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Writing Europe

Ursula Keller

Europe Writes in Time

Dževad Karahasan
Traduction de Celia Hawkesworth

Texte intégral

Ako postoji nešto na temelju čega Evropa postoji kao
kakvo-takvo kulturno jedinstvo, to je onda vrijeme–
zajednička predodžba o vremenu koja je u nekakvu
(naravno uvijek otvorenu) cjelinu povezivala sve dijelove

1To write means to relate to time. That was observed by one of the first great Europeans, G. E. Lessing, in his essay “Laocoon,” in which he pointed out the difference between the “temporal” and “spatial” arts, defining music and literature as “temporal arts.” I do not remember how Lessing defined the difference between music and literature in relation to time, I do not remember whether he defined it at all and I do not know whether it ought to be defined because it springs from the nature of the material in which music and literature are realized, and thus it is quite obvious. Music is time which is heard, it does not need the material world and in fact it needs nothing outside itself; the ancients were right to speak about the “music of the spheres,” thereby expressing the conviction that the Universe produces music, that it is music, or at least music is its fundamental characteristic. Literature, by contrast, could not exist without the material world or outside it, it is realized in language and that is why one of the fundamental characteristics of literature, and of language, is reference to what is outside it — a work of literature, like every other linguistic statement, is a presence which brings with it the absent, a body which bears witness to the truth of incorporeal existence. Literature is not time which has been invested with audibility, like music; literature is an attempt to give time a specific form, to shape it in keeping with the question of meaning, to bequeath a form to human existence in time, and thereby also meaning, comprehensibility. Music does not ask and does not affirm, it simply is; literature is above all a question, it asks about the way in which man is present in time and about the value of particular ways of being present.

2To write means to relate to time even when one writes in order to deny time. Samuel Beckett, for instance, projects out of space into time the logical paradoxes of Zeno of Elea, endeavoring to deny time the way Zeno had denied movement: if the tortoise had at the outset at least a little advantage, Achilles could not overtake it at a run because space is, logically speaking, infinitely divisible so that the ten steps of distance between the tortoise and Achilles, which was the tortoise’s initial advantage, are divided into infinitely many units which Achilles could not overcome except in eternity. Beckett’s play demonstrates that logical paradox on the plane of time: if time is infinitely divisible, it is clear that every fraction of it is infinitely divisible, and it is then clear that every smallest unit of time contains the whole of time, that is eternity; hence this moment is equal to any other moment, that is why the differentiation of individual units of time is illusory, that is why there is no movement of time or movement in time. Is there then a symmetry between Beckett and Aurelius Augustinus? Augustine maintained that time was set in motion with God’s creation of the world, it had stood still until the moment when the Lord pronounced his first “Let there be…,” and from that moment it began to move towards the Day of Judgment, bringing each one of us his age, weariness and death. But Beckett speaks about a world in which time no longer flows, in which there simply is no time. And thus a symmetry is established between authors who endeavor obsessively to understand time and authors who obsessively deny time, a symmetry between entrance and exit. Perhaps a symmetry of the beginning and end of a process or a series?

3What fills this symmetry, that is how do these two authors relate to one another “seen from within”? As the beginning and end of a chain based in causality? Did Augustine really “produce” Beckett? Did Beckett’s denial of time necessarily originate in Augustine’s attempt to understand time?

4Mystics and rationalists know that these two authors are inextricably linked and that their symmetry is not merely external. Between the mystic and the rationalist, between two apparently opposed types of determinism, that is, there are evident different degrees of one fundamental conviction according to which two different points of the temporal chain are not mutually connected. And therefore between Augustine and Beckett there is no “objectively existing” symmetry and there is no real connection, but it is I, the reader, who discovers some kind of external symmetry, by reading into what I observe a relationship that exists only in my experience. As this conviction denies the connection with which we are concerned here, we can ignore its proponents and concern ourselves with the mystics and rationalists. Jakob Boehme, for instance, knows that Augustine, at the moment when he was writing his “Confessions,” made Beckett necessary, he knows in fact that Beckett is “the other side” of Augustine and that they make each other possible. When Augustine wrote that he seemed to know what time was if he was not asked about it and he realized that he did not know when he tried to explain it to someone, he “produced,” that is made necessary a Beckett who would illustrate Zeno’s logical paradoxes and thus confirm that there was no time and that there was nothing to be known. Jakob Böhme also knows that Beckett, when he writes his plays in which he denies time, confirms Augustine, proves that he lived and wrote, confirms and proves that he is necessary, summons him and makes him present in the place where Beckett’s play is being performed. I do not know whether Beckett attended the first performance of “Godot” in 1953, in Paris, but Augustine was certainly there.

