“It is a terrible paradox of democracy: freedom can turn against itself. Media plays an important role in this.”
In this new guest contribution, Salome Kobalava speaks to Stefan Hertmans. Stefan, born in Ghent in Belgium, is a leading Dutch-language writer and poet, head of a study centre at University College Ghent and affiliated researcher of the Ghent University.
Winner of several major literary prizes, he has published novels, collections of short stories, essays on literature and philosophy, theatre texts, and poetry. His works are widely translated around Europe into a number of languages.
Recently, Hertmans visited Tbilisi where the interview took place. The conversation proved so profound that right after the interview, Salome determined it must be disseminated and read by as many people as possible.
Here, Hertmans talks about contemporary literature, the role of writers in society, democracy and the media.
By Salome Kobalava
A: I think that the most important change has been the evolution into a general existentialism. Existentialism inWestern Europe means that religion as a theme has lost its leading significance and has become less important. Religion as a topic might come back, but since WW II, post-modernist literature has become mainly agnostic. In post-modernist literature writers and philosophers are dealing with social problems, existentialist problems. Characters of the novel have to stand for their own responsibilities, for their own deeds. Questions like guilt, morals, social feeling, empathy, selfishness, hate, love, freedom – these are the great themes of post-modern literature.
Existentialism has influenced modern literature most: Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre and deconstructionist philosophers such as Jacques Derrida, as well as the insights of modern psychology. If you mix all these elements into a cocktail, you get today’s western modern man or woman who is free to act, responsible for his/her own self, who tries to live in a complex reality. On the formal level, the novel emancipated into a genre in which practically everything is possible. Many writers experimented with the liberty that the novel offers.
Q: Has the role of books and the place of a writer in society changed in the past decades?
A: Yes, the role of a book has changed, certainly in capitalist societies. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, we were confronted with writers from Eastern Europe who said: “You guys in Western Europe can do whatever you want, but they do not listen to you”. Which means, I can write anything and will not be persecuted or censored? But the problem is that this freedom also means that writers do not play a vital political role anymore: they have been banished to a cultural playground.
What writers try to do in post-modern literature is to open up again and reach a broader public. The question is: how to regain social impact in modern democracies, in this supermarket of populist opinions without selling your soul to the devil? You have two choices: to become a commercial writer and produce soap-like novels. In order to become heard and perceived, you can appear on television, write in newspapers and magazines. But you always have to try to stand your ground as an intellectual. I chose to remain a more essayistic, philosophical author and I try to gain authority by participating in important social and political debates without begging for the spotlights. Of course today we have so many ways to communicate publicly: via Facebook, blogs, websites, debates, manifestations, internet forums, publishing critical comments in newspapers. This is another way to try to stay present in the polyphony of a rapidly changing world. But let’s not forget that the first task of a writer is an artistic one. That also is a message: not all communication needs to be functional. Imagination and beauty are fundamental cultural rights.
Q: In the literary debate you took part in here, in Tbilisi, the existence of European Literature was questioned. What is your opinion, do you also question it, do you think European Literature does not exist?
A: It is not clear where the limits of European Literature are, that is the point. How do you confine European literature, can you separate it from western literature in general? As to my opinion, there is no such thing as a clear-cut European literature. The proof is any international festival. Wherever you go, any author you ask what his/her examples of great authors are, they all give the same answers: authors like Philip Roth, Nabokov, Borges, Joyce, Flaubert, Mann, Proust, Marquez and not to forget the huge new American authors such as Richard Powers, Paul Auster etc. I think that this ecumenism of literature cannot be called specifically European literature: it is western literature.
Nowadays we see that great Arabic, Indian, Japanese and Chinese authors have more and more impact on world literature. In earlier days, these literatures originated from collective stories, but they have also emancipated into critical individualist authors. Individualistic does not need to be negative. It can mean that one wants to remain critical and oppose any form of collective pressure. Just as Voltaire said : “Neither God nor Master”. It is the task of the writer to be as good as he can and defend the freedom of speech against power in any form. At the same time this gives him an important social responsibility: morally, politically, in questions of love or friendship. Western literature has tried to mould this modern man, who does not need god to tell him what is good but has his own consciousness and judgment. Our literatures work from the individual to the collective body, while in more authoritarian regimes they have had to work from the collective to the individual.
Q: Who are your favourite authors and who has influenced you most?
A: I find it impossible to choose a favorite author, it is every single one in my library at home. However, great German poets of the 18th century have had a great impact on me and my poetry, which I think is the most important part of my literary work. In modern poetry Paul Celan – the Rumanian poet, who wrote in German, has had a definite impact on my way of writing and the hope I have for poetry in tomorrow’s world. In prose writing, authors of great importance to me are Flaubert, Kafka, Borges, Nabokov, but also a stubborn loner like Peter Handke, who has the courage to constantly go against the fashionable trends.
Q: Can you recall your favourite literary character?
A: It is a bit absurd I know, but Gogol’s Nose is the character that comes to my mind at the moment (laughs).
Q: How important is literature, how does it help humanity and civilization become better or does it help at all?
A: I sacredly believe in the meaning of literature. I have been at a few festivals in Latin Americawhere people are still fighting for human rights. In Mexicoor in Colombiaand dangerous cities like Bogota, Medellinplunged in drug wars, people live with fear. They consider even the simplest poem as a symbol of freedom. In places like that, you feel and see that literature is terribly important to people as long as they do not have social stability. This means that literature helps, it teaches humanistic values. To me, literature still remains the tool that has a great function of humanizing society. However, writers do not have that penetration into masses as they had in the beginning of 20th century. The cinema industry has taken over.
If you look back on the 20s and 30s of the past century, novel writers like Thomas Mann were asked to become president. In the second half of the century, Mario Vargas Llosa was in the running for presidency, and the Chzech author Vaclav Havel indeed became president. In our societies however, it is hardly imaginable that novel writers could regain political importance to that degree.
As the function and task of literature is empathy, understanding and beauty, it helps people to learn how to live in dignity, how to be less cruel and more disposed to humanism. Even if this may sound naïve, I think it is important to cling to that idea.
Q: You mentioned cinematography, which has become the rival of literature and even the conqueror, in the sense that it is winning a much wider audience. Cinema relates to media, what is your opinion of media overall?
A: Nowadays the power of the media is so immense that writers have to strive to find their place in it. There is a new force born with media-populism. It comes from television and can be very dangerous as it teaches and indoctrinates people to vote for let’s say, a good looking clown who knows how to sell himself.
The most terrible example of this media-catastrophe is of course Silvio Berlusconi. He abuses 17 year old girls but he is still there in power because he acts out the sympathetic movie-macho. Why is he still there? Because people find him appealing. This means that in democracy, if you let things on the loose, it can become antidemocratic. It is a terrible paradox of democracy: freedom can turn against itself. Media plays an important role in this. They have the task to be critical for their own impact. Authors can confront media with the moral side of public action.
With the arrival of the new media such as Facebook, Twitter and other internet forums, everybody can interact with newspapers and get his or her views published. These media have shown how important they are for democratic movements. The Arab revolution is a good example.
In my country populist parties preached a radical anti-Islamic policy and argued that Islam could never become democratic, and look: all of the sudden we saw people in jeans, Facebooking and Twittering in the Arab world, people like you and me, standing out against dictators. This proves that the media have a fantastic power to emancipate, but it can also be abused. Therefore we must remain watchdogs.
Salome Kobalava is a journalist with Georgia Today. Interview published here with full permission.
Photograph courtesy of Leli Blagonravova
The views expressed in this post are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the blog’s administrators.