Exodus by Lars Iyer

Lars Iyer
Melville House, Paperback
289 pages, 978-1612191827, £10.99


Nikolai Duffy


Exodus: the second book of the Old Testament, which recounts the departure of the Israelites out of Egypt; shemot (‘names’) in the Pentateuch; literally a ‘going out’: ex, meaning ‘out’, and hodos, way. Also, from the Greek, exodus, ‘a military expedition; a solemn procession; departure; death.’


In a short essay on Derrida’s notion of différance, translated as ‘Elliptical Sense,’ Jean-Luc Nancy invokes the phrase ‘the lightening of meaning’ which, Nancy writes, refers to the ‘knowledge of a condition of possibility that gives nothing to know.’ In such a situation, he suggests, ‘meaning lightens itself […] as meaning, at the cutting edge of its appeal and its repeated demand for meaning.’ [1]


Exodus is the third instalment of Lars Iyer’s much celebrated trilogy (after Spurious, 2011, and Dogma, 2012) cataloguing the existential, professional, political, and economic ruination of Lars, W., philosophy, universities, academia, life, and everything else. Lars and W. are a classic double act: acerbic, perplexed, frustrated, bound. And they are extremely funny, tragically funny. Think Beckett, think Laurel and Hardy, Little and Large. Across the wastes of Britain, academia, one playing off the other, each reprising roles laid out before any of this began, sticking to them, by and large, for lack of any clear sense of any other way to behave. This is the stuff of intimacy: W.’s abuse of Lars; Lars’ acquiescence. Lars: the half-Danish, half-Indian, used to work in a warehouse; W., the academic with great leanings towards what he describes as ‘the majesty of thinking’, contemplation, the big questions, and who claims Irish and Jewish heritage.


‘Critical discourse has this peculiar characteristic: the more it exerts, develops, and establishes itself, the more it must obliterate itself; in the end it disintegrates. Not only does it not impose itself – attentive to not taking the place of its object of discussion – it only concludes and fulfils its purpose when it drifts into transparency.’ [2]


This time, Lars and W. go on one last lecture tour of Britain to assess the ‘ruins of the humanities’ and the conditions for W.’s sacking.

Not much happens. They come and go; they drink gin; they talk, a lot, not necessarily about anything in particular. They have a sense of the ridiculous. They go on and on, relentlessly.


Surfaces can be difficult to read and the slate is never wiped clean, really, no matter the scourer used. Lines of reference are tangled, an entire condensed pattern of connection. Driven to entertainment. Besides, it is not always easy to be what one says; matter lost in grammar and convention, and convergence, too, the edge of letting go.

To move in the spaces language opens.

A place where life and writing come together; an engagement with history, ground, that is also a way of thinking the rifts of life, its relative strangeness, the stuff of things, some of it choppier than the rest; a whole made up of pieces, fragments: the gaps, the inconsistencies, the blindsights. Most often, contradictions are restless and ambiguity pulls in more than one direction.


Lars and W. are great refuseniks, even of refusing. Idealism figures as cynicism; certainty is a fine example of irony; and thinking about what irony might mean is just another reason for apathy.

And no wonder: as Paul de Man comments in ‘The Rhetoric of Temporality,’ irony is duplicitous and undecidable; it doesn’t say what it says, but neither then does it say what it doesn’t say, such that the duplicity of irony necessarily also extends to any discourse on irony.

‘Curiously enough,’ de Man writes, ‘it seems to be only in describing a mode of language which does not mean what it says that one can actually say what one means.’ [3] The ‘not-itself’ of irony does not mean that irony is negative but simply that irony establishes a way of speaking that undoes what is said.


‘The moment’s come, W. says on the phone. They’re closing the philosophy department at Middlesex.

W. imagines them like giant crabs, the destroyers of philosophy. As giant crabs with great metallic claws. But in the end, they’ll only be managers. Manager-murderers, with profit-and-loss spreadsheets.

‘It’ll be our turn next,’ W. says. ‘They’re coming to get us.’ The cursor, on someone’s monitor, is already hovering over our names.’ [4]


In The Writing of the Disaster Maurice Blanchot, about whom Iyer has written two books, writes that the grand irony is apathy: ‘not Socratic, not feigned ignorance – but saturation by impropriety (when nothing whatsoever suits anymore), the grand dissimulation where all is said, all is said again and finally silenced.’ [5]

And then, as Blanchot goes on, ‘if the “possibility” of writing is linked to the “possibility” of irony, then we understand why one and the other are always disappointing: it is impossible to lay claim to either; both exclude all mastery.’ [6]

This disappointment is everywhere in Exodus, and joyously so. Iyer makes exuberance out of folly. As he puts it in interview, ‘For me, the art of exaggeration is the literary art of our times. It is only through exaggeration that we can express ourselves in this sentimental age; that we can break through to the truth. Exaggeration and wild despair: that’s the remedy. Hyperbole is all you have left when you’re being backed into a corner.’ [7]


