Simone Says


The cover of My Weil

BY NOW IT’S CLEAR that the academic humanities—that supposedly disinterested pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, preserved from the whims of the market—are under threat. But that threat is perhaps best personified not by a powerful politician loudly looking to defund “ripoff” programs, but by an ordinary guy pursuing a PhD in Business Studies. This is a guy who’s getting an advanced degree not to save his soul or to preserve and expand the edifice of human knowledge but to destroy both. He is at once the ideal consumer and the ideal product of the modern university increasingly run like a corporation: a cog in the machine that converts qualities into quantities and meaningful language into the jargon of the deal, with devastating effects on higher education and culture in general. The fact that he’s getting a doctorate of philosophy in what philosophy graduate students might call anti-philosophy adds insult to injury: the same degree is awarded both to those who see value in arts and letters and to those who see only profit—or lack thereof.

 In Lars Iyer’s latest novel, My Weil, this Business Studies guy has a name: Business Studies Guy. A pure cipher in a nonspeaking role, Business Studies Guy is nonetheless a constant in the lives of Iyer’s main characters, a group of PhD students—real PhD students—at the philosophy-adjacent Centre for Disaster Studies at All Saints University, an apparent stand-in for Manchester Metropolitan University, where Iyer earned his PhD in philosophy. Self-consciously self-aggrandizing, this self-mockingly self-titled “League of Extraordinary PhD Students” rings in the beginning of the academic school year by scoffing at the “pretend” subjects of Business Studies (“Kleptocracy? Corporate raiding? Debt leveraging? Overgrowth? Financial engineering? The pillaging of the system before the final collapse?”) and rhapsodizing about their own forays into “the final academic frontier”: “A trial of the soul! A dark night of the intellect!” Into their midst arrives the novel’s title character, a new student in Disaster Studies who has adopted both the philosophical commitments and the name of the twentieth-century French mystic Simone Weil.

The merrily dyspeptic crew, also known as the All Saints Disaster Studies Collective, introduce themselves to Simone over post-orientation picklebacks (she does not partake) at Ruin Bar, their regular symposium spot. Their areas of expertise are exposited as if they were an assembled team in a heist movie: there’s Ismail (“Performance philosophy. Showing that films can think”), Valentine (“Religious anarchism and the anarchism of religion”), Marcie (“Lumpenproletariat revolt as ultra-politics”), Gita (“Something about late heterosexuality”), and the narrator, Johnny (“Ontological evil”). Their friendship is forged in bonds of mutual mockery: Ismail’s experimental films are pronounced “in the international elitist artwank style”; Gita’s interest in “queer communism” is derided as “very radical”; ultra-political Marcie, as a kind of joke of which she’s also the punchline, is ironically dating Business Studies Guy. Simone’s own project is more extracurricular. She spends most of her time ministering to the downtrodden denizens of Manchester, to the alarm of her peers, who worry she’s putting herself in danger. For Simone, this is what it means to devote oneself to Simone Weil’s philosophy: to abdicate the ego and give oneself over entirely to others and to God, in a process Weil called the “passive activity” of “decreation.”

Iyer was a longtime philosophy lecturer at Newcastle University; he is now, having renounced philosophy for fiction, on the creative writing faculty. The new novel is Iyer’s third in a row to center on a character who has taken on the name of a famous philosopher, following Wittgenstein Jr. and Nietzsche and the Burbs. He is also the author of the Spurious trilogy (Spurious, Dogma, and Exodus), and My Weil shares themes with those novels as well: academia, absurdism, friendship, the mysterious spread of a mysterious fungus. All Iyer’s novels rail, in one way or another, against the abyss of meaning into which Business Studies Guy and his ilk threaten to drag intellectual life. The alternative they propose to soulless business administration is “infinite philosophical eros,” or what the French philosopher Maurice Blanchot, the erstwhile subject of Iyer’s academic work, called “the infinite conversation.”

