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from the March 2017 issue

Invisible Crises

In this text, read on the opening day of the Leipzig Book Fair on March 18, 2010, Bulgaria's best-known contemporary writer extols literature’s ability to bolster us in the midst of economic and moral crisis.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I plead my innocence from the very start. I have been invited here to talk as a writer about a crisis I have not caused. Not I, nor the whole of the writerly guild, nor the people at this fair, readers and publishers. In the classic case, writers and money are two institutions doomed to rather frosty relations. We greet each other, but we do not talk, to paraphrase Voltaire, when asked about his relations with another, much more powerful authority. Right away I must admit my inexperience with the important sphere that is finance. I have never gotten a loan from a bank, first, because I loathe such institutions, and second, because as you know, no bank would give a loan to a person with such a free and rather frivolous profession such as a writer. And so this is how a person remains innocent and virginal for less than the best of reasons.

Let us imagine that at this moment, some economic forum is running parallel to the Leipzig Book Fair. And that there the topic is: “Literature! What literature?” Six European financial experts have been invited to give lectures. The auditorium is packed with leading economists who are waiting to hear how literature influences the mutual funds market, nonperforming loans, how it influences the whole financial system, consumers’ needs and desires and so on. I know it is difficult to imagine, even ridiculous. Because we suspect, not without reason, that the big financial high rollers don’t read much poetry and prose. We haven’t seen bankers, financiers, private entrepreneurs, or brokers spending hours bent over a novel or a collection of poetry, getting into heated arguments over Chekhov, Joyce, or Thomas Mann. We haven’t seen it in any of the films we’ve watched. Yet I’ve always had the feeling that if financiers read books, we would have different crises.

We must admit here that we, people on the side of literature, writers, publishers, and enthusiastic readers, have to a certain extent accepted our own defeat. With a certain resignation, we have accepted our place in the corner. Politics and economics are what make the world go round. Art, and literature in particular, are those extra perks we can do without. In any case, a book has never been a more important, more desired, and more heavily advertised object than a cell phone or a play station. We have also gotten used to the fact that things important to mankind and the world are said in the evening on the news by serious people with serious professions, and in the economic and political sections of the newspaper. The last couple times I’ve seen famous newspapers featuring a famous author on the front page, it was to announce his or her death. Thanks to an ironic twist of fate, “the death of the author” is still an event, sometimes the only literary event.

 

Clearly, this utopian idea of an economic forum where they would debate literature for now remains only a figment of my imagination. (But I continue to stand by it.) Most likely such a forum would end very quickly and with the general consensus that literature is actually economically disadvantageous, not only for the writer, but also for the publisher and the reader as well, that is, all the way down the chain, for all of us who are here today. In literature there are no big investments, no hyper-demand or hyper-consumption, the banks are not so closely tied to this business. Literature has slow liquidity, it pays returns on even the smallest investments in it with difficulty. It isn’t connected to the energy market. And have you ever seen books traded on the stock market? After everything said here, their conference may as well shut down and literature may as well admit its irrelevance, especially in a time of crisis.

Unfortunately, we cannot respond to the crisis by shutting down the economy. But we can—and to some extent are obligated—to think about the crisis, to articulate it, to describe it from our ivory tower, to try to understand it, to stroke it, to tame it, to growl at it if need be . . . To make the crisis speak.

What are our grounds and prerogatives for talking about a financial crisis? Won’t they accuse us of trespassing into foreign territory?

The first thing I’ll say is that sooner or later everything, every territory, becomes the subject of literature. Second, to put it very succinctly, literature predates money. Our grounds for talking are in large part historical. The exchange of words came before the exchange of money. This is obvious, but we are often blind precisely to what is obvious. The point isn’t even that literature works with a tool like language, which is far more ancient than money. The important thing is that the very origin of money as a sign follows the deep logic of language. Long before the virtual nature of money, the virtuality of language existed. Just as a word contains the object within itself, without the latter being actually present, in the same way a banknote contains the potential objects it will be exchanged for. Imagine what would happen if we had to speak through the actual objects themselves? If I wanted to say “elephant,” I’d have to drag one here. So what if I want to say “fire” or “crisis”?

