The Leukerbad International Literary Festival has a long tradition of offering more than presentations of books. The exclusively curated conversations in the ‘Perspectives’ series take up and address topical issues in society, politics and literature. This year:
I: Radical Universalism Beyond Identity
II: To Be or Not to Be
III: 1001 Literatures of the Orient
IV: Varlam Shalamov
V: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Universalism assumes that there are general norms and principles and concludes that ideals and rights must fundamentally apply to all people.
When the left and the right depart from the same anti-universalist stance, then it is, ultimately, a question of power.
Omri Boehm asks, “Can universalism still be saved today? Yes, but we must return to its origins: only when we truly understand the humanist appeal of the biblical prophets and Immanuel Kant can we fight injustice without compromise – in the name of radical universalism, not identity.”
Human rights can only be effective as the highest, global good when our actions and reactions—alignment and resistance—function well.
When Omri Boehm speaks of the “ideology of identity”, he is pointing out that it is necessary and indispensable for a free and democratic life to critically challenge political opinions, programs, and structures. “As we enter an epoch of consolidating Western liberal democracy in Europe, as we fight the rise of far-right politics and ethnic nationalism, face global disasters and migration waves, it makes a difference whether we hold fast to the idea of universal humanism as a compass, even a weapon, or create a society in which this idea is mocked and despised.”
The NZZ explains: “Omri Boehm’s objective leads beyond the currently fashionable debates about ‘cultural appropriation’. He is concerned with the fundamentals of identity political thought, which is becoming ever more confining.” And Die Zeit sees his “radical universalism” as an “ideal case of intellectual involvement: it is densely written and yet still has great clarity.”
In 1999, Peter Zadek’s now legendary staging of Hamlet opened, starring some of the best actors of the past decades: Angela Winkler, Ulrich Wildgruber, Otto Sander, and Eva Mattes, among others. The rehearsals lasted several months, and the production was lavishly praised from Strasbourg to Vienna, and from Zurich to Berlin.
The dramatist and actor Klaus Pohl has written a theater novel that recalls the rehearsals for this production of Hamlet. Pohl played his part in the production as Hamlet’s friend Horatio.
This novel contains tragedy and comedy, violent disagreements and tender love stories, rage and devotion, competition and friendship, and ultimately, the incomparable joy of discovery and success ensues—not only on the rehearsal stage, but in the lives of all participants, from the director to the stagehands and the prompter. Even readers with little interest in the theater will understand that art can be something that comes from spheres that have little or nothing to do with mundane morality, political correctness, and purely logical calculation. It is a work of theater that would be unthinkable in the context of current wokeness debates.
Maxim Biller responded enthusiastically – “What a terrific book! Anyone who has read this book and goes to the theater cannot claim later that he had no idea!” The Literarische Quartett enthused as well: “A great metaphor for the absurdity of existence!” (Thea Dorn). “What a marvelous novel!” (Ijoma Mangold); “One of the funniest insane asylum novels I have ever read!” (David Schalko)
The essayist and critic Stefan Weidner is one of the most recognized scholars of Islam in the German-speaking world. As a translator and scholar, he is the foremost mediator of poetry and prose from the Middle East into German. With his book, 1001 Buch. Die Literaturen des Orients, he has achieved his greatest feat yet: an overview of Arab, Persian, and Ottoman/Turkish literature from the seventh century to today. His book guides us from the perspective of the enthusiastic reader as well as from that of the incisive critic over a varied and diverse terrain: between religion and modernity, between pre-Islamic poetry and post-colonial self-criticism.
Terror and totalitarianism. Almost no one has written works on these subjects that burrow as deep under our skin and plunge us into inner experience under extreme conditions as Varlam Shalamov, who was twice interned and, under Stalin, was sent to Siberia for over 15 years. In contrast to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who presented a view of the gulag from a bird’s eye view, with an overview and insight into the Stalinist system, Shalamov’s fragmentary and splintered writing plunges the reader into the experience of life in the camp, in which the condemned—like characters of Kafka—have no idea about the larger picture. Instead, all they have are scraps of existential experiences that only later form a mosaic of terror under totalitarianism. During his sentence in Siberia, Shalamov had formulated and ordered the individual texts in his mind so thoroughly that on his return to freedom he was able to string together all these “pearls of evil” in very short order. When we read or listen to these short and micro fictions, a network of horror and beauty, of despair and longing, quickly forms in each individual mind. And suddenly one wishes one were a twisted, windblown stump. Even today: a tree that, before the onset of winter and the arrival of the cold and hatred, bends down and lays its branches on the ground to survive the winter only to raise its limbs again just before spring, just before hatred and war are past, and dreams of the coming summer, of warmth and affection, of solidarity and the community of mankind as brothers and sisters resisting the folly of ideology.
Communist, homosexual, contrary thinker, and visionary poet, atheist with a religious soul – in his lifetime Pasolini’s personality was always a combative, uncomfortable, and unconventional one. His ‘otherness’ symbolizes poetry’s protest against the transformation into a commodity, against the evolution of technology, against the anthropological genocide, of which he had dark presentiments.
His last film 100 Days of Sodom from 1975 is one of the most controversial works in film history. In it, Pasolini connects fascism and sadism and portrays rape, torture, and murder so uncompromisingly that the film is still forbidden in some countries. About it he said, “In this film, I would like to express my inner, archaic Catholicism.