Date of Publishing:
May 4, 2021

© Anderwald + Grond

Interview with Klaus Zeyringer: Fictions on the Other Side of our Known Reality

Ruth Anderwald, Leonhard Grond, Klaus Zeyringer

Klaus Zeyringer lives in Pöllau (Styria) and Munich, he works as a publisher, a literature and cultural researcher, was a professor for German philology, and hosts in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. In late 2020, he published Schwarzbuch Sport [Black Book of Sports] in the Springer Verlag; in early 2022, his current book Im Untergeschoß des Weltgeschehens. Vermischte Meldungen, Faits Divers – eine kleine Geschichte des Pressewesens [In the Basement of Global Affairs. Short News Items, Faits Divers – a Short History of the Press] will be published by S Fischer.

We talked to him about our current project, Navigating Dizziness Together, and the background of Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side[1].

Ruth Anderwald + Leonhard Grond (RALG) — Thank you very much for taking the time. As you know, we are working on a project that revolves around navigating the unknown and in what ways we can venture into the unknown collaboratively. This artistic research is constructed as an “artist novel;” by building a narrative as in a literary novel and will extract certain parts in the form of performances, for example. However, due to the pandemic much of this has been transferred onto “the other side” - in the form of online formats, such as this conversation.

Klaus Zeyringer (KZey) — That we are currently faced with this “other side” situation fits very well with your ideas and parameters. You can reconstruct what we interpret as real into a different reality. If you were to dress me up in, say a Styrian traditional costume, you create a different reality, in which we can no longer know whether or not it corresponds to a lived reality. This can either be regarded as reality or a costume, and that most likely depends on a few signals. Someone who does not know you or me and just sees me in Styrian costume would not think twice about this, in contrast to someone who does know you both or all three of us. That person would wonder about this very much, in that sense, what we take as real is very dependent on context.

RALG — Concerning the context of the novel The Other Side: There is a theoretical background that has been very present to us for a while now, the theories of Kazimierz Dąbrowski (1902 – 1980). However, we see theory as a possible reading or interpretation of reality, as a scientific narrative, so to say.
The Other Side, Alfred Kubin
In our project Navigating Dizziness Together we are considering the potential of dizziness, of how a situation of insecurity and uncertainty can be used creatively and constructively. From a psychological perspective we take a positivist outlook in regard to Kubin’s book, which is something that he certainly did not take himself. In contrast to prevalent interpretations, we do not view the book from a psychoanalytical stance, but rather choose to understand the book based on the theory of “positive disintegration” by Kazimierz Dąbrowski. Together with Abraham Maslow, a contemporary with whom he was in contact, Dąbrowski is recognized as one of the founders of positive psychology, that is focussed less on the weaknesses, but rather on the psychological strengths of humans. In short, Dąbrowski ’s theory of positive disintegration posits that tensions and fears all the way to neurotic or even psychotic behaviours are necessary for the growth of personality. Today, especially relevant for the differential psychological research on gifted children, the ability of translating disintegrative processes into positively considered growth of personality is associated with overexcitabilities in reaction to certain stimuli that (creatively) gifted people possess. According to Dąbrowski, in order for such a crisis to actually lead to a positive development, it must trigger an existential crisis (a so-called multi-level crisis) that, as the name suggests, impacts multiple layers of the personality and life. However, these crises can also become destructive should internal and external factors, such as the developmental potential of a person and the resources of the given surroundings (e.g., social or financial factors) not be sufficiently present in a supporting role. People who never go through such a positive disintegration can remain in a stage of “primary integration” all their life according to Dąbrowski, in which they lack true individuality and autonomy. As an example for the professions that attract such people Dąbrowski names imposters or politicians.
Alfred Kubin wrote his book very quickly in such a personal situation of crisis, caused by the death of his father and a creative block. He describes this in his book Dämonen und Nachtgesichte [Demons and Night Visions]: 
“The Other Side can be found at a turning point of a spiritual evolution, and shows this both covertly and openly in many ways. While I was writing I had the realisation that the highest values in life cannot be found only in the bizarre, the sublime, and the strange, but we can find these secrets also in what we are embarrassed about, what we are indifferent about, and in our trivial day to day side notes.” [translation by Christopher Hütmannsberger][2]
Dämonen und Nachtgeschichten, Alfred Kubin
Yet, we do not consider Kubin’s situation only in the light of Dąbrowski’s theory. In the context of our project, we are interested in how he translated his personal crisis into an imagined society riddled with crisis, an uncertain geography and a dizzying retro-utopian state that leads all the way up to the death of the state founder. You could therefore read the text in such a way that Kubin combines the elements of his personal crisis as an artist and as a son with the uncertainty of a social and political time of change. The only things that are allowed to be brought into the “dream land” are things that had been made before the 1860s, when the Habsburg monarchy was still undivided and represented a unitary state. 
These reflections are both our starting point and our connection to our previous project Dizziness – A Resource. We wanted to talk to you about what the book and the crisis it describes can mean today. How can we read The Other Side in relation to our time? It is ultimately a very relevant topic that we are interested in in this context: The breakdown of democracies and the dissolution of systems of rule and hegemony. How do you see this?