The conversation in My Weil really does feel infinite. Characters speak in hypnotically anaphoric sentences, punctuated by italics and ellipses, that plow through the page with a pointed pointlessness, creating less a plot than an intellectual mood, a vibe of energetic ennui. Ismail’s admiration for Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster, which Valentine has pulled out and randomly started reading aloud, both exemplifies and describes Iyer’s approach:

It’s like the opposite of a dissertation. Not defining his terms. Not stating aims and objectives. Not summarizing his position—or even having a position. Not having chapters or subchapters. Or an introduction. Or a conclusion. Or a method, probably . . . 

This droningly droll style, which has earned Iyer comparisons to the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, whom he has called his favorite novelist, derives from his blog, where he first began the experiments with dialogue-based fiction that would eventually become Spurious. This novel, too, consists mostly of dialogue, interspersed with sparse stage directions that can feel like improv prompts (“Simone and I, walking to the bus stop”; “Sitting around the table”; “Pointing out our fellow Disaster Studies PhD students”) and Johnny’s immersive present-tense narration, which sometimes bleeds into the Greek-chorus-like first-person plural of the Collective. Like going through grad school or scrolling through social media, reading My Weil can feel like a cruel joke of a time loop, an endless slog that seems to be going nowhere, dialogue that lacks the direction of dialectic. 

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La Conversation (The Conversation), ca. 1876, pastel and charcoal on paper, 23 5/8 × 19 1/8". Wikicommons.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La Conversation (The Conversation), ca. 1876, pastel and charcoal on paper, 23 5/8 × 19 1/8″. Wikicommons.

This, Iyer might say, is the point. His depiction of graduate school sounds a lot like his depiction of the suburbs, and like the teenagers whiling away their time in Wokingham in Nietzsche and the Burbs, the PhD students in My Weil chafe against boredom, arrested development, and a nagging sense that real life is elsewhere. “Always the dissertation to write,” the Collective collectively muses. “Always stuff to read. Life goes on and on and on. . . .” These are characters in search of a method for finding meaning amid our multiple ongoing contemporary disasters, and though they know they won’t find it in Disaster Studies Methods class with “Professor Bollocks,” they aren’t sure where else to look. Mostly from humble beginnings and skeptical about the prospects of higher education, they in some ways identify with the lumpenproletariat underclass that is the subject of Marcie’s dissertation (“we’re spiritually lumpen,” Marcie insists), acting out their contempt for “the Man” through his proxy in Business Studies Guy. But they also fear the “mancunian madness” of the city’s mean streets, a fear that feels justified when Simone, in the course of her humanitarian work, gets stabbed. They are committed to their bits, and not much else. 

Nothing really happens in the novel that can’t be attributed to the magic of mushrooms, caffeine, alcohol, and the graduate student urge to procrastinate with endless riffs, self-parody, and meta-jokes about the metaphysical impossibility of finishing one’s thesis. These are clearly meant to be funny, but some jokes about tedium are simply tedious. A lecture from Professor Bollocks on tips for “time management” is met with hysterical outcry:

Rising rage. Tired anger. Not this topic . . . Anything but this topic . . . Is he actually going to couple the word time with the word management? TIME! MANAGEMENT! TIME! MANAGEMENT! Within the walls of a uni! As if Henri Bergson never existed! Nor Martin Heidegger! As if Deleuze had never formulated the three syntheses of time!

The conceit is a familiar one to anyone who has spent time in an academic humanities department: the practice of turning assignments in on time requires a different understanding of time than, for example, the theory of messianic time developed by Walter Benjamin. Graduate students like to make jokes based on such mismatches of theory and practice. How can we possibly complete essays on the poetics of incompletion? How can we possibly work on our thesis on antiwork politics? These one-liners can pass the time in the library or on social media. When cannily deployed, they might even invite us to think seriously about the contradictions that structure our lives. But they become tiresome when unrelentingly repeated over the course of multiple heavily italicized pages of a novel. 

