In his new collection of essays, Homo Irrealis (Macmillan, Jan.), author André Aciman contends with the state of mind we spend most of our lives in: the irrealis mood. Aciman defines this mood as “a category of verbal moods that indicate that certain events have not happened, may never happen, or should or must or are indeed desired to happen, but for which there is no indication that they will ever happen”—that is, “the might-be and the might-have-been.” It is a mood sometimes called fantasizing, or nostalgia, but it is really more multifaceted, informing our experience of art, desire, and even our own mortality.
PW spoke with Aciman about the collection and how it blends the autobiographical with artistic criticism—all while circling around this particular mood.
Do you think that writers, in particular, contend with the irrealis mood?
I do think that writers can focus on it more. It doesn't mean that they suffer from it more. I used to work on Wall Street for a while, and people on Wall Street follow those ticker tapes—they're very much in the present. But you mention the irrealis mood to them and they will say, “Oh, yeah, of course, I live there.”
There's no way you can avoid it, but it's not a negative at all. It's a way of basically adding a dimension that we don't normally know how to speak about. We call it fantasizing, but how about, “What might happen that already did happen once, or could have happened once, but never did? But would it happen again? Would I know how to seize that opportunity once it comes back, if it ever comes back?” These are questions that we have every single day in varied guises.
For example, I was sent to write an article on a particular square in Paris. But it was only in coming back to New York that I could write about what Paris was for me. And I captured something about Paris in that piece that people say to me, “Oh yeah, that was really Paris. You captured Paris.” No, I captured my memory and my fantasy of Paris. I always write in the past.
So living and writing from the irrealis mood extends our sense of time and each experience?
Perhaps. But eventually, whatever you write can sometimes displace what actually happened. And that happened to me. I was writing about a scene in Egypt when I was a boy. Eventually, I went back to Egypt and wanted to walk down that street, which I describe very accurately in my book. I couldn't remember if I actually made up that street, and I can no longer know. Writing has a way of overwriting the “document” of our lives.
Maybe that's why we write. Life may start making sense as you write, but it's an artificial construct. Your real life does not necessarily make sense, if you think of it. Your career makes sense. Your parents make sense. Your love life makes sense. But the life itself, as it has been organized, is just a series of fluke incidents. Plus, even if you swear to every god you know that what you're writing is exactly as it happened, the fact that you use a particular adverb—God, you've already colored everything! So in writing truth, the act of writing already changes things, even if you swear the story is factually true.
As you write in Homo Irrealis, “It's a mirage of the world that artists long to hold.”
Every work of art is also implying something that it cannot quite get itself to say. The critic's job is to see what that implication is and to let it speak, even if it's taking a risk. Even if it is very, very specific to me, good criticism has to address somebody else. In good criticism, I must make space in my sentence for somebody else to sort of slip in and find their own voice in my voice.
Do you think writers fear death more? And that’s why they have to get that “organized” version of life down?
I just think writers talk about it more. But nobody really believes that death is part of life. Have you ever heard that one? “Death is a part of life, you’ve got to accept that. You know, it happens.” No. That is a big, big, huge, erroneous, shameful mistake. It's a mistake that God didn't even foresee. Look what you did, God—we're going to die! It's a terrible thing.
The worst part of death, as I write in one of the essays, is that you will forget the people you love, which is the worst thing that could happen. I'm going to forget my children. That's what happens when you die. They may remember you, but you will forget them. That's almost like a crime in itself. And every day that passes by means that you're closer to the rendezvous.
Art is a way of saying, “Carry this, don't lose it. It has me in it. It's better than me.” Writing can sometimes allow us to organize our lives and to give ourselves the kind of chronicle that our real lives cannot have. You can't put the pieces together in real life—they just don't fit. But on paper they can. The paper does things to life. It kind of argues for you—for a better version of your life.
Yet even once you’ve done that, you might find yourself returning to revise that version of your life later on.
On one hand, I like to say to people, “Don't bother me about my adolescence and my childhood. It's out in paperback now.” That resolved it. Guess what? A week or two later, the same themes just resurface again.
If you've ever suffered from obsession, such as obsessing over someone, at some point, you say, "Okay, it's over and done with. I found out who this person really is—a disgusting human being. I have no respect for them.” Then, two weeks later, you start fantasizing about them again. What's going on? You wrote a story about it. You put it out in paperback. And now it's back. That's the story of my life. The same things come back constantly.
If you look at the stuff I've written in my life, it's all very much the same. Simon and Garfunkel wrote, like, one song they kept composing and recomposing every single time in a different way. But it's the same song. That's all great writers, I think, and all great composers. They are composing one or two ditties and that's it. The rest is just variations—profound variations.