KZey — First off, I have to disappoint you. As you know, I am currently writing on the history of short news items and I can tell you: The times have always been shaped by all sorts of possible catastrophes and the withdrawal and escapist movements that came with them. It rained frogs and blood, there were plagues such as the Black Death. As in Il Decamerone, people retreated to storytelling.[3] Throughout time we have consistently believed that certain things are unprecedented. So, it leaves us highly irritated when we find our lives disturbed, and yet the situation itself is not new; what is new are the possibilities we have available. Another example is the volcanic eruption in Iceland when we were suddenly no longer able to fly, and were very irritated that that sort of thing could still happen in 2010.

Il Decamarone, John Byam Shaw, 1898

Concerning The Other Side, I would first like to comment from the perspective of literature studies. My definition of scientific research in this context – insofar as it is possible to speak of certainties within the study of literature – goes hand in hand with certain, prevailing agreements that are subject to historical change. A simple example: Up until 1771, Shakespeare was viewed as a bad author and dramatist in Germany. But in the course of literary historical developments, he was eventually viewed as a Prometheus figure. This shows how very changeable our evaluations of certain things can be, which in turn is something that we like to forget in times such as these, as we are of the opinion that there exists something like an “eternal quality”.

However, in terms of possibilities of reading and interpreting: In general, we can say that there are as many different possibilities of interpretation as there are readers. This phenomenon in turn must be viewed in the light of reading socialisation or literature sociology.

To my mind, the first thing we must do is look at the literary context of the novel. In this case, we are looking at literature and the work itself is classified as novel, thus it is fiction. However, it is important to note that while this may be self-evident in the case of this novel, it cannot be taken for granted in every case of a literary text. The literary historical context of The Other Side shows that the novel is part of a long tradition. In terms of the context of the city, this can even be traced back to the earliest narratives of humanity.

Mensch, Kurt Kotrschal

At his point I would like to mention a book that could prove useful to you: Mensch – Woher wir kommen, wer wir sind, wohin wir gehen [Human – Where we Come From, Who we are, Where we are Going] by Kurt Kotrschal. The author is an evolutionary and behavioural scientist who was awarded the Austrian science prize. In the book he describes how evolution and the behaviour of humans presuppose certain things. For a long time, he was the chairman of the Konrad-Lorenz-Institut[4], however he was very critical of the works of Konrad Lorenz. From the standpoint of an evolutionary biologist, he explains how human societies developed. What is highly important in this case, is that the act of telling stories plays a vital part in this development, and moreover, the question of what stands above, next to, and behind our world; what there is in addition to that what we see. This immediately raises the question of an other side, a potential parallel world, that can be found in practically all the ancient myths. We are talking about long narratives, such as Homer’s Troy, that can be found again and again throughout literary history. This becomes concrete in the utopias that have regularly appeared ever since antiquity and are often linked to topographical concepts and formations. In regard to the city, I am also thinking about the heavenly Jerusalem within Christian concepts, which exists on the other side. In connection with this we can find concrete images, as we know from art history. These are very early conceptions of the other side, of another world, connected to topographical narratives. This topographical order is necessary to tell stories, and rose to a crescendo in the Enlightenment, where the attempts to find or imagine another world became particularly intense. Eldorado in Voltaire’s Candide is such an imagination of the other side, the other side of what we know as reality.

Finally, what is essential in regard to Alfred Kubin is the context of romanticism, in that he continues in the vein of Dark Romanticism. If you were to be exact, you would actually have to analyse the entire literature industry of the time.

RA — Here I would like to make a quick comment: The continuation of romanticism is particularly interesting in this case, considering that throughout the entire novel the utopia created is a retrograde one. It is a utopia directed towards the past. How do you see this?

Kzey — I do not necessarily agree that this places Kubin’s novel in the past. The novel can also be read as a form of apocalypse, which means the work cannot be seen as entirely retrograde, as that would mean the storyteller would no longer exist. As is the case in most of these imaginations, it is simultaneously bound to what we know of the past and to what we know or at least think we know. This connects to how we are socialized in terms of experience of time. In this form of storytelling it is never entirely sure how it is directed in terms of time. The basis of a utopia is that it can be lifted from time, as it is not fundamentally rooted in our lived reality, neither in the present nor in the past. It is truly the other side, as the word ‘utopia’, in the literal sense we give it today, absolutely includes the future. Therefore, when we talk about a utopia that exists in the past, we must explicitly and literally define it as a ‘retrograde utopia.’ Either that, or we are of the opinion that there was a parallel universe in the past. However, most of the time, even such a retrograde utopia is connected to a certain form of a future perspective and connected to a known lived reality.