When not sitting through lectures or engaging in what they call “drunken philosophy” at Ruin Bar, the characters float through a variety of other briefly indicated locations: the local café; the bus; the vintage clothing boutique where Gita works; the Ees, the spooky forest on the outskirts of town populated by fantastical folkloric figures and dubious mushrooms, including a giant “god-shroom” that leads to the novel’s hallucinogenic climax. Sometimes Business Studies Guy tags along to take abuse. Allusions to thinkers ranging from Zhuangzi to Terence to Shakespeare to Thoreau mingle with mock-melodramatic name-drops of modern theorists like Georges Bataille, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (who lend their names to a two-headed rat who “might be a spy for the Man”), and Blanchot, whose first editions, notebooks, and even baby pictures show up in the private collection of a rich cryptocurrency-crazy student nicknamed Bitcoin. 

The Blanchot bit invites reflection on Iyer’s own relationship to his former career in academic philosophy. His pivot to fiction doesn’t seem to have come out of an investment in the novel as form; in interviews, he claims not to read any contemporary novels, and betrays no sign of having read any novels at all beyond those of Bernhard and Dostoyevsky. Instead, like his character and fellow Blanchot fan Ismail, he’s interested in the possibilities for philosophy when unyoked from current academic conventions. My Weil is a philosophical novel not only in its subject matter but also because it is a novel that knows, with Jacques Derrida, that generic distinctions are never stable, that there is perhaps no such thing as a novel. It is not a novel for “London Review of Books reviewers,” “Radio 4 contributors,” students at Manchester’s fancier Victoria University, and the other unfree thinkers who reside in the expensive suburb the All Saints Collective stumbles into to attend a student party: 

Didsbury intellectuals, reassuring us that everything can be thought, discussed, explained, and calmly . . . That everything can be written about in full sentences, not telegraphic bursts . . . That there’s no need for a single exclamation mark! never a single ellipsis . . . That nothing will ever have to be said IN CAPITALS . . .

Nor is it, we’re led to think, a novel for philosophy professors. The main action, such as it is, revolves around Ismail leading the group in the production of a film, first conceived as a high-concept “anti-film”—“A critical interrogation of high arthouse seriousness, of the piety of the long shot and le temps mort”—and then revised into a different kind of anti-film, a straightforward documentary of the friends’ ordinary daily lives, which they title Simone Weil. When the Collective wins a departmental prize for their film, they act offended that their avant-garde artwork has appealed to such conventional tastes. Their outrage is played for laughs, but they’re in on the joke. Their combination of pretentiousness and self-awareness creates the ideal conditions for both true sophisticates—namely, each other—and the middlebrow midwits of the prize committee to enjoy their work. These might be the conditions Iyer himself strives for. His ideal audience may be those enlightened souls who know better than to confuse what goes on in university humanities departments for thinking, who know that the London Review of Books is hopelessly bourgeois, who know more than Professor Bollocks—but the Professor Bollockses of the world will chuckle at the Deleuze/Guattari two-headed rat joke, too. Nonacademics love to laugh at the foibles of academics, but academics love it even more.

It’s also not, of course, a novel for Business Studies Guy, even though large chunks of it are directly addressed to him. “Bet you never talk like this in Business Studies,” Marcie murmurs to Business Studies Guy after a bout of drunken philosophy. “Bet it’s not all ecstatic nihilism, the lumpenproletariat and the void of God in Business Studies. . . .” Business Studies Guy doesn’t respond—here, and throughout the novel, his utter silence implies that he truly has nothing to say—but Simone does, by rising to leave, which prompts one of the group to cry, “Don’t leave us! God. . . .” The expletive doubles as an address: the Collective has overestimated its comfort level with the void of God, and when they realize that ecstatic nihilism isn’t the only alternative to Business Studies, they start to question if they really know how to do philosophy at all. Simone stands against their fragmentary aimlessness, a wholly holy figure of serenity and moral clarity. “Saints look for a way of living while renouncing being someone,” Simone says by way of defining “decreation”; say what you will about the paradoxes of Weil’s philosophy, at least it’s an ethos. 

