Source: DAAD ("German Academic Exchange Service") 12/10/2018
Project Cassandra: How do you rate the potential of literary texts to create identity and legitimacy in the context of imminent crises?
Aleida Assmann: In the context of threatening crises, one does not need identity and legitimation, but enlightenment and perspective. For this, literary texts offer the clearest and most honest diagnostic tools.
Project Cassandra: We assume that "mental" nations such as Catalonia or "Biafra" stabilize themselves through a common "experiential space" that is often of literary nature. A non-existent primary experience (civil war, genocide) can thus become an emotional secondary experience for later generations in the reading process. Literary experience could therefore lead to the mobilization of a population group. Can fictitious memory constructions have a similar or even stronger impact on collective identity processes than actual memories?
Aleida Assmann: After two or three generations, the knowledge of history is increasingly conveyed. But that does not mean that it automatically becomes more and more nebulous or wrong, because a collective knowledge is established, on which further knowledge must be measured. What you have not experienced yourself can release an emotional impact through artistic representations such as literature and film, which then becomes your own biographical experience. Through art, knowledge can be transformed into experience and experience in memory.
Project Cassandra: In the latency phase of a conflict, there is usually an increased turn to the myth and a correlation of myth and literature. Literary texts in this phase often make use of the narrative structures of the myth or even make it the narrative core. Why are myths so important in the preliminary phase of a conflict, and how should literature deal with myths?
Aleida Assmann: Myths are the productive force of literature. However, under myths I do not understand propaganda-mobilizing political narratives, but the narrative core of old stories such as Ulysses or Sinbad, Cinderella or Robinson, which can and must always be retold.
Project Cassandra: You have significantly shaped the concepts of "cultural memory" and "collective memory". To what extent could literary texts, especially novels, be used as a kind of archive of collective experiences?
Aleida Assmann: Literary texts definitely need a rich fund of cultural memory. However, they are not simply stored there, but are also productive in their effect, because new authors often come to grips with older ones and work on them.
Project Cassandra: Remembering and dealing with experienced and exercised violence is important for the success of peace processes. In your opinion, what role does literature play in this process – perhaps as a kind of a social digestive system?
Aleida Assmann: My example of this is the historical drama of Shakespeare – ten dramas in which he brings the violence of the Wars of the Roses to the stage and thus shows the history of the peaceful Tudor time with all excesses to the audience – as a war-prevention! Today, that means 'never again!' or 'nunca mas!'.
Project Cassandra: Literature can not only constructively deal with reality, it can also reinterpret, distort and manipulate it and thus play a decisive role in the process of fictionalization of reality (example Serbia-Kosovo Conflict 1999). Literary texts then become not only a shared experience but also a shared space of illusion. How do you see this function?
Aleida Assmann: Political national myths make history as necessary for the maximum emotionalization and mobilization of the population. They are nothing but drugs in the process of auto-hypnosis. It has nothing to do with literature and fiction. Fiction is the cosmos of literature, which is not about the truth of the facts, but about the truth of the experience.
Project Cassandra: In your latest book, Der europäische Traum (The European Dream), you speak of European identity. However there is no lack of a European narrative, a common history – why does European politics fail to reactivate it and use it against nationalist movements? What could a narrative look like that is capable of establishing, forcing and stabilizing a European identity?
Aleida Assmann: This narrative, according to my thesis, does not exist. It took a decade to prepare for a House of European History until we realized that – and then decided on a history of European unification. The book Europa – Our History (2017), edited by Étienne François and Thomas Serrier, has more than a thousand pages, but it does not produce a common narrative. Therefore, it is much easier to base the EU on four lessons of history than on one narrative.
Project Cassandra: Could literature as a self-sufficient medium of remembrance possibly be more authentic and tell more truly than other media? In your opinion, how could this function be meaningfully used for crisis prevention?
Aleida Assmann: The American historian Peter Novick once wrote about political myths:The "collective memory simplifies; sees events from a single, committed perspective; is impatient with ambiguities of any kind; reduces events to mythic archetypes". The literature does exactly the opposite. It has a fine sensorium and is able to differentiate and endure ambiguities. Therefore, it can also show where crises are occurring, how they can accelerate, and what resources can be used against them.
Project Cassandra: In your book Menschenrechte und Menschenpflichten, you refer to the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit, who metaphorically compares the violation of human dignity with the desecration of a temple. Is today's Cassandra the first one to discover cracks in the foundation, in the pillars of the temple?
Aleida Assmann: I find it interesting that Margalit speaks of a temple in the context of person and human dignity. Therefore it is about something sacred that needs to be secured and protected. Cassandra cries out where this temple is being desecrated, and it's not just "Amnesty International", but literature that highlights these violations. What is the voice of Cassandra? I forbid! Veto!
© 2018 Studienprojekt Cassandra — Krisenfrüherkennung durch Literaturauswertung
(Study Project Cassandra – Early Crisis Detection through Literary Analysis)
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