In Romanticism the line between the worlds is often blurry. Passing from one side to the other, often consists of a classic trick of storytelling, as can be seen with E.T.A. Hoffman: You have a fairly realistic description of a street in Berlin. Then a figure goes into a house of the time, where there is a certain room that is often a cellar, or an attic in which they find a strange door that leads to the other side. This form of connection can also be found in Kubin’s work.

Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino
RALG — In Hoffmann this other side is much closer to our reality in a spacial sense. It may be detached, yet the connection to the life of the protagonist is much more immediate. In Kubin’s writing we have a journey, a geographical distance that leads to a ‘new land’, however, with Hoffmann, we have only the door that we need to find as a pathway to get to this other side. Trapped in its time, Kubin’s book is often interpreted according to Freudian psychoanalysis, for instance as it was done in Michael Obst’s opera Die andere Seite [The Other Side] in 2010. This is also very much encouraged by the name of one of the main characters, the “dream land”. Which begs the question: How to deal with a geographical entity (or a city such as Perle) as a main character of a novel in an artistic literary sense? What does it mean to make a geographical entity, an architecture an actor in a story? There are many examples for this: Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Robert Menasse’s The Capital, Franz Kafka’s The Castle. However, we are also interested in this in the context of Theodor Herzl’s Old New Land, where he too envisions a “dream state” in an “empty land”, and in which he imagines a German language and cultural hegemony. Therefore, this is definitely a part which we intend to change in our adaptation, yet not without a more precise understanding of Kubin’s initial desire to “conquer” or colonise a geography idealistically or capitalistically.

KZey — It is certainly a common strategy to place the other side far away in an exotic manner, by having a character fall onto the other side of the world and then suddenly show up somewhere else entirely. With the motif of the mirror we also have an act of diving into the other side. In this case, the act of leaving becomes particularly interesting, but we might come to that later.

If I remember The Other Side correctly, then there is also something binding it to what we recognize. Most utopias work with building blocks of our known lived reality. These are then often converted, re-structured, or receive new functions, etc.

In terms of its literary environments, utopias in the history of art and literature can be found particularly in times of change. During the time of the Thirty Year’s War there was the motif of the shepherd in the German speaking world. In a form of imaginary escapism, people placed themselves into a rural setting in order to be able to express their ideas away from the raging war. Also, during Alfred Kubin’s time – around the turn of the century – this feeling was very present. It was strongly embedded in people’s minds that they were living through a time of great change. This feeling of the Fin de Siècle can also be found in the works of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Leopold von Andrian, and particularly among authors from the realm of the Habsburg empire. A further influence which shaped Kubin’s work from 1908 was his close contact to Herzmanovsky-Orlando, observable in the correspondence between the two artists starting in 1903. What must have also been very formative for Kubin was Herzmanovsky-Orlando’s novel Scoglio Pomo oder Rout am fliegenden Holländer [Scoglio Pomo or Rout on the Flying Dutchman][5]. In this case, the topographical other side takes the form of the Adriatic island Pomo, of which no one knows what happened to it after it disappeared, but which was then re-discovered by the character Zois and used as a party location. Herzmanovsky-Orlando, who is to me a much funnier, quirkier, and stranger writer than Kubin, also created the figure of professor Giekhase and makes his character study hard every day in order not to forget an imaginary language in which it is possible to finally say all the things that do not exist.

So much for the literary historical context. Ultimately, I do think that Kubin’s crisis was very much a factor for him that drove him to writing. However, that is surely only one of many aspects that contributed to the book.

RA — As artists, we also see this as an opportunity to change over into a different medium if you get stuck. It brings about a certain form of translation, that helps your own understanding, as if professor Giekhase had forgotten his own language and was therefore forced to use a different one, in order to remember his own.

KZey — That is actually very likely, albeit not particularly unusual. From the 1850s onwards, the link between visual art and literature was particularly strong in French modernism, as can be seen in the works of Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, and Arthur Rimbaud. Kubin was certainly aware of this, and it was not unusual during his time that someone with a fine arts background sat down to write a novel.

LG — Let us go back to the crisis situation: Why do you think that human beings have such a strong urge to document crisis? You are currently dealing with the subject in you upcoming book.
Mein Fall, Josef Haslinger

KZey — It has a lot to do with what literature is capable of. The author Josef Haslinger, who deals with having experienced abuse in the monastery boarding school in Zwettl in his autobiographical book Mein Fall [My Case], answered the question of what literature and the act of writing were able to give him thusly: “I was able to give it a voice, and so it became reality and manageable.” By putting something into words it becomes possible to deal with it, by creating a form of verbalised reality that you are able to grasp it is no longer in limbo or uncertain. The essential point here is that this process makes it possible to pinpoint something linguistically. In that sense it could also have represented a possibility for Kubin to come to terms with his situation. However, I would rather not go deeper into a psychoanalytical reading, as I view this to be highly problematic, considering it is so hard to prove.What I do have to think of in this respect is the idea that you write down your fears or tensions in order to deal with them, as if you were to exorcise them. This exorcism is an ancient, cultural historical phenomenon: You make something visible, speakable, and thus believe that you have exorcised it.

