You Water, You Gooseflesh

Essay · Original title: »Du vatten, du gåshud« · Translation: Tomas Tranæus · Keynote Address at the European Literature Festival, Spitz an der Donau, Austria · September 20, 2012


It is said that you emerged at the heart of Europe, that you are an invention of the old continent in the same way as democracy or the smallpox vaccine, or for that matter the thumbscrew and biometrics, that your origins are the medieval romance but that you, since newspapers began serialising you, have appeared in most conceivable guises, from family sagas replete with sabre-rattling and samovars to recluses who stuff their mouth full of stones by some godforsaken shore, though personally I dream of you as water, limitless yet ductile and containable, just as often dirty spume as aphrodisiacal slop, because I believe you can assume most forms without being lost, which is to say that you contain multitudes, like water in water, and therefore I beseech you who are many, as if the centre were everywhere and thus there were something to make you remain yourself despite shifting currents, and I wonder if this sustained unsettledness, which might also be termed liquidity, should not be seen as your greatest asset; perhaps it is the only reason still to believe in you as a form of knowledge in its own right, that is, to assume that you have a future in an era of media redundancy, so allow me to clear my throat and suggest ten, er, commandments for the future, written as should be on water, of which the second after your liquidity would be


Because of all the things you are, and all the things you might be, respite seems to me the most obvious: it allows the reader to be on his own without having to be alone, secluded but linked to other fates, protected and yet unbounded, and I admit that I consider this open asylum to be among the best things about you, it might even be regarded as a sort of residence permit in the stateless realm of letters, in principle accessible to each and everyone, a pliable dimension in which the past, unlike in real life, is never over, the future rarely appears certain and the present is not one, so that the three tenses taken together form a fourth which I suspect is your own and which it is tempting to regard as a grace period akin to the one secured by that grizzled mistress of your craft, Scheherazade, when she succeeded in postponing, night after night, what was to come, until the complications were so numerous, the confidences so dependable, that the king capitulated and turned the death sentence into a marriage, whereby it was shown that death — which, incidentally, you cannot avoid being about — can be overcome with words, but I am not sure that we can trust happy endings anymore, not if you are to be seen as a form of knowledge in your own right, and anyway, a respite is not merely the space of time during which a person breathes freely but can also be a period in limbo, far from liberating — such as at the »Custody« for example, a facility among the catering firms and logistics companies by Arlanda Airport outside Stockholm where refugees sit awaiting the word to be »allowed to go home«, as the authorities phrase it, a euphemism by any other name, for the outcome is clear from the moment they cross the threshold, so it must be said that they are really just awaiting deportation, or »the return« as official terminology has it, which certainly makes the homesickness that is said to be the underlying motif of the epic tradition whence you sprang appear a judgement, for if there were anything to return to, such as a homeland, that would mean it fulfilled the minimum requirement for a home, which is to be capable of taking care of its citizens.


But that, of course, is not how it is, and I imagine that this distortion of language is a perversion that no tongue is able to free itself from, never completely, since it is in the nature of language not just to depict but also to deform what it speaks of, so that the distortion must be regarded as the downside of the unsettledness which I hold to be your best characteristic, for only through contradictions does reality gain contrast — which incidentally brings me to the third commandment — and therefore I assert that you should not be treated as a medium with which words are cleansed of dirty treatment, even if that would be ever so noble a task for water, but rather as the contrast fluid that allows the conditions, political or otherwise, of the misrepresentation to stand out, such as the reasons for staff at the Custody to talk about »dignified« returns, referring to the moment when a refugee eventually »feels it’s OK to go back to his homeland«, as it is also phrased, and the deportation can finally be viewed as a shared goal, when it is in fact about constructing a judicial and rhetorical situation that can only have one outcome, from which it follows that we are talking not about custody but about a trap, albeit legally unassailable, in which each action that does not confirm the conditions sooner or later becomes criminalised — which, by the way, is the reason authorities so rarely give any credence to refugees who have lost their passport, since a person without papers cannot be deported, at least not to his or her so-called homeland, but will be sent back to the first EU state he or she set foot in — which usually means a peripheral member state such as Greece or Spain, whose exclaves Melilla and Ceuta in northern Africa are particularly popular first destinations for »them«, meaning the so-called migrants, and which in practice means that the core EU states have created a judicial moat around themselves as protection from trespassers, which brings me to the issue of


In a place like the Custody, »them« is the lowest common denominator for the Somali mothers and Afghani youth and Iraqi fathers and Syrian children and Kurdish grandparents all waiting to »feel it’s OK to go back to their homeland«, and consequently obliged to practice the nastiest sort of nostalgia, and I wonder if »they« — who moreover make it possible for others to call themselves »us« — are not part of »the silent baggage« which Herta Müller sees it as literature’s task to voice, for what does »them« amount to if not non-belonging, and thus it implies a differentiation between natives and strangers, intelligible speech and barbarian babbling or however the relationship may have been formulated over the centuries of painful distinctions we are all too familiar with, and consequently whoever truly wants to make the silent baggage speak actually has to take responsibility for the content, if only to the least possible extent, and hence perspectivism is still one of the best means of giving shape and sharpness to contradictions.

