Interview – About God and the world

The following conversation was held within the context of a 24 hour interview marathon that CultureCounts conducted in the Berlin central station. It was first published in Frankfurter Rundschau under the title „Werde, der du bist!“ (“Become what you are!!) Based on the subject matter of the book VALUES (Werte), which back then had just been nominated for the „Europe Book Prize“, the book touched a lot of motives and questions that connect my non-fiction books and my novels with each other.


For your novels you use historical subjects. What are you looking for when digging into history?

Maybe myself. The only thing that ever interested me as long as I have lived is people. Most of all people that go to the borders of what is possible for a human being and beyond. People with a destiny that seems greater and more meaningful and, therefore, more fascinating than my own. But in spite of all differences in size and substance they have to do with me and my life, here and now.

How do they look, those connections between past and present?

In my novel The Philosopher’s Kiss (Die Philosophin) I described how Diderot and D’Alembert, the philosophers of the Enlightenment, published the first encyclopaedia in the 18th century. To start with, that does not sound exactly thrilling. But their book of books was an attempt to collect the entire knowledge of mankind. Back then, this was an outrageous provocation for the classical elites, Church and state. Up to then, they had been the only guardians of knowledge – and therefore of power as well. With their encyclopaedia the two rebels propagated no less then heaven on earth – for each and everyone. Therefore, it is a very modern story. It is about the search for happiness and about the aberrations on the way to reach it. Can we gain it at all? Are we entitled to live it?

The two encyclopaedists lived in an epoch when we were still able to measure the world. Today everything seems much more complex, vast and inestimable.

Yes. That is why we need new concepts of orientation today. Gigantic amounts of knowledge are gathered. The online encyclopaedia Wikipedia is a splendid metaphor for the information society we live in. On the one hand, the user himself contributes constantly to the knowledge collection, but on the other he drowns in it. Faced with the vastness of information he does not know anymore where he stands. What is really important for our own life? To decide that we need some kind of ethical navigation system. That is why I wrote my book Values (Werte): We search for a balance between the numerous options to design ourselves and the preservation of a stable identity, which is possible only if based on values. Education is good, values are better. They give us direction and meaning.

There are attempts to establish values also as guidance for the dealings within corporations. Is that just playing with names?

Not necessarily. It depends, if values are only proclaimed or lived as well. In corporations with a lively culture we see that amazing combinations of values are possible. Trust and a high amount of freedom within, and at the same time on the outside aggression when dealing with competitors. Similar to Plato’s description of the ideal soldier, comparing him with a guard dog – gentle with those he is supposed to protect, but aggressive on the outside, with the enemy.

Often we are the greatest strangers to ourselves. Why do people who have access to all sources of insight and knowledge, often know so little about themselves.

That is not a modern phenomenon. It has to do with the fact that we, other than most animals, are rather unready when we are born. When an ant hatches out of its egg it has a programme installed, regulating its entire future life. It becomes part of a clearly structured community and moves within given tracks. We, however, are bare and naked when we come into the world, but we have an inexhaustible potential of options. Nietzsche’s so contradictory sounding phrase: “Become who you are”, is aimed at that dilemma. Self-realisation is what we call that process. But in what direction? Values help us to orientate ourselves.

So what would be the goal? To become more and more familiar with ourselves?

In spite of 100 years of psychoanalysis: We are strangers to ourselves, and there is nothing wrong with that. It drives us on to develop. Not to remain within the comfort zone of the known and familiar but to be daring and try new, strange things. So that the strange can become the familiar once again. People who appear strange to us are able to move us on in a similar way. They question us through positive alienation. And in this way they provoke us to make the framework of the familiar wider and wider.

Many people look only at the outside where development is concerned, they suit themselves to affluence goals and business plans.

And end up in a cul-de-sac. The last orientation I can only find within myself. That is probably the greatest seduction of the fundamentalists, if they are Islamic, Christian or preachers of consume. They pretend to be able to offer ready-made life programmes to us unready creatures. But such programmes do not exist, neither for individuals nor for communities. The only thing we can really rely on is our own inner voice. But in order to recognize it we need the polyphony, the antiphonal singing with others.

In our society, however, distraction is held in very high regard. A nice expression: We distract ourselves in all four points of the compass. Is that the reason why we are so deaf of our inner voice?

There is nothing wrong with distraction. But when it becomes an exclusive programme it means we sacrifice our identity. To preserve and develop it, on the other hand, is bloody exhausting. That is why we often chicken out, as I know from my own experience. During the nineties I ended up in a management consultancy by chance, although I had studied humanities. Back then I earned a lot of money with a handful of speech bubbles. With this one for example: “Life is too short to waste it on making money.” But what a hypocritical Pharisee have I been! What I preached to others I did not apply to myself. Instead of fulfilling my dream and writing a novel I preferred writing invoices.

And how did you become who you are?

I realised: If I did not fulfil my dream I will look back on my life when I am seventy and would be deeply depressed about myself. Therefore, before losing all my self-respect, I sat down and wrote that novel, which had been burning in my soul for years. The Amber Amulet (Das Bernstein-Amulett), a German family saga from the breakdown after the war to the re-unification.

How are self-exploration and encounter with strangers together?