A third aspect is surely the desire we experience for fear and sensation. If the harvest goes well, it is not sensational, when it rains frogs it is. Today we call this phenomenon gossip, and can be found in the short news items. We tend to gossip over things that are negative, because there is no need to talk about what is positive. I would say that Kurt Kotrschal also deals with this in a behavioural historical way in his book Mensch: Woher wir kommen, wer wir sind, wohin wir gehen [Human – Where we Come From, Who we are, Where we are Going].

RA — This desire for fear or loss of control can be found in dizziness. It does not matter if this lustful loss of control happens in the amusement park, in creating or observing art, or by intoxication through various substances. Even the act of reading a book is a form of loss of control, as by doing so you are forced to give in to the narrator. However, we would like to look at another aspect in Kubin’s work. The act of capturing images, be this through the medium of film, photography, or through the camera on your mobile phone connects well to our understanding of artistic practice as a permanent moulding of reality. In Fragment eines Weltbildes [Fragments of a World View] 1939, Kubin put it this way: Human beings are “particularly adept in transferring their inconceivable, wavering reality into something unreal that we call the world, along with all those uncountable, meaningful relations to it. […] Making sense is all doing, in all images, in all poems, in all music this doing shows itself repeatedly in its ability to externalise a dark feeling clearly and coherently. It is the artist, in the widest possible sense, including the religious, the heroes, even the statesmen who create the most perfect, most swelled unreality. […] The chaotic chasm is our own, in its unwavering transformations and devours the world without pause in the hallucinated apparent size of self. […] What gain is our only passable escape into the unreal! Through it, we can shortly avoid the persistent torment of wrangling, and our hearts and minds are able to find what they are yearning for.” [transl. C. H.][6]
What does this mean for the novel as a creator of separate and separating reality? What are its functions and possibilities? Is a novel even an opportunity to separate reality?

KZey — In this context we must consider two seemingly paradoxical approaches that go hand in hand. On the one hand, we have a consensus ever since the nineteenth century that literature, and particularly the novel, is a work of fiction. On the other, this fiction operates within and with reality and these realities must come from different areas. This means that it can be both a known lived reality, but also a generally accepted reality of thought and imagination. A good example in this case is the concept of heaven, but also purgatory in the Catholic Christian tradition of the nineteenth century. This may not represent a reality that can be directly experienced as such, yet it belongs to a reality of thought prescribed by the social consensus that it does in fact exist. With the advent of a scientific conception of the world this is waning. This is something that Kurt Kotrschal comes back to again and again.

RA — I would like to once again emphasize that we are currently basing our ideas on the assumption that fiction always produces reality in some form or another, no matter whether or not this represents a reality of thought or an invention within a science fiction novel that later goes on to influence scientific research.
Amphitryon, Heinrich von Kleist

KZey: It may be important in this case to introduce the word realness into this context, and to always keep in mind that there are at least two, if not more forms of reality. On the one hand, there is the reality that we perceive as the actual. Heinrich von Kleist plays an important role in this case in the wake of the Enlightenment. During his lifetime he succumbed to the experience that it is never possible to know anything for sure, not even feelings that you hold as being absolutely true. He highlights this insight in his play Amphitryon with the role of Alkemene. This is such an ancient story: In reference to the perceivable, actual reality Kleist puts forward the idea that if the eyes of all humans were covered by a green filter we would all be certain of the fact that the world and everything in it were green. Based on scientific findings we know that we do not perceive reality, even if we construct a reality for which we hold true that it is perceivable and actual. And then there is this reality that we carry within us as reality and yet conceive as imaginary. For example, when I say, “oh please, this is a film”, about a series, then I am referencing the fact that it is not in fact reality. In regard to historical novels or films there are many discussions with historians about what can be done to a historical basis and how much freedom of expression you are allowed. I have discussed this question very intensely with, e.g., Daniel Kehlmann during his work on Measuring the World. What is he allowed do with historical figures such as Carl Friedrich Gauß and Alexander Humboldt? My approach during those long conversations was always: Fiction has the permission to do anything. Because what we assume to be real in regard to Carl Friedrich Gauß is also only a form of passed on perception. It mostly likely has very little to do with the actual reality, yet we regard it as historical reality. So, when you then look at a novel or a film, we perceive this version then as a different form of realit

LG — You say: Fiction has the permission to do anything. This raises many questions, which of course also includes ethical ones that we want to take a close look at toward the end.
Before we go there, I would like to ask a different question in regard to artistic research. Is a good novel research-based art? Is artistic research an invention of literature? What connects the act of writing a novel with research, particularly in the context of the assumption that fiction can do anything. How do you see this?

KZey — In regard to research we have to differentiate. What exactly is research? In the case of a ‘hard’, conservative definition of science, literary considerations are not science, within a ‘soft’ definition of science they are. Let us assume that we are talking about ‘soft’ research in this context. Furthermore, we can see that research does not always only deal with real, empirically discernable elements, but also with assumptions, which then means that they are no longer strictly empirical. In order to develop assumptions and theories, we must be able to tell a story in some form or another. In that sense the novel is an extensive method of telling a story. We know that there must be narrative elements in order to construct a story. If you continue on this line of thinking, telling a story must become a form of exploratory ‘re-search’. Even without the basis of empirical experimentation, we can speak of thought experiments that can be integrated into a grand narrative. For example, this experimentation can explore the way characters function. Throughout literary history we can see how literature is often used in terms of how different characters can function.

Especially in the nineteenth century, after the Enlightenment and in the context of Romanticism, social novels were regarded as being realistic. Honoré de Balzac says we should tell stories in such a way that we recognize how we function so that our descendants will be able to better understand us. He also claims that it is the purpose of a novel to create understanding and insight. This is, in its essence, the purpose of research, to create understanding and insight.

LG — Telling a story is the method.

KZey — Exactly. The novel has both advantages and disadvantages in comparison to the ‘hard’ sciences, as it is fictional and thus has every freedom. ‘Hard’ science must work in an empirical manner, thus even the presumptions must be founded on an empirical basis and verifiable.

RA — Even in the ‘hard’ sciences, based on numbers and statistics there is a moment of combining facts, that is also a form of creative invention, in the sense that you create connections where none were before.As an example I can think of the experiment we carried out in collaboration with a team of creativity researchers in the area of differential psychology.[7] The statistical analysis that we were able to come up with, then in turn had to be translated into an academic article.
However, as this was an interdisciplinary experiment that did not have a precedent, we had to explore and were always confronted with the question: What do I connect, how do I connect it, and why? Even a scientific article and logic is a form of storytelling.

KZey — My brother, who works in the field of motivational psychology and has written books on motivation, quotes scientific experiments every now and again. These experiments should show something, or go to prove something, and should act as a basis for specific certainties. However, in their essence these experiments are all stories and are based on assumptions. You therefore create a setting based on a certain story and on the basis of that you attempt to ascertain something. The difference to literature is that you have a setting that the authors claim to observe in an objective manner. Yet, I do also know that this is the case for many authors, in that they first create their characters and then wait and see how they react. Ferdinand Schmatz and Franz Josef Czernin then go on to explain: “It writes”, rather than “I write”. Of course, this action only takes place in their imagination, as the characters obviously do not act on their own volition. To my mind this is an excuse for not realising exactly what happens during the creative process. There are also vastly different ideas about how to express this. The difference to experiments of ‘hard’ science research is that the person who is writing the novel wields absolute power, and can therefore do anything with it. Research experiments in the field of psychology or in other scientific disciplines on the other hand do not have this freedom but are focussed on the outcome. Here, the author only gets the ball rolling. In the case of the novel, everything is created by the author. I have worked with about twenty different authors all in all and have spoken with them during various phases of their writing processes, to the point where I was actually present at the very conception of a novel. I was able to witness from the outside how this process plays out. There are as many different ways of working as there are people, but in general it mostly works in a way that whoever is writing the novel has some sort of material, a form of ‘warehousing’. Some authors keep a very deliberate, bright warehouse. They need to research enormous amounts on the topic of their book, much like when researching Measuring the World, Daniel Kehlmann knew practically everything about the living conditions towards the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century. This resulted in researching the details of carriage journeys and the realisation that the private carriages of rich people were always slower, because rich people travelled in their own carriages with their own horses, whereas stagecoaches changed their horses at regular intervals. Others simply create a warehouse with three figures and then see what happens. In that sense, Alfred Kubin will have also created a warehouse with specific conditions: He will have imagined characters and a topography, but he will also have had things in his warehouse that he did not know of that still went on to influence the text. This is where we arrive at the question of metaphor and allegory.

Measuring the World, Daniel Kehlmann

Firstly, we have to imagine this warehouse not as being divided only into different rooms, but also different levels. To put it simply, within the warehouse we can find both warehouse stock concerning scripts on the one hand, but also structural and technical elements on the other. Both of which are being worked with at the same time. The script stock delineates the other side, and how to get to it, for example, what the city looks like. The technical and structural stock concerns the nature, the chronology, and the perspective of the story, as well as stylistic elements such as the grotesque and the metaphor.

The first essential step taken when telling a story is to answer the question concerning the perspective of the story. In your first question you mentioned that Patera[8] only imports things into the “dream land” that were made before the 1860s, a time during which the Habsburg monarchy was still undivided and unitary state. This is true only in part, as the official stance referred to a unitary state, in the form of Austria, or Austria-Hungary after 1867, yet this unitary state was already crumbling. As the representatives of every possible nationality imaginable were all in Vienna, Kubin most certainly knew of the various nationalist movements before the 1860s. Ultimately, it was those representatives who later went on to secure more rights for themselves, or split from the monarchy all together. This uncertainty, that finally led to the Fin de Siècle, began much earlier than this, particularly in 1848, and there is some highly interesting political poetry from the Vormärz. In this particular instance I would like to mention the metaphor of rubble. For poets the word ‘debris’ was an essential metaphor for the state of their world during the time of the Habsburg monarchy. The Battle of Solferino in 1859 played a vital role and was highly important in the decline of the Habsburg monarchy.

In reference to the imagery that was used, I would like to mention to motif of the mirror, as it very directly affects The Other Side. Through the image of the mirror, it becomes very obvious for certain people that there is such a thing as the other side that cannot be reached.

An interesting example in this case is Daniel Kehlmann’s narrative Der fernste Ort [The Distant Place]. It tells the story of a man in the midst of a life crisis who wants to live the life of another person, so practically yearns to live the other side of his personality. He comes to a mirror and watches as his reflection walks away, even though he remains in front of the mirror. As on the other side of the mirror the reflection walks away and moves this means that the other side is alive and he lives on the other side. Also, in Kehlmann’s first novel, Beerholms Vorstellung [Beerholm’s Concept], there is a man in an acute life crisis who plans his own death by leaping off a tower. In this story there is a flashback to the moment during which he asks himself how his life will continue. He goes to his mentor and imagines walking into a monastery in which there is a mentor named Father Fassbinder. As he imagines knocking on the door of Father Fassbinder it says: No one is answering, yet someone has to answer, because I am imagining it that way. He then passes through the door and meets Father Fassbinder, and throughout the entire novel he never goes back through the door. Ultimately, it is worth thinking about what it means that he is back on the top of the tower at the end, and has returned to the initial situation, even though by passing through the door he entered into the other side, as the tower now represents both this side of the mirror as well as the other. This means that the novel offers the possibility to represent both sides at the same time.

Daniel Kehlmann’s book is also interesting in a topographical sense, as standing on the top of the tower you can see the entire city as a structure, which is again a position that is very different. He refers to it in the first sentence that he ever published: “It is our strange passion for lofty standpoints. Every used construction set landscape becomes passable when looked at from above. As soon as there are hills, humans urge to climb then. Should someone be collecting an entrance fee, they will pay. This is why we have towers.” [transl. C. H.]

Beerholms Vorstellung, Daniel Kehlmann
RALG — We have already mentioned the topic of topography. How is it possible to deal with a certain geography (or a city such as Perle) as one of the main characters of a novel? What does it mean to make a geography, or an architecture an actor? As mentioned before, there are both chronological and topical points of overlap with Theodor Herzl’s Old New Land, that also envisions an “empty land” for a “dream state”, for which he imagined a German linguistic and cultural hegemony. There are not many, however there are a few examples, such as the idea of a better life far away in the exotic East.

KZey — The similarities are not surprising to me, as the possibilities to imagine a state are not infinite. All those utopian and topographical imaginations all work either consciously or subconsciously with what humans already know. You have certain building blocks of topographies in your imagination, and so when building a utopian or fictional city or state, you use those building blocks either consciously or subconsciously.

How to artistically deal with geography or topography? There are different possibilities. This can go so far as that some authors actually draw images of the city, the place, or the topography they are talking about. Authors such as Heimito von Doderer in his novel Die Strudelhofstiege, create construction plans for the action in the novel and of cities, others do this in their imagination. Yet what is valid in every case is: The narration of topography means that this topography exists as a space of imagination, at least for the creative. It is very rare that topographies are invented from scratch, and do not work with the building blocks of the currently existing reality. This is very similar in the realm of science fiction.

LG — In our work, we deal with stylistic elements, such as the allegory and the metaphor. In our sound installation Dizziness is my Name we let a personified dizziness wander through the exhibition space and speak in monologue. The rhetorical device of personification allows for dizziness itself to communicate with the audience. Kubin’s The Other Side on the other hand is often read as a grotesque or an allegory. How do you see the use of stylistic elements in Kubin’s book?

KZey — The metaphor is a linguistic form, the grotesque is a form of speaking or telling, the allegory is a form of representing. The metaphor only works in language in that the language creates an image. The allegory is also applicable in the fine arts, because it personifies a concept. On a side note, in the baroque, the allegory was one of the most frequently used stylistic elements. During Alfred Kubin’s time, Hugo von Hofmannsthal used allegory very often, for instance, for the Salzburger Festspiele. In his play Jedermann [Everyman] you can find the allegory for richness or the allegory for poverty. Certainly, Kubin knew of the use of allegory in Austria, and in particular the prevalent attempts to combine baroque methodical elements with modernism.

