PART ONE: Beginnings
PART TWO: Is There Such a Thing as a Universal Ethics
PART FIVE: My Borges


Ubik is a novel that looks in a profound and convoluted way at the fear of death, states of altered perception, limited consciousness and the way commercialism affects human beings...
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PART FIVE: My Borges


(Blog Jasmin's Heart, october 7, 2008)

What view do you take of the relationship between literature and science? You once said you were astonished how many good writers there were who were scientists and how few “real” writers had any interest in science. Would you care to expand on that?

To answer your question we need to come back to this issue of religion again. The presence of religion in literature is much more common and felt to be more acceptable than what has been referred to as the “aggressive and inappropriate intrusion of science into literature”.

In literary circles science is often seen as a system that castrates literature or cools its molten core, dissipating its energy. These are monumental prejudices we're talking about, with their origins back in XVIIIth century Romanticism.

The biggest obstacle to a more receptive attitude to science in literature may come from the fact that science hasn’t made enough of an effort to reach out to ordinary people. A couple of years ago I was talking to a writer of very considerable experience in the city of Tuzla. We were attending a congress of writers. “Science is evil,” she observed. When I asked why, she thought for a moment before correcting herself, “Science isn't evil, but technology is.” And because that evil manifested itself in the material form of a bus, she had been able to make the journey from Sarajevo to Tuzla. I wonder why she didn't remain true to her principles and either stay in Sarajevo or else come to Tuzla by foot? A lot of literary critics and writers generally have a bizarre aversion to using scientific language. Whereas religious terminology can always be accommodated, even though it's often more confusing than scientific terminology.

A well-known writer once told me: “If I open a book and the first thing I come across is the description of a space ship voyaging through the cosmos, I'll abandon it without a moment's hesitation and start looking for another.”

Of course I am never going to be able to say that I know everything there is to know about all those marvellous phenomena like the rainbow or the process of sedimentation in a river - because I'm not privy to all the finer details of scientific knowledge. But at least now I have some sort of basic idea about it.

It’s a real pity when someone deliberately chooses to forego the opportunity to learn something about science, particularly given the current flourishing state of popular scientific literature in the West, in the English-speaking world in particular.

This conflict between literature and science has endured for centuries. If religion gets special treatment in literature no-one complains, but when science receives similar treatment there's a flood of criticism. I have tried to figure out why this should be. Perhaps it has to do with a lack of interest in the readers' wider environment. The influence of religion is still very strong. In the last few decades we have found ourselves engulfed by a succession of upsurgent religious movements, not just Islam but evangelical Christianity as well, along with Hinduism in India. In some American states there are courtroom battles being fought over the introduction of changes in elementary and high school curricula aimed at putting teaching of creationism on an equal footing with Darwinian evolution.

Recent sociological studies in Europe have found that in societies where there are powerful religious lobbies, levels of corruption and social unrest are higher.

This ties in with some of the things I was saying earlier. I recently visited an internet forum. One of the participants was keen on the idea of religious education classes for kids at kindergarten level. He argued that wherever religion is a dominant force in society crime rates are lower, with fewer murders and minor misdemeanours as well. What he failed to mention was that these are usually closed societies unwilling to disclose their shortcomings to the outside world. History teaches us that religion is not a particularly effective remedy for the wide range of society's ills.

Take for example the Catholic Church. Only a few examples are needed: the witch-hunts (more accurately the persecution of unruly women), the Inquisition, genocide in Latin America. Look no further than Columbus's cohort of true believers and what they did on Cuba and Hispaniola - let’s build a church tower and after that kill a bit of time exterminating a native or two, raping, burning, hanging - just the prelude to countless more massacres throughout the Americas. And what about the Vatican? Was it looking the other way when Auschwitz happened?

For a long time Islamic societies dominated the slave trade in Africa, and Muslim slave-traders were the mainstay of a very profitable business that extended via the quaysides of the Garonne all the way to the Antilles.

Individuals claiming to be men of faith - Jesuits, Dominicans, hajjis, priests - have often turned out to be only too well acquainted with terrible crimes.

I ask myself how these people could have allowed themselves become so deeply complicit with wrong-doing if they believed in the principles of love and doing good. We are not talking here about occasional anomalies, quite the opposite, this was criminal activity on the grand scale, carried out either on the orders of religious leaders or with their blessing.

Not one of the religions concerned has ever provided a clear explanation for these aberrations, to this day. And any regrets they may have expressed have been less than convincing.

Let’s go back to our favorite subject – literature. Do you have anything to add regarding your literary preferences?