First of all, we have to endure them both. Because not everything that we come across during our introspection is to our liking. But if we chicken out we remain alien and threatening to ourselves. Which subsequently leads us to transport the threatening strangeness into other people and reject them. That is what psychologists call projection. We see ourselves as victims of a putatively strange threat when in truth it lives in ourselves. The advantage of such a projection: I have to do nothing myself, it is the others that have to change. Besides, the projection gives me a feeling of certainty, one of the basic needs of the human being.

Isn’t this certainty an illusion – and doesn’t it always come different than we think?

Only one thing is certain – there is no certainty. But that is difficult to accept. This is due to our way of thinking: When we think we form patterns. To find our way around our daily chaos we need structures to hold on to. There is a catch, though: We tend to assume that a pattern we have once identified will work everywhere, just like traffic lights. But even those need to be handled with care. Once I was driving around Stuttgart with an Italian friend. Like a madman he ignored every single red light. When I shouted out his only reply was: “In Rome we always do it like that.”

Is that what it is all about? To break patterns again and again and to dare and enter new worlds?

This might come as a disappointment to you: The normality is better than its reputation. Who reaches for the stars better have his two feet firmly on the ground. As high as we estimate the new, which we have never seen before, in our daily lives we also need the certainty of familiarity. We cannot invent ourselves newly from morning to night. That would be asking much too much of ourselves, intellectually, but even more emotionally. We should just never believe that certainty is ever certain.

Conformism as survival strategy?

Partially yes, indeed. Although of course I would like to be an exceptional artist permanently – as every conformist.

We have to take responsibility for the reality we construct. That includes thinking patterns such as: “The Turks are stealing our jobs.”

They are even stealing our place on the couch! I am married to a Turk, we have the battle of the cultures within our own four walls. Strange smells in the kitchen, bewildering music on the radio. And if I speak Westphalian, it sounds exotic to my wife. We have to endure such irritations. They provoke the conformist in us in a productive way. They help us to know ourselves better, because we recognise ourselves more than anything in the difference. When my daughter was born, my mother-in-law was praying suras from the Quran in the delivery room. As a born and bred Catholic I felt an “Ave Maria” would have been more suitable, but why? Because I felt so disconcerted I noticed what an Arch-Catholic I really was, even though I had long left the Church.

You have written Europe is bound together by its contradiction. What did you mean by that?

Do you know the European heaven? The organiser is a Swiss man, the cook a Frenchman, the worker a German, the policeman an English Bobby and the lover an Italian. And do you know the European hell? The organiser is an Italian, the policeman a German, the cook an Englishman, the worker a Frenchmen – and the lover a Swiss man. If in heaven or in hell: Greatest diversity on smallest room. Diversity of contradictory people and mentalities – that is what makes Europe so special.

The European Union is advertising, using the slogan “United in Diversity”. What is different between us and the Americans?

We Europeans we think of almost every term together with its opposite. Progress for example. It is a term from the European Enlightenment, but in America it has turned into a monstrosity – like rabbits in Australia, where they have no natural enemies? We Europeans, however, rely on progress on the one hand – but on the other we do not trust it as asceticism, freedom and responsibility. We are more or less born with this dialectic way of thinking, Socrates was already thinking this way on his forum in Athens. Insofar Europe is one single gigantic forum, where peoples, cultures and ideas are in permanent dialogue with each other, in an exchange of thesis and antithesis, diction and contradiction. All in order to determine what could be the truth. And always in the painful certainty that every truth is but a temporary truth.

Endure contrasts - is that a central competence of Europe?

The ultimate test is tolerance. Its nature is not assimilation but enduring differences. Thank God! What a boring world it would be if everyone were to be the same as us. And what a boring country Germany would be if it would water down its identity until it would be totally unproblematic for every immigrant.

This attempt to avoid alienation through putative harmonising exists also between the sexes. More and more men and women believe that they would get on better with each other when they would be more similar.

Yes, equality up to uniformity – and in the end we have the big yawning. When I was still a consultant I sometimes blamed my clients that they were supporting women by supporting the man in the woman. Only if women were ready to turn into men beyond recognition they were allowed to make a career. The other way round in the Seventies men mutate into jumper knitting softies, convinced that women would really like them that way. They did – but not in bed. There they preferred machos.

Has that any effect on your professional life? Market research established that novels are read up to ninety percent by women. Shouldn’t you rename yourself Petra Prange?

I know you wanted to crack a joke – but in reality this joke has long turned into bitter seriousness. Exactly this proposition – a change of names – I have indeed heard from a publisher. He thought with a female pen name I would sell twice as many books. But are women really only interested in women? I hope not! Because then they would be extinct fairly soon.

Why is the concept “harmony through similarity” not working?

Because we are bipolar creatures ourselves. One part of us strives for harmony: We need warmth, contact, closeness. But in another part we want to dissociate ourselves and be entirely and only ourselves. In us there are two souls, alas: an individual soul and a collective soul. If there is too much harmony, we lose ourselves within the community. If there is too much individuality, it makes us lonely. Schopenhauer has put this in wonderful words in his parable of the porcupines: If it is cold, porcupines get close to warm each other – until they sting each other with their prickles, then they move apart again. This way they are constantly searching for the right measure between the extremes – exactly as we do.

A Extracts from an originally one-hour conversation, conducted by Peter Felixberger and Michael Gleich, "Advanced Journalism Academy - Culture Counts".

Link to the interview with the original title "Werde, der du bist!"/ “Become who you are” at "Advanced Journalism Academy"