In short, the imaginary, which is at the foundation of economics and communication today, historically arises from the usages of language and literature. From the conventions which man grew accustomed to in long-distant eras. Literature and economics just might turn out to be more closely connected than we suspected. One of the questions that seems to be hovering in the space of today’s financial crisis is whether the virtual has not already reached its critical mass. It is possible that the signifiers have overtaken the signifieds, that we are exchanging signs with no “backing”? Let’s leave that to semiotics. Today’s financial crisis is to a large extent a crisis of virtuality. Virtuality, which has reached its furthest possible boundary, unsecured by sufficient reality. Just like loans unsecured by sufficient guarantees.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I come from a country that knows all too well the taste of crises. It has experienced them; what’s more, it has hardly been out of crisis in recent decades. These crises erupted after the fall of Communism in 1989, but they were conceived and cultivated precisely in the decades of the previous system. I was twenty-one in 1989 and I clearly remember both states of crisis—that from the time of socialism, poorly hidden under the tattered cloak of ideology, and that of the Transition after the fall of the Wall, when no one bothered trying to hide anything anymore. My short personal list of crises began in the 1980s. Let me clarify that they are tied to Bulgarian-style socialism and to my adolescence—that is, we already have two fundamental crises. And so, the list contains:

An energy crisis. We called it “electricity rationing.” You have power for three hours, then for three hours you don’t. Back then, some joked that seen from outer space, Bulgaria would look like a nightclub. We all stocked up on candles, we would sit in our cold rooms, and the candles would throw medieval shadows around our twentieth-century panel-block apartments.

A crisis of basic supplies. At different periods of time, the most critical supplies vanished. The big hit in the ’80s was the lack of cooking oil, maxi-pads, toilet paper, red pepper, to say nothing of oranges and bananas, which only appeared around New Year’s. If they let oranges onto the market, that meant New Year’s had come. We developed a conditioned reflex like Pavlov’s dog. Oranges—New Year’s. I could describe many more local micro-crises from the 1980s, including the entire information blackout (let’s call it a crisis of information) after the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The secret about the true scope of the damages, which was kept for several days by the government and the media, was literally deadly. The meltdown happened at the end of April, and on May 1 we were all marching around our town squares in the Chernobyl-tainted spring rain. I’m recalling these things so we have a basis for comparison between those crises and the one we find ourselves in now.

To put it most generally, those were crises of deficit, while this one, they say, is a crisis of hyperconsumerism. In fact, at least for Bulgaria, the crises of the 1980s transferred over into the following, supposedly already democratic decade as well. Communism is in some sense radioactive, it has a long half-life. Thus, in the early 1990s, while we stood exulted on the town squares, once again like déjà vu we experienced electricity rationing, as well as several alternating crises—lack of basic goods, runaway inflation, bank failures, and the melting away of all our savings in 1996. Between breakfast and lunch on a single day the dollar’s exchange rate would jump several times over. You could see completely empty stores, with empty cooler cases, with empty shelves, and a few saleswomen shuffling around awkwardly inside. Now that would make a good museum of socialism, the Museum of Absolute Emptiness.

This is, in brief, my Bulgarian experience with previous crises. The question is, if you’ve lived in a permanent crisis, like that of the past thirty years, how will you sense yet another crisis, the one we’re talking about now? To be able to sense a crisis, which is a healthy thing to be able to do, you must have lived in some other, crisis-free time as well. There is a whole generation, perhaps not only one, which has never lived outside this crisis situation. That generation has no other memory, no other senses, and no other experience. How does it take yet another crisis? How will it react in a situation where there is no crisis? Does it know how to live in normal times?

It seems to me that even worse than being able to sense a crisis is lacking that sense, the absence of senses for crisis. It’s like not having receptors for heat. In that case every stove or burner could kill you. What literature can help with is in developing our sensitivity toward crises. Otherwise they become permanent, and our insensitivity toward them, chronic. 

According to data from Eurostat, around seventeen percent, or every sixth person in the EU, lives on or below the poverty line. There is an invisible European country with eighty million citizens. It isn’t on the map, but it is larger than France, Italy, Spain and Poland. A poverty-stricken country as large as Germany. Do we know enough about it?