To begin with my favourite writers were Borges, Marques, and the Russian realists. Later I went through a phase of reading writers of the imagination like Buzzati, Cortazar, Zamyatin - writers who chose in different ways to distance themselves from the realistic depiction of life.

Kundera was very popular at the end of the eighties. I avoided him, as a sort of adolescent thing, just because everybody else was reading him at the time. The only work of his I read back then was Laughable Loves and that was as far as I got for a while. So I didn't discover him as a teenager, it wasn't until later, towards the end of the nineties. After that I devoured all of his novels I was able to get my hands on.

It was the same with Primo Levi to whom I found myself drawn a couple of years ago and who is another of my favourite authors, a very stimulating writer. He is a rare character. Even though he brings a strictly ethical perspective to his works about the concentration camps , he also writes about science and play and some of the purely material pleasures of life. He published a book of short stories, The Periodic Table. The title of each story is the name of one of the chemical elements. In each of the stories Levi links his experiences as a chemist working in a factory to the experiences of a survivor of Auschwitz, himself, living in post-war Italy.

There are quite a lot of authors that I am particularly fond of and if I'm not able to cite them all at the moment, I'm concerned I might give a misleading impression of my literary tastes. There's nothing systematic about them, they're the product of an instinctive process, personal preferences that aren't always easy to explain.

Philip K. Dick is an interesting if somewhat neglected master. He may have suffered from the traditional stereotyping of anything that is commercially successful as pulp fiction.

He wrote about fifty novels. I have a few of them in my own library, in the section reserved for masterpieces. These are extraordinary creations, that explore and anticipate human capabilities and the fears of people in the West, the problems faced by a society dominated by technology and the paranoia that America experienced in the past and even today, that led it to the brink of madness during the era of Richard Nixon and Senator Joe McCarthy. On top of all that we have the fear, real or imagined, of communist conspiracies and terrorist plots. The novels in question are Ubik, A Scanner Darkly, and The Man in the High Castle.

Ubik is a novel that looks in a profound and convoluted way at the fear of death, states of altered perception, limited consciousness and the way commercialism affects human beings - the power of advertising and its influence on consciousness. Dick has developed an entire aesthetic that has been taken on board by the movie-makers - the vision of a "retrofitted future".

In many ways - for example in the questions it poses and its economical narrative - Blade Runner may even be superior even to its literary precursor, the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

There are a number of poets who are important to me as well, Constantine P. Cavafy for example, with his unpretentious historicism, and Walt Whitman with his almost Ancient Greek vitalism simply transposed into an American context.

Then there are the American writers and realists as well, though it's hard to single out specific individuals. And I mustn't forget the French writers either – Rabelais and his magical, humorous novel, mocking and at the same time optimistic. And then the artful Moliere, and Montesquieu, Montaigne, Maupassant - in other words, the French writers whose names begin with "M". I'd also like to mention the philosophes of the Enlightenment, like Diderot, along with the realists like Zola and Balzac, who can sometimes be a little boring but at the same time are discreet, hospitable and good company.

The powerful, compelling ego of a genius like Joyce dominates his prose in a way that is liable to overwhelm the writer attempting anything similar to Ulysses. Zola and Balzac aren't like that, even if they are sometimes rather too all-encompassing. That lack of perfection in their work allows space for a writer to borrow from them without becoming little more than second-rate imitator.

I could be wrong but I have to say, with regret, that French prose writing has been in a state of decline during the last few decades. It has become increasingly provincial, immured in its socio-cultural parochialism. The term to describe it is nombrilisme, navel-gazing - a world view that extends no further than the margins of the writer's own personal universe, the intimate space of an apartment in the sixth arrondissement of Paris.

I'd also like to pay my respects to Sartre, and to his collection of short stories The Wall, as well as the essays in which he explains why writing is a worthwhile occupation. According to Sartre, literature must hold meaning not just for the writer but for the reader as well. The writer chooses the form of communication. In my opinion Sartre’s approach has been largely abandoned in favor of a more self-preoccupied style of writing.

George Steiner recently voiced his concern about this "poetry of small things". Another critic Ryszard Kapuscinski has remarked something to the effect that “there is so much going on in the world but writers seem to have nothing else to worry about than their own psychological problems.”

Of course psychological problems must have their place in literature but when they are divorced from the rest of human experience and become the centre of the universe, then there is reason for us to be concerned.

There is a lot I could also say about various poets, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Villon … French literature is so rich, so multi-layered, that even today I find myself discovering interesting new authors and unknown works by authors I already know, texts retrieved from somewhere or excavated from a library basements or an archive, found in a pile of papers or a bequest.