Legion (take one)

Moreover, perspectivism is also the reason that one of the dafter ideas in recent years was the attempt to »give Europe a soul«, regarded by one of the Union’s so-called founding fathers as its most important task, at least until certain member states demonstrated a somewhat creative handling of subsidies and taxation rules — donner une âme à l’Europe ran the slogan with which Jacques Delors urged a cultural consolidation of the continent, no doubt with the sincerest intentions, at any rate he believed that a common identity had to be cultivated beyond Schengen agreements and currency areas, lest special interests pull the Union apart, but the method was naive, to say nothing else, because not only must one ask oneself if it is possible to decree a »soul« — as one might savings measures or penicillin — from the top down, but it is also justifiable to question whether Europe has only one soul or rather is made up of many, and anyway it may be about time to regard the protection of diversity, and thus of differences, as part of the European heritage, so perhaps it might simply be easier to ignore notions of a single soul and instead speak of Legion, which would be the fifth commandment, and as it rarely means one and the same thing, we will make it the sixth as well.

Legion (take two)

The term features, of course, in a scene in the Bible — another of your sources of origin — in which Jesus, having landed on a foreign shore, meets a man who has »his dwelling among the tombs« where, possessed by »an unclean spirit« he cuts himself with stones and no man, »no, not with chains«, can bind him — in short: we are faced with a prime example of someone unwilling to integrate, who is not just self-destructive but belongs with the dead and who, when asked his name, replies: »My name is Legion: for we are many«, and having arrived at this point in my address I wonder if this could be the motto for Europe as a literary continent, at any rate I must now tell you a secret, for I suspect the statement contains a miniature version, if not of the continent then at least of your genetic code, because in the utterance something occurs after the proposition but before the conclusion: it is as if there were a distortion at the core of the proposition which makes the person who begins to speak someone else than the person who finishes, since between the first and second part the speaker is transformed from someone who can say »mine« into someone calling himself »we«, and is this not precisely what you do, you transform every »I« into something of a »we«, for as reader one puts oneself willy-nilly in the shoes of each individual who speaks, no matter how little, thereby expanding her into a multitude, which means that the distortion is not the opposite of change but rather coexists with it and that, therefore, in this transformation which I contend is your promise to the reader, and which means that no-one who seeks respite in you need leave you as the person they were, that in this transformation there is both a creative and a dissolving force, and if you are not to serve merely as distraction but constitute a form of knowledge in your own right, then surely you cannot be satisfied with offering more or less attractively packaged reworkings of urgent »topics«, but instead must free yourself from expectations of what you are or ought to be and surprise by what you can become — at any rate, nothing else is intended by the seventh thing I think of when I think of you, that is:

The paperless

Which would be another term for »the silent baggage« you unpack between book covers, at least if by literature one intends a way of going a little further than language actually permits, and thereby a form of knowledge that can still manage where memory and reason are no longer enough, and of course I am aware that the »paperless«, or as officials have it: the »undocumented«, are persons who cannot, will not or fail to prove their identity with the help of the requisite documents, which in certain parts of Europe has now become a status only a few breaths away from the medieval »outlaw«, but the undocumented state also touches on something essential in you, you who originated when the printing press began to multiply letters on cellulose, for is it not in your nature to try to incorporate that which has not yet been described, that which is in some sense unauthorised, perhaps even illegitimate, which of course does not mean that these human experiences are unlived, but merely that they have remained hitherto undocumented, and I would claim that this desire to provide it with words is part of your way of being, and even that you, when you take yourself seriously, strive with all means to express that which has not yet been committed to paper, and really I can’t think of any better justification for your existence.


I for one am not among those who believe that you are immortal, which is to say a form of expression given and known once and for all and therefore impossible to lose, after all only a few hundred years have passed since you received the form you have today, and why should you be obliged to continue in this guise; on the contrary, I believe in your waterlike ability to take on new appearances — your biggest asset remains your liquidity, and perhaps it is only a reliance on that which will allow you to survive, as if the belief in transience could actually save you, which would furthermore be my eighth commandment, namely transience, since I suspect that it is only when you set out from what is finite that you offer the reader more than a story and become a narrative consciousness, spacious enough to hold a secret humanity, and frankly, is that not what everything is really about, namely


