Seeing the Book

My gaze encountered a book that had been left open on the table. I looked at it from a distance in the twilight of a summer night. I could not read it from where I sat, and I did not even know what book it was. The soft half-light of the past day fell on its leaves. And then, in the light of that evening, I could suddenly see how extraordinarily beautiful and mysterious an object a book is, at the same time sensual and - if I dare say so - supersensual.

Once again I learned what a book really is, and what reading means. We grasp a book, open it, empty it. It is a vessel filled with another person's consciousness. When our eyes move across a book, when our gaze turns to the pages of a book and begins to move from line to line, extraordinary things happen. The ability to read animates the inanimate, makes a dumb object live and speak!

Reading is the transfer of experience from one person through an artefact into another person. What has once been buried in a book, into its symbols, rises again and is born anew. At some time the writer transformed his meanings into marks; the reader encounters them once more as meanings. And more: through the book, the private comes public, but that publicity becomes the reader's private experience as he turns the page.

The passive exterior of the book is sheer deception, for there is no more dynamic object. In all its motionlessness the book is full of energy. 'There is no other explosion but the book,' Mallarmé wrote. (If only it were true! Today, unfortunately, we know that Mallarmé was wrong.)

The fact that we are able to read, that black marks can turn into meanings, is, for humanity, as essential a process as is photosynthesis for nature. At once sacrament and transformation, water into wine or bread into living flesh.

Meanings, too, are oxygen tor human beings, air for breathing. Something moves into the individual from outside and blows into him the spirit of life, interaction. Meanings free the individual from the isolation to which he would otherwise be condemned. They make possible - through writing - contact between people who never meet in physical space, time or place, including the living and the dead The book is, in other words, a space, a place, a meeting-place (And this will not change even if the book ceases to exist as a physical object and its content is transferred to the nonphysical space of the information networks.)

I believe that literature is not in the least a question of literature. Subjects, themes, structures etc are all inessential. I believe that literature is a question of encountering those choices which no one can escape. Relationships, which in life demand more or less urgent attention and knowledge of their nature - I do not dare or wish to say 'solution'.

First I want to mention the relationship with time, which is the same as the relationship with change, metamorphosis. How change is received, understood and endured through changing oneself, through others, older and younger, through the new-born, which is the most vulnerable and renewable self of all of us, through the sick and the dying, through suffering, which moves from one person to another, transfixes us and eventually vanishes.

At the same time I come to mean an encounter with a stranger, another, an outsider, whether another person or another animal species or the environments in which we live and which we change I refer to the the necessity that in order to realise our own reality we must first recognise the reality of others. The incommensurability of the experience oi ourselves and others tells us something essential about the nature of reality. Where they fall together resides the delicate possibility of love.

Through this we come to our relationship with our own bodies, our relationship with our own and the opposite sex, once again to the other in ourselves and ourselves in the other, sexuality, in which pleasure and suffering, the possibility of the most perfect union and the deepest solitude intersect, and which crosses the animal, the individuall the social and the sacral.

Furthermore, I referto the will and the permitted, to what is called conscience, good and evil, the question of their existence, their separation and their inseparability, the chasm that yawns, the shadow that rises between actions and thoughts.

Not to mention the relationship with the infinite, which is inconceivable to our powers of conception, of which we do not even know that we know nothing, our relationship with a riddle, reality itself, which perhaps needs our own gaze for its realisation.

And more we cannot pass by our relationship with beauty, our 'hunger for goodness', our 'weakness before beauty' (Bellow).

Or, finally, our relationship with what we call 'I', our own self. Only through it can we live out all these other relationships, and not a day goes by when we do not encounter them. A strange circle for our selfhood is in precisely these encounters. But there is no other self, for we are ourselves, we ARE only through them.

There is no one, no known authority, that sets these tasks before us and orders us to live with such relationships Nevertheless, they are imperatives of a kind. They follow the individual because he has been born into precisely this kind of cosmos, in which space-time, matter and consciousness are governed by precisely these natural laws. We can try to pass them by, flee them, avoid paying attention to them, but it is not possible for long, and their denial brings the bitterest pains. No one, in his own life, can escape these relationships. We must bear their burden if we wish to be people and live in this world.

Literature is the last place where these complicated, intertwined relationships can be fled. Their insolubility, confusion, forces one to write. There is no literature without this obscurity. It is common to all, but its deception is encountered only in one's most personal life and through one's own body, without substitution. We are at the mercy of this contusion, but without recognising its exislence and without recognising our helplessness before it literature leaves its reader cold.

But this most intimate is expressed through the impersonal and the public: through language.

Now that I have been writing for twenty-five years, and in recent years more intensively than when I was younger, I am gradually beginning to realise what matters, what I am really dealing with. Learning even the basics can take up a quarter of a cenlury. There is no playing with such matters, and what is literature, nevertheless, but play. At best, it goes like skating, lightly, joyfully.

The brittle ice is human language.

The longer I write and read, the less literature itself interests me. The more transparent what is called literature becomes. Writing is simply sharing, not only of words but, above all, of dreams. And in the end it is they that are the most enduring, for when mouths become dumb and the body tires, one still dreams one's dreams.

But when I think about some of the aspects of this sharing, I cannot but remember the classic dream in which the dreamer walks the streets Of the city, naked. The more and the longer a writer writes, the more naked he becomes. There comes a time when he, too, is transparent, and finally invisible. The writer finds himself stepping before unknown people in deep inequality, for any one of them may know the most essential secrets of his life, while he himself knows nothing of these people. At any moment a stranger can buy from a shop his voice, his whisper, his reaction and his memory, his entire life's experience. It is terrible, but unavoidable, for the idea of being a writer lies precisely in the translation of the private into the public, in the sharing of dreams.

Literature also offers the possibility of understanding, and writing, for me, also means a struggle against a shrunken view of humanity. Human beings are complex, they really are, and writing means opening one's eyes to the inexplicability of people, and through them of reality.

But understanding does not mean an increase only of knowledge, but of goodwill too. For me, knowledge and goodwill are 'das Ding an sich'; without them, life would be barren and miserable, it would be unhappiness, pure nonsense. A hook should be the sum of all the experience of life, faith, knowledge and love that is in the writer and not only that which he has, but what he does not have.

Maurice Blanchot wrote: 'There would be no gift at all, if not the gift one does not have.' This is an empty-handed victory: that the writer also - and above all - shares and gives away the love and knowledge that he does not himself possess in life.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins