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European Literature Days 2017 | Opening event

A spectre is haunting Europe – a spectre of “fear”. This is the headline theme for this year’s European Literature Days that were opened on Thursday evening at the Minoritenkirche in Krems.

Our Soon-to-Be Old World, or Two Degrees Until the Revolution

Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright

At first sight, the opening event for the current European Literature Days seemed pessimistic. One might think that it was too up-to-date, too close to us, to our fear and anxieties, which are now felt too keenly: wars, terror, the lurch to the far-right, human rights violations are long since everyday occurrences for us. An unprecedented period of peace, particularly in Europe, seems to have ended a long while ago. As with every case of psychotherapy, the patient must finally confront his fears, if he doesn’t want to be destroyed by them. The festival’s Artistic Director, Walter Grond, outlines in his opening talk how society is repeatedly turning to intolerance. He emphasizes the imperative of a new Enlightenment in which empathy and compassion must play a role. Finally, Regional Parliament Member, Barbara Schwarz, underlines in her welcome address that literature has always defined fears and the incentives for change.

In this sense, this year’s German Book Prize winner, Robert Menasse, and the historian, writer and philosopher, Philipp Blom – two analysts of the zeitgeist and modern-day therapists – appeared on stage together to lead a discussion. “Die Welt aus den Angeln” (“The World Unhinged”) is the title of Philipp Blom’s book in which he traces the history of the Little Ice Age (1570–1700) and shows how it connects with today’s world. He explains how climate change will contribute to the end of society as we know it.

During the Little Ice Age the world cooled down by a full two degrees – what followed were changes in agriculture, the rise of the middle class, mercantilism and ultimately the founding of a world in which we were born as children of the 20th century. Two degrees to the revolution.

And what about today? The world’s climate is warming. According to Blom, we exceeded the two degrees long ago. However, climate change remains a low priority for politicians. Entire election campaigns are fought without even mentioning the risks of climate change, Menasse explains. And he asks: is global warming leading to the end of civil society? What happens when we – already struggling to cope with people fleeing from war and conflict zones – also start to deal with climate refugees? When millions of people start to escape severe droughts?

Blom declares that we cannot know this and we are confronted with the choice – do we want merely to endure the change, or to seek to influence it.

And what should that involve exactly? Are we to decide simply to make the “Fortress Europe” only more impermeable and to sacrifice our human rights – after all, these were also an achievement and result of the Little Ice Age – in favour of a two-tier human rights system and to withdraw the moral foundation from our society? Or will we still manage to turn things around, towards a pluralist society with “pragmatic tolerance”. Will we manage to draw potential from the crisis and to carry on as a better society.

Philipp Blom still seems undecided. We are probably still too comfortable and the thought of change – naturally – makes us feel too much fear. He regards us today as a society, which wants no future, but only an extension of normality.

Sixty minutes into the debate, and by now, the last participant also ought to be clear that it is long since five to twelve, or a few degrees too warm and urgent action is required so that our soon-to-be old world, as Menasse calls it, can successfully reinvent itself.

The cause and effect of fear and anxieties can hardly be distinguished; they are often intertwined. If the debate between Menasse and Blom is an indicator for the days ahead of us in Spitz, then they promise to be excellent days filled with new ideas. At the end, perhaps all of us will travel home again with the same degree of fears and filled with hope as well as maybe even a small incentive to act.

Rasha Khayat

Rasha Khayat, b. 1978 in Dortmund, is a German-Arabic writer, translator and editor. She grew up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and studied comparative literature, German Studies and philosophy in Bonn. Since 2005 she has lived in Hamburg. Her first novel, Weil wir längst woanders sind, was published in spring 2016.

Rasha Khayat, geb. 1978 in Dortmund, ist eine deutsch-arabische Schriftstellerin, Übersetzerin und Lektorin. Sie wuchs in Djidda, Saudi-Arabien auf, studierte Vergleichende Literaturwissenschaften, Germanistik und Philosophie in Bonn. Seit 2005 lebt sie in Hamburg. Im Frühjahr 2016 erschien ihr erster Roman Weil wir längst woanders sind.

Rasha Khayat, b. 1978 in Dortmund, is a German-Arabic writer, translator and editor. She grew up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and studied comparative literature, German Studies and philosophy in Bonn. Since 2005 she has lived in Hamburg. Her first novel, Weil wir längst woanders sind, was published in spring 2016.

Rasha Khayat, geb. 1978 in Dortmund, ist eine deutsch-arabische Schriftstellerin, Übersetzerin und Lektorin. Sie wuchs in Djidda, Saudi-Arabien auf, studierte Vergleichende Literaturwissenschaften, Germanistik und Philosophie in Bonn. Seit 2005 lebt sie in Hamburg. Im Frühjahr 2016 erschien ihr erster Roman Weil wir längst woanders sind.

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