rationalist. Fine, nor is life, nor any other thing, rational. We accept this about Nietzsche, with the genius. But even accepting this, the conception of Eternal Recurrence is still almost too irrational. One would have to be a little crazy in the not-necessarily-romantic sense, one would have to have looked pretty deeply into the abyss, just to think of it, wouldn’t one?

And, yet, it is a conception that affirms life in the most profound sense.

Given his context, and knowing his biography and knowing that he had rejected Christianity, and that he had rejected God and the promises of an immortal hereafter, the Eternal Recurrence is Nietzsche’s way of sanctifying every day.

It is the big idea that asked of his every action, every day, are you prepared to do this over and over again for eternity?

“What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you in your loneliest loneliness and say to you, ‘This life as you now live it, as you have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more, and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence.’…Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him, ‘You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine!’”

We know Nietzsche’s answer to be the latter. His answer is amor fati. Love of his fate. His answer is yes! Eternally. Yes! With all the loneliness and the suffering. It was worth it. He is prepared to affirm it. All of it. To celebrate the adventure of the life of the spirit.

Of amor fati, he once wrote, “A formula for greatness in the human being: That one wants nothing to be different. Not merely to bear what is necessary. Still less to conceal it. But to love it.”

Part Two: “I’m Afraid My Angels Will Take Flight As Well.”


Lababidi: The solitude seems to be the key to everything. For Nietzsche, for Rilke, for Ekelund. Solitude enough that they can hear the echo of their longing returning as a concentrated drop, direct from heaven. They want to catch it before it lands, before anything human mixes with it.

These drops, rescued one at a time, are what make for their, frankly, incandescent prose and poetry.

The drops are where the writing comes from and the proof of what they have lived, because each drop glistens with that afterbirth.

Rilke calls poems “experiences.”

One direct heartbeat from the body of creation.


Lababidi: One more glance over Nietzsche’s historic situation before moving on to Rilke.

I do see in Nietzsche the lineage of the ancient Greeks. And I think he would have seen himself, to a large extent, this way, as an anachronistic ancient Greek. It’s almost a joke that he was not born into that time. He responded so deeply, on so many levels, to the sensibility. There is a paradoxical aphorism that he wrote: “Oh, those Greeks! They knew how to live. What is required for that is to stop courageously, at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearances, to believe in forms, tones, words and the whole Olympus of appearance. Those Greeks were superficial out of profundity.”


Lababidi: On to Rilke, now, but carrying with us, perhaps, this Greek inheritance.

On Socrates’ ladder, the inheritance begins with sexual love, and progresses to the aesthetic appreciation of form in all bodies, and then to the love of beautiful souls, and finally to a contemplation of the ideal form.

In “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (Stephen Mitchell’s translation), Rilke writes:

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.


“Boo!” wouldn’t have surprised me more, the first time I read the ending, than did “You must change your life.”

Here is Rilke, beginning in admiration and ending in awe. Here is Rilke, a rapt witness in the territory of the sublime. “That beauty which…/ Hath terror in it” of which Milton wrote.

Quite a notion, that a human being could realize such a poem.

Though if such a poem were already in one, it would be equally surprising if it could be contained.


Lababidi: Rilke was another sculptor of the self, always chiseling at his statue, so it makes sense that he fell under the influence of the sculptor Auguste Rodin. This is the ethic that Rodin imparted to Rilke: There is only work.

Rodin also gave Rilke a way to see newly. And his engagement with Rodin coincided with his “thing” poems. Poems in which the “thing” is definite.

In a letter to Lou Andreas-Salomé (the same Salomé who had known Nietzsche, fifteen years later would become Rilke’s lover and confidante), Rilke writes, “The thing is definite, the art thing must be more definite still, removed from all accident, wrested away from all obscurity, withdrawn from time and given over to space. It has become enduring, capable of eternity. The model seems. The art thing is.”

Thanks, at least in part, to Rodin, he is now in a more concrete place.

And it is from this place that “Archaic Torso of Apollo” comes.

This “thing” which is out there stuffed with brilliance from the inside, and gleaming with power, took him. He sent it back, and it returned to him again, this time in the form of transformation.


Lababidi: There is no backing out once you have committed to this project, this self-sculpting, to match yourself to your ideals.

Rilke writes:

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’
hierarchies? and even if one of them pressed me
suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed
in that overwhelming existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.

