14th Prague Writers┤ Festival
Joseph Roth: I don't know where I'm going

Festival News  Interview with Nadine Gordimer
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Nadine Gordimer in conversation with Michael March

In The Myth of Sisyphus Camus remarks that "there is one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide". Is his conclusion now visible?

Suicide is not a philosophical problem but an existential one. We are not consulted about whether we want to be born; but anyone has the right to decide the duration of his/her life.

Kafka argued that the only sensible conclusion he had ever reached in his life was "not suicide, but the thought of suicide". Are we prisoners of our thoughts?

Of course we are prisoners of our thoughts but not everyone is as self-punishingly determined as Kafka. I once wrote "A Letter From His Father" to juxtapose with his famous one to his father. My thesis: Franz must have been a pain in the neck to have hanging around the house long after he should have grown up and left home...

For Milan Kundera, "the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting". Are we losing this battle?

One of the most truthful and profound insights ever made. The enduring dilemma is to remember in order not to repeat the same inhuman acts, while not being forever revengeful. That is why we, in South Africa, tried a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It may be said to have succeeded to some extent, therefore worthwhile in spite of its limitations. There's no such thing as secular absolution, I suppose.

In Writing and Being you saw your native land as "hanging on a sunrise". Has the wound healed?

A sunrise was not a wound. It was a belief in a new future, beyond oppression, beyond racism. We are energetically embarked upon it.

Proust wrote: "Do not be afraid to go too far, for the truth lies beyond." Isn't this truth inside us, indestructible and ungathered from the Tree of Life?

Marcel Proust certainly meant the truth we keep hidden, in fear, inside us, about our selves and our knowledge of others.

Are we, as writers, "the one who belongs nowhere"?

Edward Said wrote, in his wonderful autobiography "Out of Place", that to be so, in a sense, in the world may be a way to better understanding between individuals and nations, an open state of being attained against the monolithic cages of nationalism, religion and closed cultures.

In telling the truth, are we not disowned by the very place where we reside?

Often. It can be the only proof that we are telling something of the truth.

Joseph Roth wrote: "I have no home, aside from the fact that I am home in myself." Where is your home?

The body is our personal home; language is the home we live in with others.

Is language or the body our home?

My home is in Africa. A paradox, since my language home is a European one!

What is "the sense of abandonment" that you have felt since the collapse of the Soviet Union?

I did not say I, myself, felt a particular "sense of abandonment" after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It seems impossible to make a general statement without it being attributed to oneself. Communism presented the possibility of the creation of one world, politics, morals and economics resolved as human justice. It didn't succeed on home ground in the Soviet Union and its satellites; again, there we were, left without any solution to a divided world without an ideology offering a solution to pursue. Therefore the sense of abandonment, by the failure of the Left as exemplified in the Soviet Union. All we've come up with as a new ideology for one world is the concept of globalisation - so far dominated by deals in trade among the rich countries and continuing poverty among poor countries.

Do you agree with Joseph Roth and George Orwell that "the individual is always defeated in the end"?

I don't agree. The two writers exemplify the fact that the individual - the brilliant, thinking individual - even after a wretched life and death triumphs through the prescient truth of their writings, constantly rediscovered.

Does art negotiate the price of defeat?

No. Art reveals the real nature of defeat, which can lead to it being overcome. Art defies defeat by its very existence, representing the celebration of life, in spite of all attempts to degrade and destroy it.

Do you agree with Henry Miller that "you can fight against evil, but against stupidity you're helpless"?

I'm inclined to agree with Henry Miller. When stupidity and power go together the problem is fatefully compounded.

In Prague we are witness, in your words, to a "stultifying bureaucracy - surely a characterizing tragedy of the twentieth century". Will this ever pass?

Stultifying bureaucracy. I suppose it exists to a much lesser degree in democratic regimes, but it seems to flourish pandemically in countries struggling towards the achievement of democracy. But at least where there is freedom of speech people can protest against bureaucracy, sometimes with results. One must not get tired of making one's objections heard, registered.

Czes│aw Mi│osz expresses the dilemma: "Ill at ease in the tyranny, ill at ease in the republic, in the one I longed for freedom, in the other for the end of corruption." Where are we now?

We are longing, with great Mi│osz, for the end of corruption. It turns out to be one of the conditions of freedom, available to more people now that the tyranny is over, as it was during the tyranny but reserved to a privileged few, then.

February, 2004
© Michael March

Last modification of this page: 22nd March 2004 16:16

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