Which would bring me to my ninth commandment, the participation Brecht spoke of when he imagined man not as »individual« but as »dividual«, that is, not as an existential but as a social creature, for while even the staff at the Custody know that a human being’s rights are universal and that consequently she must be treated as inviolable and indivisible, hence as an individual, but as a social entity she consists of bonds, is as much atom as molecule, and that is how I imagine a narrative consciousness, as something at once greater and smaller than the ego, and therefore always wiser than its author, that is to say a creation made of ties, and I wonder if that does not mean you ought ideally to be a text in which the centre is everywhere, at any rate I admit that this would be my most secret dream, this text in which the centre is everywhere, for surely that is the only way to do justice to the world in its bewildering abundance and also to capture the lightness and joy of an existence which remains infernal, after all hope is something other than happy endings and it is not, on balance, about giving life to characters one has dreamt up as much as about setting life in motion; but now the loyal listener will be wondering if such books exist, or will ever be written, and what do I know, perhaps it is just my paperless wishful thinking, still, the best way of predicting the future is surely to invent it, and I admit that as reader I have long since tired of prose that proves what we are not acquainted with yet know already; all these well-behaved stories, so like diligent school essays, in which topics and characters may vary but conventions remain the same, as if nothing had happened in a hundred years of narrative expression, and I really wonder whether it has to be this way, I don’t understand why you could not just as well be a catalogue of breaths, as separate and transient as they were carefully rendered, or for that matter seven cases of pain divided between eight and half beings, because surely the point is that literature is no pyjama party where our gluttonous yearning for easy affinity replaces a fitting sense of complication; but now I hear the listener impatiently stamping his feet, so fair enough, let me name a goodly handful of titles in as many languages, in which I sense that the centre is in fact everywhere: let me do what no writer with a sense of self-preservation should do and mention Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel, Mircea Cărtărescu’s Orbitór trilogy, Nina Bouraoui’s My Bad Thoughts, Aleksandar Hemon’s The Question of Bruno, Sara Stridsberg’s The Dream Faculty and Andrzej Stasiuk’s On the Road to Babadag, all of them books published on this continent since the beginning of the millennium, in which the reader encounters a narrative consciousness capable of giving her gooseflesh — it is as if Legion spoke in these books, and that quite frankly makes it utterly unimportant if they take place in Ukrainian labour camps or on French analysts’ couches, in Albanian villages or Rumanian housing estates: here what was previously undocumented speaks about and under its own conditions — and what if, in order to come at last to the tenth thing I am thinking of when I think of you, what if this were regarded as the most unequivocal way in which literature provides a sense of the evidential, and thus becomes irrefutable, this


No, I don’t mean to say that narrative prose should be collecting evidence or proving theses, much less that it should be dedicated to establishing truths, no matter how important these may be, but when it really engages us it conveys a sensation of incontrovertibility, it contains something we as readers cannot defend ourselves against, a disquiet or an elation, perhaps consternation, possibly rapture, in any case something akin to a promising anomaly, that we discover we are nonetheless deeply familiar with in some hidden way, which does not exactly flatten the gooseflesh but rather makes us realise we have no choice but to regard it as part of our way of existing, as if literature actually knew more about us than we do ourselves, and I think that if the art of prose is to have anything to offer in the future it must create such proof with every means at its disposal; it has to become a producer of gooseflesh, for is pimply skin not the body’s counterpart to a text in which the centre is everywhere, these numberless places each of which is a central point in its own right, which moreover is the reason that in matters of producing meaning in literature it is never about growth, only about surplus, and I imagine that you offer no less than this, you novel that I am speaking to as if it were possible to address you like a person, you hair-raising surplus of meaning, and therefore I allow myself to append an eleventh, surplus commandment, namely


For you are no safe »castle« or »redoubt«, no »bulwark« or »citadel«, which are some of the words I come across when I look up synonyms of the word »fortress«, and least of all some »defensive work«, that is to say a construction whose main task would be to protect against trespassing, in other words, to maintain the status quo — on the contrary, you are a state of mental aggregation, call it Legion or narrative consciousness, so perhaps you should be seen as a collective novel without a collective, still the circumstances oblige me to speak of you in connection with »fortress« Europe, but as my lurching litany will hopefully evince I am unable to imagine you as permanent or impregnable, limited or exclusive, or that you rise above as-yet unknown, undocumented areas of human experience in the manner of winged Pegasus who once emerged from the sea, this mythical horse born of Poseidon and Medusa and whom tradition has taught us to see as a symbol of the art of poetry — instead I prefer to think of you as something altogether more earth-bound and man-made and already present in our midst, as a promise and a curse, like the gift, more patchwork than fabled creature, which one day was rolled into Troy: a dusty horse that turned out to contain more than anyone could imagine, who was both dream and trauma, and I think to myself that yes, this could be your totemic animal, you strange promise of triumph and destruction, you hair-raising surprise, and if one considers that you stood on the shores of Asia Minor already at the beginning of the epic tradition it becomes apparent that your centre does not have to lie in Europe but can be here, there and everywhere, and that this makes you both threatened and threatening, and therefore infinitely desirable, which is the one thing I am really thinking of all the time when thinking of you.

Europäische Literaturtage (In German)