This is Mitchell’s translation of the first passage from the first of the ten beatific Duino Elegies Rilke wrote in a few-weeks’ burst of poetic power, in retreat at the Duino castle. And with these elegies, by every standard, Rilke proved himself to himself.

Even five years after the writing of these ten elegies, he was content to play mage, to compose his endless, gorgeous, crystalline letters of instruction, of elucidation, of connection. The letters were his pleasure, because he had gotten the fire out of himself. He sang his song and he is now the ash.

Not unhappy to be ash for the last five years of his life, is how one might describe it. There is a sense in Rilke of having achieved, and that achievement was not so much the deed of composition as it was the achievement of being ready, being prepared, being patient, and being willing to let this beauty and terror come through him when the time for it was upon him.

One year before Rilke passed away, he was asked to elaborate on the elegies, which had come to him as lightning comes to a lightning rod.

He begins by speaking on the coexistence of the material and the spiritual realms.

“It was within the power of the creative artist to build a bridge between two worlds, even though the task was almost too great for a man. Everywhere transience is plunging into the depths of Being. It is our task to imprint this temporary, perishable earth into ourselves, so deeply, so painfully and passionately, that its essence can rise again, invisible, inside of us. We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, store it in the great golden hive of the invisible.”

Part Three: Heritage


Lababidi: I must now go on immediately to Ekelund.

Vilhelm Ekelund was a literary soul-gazer.

In an aphorism, he writes, “There are passages in the works of some authors that in a way lie outside the frame of their writing. Passages where you suddenly feel the man talking is not the literary worker So-and-So, but the human being high above all ‘literature.’ Clear, deep, good—but also with a wild tone, flying through the soul, like the scream of a bird above a desolate ocean bay.”


Lababidi: Rilke writes, “Space reaches from us and construes the world. / To know a tree in its true element, / throw inner-space around it, from that pure / abundance in you.”

The Exquisites all cultivated these exquisite states, in order to intensify their inwardness and access the numinous.

That’s just something I thought worth mentioning.

Ekelund writes, “How did I become a hunter for treasure? When I saw a climate (a land) in my nature, in the traditions of my blood which was my heritage. Then I began to realize that the strife of my whole existence was this: to prove my right to inherit…“

Ekelund is a discovery I owe to the Swedish poet Boel Schenlaer, whom I met at an international festival. I was raving about Nietzsche and the aphorism, presumptively, as it turned out. “You must read Ekelund,” she insisted.

I understood why immediately upon opening the first book. The way you know immediately upon meeting people.

Ekelund was born in 1880 (Nietzsche was still around then) and died in 1949. He began as a poet, and a gifted, accomplished poet, so that by twenty-three years of age he was considered Sweden’s foremost poet. Then, being the radical temperament that he must have been—to keep company, as I see it, with the other Exquisites—he renounced poetry as sentimental and did not publish any more verse.

He practiced a kind of literary soul-gazing. “Books must be lived to be read,” he writes. He saw into the writers he read in ways that others don’t. He composed essays and aphorisms.

He discovered Nietzsche at twenty-seven. He turned to Nietzsche “for learning, strength and solace.”

Nietzsche taught him that it is possible to be a great poet of ideas writing in prose.

By his forties, Ekelund wrote exclusively in aphorisms.

The aphorism integrates both existential and moral commitment, and that is what Ekelund was after. No less!

Ekelund writes, “An even accumulation of divine sunshine, slow and blissful, no artist’s fever with repercussions of tumbling into darkness. My worship of the sun begins in the autumn, culminates in February.”

Ekelund writes, “The real poet is a mystic.”

Ekelund would not write for money and lived sometimes in the most heartbreaking poverty. He tied a rope around his waist for a belt and slept as a vagrant. He led a terrible life and desperate.

He didn’t have Rilke’s gift for cultivating princesses and baronesses.

He collapsed with a lung ailment and was in recovery when he wrote The Second Light.

As he was recovering, he began to hear himself breathe, and with that awareness his breath changed altogether.

He was quieted somehow.

Nietzsche had advised that no thoughts could be trusted but those that came to one while walking.

Ekelund, who would never stop thinking, took this advice for his medicine.

See what's inside AGNI 74

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. (updated 10/2010)

His AGNI Online interview “The Prayer of Attention: A Conversation with Yahi Lababidi” was excerpted in Harper’s Magazine’s “Links” for April 21, 2010.

Back to top