 

Here is the place to admit that the crisis we are describing is not the only one, nor is it the largest in the history of the world. Yes, that truly is in some sense disappointing, I understand this very well. Economists have described nearly twenty similar large financial crises in the last 150 years alone. The first they point to was in 1857, which started in America with the mass bankruptcy of railroad companies. It quickly swam across the ocean, which made us realize that the economy had already crossed borders and become global. Another renowned crisis, that of 1873, lasted a whole six years and got the name the Long Depression. Then came the longest, the Great Depression, which has an exact starting date—October 24, 1929, Black Thursday. Then the first Oil Crisis of 1973, then the crash of the New York Stock Exchange in 1987, several subsequent crises coming ever more frequently in the 1980s and ’90s, the Mexican Crisis, the Asian Crisis, and so on. 

Do we have a name for today’s crisis? Alas, no matter how much it grows, it will never be called a “Great Depression.” It lacks a certain grandeur. Which to some extent increases our own depression. Our crises and depression have not diminished, but the way we experience them seems to have shrunk. We have too many promises of salvation, too many virtual escape hatches. In a faceted world, smashed into splinters, there is no way for us to experience the melancholy and the tragic around us in the total, complete, and sublime way they deserve. Which does not make things easier for us, on the contrary. Because that which the ancient Greeks called catharsis becomes ever harder to reach as well. In the context of today’s crisis, you could say that. The impossibility of experiencing a tragedy, a crisis, a depression to its very depths makes you its constant hostage. The crisis becomes chronic. My secret, radical theory is that for several decades now we have been experiencing one and the same chronic crisis, with isolated periods of remission. Let us not forget that “crisis” is a medical concept, first used by Hippocrates and Galen, that is, long before it became economic. 

But the question was: do we have a name for the current crisis? Yes, it turns out that more and more authors are using the name “Great Recession.” Well, so that means we finally scraped our way to some grandeur, to that cherished “Great.” (Incidentally, according to an article by Catherine Rampell in the New York Times from March 11, 2009, at least four economic crises have been adorned with this label since 1970.) But “recession” is a concept quite devoid of tragicism, it has lost its “heroic dimension.” According to the economic definition, a recession occurs when the Gross Domestic Product is negative for two quarters in a row. That is somehow too unambiguous and quantifiable. Outside of economics, the word “recession” is tied to the erosion of sandy coastlines, with the receding of gums from the teeth, and so on. Against this backdrop, “depression” shines with its whole palate of meanings. Here there really is myth, there is legend. Literature and psychoanalysis have done their job. Here there is true depth in every sense of the word. In geology, a depression is a hollow, a trough, the ocean floor. By the way, the largest depression in the world is the Mariana Trench. So there’s another Great Depression for you. We could compare it to that from 1929, as well as with our own melancholies and depressions. A depression as deep as the Mariana Trench. Sounds like a poem.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Please allow me, now that we have given what’s due to the historical, etymological, geographical, and even geological dimensions of the crisis (and depression), to peek into its personal, private depths. Here, unlike economics, I am a true specialist, just like all of us, I would think, who are on the book’s side.

Actually, one of the upsides of this crisis is that it gives us grounds to talk about things that expand beyond it. We call it a financial crisis, because that is the most easily visible tip of the iceberg. Everyone is sensitive when it’s a question of money. But the use of the singular here is deceptive. There are far more crises than just one, and they are visible ones at that. The short catalog includes the ecological crisis, and I especially insist on noting the mysterious disappearance of bees in recent years; also the crisis of the depletion of energy resources and so on and so on. Things that have been talked about so much that we have stopped noticing them. Besides these, however, I am also talking about another personal and global crisis that is more difficult to see and which does not end with the collapse of banks. What is that crisis? Here is one possible answer.

I will call it the crisis of easy explanations of the world. Or the crisis of the shortened horizon. Of a lack of transcendence.

It is well-known that the financial crisis started with so-called easy credit, which was given out quickly and easily, without sufficient collateral and guarantees. We know that the word “credit” comes from the Latin verb credo (to believe, to trust). Thus, the etymology hints to us that before the credit crisis there was a crisis in credo. Today we have credit freeze, you can translate that as a freezing of trust, of belief.

