By Henri Chandonet
Emmanuel Carrère’s novel is a powerful satire of intellectual pretension, but at the expense of engaging storytelling.
Yoga by Emmanuel Carrere. Translated from the French by John Lambert. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 335 pages, $14.99
There is perhaps no more maligned figure in American culture than the self-proclaimed “deep thinker.” Eggheads are long-standing amusing figures in popular culture, raving about reading Dostoyevsky or pontificating about the meaning of time. What is ridiculed these days is that this meditation on higher things comes across as a sufficient form of escape. The deterioration of the climate, growing economic inequalities, the fragility of democracy, shouldn’t these crises take center stage in these precarious times?
Beyond that is the now familiar charge of elitism. Who are you to tell me that your opinions are more valuable than mine because of the books you’ve read? Of course, it’s obvious that the virtues of anti-intellectualism (or at least brainwashing among us) have rarely been celebrated among the books. What makes Emmanuel Carrère Yoga a very unusual, even revolutionary novel. The French journalist and writer is ready to ridicule overthinking, to slice and dice the self-indulgence of intellectuals who gossip about…nothing. This line of attack is admirable but, for all its creative nerve and ingenuity, it is a story that spins in a vacuum. Watching ideas with the consistency of helium drift through the stratosphere becomes tedious once the satirical point is made.
Our narrator, who looks like Carrère, tells us upfront that this will be a book that examines meditation and yoga. It will not be a pedagogical guide, but a reflection on these disciplines as forms of philosophical speculation. Our narrator attends a retreat that requires a 10-day vow of silence and total detachment from the world. He agrees – until his life begins to tear itself apart and he is forced to leave. Until then, our protagonist tries to make sense of his cerebral isolation via empty abstractions – and he fails. Carrère’s mission, as a critic, is to demonstrate the excess of intellectualism. The problem is that once that message gets through, pushing mindfulness over and over again becomes tedious, strenuous reading. The narrator’s need to leave introduces a welcome surprise – the reader begins to sympathize with the character rather than wanting him to stop thinking about thinking.
Yoga is at its greatest when it dramatizes the condescending assumptions of a white European intellectual who is only too comfortable appropriating cultural practices. Our narrator goes page after page explaining the significance of various Eastern practices, smugly assuming that we believe his claim that he is an expert. YogaThe attack on “intellectual colonialism” – white people co-opting non-white culture for academic capital – is effective because Carrère does not emphasize it. This is how things are in the world of Western thought.
The novel’s failure as a compelling story is sealed in the second half. Once our brainy narrator leaves his yoga retreat, Carrère takes him through a succession of looping plot twists. Whether it’s an extended stay in a mental asylum or a sudden urge to work with refugee children, the protagonist’s adventures are misguided attempts to spark some kind of interest in him as a personality. Worse, our pretentious narrator never realizes how navel-gazing he is. He simply continues, trapped in his inflated self-awareness. And so, alas, is the reader. That’s not to say that problematic characters in fiction should get their reward. But Carrère’s intentions here are frustratingly ambiguous. East Yoga spread sterile intellectualism? Or get involved? Its satirical power aside, what are we to make of a story featuring such an unlikable antihero?
Yet for all the novel’s flaws, its innovative approach is refreshing. How do you do bookish burlesque solipsism? Burrowing in and staying there until the story and character fester is one way to go about it. At Carrere Yoga shows us the limits of this approach.
Henri Chandonet is currently a student at Tufts University majoring in English and Economics with a minor in Political Science. He is an art editor for the daily clumps, the main campus publication. Henry’s work can also be seen in Magazine V, Movie credit, dread centerand Flip screen. You can contact him at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter @HenryChandonnet.