5John Stuart Mill maintained that the current state of affairs is a consequence of the previous one, just as that previous one was a consequence of the state of affairs that preceded it. The current state of affairs is always the consequence of what preceded it, this moment a consequence and that preceding one a cause. That is why it is enough for a man who knows how to think logically, such as, for instance John Stuart Mill, to know any one moment in the infinite chain of time, in order to know, by logical induction based on the principle of causality, and understand all the preceding and subsequent moments, all the events which preceded the state of affairs he knows and all those which will follow. If I know how to think logically (causally), I understand confidently from reading Beckett that a Jan Potocki and a Laurence Sterne must have existed and written, that a Racine and a Rutebeuf must have written and thus formulated questions about time. If I know how to think logically, if I am let us say J. S. Mill or Claude Levi-Strauss, if I am a positivist or a structuralist, a Marxist or a follower of any scientist sect, through Beckett I shall come quite certainly to Augustine, because Beckett is a consequence of Augustine, just as shards of glass are the consequence of a ball breaking a window. But, unlike Jakob Böhme, I shall believe that Augustine was not present at the production of Beckett’s play because everything, including the dead and meaning, is subject to a mechanical order, and a dead person cannot appear in the present and nor can a consequence affect its cause (Beckett Augustine).

6That is how mystics and determinists think (that is mystics of scientist religion). But what do I think? How do I feel Augustine and Beckett relate to one another, this day to that distant day in which St Francis of Assisi first felt that a wolf was his brother? Those are the questions that must be answered by a man who wishes to write and make conscious his relationship to his craft and to the culture in which he is writing. At the heart of literature lies the question of man’s existence in time, to write means to give form to time and to articulate man’s relationship with that form, so that we wonder about time as we write, we wonder even when we are not aware of it. And that is how it is with culture. Culture is above all and more than anything else the shaping of time, a system of assumptions and rituals which give form to a day and a year, which define the thresholds in the life of the individual and the community, and prescribe the steps by which those thresholds are crossed. Perhaps the unbreakable connection of culture with time is nowhere so obvious as in Europe: not for one moment of its history was Europe identical with its geographical limits, not for one moment of its history did Europe have “spatial unity” which would define it as a cultural identity, never did Europe have linguistic or educational unity. If there exists anything on the basis of which Europe exists as a kind of cultural unity, then it is time — a shared assumption about time which has connected all the parts of Europe in some kind of whole (always open, of course), however unclear it always was where the borders of Europe were and what was actually going on within those borders. For all its differences, Europe was always some kind of cultural whole because it was always integrated around an image of time. That is why it is logical that, ever since I began to write, I have been endeavoring to answer those questions.

7I have discussed these questions in essays, without succeeding in discovering whether I am sincere when I deny a direct connection between two very distant points in the chain of time or when I maintain that this connection cannot be called into question because it is too obvious. Once (in my essay “Language and History,” for instance) I ironized to a disproportionate extent the determinist concept of history, wondering whether Hannibal really did cross the Alps in order for me to be just what I am. Another time I articulated my deepest conviction (which is inseparable from feeling, which is not whole without feeling!), when I upheld the precisely European concept of tradition based on the mechanical orderliness of the temporal chain (for instance in my essay “The Geography of Shadow”). It was only when I knew that the deterministic feeling was far closer to me, that I knew that I was far more inclined to believe the mystical rather than the scientist concept because I could never question the happy presence of ancient teachers in any way. Of course I cannot doubt the mystical presence of Fariduddin Attar when I write about ruins, if I were to call that into question, I would have to doubt also the presence of my theatrical and prose characters, which is really indisputable and without which I could not write either a play or a novel. Of course with every sentence I write I engage in a discussion with some author or work, regardless of whether I know it or not, regardless of whether I do it intentionally or not. With every sentence he writes, a man weaves a new thread into the dense web of senses, which is potentially always present, everywhere where people speak or write.

8But concerning myself with this question has not helped me reconcile myself to an image of time as a straight line, as an axis moving, from an immeasurable depth (or distance?) towards naught, and then from naught to the present day and further on, presumably to Judgment Day. It has not helped me to reconcile myself to this image of time (which is irresistibly reminiscent of a series of primary numbers), and still less has it helped me to free myself from it. All “types” of time about which I am capable of speaking — mythic time and sacred time, historical time and mystic time, are in fact forms defined above all by their relationship to that one form of an axis moving from “minus infinity” to “plus infinity,” a form which is the fundamental and dominant image of time in European culture (the image which is the foundation of that culture and which distinguishes that culture from all others).

9I also concerned myself with time in connection with dramatic form, as a professor of drama, and, “directly,” as a writer. I developed a whole theory of chronotopes, demonstrated that the experience of time is decisive for the inner logic of drama, in my plays I intertwined various concepts of time which existed in parallel in the places in which I lived and which I presented in my plays. I based my comedy “It’s Good Over There” on the “dramatic comparison” of forms in which the Communist, Catholic and Bosnian-Muslim worlds articulate their images of time. I dedicated my comedy “Concert of Birds” to time, as a theme and a structural principle. But that did not help me make friends with the European concept of time as an axis either, and still less did it help me free myself from that concept.