‘It occurred to me as I made my way here and there along these paths of history that there is a joy in independence, in the risk of independence in one’s thinking and making, and there is joy even in contemplating the works of the independent thinker. But what also occurred to me is that there is safety, reassurance, in being an uncritical follower, especially of an independent thinker, a revolutionary […] and that the challenge to the follower […] is to remain independent in turn – even of those we admire, of those who are themselves independent. That is, to continue to look with clear eyes, with the eyes of the “critical scholar” […] For fear that otherwise we have eyes but do not look. Or maybe it should be: we look but do not see.’ [8]


In interview, the poet Rosmarie Waldrop comments how continuities, smooth transitions, tend to be false. The sense that one thing follows on from another is bluff, an illusion of order. ‘There is always,’ she says, ‘the feeling that I never have enough information. The process is not so much “telling” as questioning. This implies interruption. And in the gaps we might get hints of much that has to be left unsaid – but should be thought about.’ [9]


‘There’s a fundamental difference in our philosophy of walking, W. says. He is a Jewish walker, for whom every walk is an exodus, a leaving behind of the house of bondage. For the Jew, every walk is a political act, a determined effort to found a new community, to journey together away from the captivity of Egypt.

But I am a Hindu walker, W. says, for whom walking is not political, but only ever cosmological – ‘You set out to come back again! You go forth only to return!’ [10]


essay, n. from the French, essai, to weigh, try,

measure, inquire into; a rough copy; first draft. 


‘We were to learn about our transferable skills, I’ve told W. We were to learn about personal branding. We were to learn about time management and planning and organisation. We were to learn about working well with others, and forming good working relationships. We were to learn about motivation and enthusiasm, about showing initiative and being self-starting. We were to learn about sharing a firm’s mission…’ [11]


Absurd, from the Latin, absurdus, meaning: 

out-of-tune, discordant, awkward, uncouth, uncivilized,

preposterous, ridiculous, inappropriate.


‘We need novels forged in the black fire of despair. Personal despair, political despair, even cosmic despair. Novels shot through with a sense that the end is nigh, that all our efforts are in vain, but that we might at least laugh at our predicament. Laugh — but with a laughter as black as the forces that we laugh at.’ [12]


Exodus; lights out… and then the very fact of tomorrow.


It brings to mind Blanchot’s essay on ‘The Laughter of the Gods’, particularly the part where he quotes Pierre Klossowski: ‘And thus it appears that the doctrine of eternal return is conceived yet again as a simulacrum of doctrine whose very parodic character gives account of hilarity as an attribute of existence sufficient unto itself, when laughter rings out from the depths of truth itself, either because truth bursts forth in the laughter of the gods, or because the gods themselves die laughing uncontrollably: when a god wanted to be the only God, all of the other gods were seized with uncontrollable laughter, until they laughed to death.’ [13]


It’s rare to read a book, let alone a trilogy, that makes you laugh out loud this often, especially given the very pressing questions it raises but refuses to answer about the value of the humanities, economics, thinking, the way of things, books. And it’s even more rare, I think, to read a book that does all this while also being this smart, and biting, and entertaining.



[1] Nancy, ‘Elliptical Sense’, in Derrida: A Critical Reader, ed. David Wood (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), pp.41-42.

[2] Maurice Blanchot, ‘What is the Purpose of Criticism?’ in Lautréamont and Sade, trans. Stuart Kendall and Michelle Kendall (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004) p. 2.

[3] Paul de Man, ‘The Rhetoric of Temporality’ in Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (London: Methuen, 1983) p. 211.

[4] Lars Iyer, Exodus (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2013), p.252.

[5] Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln and London, University of Nebraska Press, 1995), p. 45.

[6] Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, p. 35.

[7] Jonathan McAloon, ‘Interview with a writer: Lars Iyer,’ The New Statesman, 6 March 2013.

[8] Lydia Davis, ‘Pairing off the Amphibologisms: Jesus Recovered by the Jesus Seminar’ in Joyful Noise: The New Testament Revisited, ed. Rick Moody and Darcey Steinke (Boston: Little Brown, 1997), pp. 201-2.

[9] Joan Retallack, ‘A Conversation with Rosmarie Waldrop,’ Contemporary Literature, Vol. 40, No. 3 (Autumn, 1999), p.341.

[10] Iyer, Exodus, p.160.

[11] Iyer, Exodus, pp.166-167.

[12] Lars Iyer, ‘Interview,’ Full Stop, 22 June 2011.

[13] Pierre Klossowski, quoted in Maurice Blanchot, ‘The Laughter of the Gods,’ Friendship, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), p.181.


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