Yet Simone exists almost entirely as an idea. This isn’t only because she’s ideologically and intellectually committed to asceticism and decreation; it’s also that she’s so barely fleshed out as a character that she seems almost not to have been created at all. Johnny is most taken with the strange new arrival, holding her up as a paragon of virtue, a Virgin Mary or a Beatrice whom he hopes might guide him out of the purgatorial, profanity-laced milieu of All Saints, an idealization made easier by her lack of personality. This Simone bears only passing resemblance to the historical Weil, whose flailing, almost zany attempts to live out her ethics—stepping into a vat of boiling oil while trying to assist the anti-fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War; nearly starving due to a combination of self-imposed poverty and pickiness when it came to cuts of meat; getting repeatedly fired from factory jobs due to clumsiness—had a heartbreakingly funny aesthetics. The great philosopher, activist, and mystic is the same person as the gawky germaphobe; her travails call to mind Lucille Ball at the chocolate factory and klutzy rom-com heroines as much as medieval saints. Her physical awkwardness fits perfectly with her extreme embrace of suffering and her principled refusal, up to the self-denial of food that accelerated her early death, to feel comfortable in her skin. As Weil herself put it, “Affliction is ridiculous.” 

Iyer, in his way, takes the ridiculousness of affliction seriously. PhD candidates in a fictional branch of a subfield of philosophy may not be straightforwardly representative of the wider population, but any young person trying to find a method to live in the face of political, economic, and ecological crisis is, in their way, a student of disaster. My Weil looks for meaning in the desire to stave off the meaninglessness of a world increasingly run, within universities and without, by Business Studies Guys. The novel ends with Johnny and Simone living in dreamlike, postapocalyptic—or possibly psychedelic-induced—domestic bliss in a house in the Ees. Here, metaphysical horrors are survived not with a constant flow of coffee, bourbon, and riffs but “by doing ordinary things”: chopping vegetables, setting the table, emptying the washing machine, hanging clothes to dry. The stylistic repetition that for most of the novel feels like compulsion here becomes a ritual comfort; each of the twelve short paragraphs of this final section begins with “This is our house.” Maybe the real philosophy consists of the friends we make along the way, and maybe the only way out is through. But it’s an abrupt ending for a novel that seemed so committed to the open-ended pleasures of intellectual life, the infinite conversation in which all of us, though not Business Studies Guy, can take a small but meaningful part.

The Infinite Conversation is a collection of Blanchot’s writings where the philosopher stages meandering dialogues influenced by his long engagements with thinkers such as Nietzsche, Bataille, Pascal, Kafka, Heraclitus, and Sade. It is also a website,, where AI-generated versions of Werner Herzog and Slavoj Žižek talk back and forth, forever. In answer to the question “Why did you do this?” on the site’s FAQ, its creator offers three reasons: “1) because I could; 2) as an awareness campaign over the powers of machine learning applied unscrupulously . . . 3) as a love letter to Werner Herzog and Slavoj Žižek, their brilliant ideas and their idiosyncratic speech.” Like, My Weil can read like an awareness campaign: the forces aligned with Business Studies Guy threaten to nullify real conversation with technologies that mimic it for profit. And like, the rote jokes of the novel can themselves feel like the machine rendering of philosophical ideas, even if they also lovingly parody the impulses to endlessness that make us most human, a bit like how, in Paradise Lost, Milton’s fallen angels pass the time of their indefinite stay in Hell in philosophical debate over fate and free will “and found no end, in wandering mazes lost.” Getting lost in the labyrinthine turns of such conversations can still be pleasurable even as it proves increasingly difficult to tell the difference between real philosophical exchange and its hellish simulacrum. Reading Iyer’s novel might lead to a similar aporia: is this a pleasurable suspension of finality, or a dead end? 

Katie Kadue is a critic from Los Angeles. She teaches English at SUNY Binghamton.