By analogy, we find ourselves facing a system of quick, easy, and superficial explanations and values. The market and the media in large part stimulate these processes. The market wants you to buy instantly, to not think too long. The authentic person is the consuming person, the shopping person, the person greedy for the world. (Greed is good, as Gekko’s famous motto put it.) Don’t hesitate, the market says, greed is your second nature. Make a wish, grab some money, and get it all now. Live today. On the other hand there is culture, with all of its hesitations. And with its absolutely market-unfriendly idea of how we will live tomorrow. Two different worlds, at odds with each other. It’s clear which side has the upper hand. I would argue that the point of literature is to stand up for the losing side. The values of being a winner and being invulnerable are natural to the system of capitalism. But for people on our losing side, it’s worth standing behind vulnerability as a value, behind hesitation and uncertainty. I believe in the person who hesitates.

What is the connection with the media? In one place Milan Kundera calls them “the reductionists of meaning.” Wittingly or unwittingly they transmit, and often also take part in, the creation of easy explanations of the world. Of course, the media is also suffering from the crisis. The shrinking of the media market, falling circulations, the loss of advertisers is a fact. But the strategy for their salvation, at least in Bulgaria, includes an even stronger reduction of meaning. The first things that disappear from a newspaper are the analyses, investigative journalism, political journalism, and pages about books and literature. I find this quite shortsighted in the long run. Precisely in a time of crisis, shouldn’t we have a greater spectrum of possible scenarios for what has happened, beyond the immediately visible facts?

To those easy explanations of the world (easy credit), I would also add the expert economic explanation. This crisis is a complete defeat for overweening Homo Economicus, as some analysts have written. A defeat of the idea that the world can be explained solely through economic relations, cash flows, markets, interest, and loans. Even economic depressions cannot be explained solely using economic parameters. 

We are not made of economics and politics alone. We are also made of melancholy and hesitation, those delicate and inexplicable things.

Every crisis has a visible and an invisible side. One we can measure, the other we cannot. How can we measure melancholy? The point is for us to be sensitive to both sides. And not to try to cure one with medicine made for the other. Because there is no way to cure melancholy with an antibiotic. Nor your personal depression with a financial injection.

 

This is just my personal intuition, but I would say we are on the cusp of a new crisis analogous with the crisis of depleted oil reserves and other energy sources. I will call it The Depletion of the Reserves of Meaning. Yes, to a large extent this will be a global, international crisis. Perhaps in different countries it will have more specific and more serious consequences. Especially places whose own reserves of meaning have never been particularly deep. And which have been used up more quickly. A crisis of the shortened horizon, a crisis of motivation, of an uncertain tomorrow, staggering between depression and aggression, a blowing up of society’s already fragile truces.

This is why I foresee a wonderful future for literature, as a means for producing meaning. Something like a source of alternative energy. What does literature do, put most simply? It tells stories and with that, puts off the end (Scheherazade). It expands the world and our own limited time and body. Our lives would be insultingly short without it. What else? It gives us tools for interpretation. It teaches us how to think about ourselves and the world, how to retell the world, how to read it. Literature is a slow medium, unlike the classic and new media, but the meaning it offers has an important quality: longevity. What is slow lasts a long time. I like that story about the Bedouins who, during their long treks, would stop frequently to give their souls a chance to catch up with them. The soul marches at a different speed. I would argue that literature knows more about that speed.

And one more thing in favor of literature. In the end, everything becomes its subject. The crisis, too. As Mallarmé put it, in what became Borges’s favorite quotation: “The world exists to end up in a book.”

 

Ladies and gentlemen,

This whole time I have been trying to talk about the meaning, importance, and resistance of literature with an eye to one crisis, behind which we can catch a glimpse of other invisible crises.

To be honest, let me say at the very end something that may seem to refute my own arguments. Let us recall that the Great Depression of 1929 came at the end of one of the greatest literary decades, which saw the appearance of books by Joyce, Proust, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot . . . It sounds a bit discouraging. But still the hope remains that precisely this great literature brought meaning and consolation for the personal sorrows and depressions of those who lived through 1929. Which is no small thing.

In the very end, I would put my trust and personal credit in the abovementioned T.S. Eliot, who said: “For us, there is only trying. The rest is not our business.”

Incidentally, he himself, as we well know, worked for seven years in a famous London bank.

 

© Georgi Gospodinov. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Angela Rodel. All rights reserved.

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