One of the most interesting developments in 20th century literature has been the emergence of Emil Cioran. Cioran's aphorisms, I believe, evoke the kind of mental attitude, psychological as well as spiritual, that has existed inside the heads of many Bosnians since the end of the last war - the last war ever, I hope. For anyone wanting to refine their style Cioran is a very useful model. His crystal-clear language, sharp as a razor, is a good guide for anyone wanting to improve their French. Translating Cioran has been excellent practice. And it's worth remembering that French wasn't his mother tongue. In his late twenties he left his homeland in Romania to go to Paris. Once there he set about learning French, so successfully that eventually he began to write in the language. This raises the issue of what happens when a writer converts to a different language. Cioran often remarked that early on in his studies he used to keep company with an impoverished aristocrat, who was always correcting him (a peculiarly French habit) in the course of their long walks together, observing: “That's not the right way to say it, this is how …”

His constant criticism of Cioran’s French helped the writer to master that by no means easy language.

Cioran was already getting on in years when someone asked him why he had never attempted to write a longer piece of prose or a novel in French. He replied, “I am incapable of doing so, I was practising with the intention of being able to write philosophical aphorisms in French, and writing something lengthier requires a quite different set of skills".

One reader may regard a particular writer as a source of pleasure and find in the writer's works everything that is important to the reader. Another may regard the same writer as an object of scorn or even repellent, boring or tiresome. This is a fascinating question.

To give an example, when I read Kundera’s novel The Joke in it I find so much stimulating drama and insights, I admire the novel's elegant trajectory and unobtrusive style, while at the same time enjoying little flashes of virtuosity or the melancholic tone of the narrator's voice.

Other people will disagree and say that The Joke sends them off to sleep, there is nothing exciting happening in the novel, they find it impossible to concentrate on it, or simply there is nothing of interest to them in the book. So they are going to turn instead to, for example, Iskander.

Of course, in talking about our personal literary tastes we are also talking about what is of interest to us, and about what we know and what we don’t know, and in doing so we are providing a psychological profile of our likes and dislikes, our areas of ignorance, and our personal and social experience of life.

Borges is a particularly interesting example from the field of literature. My own perception of literature would be very different from what it actually is if Borges had never published anything.

There were authors before Borges who like him aspired to an internationalist view of the world. A writer should not feel under any burden of obligation or liable to be held to account just because they share a language and nothing else with a nation or a domestic audience of readers.

The new style that Borges introduced and has been propagated through his writings, can be found in the work of many other authors, some of them unaware of the fact even. Doing what Borges did - reading the old Norse epics, reading that body of literature and treating it as their own heritage, no less important than the heritage of their own nation, their Argentina, their Buenos Aires. The songs of a gaucho poet are seen as being equally important as an old Indian saga or Ancient Greek mythology. And all these creations of the human spirit stand side by side with one another, shoulder to shoulder; this is the Copernican revolution as experienced by the world of literature.

It may not have been Borges alone who made this discovery but he is the writer who made other writers and readers aware of it, more evocatively than anyone else.

You once said that the postmodernists' treatment of Borges made you sick with all their interminable referencing.

In their endless verbalising about Borges the postmodernists identify him as an extremely important point of reference.

I have absolutely no interest in whether Borges was a modernist or a postmodernist, or whether his stories are pervaded by this or that kind of discourse.

The postmodernist discussion of Borges incorporates endless tirades on the subject of different approaches to writing, textual effects and other questions devoid of interest. There is an obsession with the text, with marginal concerns. As far as I am concerned this is all a waste of time, just obscurantism and intellectual logorrhoea.

This Borges, a robot deconstructed and reassembled countless times on a university campus, is certainly not mine.

My Borges is the Borges of Montevideo sunsets, the Borges of pigeon dusks, cockfights, the Borges of courage, of cosmopolitan Buenos Aires. The Borges of intertextual citations makes my hair stand on end. Of course there is nothing to stop the academics from carrying on discussing all that at length but that's not the reason why I read Borges, to engage in that kind of analysis, to investigate all the nuts and bolts and cog-wheels encountered in their famous Discourse. To get worked up about all these aspects of the writing process while failing to see what lies beneath it or understand what the process is about, is simply to blind ones eyes to the sheer vitality of Borges’ short stories and sonnets - I regard this as a very special kind of blindness, a time-wasting preoccupation with secondary issues. It's like a group of people standing next to a sofa and discussing it when actually sitting on the sofa is something beyond the bounds of their imagination, and even though their legs are aching, they carry on talking about the way the fabric is stitched together and the nails and screws that hold the piece of furniture together.

Translated by Jasmin Čaušević