Trial by Ink is a collection of essays by writer Yahia Lababidi. Lababidi is perhaps best known for his poetry and brings a poet’s gift for incisive observation to his exploration of not only his topics at hand but to the essay as a form. As a poet ideally discovers his or her voice through a meticulous process of reading other poets, so does Lababidi demonstrate throughout his awareness of his place in the great conversation of essayists down through history.
Trial by Ink is broken up into three sections. The first is the most daunting as it is dominated by writing about writing and writers. Of these essays, somewhere around half concern themselves wholly or tangentially with either Friedrich Nietzche or Oscar Wilde. Conventional wisdom suggests that if one is not culturally invested in the works and lives of these authors, then this section of the book will be of little interest. As a testimony to his skills as an essayist, Lababidi transforms conversations about their particular philosophies into debates about big ideas like, “What is a good way to live?” or “How does one’s perception of the self govern his or her behavior toward others?” He seeks resolution less often than he embraces the act of exploration, giving his work a plausibility as he includes the reader in on his process and involves them in deciding the outcomes, if, in fact, they can even be known.
This description should not be mistaken for skimming or avoiding the texts at hand. Lababidi is exhaustive, drawing together themes across multiple works and digging into secondary sources written on these men of history. His focus is undeniably that of an engaged critic, considering carefully not only the places where ideas harmonize comfortably alongside one another but dedicating considerable space to the contradictions as well. Yet, it is in these contradictions that he is able to demonstrate the humanity of his subjects and, consequently, develop in the reader a deep interest in their flaws as well as their strengths. Rather than serving as apologist, Lababidi is able to demonstrate what it was about these two particular men that rocked the 19th century to the depth of its intellectual core and sent shockwaves spilling into the 20th. This is ultimately a conversation that he is able to convince us has more to say about Western culture and its participants, willing or otherwise, than the men themselves.
The second segment of the book, titled “Studies in Pop Culture,” brings the discourse at a level where even the most casual reader can find something of themselves in the topics at hand. Lababidi opens the section with perhaps the most arresting stand-alone piece in Trial by Ink, an essay called “Meditation on Murder.” In the grand tradition of the liberal arts, Lababidi weaves from threads spun from high art to real crime – his eye wandering freely from Jack the Ripper to Natural Born Killers as he meticulously dissects the role that murder plays in human culture. To encapsulate the ideas within down to an argument is to miss the virtuosity on display as he considers his subject.
The perversions of pleasure or the spirit of nihilism, temporary insanity or erosion of will, uncontrollable urges and violent power over another, in lieu of power over oneself, these are only some of the ingredients of murder… Anything it seems, but blaming riotous human impulses and the intoxication of negativity, or admitting that as humans we drag our primordial slime, along with our glory, onto every new frontier. ‘I don’t believe in progress,’ offered French poet Rollinat, ‘but the stagnation of human perversity.’ But to be fair, we cannot claim credit for human achievement without also assuming responsibility for human catastrophe, murder included.”
From these heights, he segues into a highly personal essay about pop star Michael Jackson and, later, references the Smiths and Leonard Cohen as he considers the role of the celebrity in modern culture. The genius at work is that each of these steps seem completely natural in progression as he moves toward the end of the section that considers the merits of the almost intangible ideas of silence and crisis in human life. While the work on display is academic in the sense that it collides voices from the past with examples from the present, there is nothing fussy or forced about the juxtaposition. If anything, it brings comfort as the too-often claustrophobic environment of the awful and unending present is exposed to a sense of scope as the broad backdrop of written culture is dropped in behind to offer perspective.
The final section, “Middle Eastern Musings,” is perhaps the most compelling as Lababidi offers a series of snapshots of Egypt and Lebanon and, more broadly, the metropolitan Muslim world from the alluring perspective of a cultural insider. Given the recent events in Egypt, with sectarian violence erupting between peoples of diverse faith that have historically lived peaceably alongside one another, his observations on the progressive suppression of eroticism by a solidifying Muslim majority in the country is informative and unsettling. Lest we mistake his point of view for an anti-Muslim one, he balances this out with an almost mystical meditation on the value of fasting, contexted within his own experiences during Ramadan. Rather than distancing himself from the reader with piety, Lababidi lampoons the cultural loopholes available to even the most fervent practitioner – simultaneously extolling the value of his religion while showing that human drives are more difficult to thwart in practice than they seem in theory.
The book ends with a vignette titled “Waiting for Shabaan” that, without self-consciousness, describes a Sisyphian journey of trying to get a face-to-face interview with an unlikely Egyptian superstar. Though there is something of a shaggy dog story buried in the title’s reference to Waiting for Godot, the closing essay gives us a compelling sideways glance into an Egyptian culture that doesn’t know that it is being watched.
Upon finishing Trial by Ink, one comes away with a feeling of having traveled considerable distances over expanses of time rarely offered by a single book. Nearly without fail, Lababidi manages the impressive feat of writing exquisitely without writing down to his reader. There is nothing within its pages that a reasonably engaged person should be incapable of appreciating on the merits under which it is offered. Though there may be a segment of whatever size among the reading peoples of the world that just don’t want to think about Franz Kafka or Susan Sontag, Yahia Lababidi’s Trial by Ink is definitive proof that the loss is truly theirs when the writing is good enough to demand that they ought to anyway.