This is not only a question of literary metaphors, as we use metaphors daily to create images in order to communicate something. It is highly interesting to look at what our language and our image of the world have in common. There is a very fitting example for this: Since about five or six hundred years, we know that the sun does not set, and yet we continue to use the phrase “the sun sets”. This metaphor helps us express what we see, even if that does not correspond to reality.

A metaphor is a symbol to me, the image of a sensory impression. It is very difficult to find a metaphor that is not figurative. In its essence the metaphor is an image, from Paul Celan’s “black milk of morning” to “get lost”.

And with this, I come back to your comment that many visual artists tend to describe not a sequence but rather a tableau. As Lessing writes in his Laokoon, poetry is the art of succession whereas fine art is the art of immediacy.

Laocoon, Ephraim Lessing

Naturally you connect the two things: If a novel takes place within a city then there is a side by side existence in this city. Yet, the act of telling a story can only encapsulate this in succession by saying this place is next to another place. The image that is created can be one of being side by side, yet the act of telling can only achieve this in succession.

There are attempts to achieve this differently in literature, such as designing the page differently and thus creating a side by side image that can be seen at the same time. However, as soon as it is language this only works for people who have a visual memory or are able to read an entire page at once. Yet even in this case you are working with a very quick succession.

LG — Our last question revolves around artistic objects, such as images, books, or music as a culmination of an artistic process that goes on to initiate a new process. Images can be understood in this case in an art-historical or theoretical manner as processes of circulation, that lead to a polysemy in their interpretation due to various factors (including religious, geographical, gender-specific, social and temporal affiliation of the interpreter). The same goes for books, and we can assume Kubin knew this. The desire to remain unexplained, mystical can be seen in his work, however also a pronounced racism as well as a latent anti-Semitism. Many novels expect quite a lot from their readers. What ethical questions can be raised in such a process of re-interpretation, and how do we go about answering those? What advice does literary studies give? Or more generally: How do we go about asking those questions? Is there a literary poison cabinet? Where can it be found, and who uses it when, how and for what?

KZey — What we call “political correctness” today is a topic of discussion for the middles classes of rich countries who attempt to achieve a position of power over discourse and thereby put themselves into a position of moral superiority. To my mind, this also revolves around having false priorities. Even if I strongly disagree with certain sentiments, I try to adhere to Voltaire’s basic principle: “I may disagree strongly with the ideas and sentiments of a person, yet I will always advocate for that person to be able to say what they feel”. This has given me certain freedoms, that have been hard-won and that I do not wish to surrender just because moral hegemonies try to prescribe what I should be able to say or think or how express myself. All too often historical developments are not taken into consideration. An example: The word “Wieb” in middle high German was a neutral expression for gender and woman. If you were to say “das ist ein Weib” to someone today this is negative. This mean that there are semantic developments. When evaluating forms of speech from the past from the standpoint of today, we are often not taking historical developments into account. Added to this, there has been linguistic research, such as by the linguist Cordula Simon, who posits that a change in a choice of words cannot cause societal change.

In terms of literature and art, it is impossible for me to simultaneously hold the belief that there is a freedom of artistic expression while simultaneously try to curtail that freedom through moral hegemony. Should I do this anyway then this means that I want to make some things impossible for, or in, art. If art must adhere to certain ideas of morality, then a part of art is lost. Of course, art must never act in a derogatory manner, however it must be possible to write about it! Otherwise reflection, innovation, and provocation are made impossible. And I do not want an art that must not provoke.

Let us think about Gustave Flaubert who had to face trial for Madame Bovary. More recently, we can also look at the highly interesting French sentencing from the 1990s concerning a novel of which the form is also referred to as autoficition in France. Camille Laurens was taken to court because she was accused of using the life of her ex-husband in the novel L’amour published in 2003. The French court came to the conclusion that firstly artistic freedom of expression stands above everything, but also that the portrayed lives are not those of the people themselves. Someone who creates fiction, who writes a piece of literature takes in everything imaginable from every area of their lived reality, lets those things influence them, and then goes on to create another form of reality for the reader.

Das Handwerk des Tötens, Norbert Gstrein

Norbert Gstrein expresses similar opinions in his small collection Wem gehört eine Geschichte? [Whom does a Story belong to]. He published it in reaction to allegations that he plundered the story of the journalist Gabriel Grüner. In Gstrein’s novel Das Handwerk des Tötens [The Craft of Killing], he describes the life of a journalist who lost his life in the Kosovo conflict. Even though he writes in the acknowledgements in reference to Gabriel Grüner: “I know too little of the life and death of him so that I could tell the story”, Gstrein’s novel was cause for intense debate. Gstrein’s stance is this: The author takes a reality to create a different reality. This different reality is created first during the process of writing, and then in the minds of the reader.

