The awkward subject of commitment by Peter Zimmermann

All over the world (at least I think so) people enjoy talking about the weather. They mainly do so because grumbling about the weather is a constant, and there is no fear of any consequences. In any case the weather does what it will whether you like it or not. That’s why it’s ideal for examining the causes of your personal emotional condition. The weather knows no limits, it cannot be manipulated or controlled and it’s temperamental. So it’s not surprising that it affects personal moods. Today, it makes you happy. Tomorrow, you make it responsible for your depressive frame of mind. The weather is this damned homeless companion that you have to accommodate because it’s stronger than you are! Nobody, not even the Austrian Minister for the Interior or the Hungarian Prime Minister has the power to call the weather to order, to hold it or ask for identity and detain it. But the Minister for the Interior dreams of a ‘Fortress Europe’ and the Prime Minister has quasi (to cite Victor Orbán) declared martial law.

What do you feel threatened by? Who is threatening to occupy the continent? And exactly what or who is it important to defend? Of course, the war rhetoric refers to the refugees who are arriving in Europe across the so-called Balkan route to claim their right to asylum in what are presumed safer and rich countries, particularly in Germany, England and Scandinavia. In the light of the large number of people who are fleeing – a number incidentally that is not surprising for political analysts – it would be necessary to act in a coordinated, pan-European way. You can’t just wish the people away; they’re here now and should be treated like human beings. Nevertheless, there is no coordination and no plans. Never before was it so obvious that there isn’t even a policy any longer, that is, in the sense of acting on the basis of values. I don’t even want to mention ideals. We’ve already sensed it: politics is a placebo that produces placebos: security, prosperity and justice. Now we see that it’s not about any certainties or facts here but about assertions or rather marketing feelings. It’s about feeling secure, feeling wealthy and feeling a sense of justice. Since real political tasks cannot be resolved with any of this, the politicians take refuge in strong emotions – the idea that we are in a war. Foreignness is flooding the familiar. We’re no longer masters in our own house. Home must remain home, so that’s why we need a ‘Fortress Europe’. By the way, the Nazis put this message into circulation to call for the defence of areas that they had occupied during the Second World War. That’s also a way of gauging how politics and morality no (longer) share anything in common.

In her opening lecture A.L. Kennedy also referred to precisely this emotionalized language in Great Britain that reveals the nature of politics in all its helplessness and irresponsibility: refugees are cockroaches, for example. This comparison would suggest that mass destruction could be justifiable. In less aggressive diction refugees are described as a swarm, as a mass that is intimidating all the same, sans brain, sans face, but voracious and difficult to stop like a plague of locusts. This image also justifies a violent approach. That is the response from Europe’s elites to the consequences of a war with – viewed historically – no less European participation. From this starting point Kennedy aims to fathom out how writers then have to behave towards this situation. Must he/she take a stance? In the light of crisis situations this question is often posed and the answers given are exclusively the wrong ones. Every human individual, including a writer as well, is entitled to show commitment for a cause that seems to him or her right and true. Every writer is entitled, as a corrective of politics (or non-politics), to be concerned about moral issues, to educate, to make things visible, to expose political rhetoric in its emptiness and dubiousness and to construct counter-models. Yet he or she is not obliged to do so.
I regard it as fatal to oblige literature to be useful for civil society. This forces writers into a logic of utilization from which they should actually have emancipated themselves – unless they define themselves as part of this logic. When Swedish writer David Lagercrantz adds to his late fellow compatriot Stieg Larsson’s millennium trilogy by penning a fourth and probably even a fifth volume, then he does so in full knowledge that this is a purely commercial undertaking. That corresponds to the logic of economic utilization. When A.L. Kennedy claims to take a stance and in her books, essays and newspaper commentaries to alert the audience to the traps of pseudo-politics, she does justice to her personal standards of a writer’s profession, although she also conforms to the logic of moral utilization. Anyone who withdraws from these types of logic gently falls under suspicion of entering into a common pact with those who want to barricade themselves behind the walls of the fortress. The quiet individual just accepts the noisy ones.

I regard it as a quality of art in general that it withdraws from all kinds of calculability and knows no limits, like the weather, – it can’t be manipulated and controlled. We shouldn’t desire anything from art; we should find in it what we feel is true and right. Entirely of its own accord, without any signposts or any user manual.

By Peter Zimmermann

Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright

This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe‘s website on 23 October 2015.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory

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