10Time moves infallibly from a beginning towards an end, one moment follows logically and necessarily from the preceding one, as its consequence or at least as its response, each moment can and must be precisely (mechanically) defined on that axis, so that it is perfectly reliably clear how far any given point in the past is removed from this point from which I am looking (the present). And meanwhile, in my (and the European, nota bene) sense of tradition, the entire past is present in every moment. This in itself contradictory, disturbing experience of time, which places me in the center of a paradox and does not allow me to get out of it, was, of course, insupportable, particularly because it is so inalienably mine and at the same time it does not correspond fully to my sense of time.

11It was only working on novels that helped me to understand the problem of my relationship to time, a relationship that is not simply rational, nor can it be. My persistent dissatisfaction with what I write, innumerable failed attempts, dozens of rejected stories and sketches for novels which remained mere experiments with narrative structure, the feeling that the text I have written is simply not mine — all that brought me to the problem of time, but not only the problem of time in a narrative work, but the problem of time in my experience. Because my problem was not so much narrative technique, my problem is the precision of the narrated world. And this cannot be achieved if the author is not present in what he has written both experientially and emotionally, without reserve, if he has not tested every word he writes on his own skin; it is only then, when an author is present in his writing, that the work is able to be free of him and the author can confirm whether the world of his work corresponds also to external reality, beyond language; and it is only when the inner reality of a work is certainly genuine, because the author has tested it on his own skin, when the external reality of the world corresponds to the external reality of the work — it is only then that the work has attained the essential degree of precision. And this refused to happen for me in my prose writing until I found a novelistic form in which the spiral image of time characteristic of Islamic culture and the axis image of time characteristic of European culture were connected (completing one another? Linked together in a relationship of tension?).

12The spiral is a form that unites the circle and the axis, a form that contains a kind of precise infinity. Perhaps the most exact expression of the spiral experience of time is the arabesque, a visual form that depicts movement which is repeated infinitely (the end of the wall on which the arabesque is painted interrupts it, but it does not end it because an arabesque cannot end; and at the same time, one could say that it is ended when the basic figure, in which all the elements of an arabesque structure are used, is repeated a certain number of times). “The arabesque is the most spiritualized of all lines” maintained Baudelaire, probably sensing that the arabesque was in fact the image of time as it was experienced by classical Islamic culture. I cannot speak (narrate) about destiny, I cannot even think of destiny, separately from the arabesque form of spiral time, all the points of which are potentially present in every place. Forms of destiny or forms of thought can make people from different centuries contemporaries, if they have connected them in experience or ideas. In the spiral experience of time, in my experience, Augustine and Beckett are contemporaries, perhaps even friends, who never cease to quarrel passionately. I adopted this experience of time in my parental home and connected it once and for all with prayer and death, with destiny and truth. That experience of time adopted me and settled in that part of my being from where narrative springs.

13But nor did spiral time in itself suit my conception of narration and my experience of time. Augustine and Beckett are certainly contemporaries, there can be no doubt of that, but it must be known that one of these contemporaries comes from the fifth and the other from the twentieth century, just as a story must make it clear that one of them had experience of barbarians and the other of machines, and that is probably why one preached belief and the other hopelessness. Namely, the whole world outside my parental home, all the experience brought me by school and the street, the bar and the stadium, brought me a different, axial sense of the world, which is insolubly linked with an external precision and measurability (“only what is measurable is real,” Max Planck explained to us). And that is why my form of narration had to link axial and spiral time, external “measurability” and the inner contemporaneity of moments, which are technically very far apart. Sometimes I think that the search for such a form is that decisive element which European culture has brought me as a writer, the most important of the abundant riches, which it has unselfishly lavished on me.


Further Reading:
Sarajevo, Exodus of a City. Translated by Slobodan Drakulić. Kodansha International, 1994.

Table des illustrations

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Born in Duvno, Yugoslavia in 1953, Karahasan received a doctorate in literary theory from the Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb. He was a script editor at Zenica Public Theatre and an editor at the literary magazines Odjek and Izraz. As a professor, he taught at the Academy of Stage Arts in Sarajevo and was chairman of the jury at Yugoslavia’s largest theatre festival. The siege of Sarajevo is the theme of his book Tagebuch der Aussiedlung and his novels Schahrijârs Ring and Sara und Serafina. He has been awarded many prizes for his works. Karahasan lives in Graz, where he is a city chronicler, and in Sarajevo, where he is a professor of the Faculty of Philosophy at the university.

Celia Hawkesworth (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2003

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