“By the book’s end it is doubtful that Carrère any longer resembles a spiritual guide so much as a kind of postmodern Virgil, as focused on the description of each new circle of hell as he is on his own, vertiginous descent.”
Near the beginning of Yoga, Emmanuel Carrère, our ostensible guide to the world of meditation, assures us he has set out to write “an upbeat, subtle little book”, designed to be of practical use to anyone with a sincere interest in the subject. If we regard the claim with some skepticism, it is partly because he has assumed the pose of spiritual guide before: in The Kingdom, Carrère examined his own life in the context of Saint Paul’s, finding an affinity for the first Christian, his fellow writer and obsessive self-publicist, and in the process achieved a daring synthesis that was every bit as restlessly self-searching as it was fascinating. But Yoga seems a riskier prospect in that the Buddhist practices it explores sit less naturally within this autofictional frame, not least because they are partly concerned with the mitigation of the ego, the very source from which Carrère draws his creative energies.
Nevertheless, he is at first faithful to his aim, recounting his experience of a Vipassana retreat in the Morvan region. But his enthusiasm has already begun to fade when news of the Charlie Hebdo massacre draws him back to the literary world of Paris, from there to the Sainte-Anne Psychiatric Hospital for the diagnosis and treatment of bipolar type 2, and finally to the Greek island of Leros, to teach writing to stranded refugees at the nadir of the Mediterranean crisis. By the book’s end it is doubtful that Carrère any longer resembles a spiritual guide so much as a kind of postmodern Virgil, as focused on the description of each new circle of hell as he is on his own, vertiginous descent.
Yet, if we have followed him this far, it is not so much for his narration of the events themselves as for the digressions – reveries, fantasies and outright delusions – which draw the narrative together. From his adolescent penchant for science fiction to his mature love of Chopin’s Heroic Polonaise, or his occasional marital indiscretions to his lifelong fidelity to his own personality, Carrère keeps us interested. It seems there is nothing in his life unsuited for reproduction in his fiction (almost nothing: Carrère’s ex-wife legally banned him from writing about her), up to and including masturbation and excretion: one of the numerous, dubious ways he defines meditation? ‘Pissing and shitting when you piss and shit’. In disburdening himself this way over 300 pages, we sense there is no human failing to which Carrère has not copped, and all the confession puts us in a forgiving frame of mind.
If we have abandoned hope that Carrère will bring nirvana in sight, we are more than duly compensated for the time spent in his company. Unenlightened by his account of meditation, our eye is drawn to the radiant, tortured and thrilling self-portrait he has drawn in the attempt. As he says, ‘perhaps that’s the most interesting thing in life, trying to figure out what it’s like to be someone else’.
Words: Diarmuid McGreal