European Literature Days 2018 | Day 1

About a Giraffe’s Neck and Questions of Thinking Men 2.0

It is seven o’clock in the evening and the opening of the European Literature Days 2018 is imminent. We – that means almost 40 writers, filmmakers, editors, several creative artists and journalists have met in the “Salzstadl” Restaurant in Krems to enjoy a long-awaited dinner. Many are speaking German, and some English. The meal is appetizing and the conversation flows. The table talk involves questions about personal reading habits and streaming. “Do you read more on the e-reader?” – “Or analogue?” – “I need the haptics!” – “No, the light of the e-book is not harmful for your eyes.” Society reads, looks at and creates cultural works, but there are already studies on the consumption behaviour of these particular works. People in the modern era seem to find it more difficult to keep focusing on something over a longer time. “In-depth reading, slow reading just for the sake of reading has become less common. That’s a proven fact”, says an editor. “You quickly check through the text.” And it’s easier to be distracted by other things on the iPad, for instance, – when you “read digitally”. An email or message comes in – and the reading (and thought flow!) is already interrupted!

How much time will pass, until my hand reaches from my fork to my bag to take out my telephone and check something? I persuade myself that I’m only doing it to look at the clock. Surely, it’s already late; soon, we will walk to the Minoritenkirche, only a few minutes across the wet cobblestones to attend the opening event of the European Literature Days. A young man at the table relates where he has travelled from. “You’ve destroyed the environment!” exclaims a writer. She is immediately enlightened: the man has arrived by train. So, it’s not so bad. Almost on the instruction of a mute and mainly invisible director in the room, a conversation immediately starts up about cruise ships, riverboats, which travel around the Krems region on the Danube and pollute the environment. Between the last bites of his potato salad, somebody declares: “I prefer artists who create projects about environmental pollution and who fly about the world with or for these projects.” There is a real awareness of our world and its state in 2018 – “the problems and challenges of our time”, you could also say in social-educational terms. But what can the woman/man who thinks and writes and participates in panel discussions change about all of this? I quietly and secretly ask myself to give the transition of this text its absolution. 

I jump, because that is possible in thought and alright, and this is no text perfected by a computer algorithm, because I can think and produce connections and come up with new, or even old things, but they spring from my own brain synapses. Similarly off course, like my recent jump, and sometimes also non-synchronous and flowing in a path like an errant roller coaster of thought processes – this is how many of the reflections seem to me of the two discussion partners on stage in the wonderfully blue illuminated Minoritenkirche over the next few hours. The hall is well filled with older people, although mothers with their children and a school class are also in the audience.

Leading the discussion are Robert Menasse and in German-speaking countries currently the most famous philosopher and book author, Richard David Precht. Their questions focus no more and no less on “what keeps our intellectual world together”. “How our world is educated” is the headline theme for the evening. This implies the question about education in the world and how one creates it. The answers to these questions emerge as slightly less worldly: Precht and Menasse succeed in a conversation flow – it is impossible to reconstruct – by starting their discourse on the meaninglessness of a giraffe’s long neck (which became like this in the course of evolution, yet also simply is like this, as a neck in itself, which it is and remains so until today), sailing past Kant and Hegel to risk a somersault again into the kingdom of the ancient Greeks, touching on questions concerning the modern technocracy of China and her pressure not to let economic growth fall below the ten per cent hurdle – and to approach the presumably most concrete topic on tackling the landing: how to evaluate our current education system in the German-speaking context up to the university career? Where is the system stuck and where are things in really bad shape, and how is the virus to be treated when it has been identified? Here, Precht has a few concrete tips and also reveals some anecdotes from his son’s school day to illustrate things and the audience frequently laughs – most likely this is due to a recognition effect that is difficult to deny. A short analysis follows of individuals’ inherently narcissistic behaviour disguised in the social media actions of our society. Precht points out that we were probably always so vain, but in recent decades the echo chambers have only become bigger and more easily controllable.

Personally, at the end of the discussion, I can certainly not say whether cultural pessimism or optimism should be recalled here, or whether anything at all should be – which I like again – but one thing gradually becomes clear to me: thinking will not be unlearned so soon, this artificial intelligence, which every year is widely announced countrywide as wanting to take over and rule the world, and cannot yet hand the water to homo sapiens erectus 2.0. Here, the thinking is controversial and dialectical, and the audience is listening, and I even imagine that I’ve only heard a mobile phone ringing once. Okay, the woman in the row in front of me has been scrolling on her smartphone as Richard David Precht explained that the medieval period was not such a dismal time as all educated individuals have thought so far, but it was probably an exception. Oh, I had forgotten Marx. Richard David Precht and Robert Menasse also made an intellectual sailing excursion to Marx. Our world of ideas is not entirely unfree of economic matters. Marx already realized this correctly. Both speakers euphorically draw their discussion to a close not without paying homage, alongside the joy of thinking, at least to the delightful activity of our small human life: pleasure. They propose a toast with full red wine glasses because, according to Precht: “The world becomes lighter, when you feel how it turns.” The quotation naturally isn’t from Precht; he has only passed it on. Handed it on. Recited. But who is the source of the saying in the original? I won’t ‘google’ it now.

llinca Florian

Ilinca Florian, b. 1983 in Bucharest and now living in Berlin, is a German-speaking writer. She worked for the Berlin Grips Theatre and is a director of short and documentary films. Her debut novel Als wir das Lügen lernten was published in spring 2018.
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