Rob Doyle: Getting out of my head
Rather than free the spirit from the agony of individual consciousness, reading can lock you deeper in the skull-chamber from which you sought escape or offer glimpses of transcendence, of liberation
Rob Doyle: Ireland has always felt to me like a village, and like all villages it is claustrophobic; it’s best to flee it at the soonest possible opportunity, at least for a while, lest you end up on the six o’clock news with a shotgun in your arms and bloody mayhem all around. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times
I like getting out of my head. In the words of that worrying old pervert Georges Bataille, “Man has escaped from his head just as the condemned man has escaped from his prison”. When I say I like getting out of my head, what I mean is that I like, or rather I feel an urgent compulsion, to eject myself from the torture chamber of rationality, cogitation and discursive thought which is at the root of my problems, in contrast to the body and the senses, which seem to me entirely innocent. As EM Cioran insists (we could quote the philosophers all day!), “Salvation? Anything that diminishes the kingdom of consciousness and compromises its supremacy.”
Yes, consciousness is the enemy. It is a tyrant and, as with the tyrants of the Arab world, it is best to attack it like a suicide bomber, in other words like someone with nothing to lose. Time-honoured ways of getting out of your head include drink and drugs, and while these may at times be called for, they can also be quite ruinous (though this does not necessarily count against them). Then there is music, combat, fucking, yoga, dancing – the ecstatic in whatever form it might be found.
Another way to get out of your head is by reading. Admittedly this is a weak means of getting out of your head, and all too often, rather than freeing the spirit from the agony of individual consciousness, reading has the effect of entrenching it further, locking you deeper in the skull-chamber from which you sought escape. However, reading can offer glimpses of transcendence, of liberation from what a particularly cracked philosopher, Nick Land, called the “headcase”. A true believer, Virginia Woolf reckoned that “the state of reading consists in the complete elimination of the ego”.
As well as getting out of my head, I like getting out of my country, which is Ireland. Ireland has always felt to me like a village, and like all villages it is claustrophobic; it’s best to flee it at the soonest possible opportunity, at least for a while, lest you end up on the six o’clock news with a shotgun in your arms and bloody mayhem all around. Throughout my life the need to get out of Ireland has been no less urgent than the need to get out of my headcase. At times it has not been convenient to get out of Ireland in a physical sense, and so, being resourceful, I have got out of Ireland – as I have got out of my head – using literary means. People say it is weak and vulgar to read in order to escape but reading in order to escape is exactly what we should be doing – after all, there is so much to escape from (it is debatable, however, whether there is anywhere to escape to, apart from the imagination, though even that has been colonised, the dreamworld now belonging to Twitter and Facebook).
I read in order to travel, to flee, to make a run for it. Perhaps this is why, when I was in my teens and twenties, I rarely read books about Ireland: that would have been like reading descriptions of a prison cell while serving time. Nowadays, I read a great many Irish authors, possibly because I have lived long and travelled widely enough to realise that the entire world is a prison, so I may as well read about an Irish cell as a Colombian one. The real prison is the headcase, and there is no escape from it wherever you go, only brief hallucinations of freedom which, again, are why we turn to books or psychedelic drugs or the obliterating techno-transcendence of LFO or the Pogues’ demented aesthetics of ecstasy.
All of the characters in This Is the Ritual are concerned with getting out of their heads, including the author, the shadiest character of all. They are also exiles – men and women who, because of trauma, desperation or the shriek of demons, have got out of Ireland or whichever cell they were born into. I love to read my own writing until I am sick of it, just as if I were a film-maker I would watch my own films; a trumpet-maker blow my own trumpet; or a gravedigger dig my own hole. Needless to say, I write the kind of books I want to read (I can’t trust anyone else with the task), and one of the gratifying things about writing This Is the Ritual was that it allowed me to get out of my head – through the joy of creative activity – and out of Ireland too, by setting the stories around the globe.
A couple of the stories are set in Ireland, such as No Man’s Land, but in that case the narrator, a young man in psychic and spiritual crisis, is nonetheless an exile, drawn to the depopulated fringes and windswept industrial estates. The psychotic narrator of Final Email from P Cranley is adrift in pre-apocalyptic San Francisco, awaiting deliverance not only from the headcase but from the earth itself. In Barcelona, a young woman leaves Dublin to wander the titular city after discovering a betrayal: Barcelona becomes the canvas on which she remakes her sexual identity. Elsewhere, punks squat a derelict apartment block on the edge of the Mexican desert, their lives a game of brinkmanship whose prize is ecstasy or oblivion. Other characters seek release through sex, art, noise and violence in Berlin, London, Paris, and various other underworlds.
Writing these fictions meant I could return to landscapes and cities where I once lived or passed through, or where I only long to go. (“What is a writer,” asks Susan Sontag, “but a mental traveller?”) If I feel like getting out of my head or out of my country, all I have to do is open the book and read them again. It is the next best thing to the ultimate trip craved by the disturbing author Killian Turner when he wrote: “It is not enough to court extinction; our aspiration is never to have been.”
This is the Ritual by Rob Doyle is published by Bloomsbury and Dublin’s Lilliput Press. Over the next four weeks, we shall be exploring the collection in detail, with interviews and articles by the author, his editors, fellow writers and critics, culminating in a podcast interview which will be recorded at the Irish Writers Centre in Dulbin’s Parnell Square on Tuesday, April 19th, at 7.30pm, and published on irishtimes.com at the end of the month