We know of examples in which characters in a novel are so far embedded in the social consciousness that they could very well be real characters, at least within societal expectations. This is the peak in which the reality of literature can then enter into the reality we share. During the so-called “Werther-fever”, many young people could identify so strongly with Goethe’s character that they actually took their own lives. But also other figures from world literature such as Cassandra or Don Quixote are so present in our language and minds, as if they were real people.

RA — What is morality? How dynamic is this concept? Where and how is this determined for art?

KZey — Of course, morality is dynamic and changes throughout the course of history, as it is subject to historical developments. All we need to do is take a look at history and compare the prevalent morality of three hundred years ago with the one we have now. In this case you are bound to find great differences, both on a societal as well as on a personal level. For example: I found a report from the seventeenth century that concerned people in Spain being burned at the stake during the Inquisition because they engaged in what the church deemed to be amoral sexuality. This means that it was possible to be burned to death for sexual practices that are seen as absolutely normal today.

RA — Is this also part of the discourse surrounding morality?

KZey: No, far too often this is not mentioned, because many people simply are not well enough informed historically and do not want to make these connections. Those who are loudest in the debate surrounding morality and militantly demand ethical principles are out for power of discourse, or some other dominating position. Of course, it is unacceptable that people are abused. But you have to be able to write about it. Of course, it is unacceptable that people are killed or exploited through colonialism, but it has to be possible to write about it, and within a historical context refer to dark-skinned people as “niggers.” Whether or not I do this, is my prerogative. Of course, language is not only language, but is also an action. And so, it is strange to say that people should be judged only by their actions – as language is also action. However, it should never be the case that things can be claimed or demanded without historical background, as that constrains artistic or discursive possibilities.

The debate surrounding morality came to a head in Austria in the eighteenth century when the index of forbidden literature was itself included on the index, because people started using it to look up interesting reads. Coming back to art and literature: Basically, art and literature have to be absolutely free. This has been fought for for a very long time, and I do also believe that artistic freedom is more important than rights of personality. This can be seen in the court decisions I mentioned earlier. Dealing with this on a legal level began in the nineteenth century in France during the case of Bovary, in which Gustave Flaubert was accused of calling for infidelity, and then later was acquitted. In contrast to this, we can see processes of censuring taking hold again in Germany when the case revolves around rights of personality. In the Federal Republic of Germany, the novel Mephisto by Klaus Mann was forbidden until 1980, because the descendants of Gustaf Gründgen took legal action against Mann. In Germany this was actually possible. Interestingly, the novel was then published because it was so wildly successful in France that illegal prints of it circulated in Germany. In recent years, there have been a number of rulings that placed the right of personality above those of freedom of artistic expression. This is such a catastrophe, because this means that the novel itself is not viewed as a work of fiction, even if we do all entirely agree that literature is fiction.

Mephisto, Klaus MannRA:
RA — The question of morality being a claim to power is an interesting one, as we have to assume that morality does claim to take responsibility, however morality and responsibility are by no means the same thing.

KZey — This is true. You have to look at this from the standpoint of sociology as well, and look at who the people are who make this moralistic demands, raise these questions of morality, and when they do this. I am fairly certain that many of these people belong to the prosperous middle classes of the richer countries in the world who enjoy a certain sense of security, and that in itself should already raise some questions.

RA — What is especially relevant for us, is how we deal with the poison cabinet that we open. Kubin worked with various stereotypes, some of which were anti-Semitic or national stereotypes, such as those of French people. We are also faced with an artistic decision concerning how to deal with this, and if we do, from which perspective. It is here that we fall into dizziness, as we intend to use art as a research method on the one hand. However, on the other, we want and must follow certain ethical guidelines as an artistic research project. Therefore, as soon as we approach the poison cabinet we fall into dizziness.

KZey — I see this from a point of view of practicality: If you wish to continue in your dizziness, you should primarily not deal with Kubin’s racism. If you choose to approach this from a pragmatic angle then remark at some point: “This is how Kubin acted, thought, and wrote about this, and we are interested in this particular aspect”. In its essence, this is much more a moral question than it is an artistic one. To be racist is not an artistic question.

RA — And yet the question of morality is also an artistic question. I may not want to delegate an artistic decision, however, as an artist I can be interested in morality in an artistic sense. 

KZey — Yes, in that sense we are very much on the same page! Continue in your dizziness!

Translation: Christopher Hütmannsberger


[1]    Alfred Kubin, The Other Side, 1967

[2]   Alfred Kubin, Dämonen und Nachtgeschichten, 1959

[3]    See Projekt Gutenberg.

[4]    See Konrad Lorenz Institut.

[5]    See Residenz Verlag.

[6]    See Creating Art: An Experience Sampling Study in the Domain of Moving Image Art.

[7]    Ruler over dream land and schoolmate of the protagonist in The Other Side.

[8]    Anastasius Grün, Schutt, Gedichte, publ. 1835 in K. Zeyringer, Eine Literaturgeschichte: Österreich seit 1650, 2012, S. 150.