1989 – 25 years later. Cathérine Hug interviews Robert Menasse (II part)
Part II of the interview with Robert Menasse.
Catherine Hug (CH): What visible and sustainably positive consequences did the political turnaround of 1989 have on art production and especially on your work as a writer? Let’s take, for example, your novel Schubumkehr (1995): terms like drawing of a border, shifts of borders and dissolution of borders, of hope, of encounters with strangers as well as the fear of the strange play an important role. Do you see yourself more as a commentator or an analyst? Or is it also or primarily about other things?
Robert Menasse (RM): As a writer, I have, from the outset, aspired to reflect upon my contemporaneity. I was shaped by theories of art and literature, which understand art as a reflection of an era and literature as a story about how it is lived and thought, so that contemporaries can recognize themselves and those who come after us can understand us. My trilogy of novels, Die Trilogie der Entgeisterung, which I had conceptualized in the first half of the ‘80s, was meant to be a mirror on our times; it was an irrelevantly disgusting time, the so-called postmodern era. The notion of postmodern era basically means that enlightenment had come to an end, to be replaced by unelightenment. What was disgusting was that the end of enlightenment was celebrated, that creativity was achievable solely in some form of eclecticism and that the ideologists of unlightenment preposterously celebrated themselves as “critical philosophers”. At the same time, it was of course a happy time. There was no big crisis, no anxiety about the future, principally because there was no future, just as there was no history. History was a trunk from which you could take what you fancied. Superficially, this time was esthetically nicer than the ‘70s, that’s why this was basically a time of extraordinary good luck for some people, namely a sensation of weightless floating on a slightly rippling surface. There are, of course, many objections to this point of view, but that’s how I experienced this time. That was how it was and that was the material that I had to hand. That’s what I wanted to reflect like a mirror, inverted. And while writing, I have methodically and technically reverted to reflection theory. But 1989 happened before I had finished the trilogy. That’s why I abandoned this theory in the end and created the third volume completely afresh. I then gave it the title “Schubumkehr” (“Reverse Thrust”) instead of “Endzeit (“Eschaton”), and instead of a story about the trickling away of history, I wrote a text in which the narrator disappears. History is simply bigger than a single spokesman! But at that time, the novel was not yet really analytical, something that probably benefited the book in the end. But since then, literature has interested me in a completely different way, no longer as a mirror-image, or reflection of the static, the status quo, but rather as some kind of laboratory, where experiments are performed with the liquids of history and where the changes in the condition of aggregation can be described. 1989 completely changed me. But when I observe how politics are pursued today, and also how they are written about today, I lose it. On the other hand, the feeling of losing it is omnipresent lately, so maybe I’m just a little symptom in a specific way, at least not unworldly!
CH: Bold and very inspiring trains of thought; you are throwing new, rather self-critical light on my hitherto rather positive perception of eclecticism. Eclecticism is commonly perceived as a formula for success, at least in fine arts, architecture and design, as well as in philosophy, as you mentioned. If we think outside the box, we will come to the conclusion that not every cultural sphere deals with topics such as perceptions of history and crisis in the same way – a blessing of our kaleidoscopically multi-faceted world! 2014 also marks the 25th birthday of the World Wide Web, or the Internet, in short. Where do you see comparisons with 1989 and its consequences in this context? How did the WWW shape artistic practice?
RM: I don’t believe that 1989 and the WWW have a causal relationship beyond their random concurrency. In an emotional sense, the only thing which might be important for world history is the fact that even though the Internet emerged concurrently, it came too late for the GDR. If the possibilities arising from the Internet had existed sooner, if what the NSA is able to do today had been available to the Stasi, then the GDR might still exist. CH: Maybe yes, I completely agree! On the other hand, I also want to protect the achievements of the Internet. Positively seen, it is after all about the provision of more extensive information, where, for example, readers can follow this conversation in every corner of the world. Which brings me to my next question: what is the relationship between the free movement of people and homeland (Heimat: in German: region or place where you come from and where you feel at home and at ease, place where you belong)? The writer Max Frisch once pointed out the fact that there is no plural for the word homeland (Heimat), even though the definition of this notion is so heterogeneous. Artists embody a nomadic understanding of homeland (Heimat). They are unstoppable travelers within their trains of thought, but at the same time part of real life. What role does longing play in connection with that? Can it become a problem? Or is it first and foremost the instigator for finding a solution?
RM: That is an interesting question. It points to another, extremely dramatic symptom of the change of era following 1989, namely the fact that development since then, especially through the so-called Eastern enlargement of the EU, has extended the area described as homeland (Heimat) and at the same time given the notion of homeland (Heimat) a plural after all. Yes, homeland (Heimat) now has a plural, too! Due to the free movement of people, the freedom to travel and the freedom of establishment, the notion of homeland (Heimat) has radically changed, at least for us in Europe. It no longer refers to a nation, something that has always been fiction anyhow. I, as an Austrian, have for example never felt at home in Tyrol. What do I have in common with mountain-dwellers, just because they have the same passport? In Vienna, there are no mountains and therefore there is a completely different mentality! The Tyrolese can be nice and friendly, but people from Alentejo or the Peloponnese can also be nice and interesting… So why should I feel at home in Tyrol, just because it belongs to Austria? Homeland (Heimat) is therefore not a nation but, in a libertine and mobile Europe, increasingly a place to live, which I can, at least inside the Schengen-area, choose freely and without problems. Mobility, which has always been an aspiration, has nowadays become almost a compulsion. Many do not want to, but have to be mobile.
However, it still remains an opportunity, and this opportunity has increased, even though many still regard it as a threat to their homeland (Heimat). In 2012, there was a Eurobarometer survey about the concept of mobility, which showed that personal freedom of movement had the highest approval rates in Poland and the highest rejection rates in Austria. In Poland, mobility apparently means, “I can go somewhere else!”, whereas in Austria mobility means, “someone could come here”! That alone shows that there are at least two concepts of homeland (Heimat): the concept that my homeland is where I live and work, where I have dignity and a legal situation and the concept that this is all divisible, homeland (Heimat) is somewhere I can exclude everybody else from. One is an urban, enlightened concept, the other a village concept of homeland (Heimat), a concept of a narrow valley, of contractedness. What is interesting is the fact that conservative, narrow concepts of homeland (Heimat) are historically more recent. Visas, for example, were not introduced until 1914; before that, one could travel from Coimbra to Riga without a visa or passport and settle there.
Stefan Zweig wrote about this in 1914, “Nationalism has destroyed European culture!” It is insane that today there are once again so many people demanding the devastation and ruin caused by nationalism, literally as a human right, establishing these situations through referenda and celebrating this devastation of intelligence as democratic reason, just so they can defiantly feel better. I have always had the desire to live and work in different cities; I have spent the greater part of my adult life in the so-called outlands, in São Paulo, Lisbon, Berlin and Amsterdam. Nowadays, I live in Brussels part-time. Political borders are one thing, they can be abolished, as we have seen, however it is crucial to break open the narrow borders of mentalities. When we do, we will also feel better in our homes and only then will homeland (Heimat) be a part of the world and not a castle built to withstand the world.
This is the II Part of the inverview.