“Auf den Trümmern das Paradies”? Ilija Trojanow’s Utopian Prerogative

wie eine meuterei bricht das glück, wie ein löwe aus.

——Hans Magnus Enzensberger: utopia

In this blog post, Berkeley Ph.D. student Anna Lynn Dolman reflects on Ilija Trojanow’s Mosse Lecture on “The Utopian Prerogative,” specifically how literature can sketch a topography of the future and indeed affect the world we live in – not by creating fiction, but by (re-)presenting undeniable facts.

Nowadays, claims Trojanow as the starting point of his Mosse Lecture at UC Berkeley on September 1, 2022, our take on the past is first and foremost defined by nostalgia with a melancholy tinge, a yearning for a lost paradise that never existed to begin with but is merely a sugarcoated projection of our present desires. History, then, is nothing but an account of what might have been different, an incessant yet futile pondering on what-ifs. Imprints of the past are undoubtedly fruitful catalysts of creativity – in fact, the past is even inscribed in the title of the Mosse Lecture, referring to the fate of the Mosse family, most prominently George Mosse, an American historian and emigrant from Nazi Germany whose personal history as a self-described “eternal emigrant” might well lend itself to dystopian fiction. Rather than apocalyptic forecasts, however, we must shift our attention and collective energies to imprint our most fantastic dreams on the future.

Trojanow fervently advocates for a radical yet elegant paradigm shift, away from the strongly dystopian currents dominating present forms of culture, toward painting a colorful canvas and sketching a topography of tomorrow that grants us space to breathe rather than suffocating us with dire visions of inescapable doom. If the past is an irreparable mosaic of nostalgic fragments, and the present is weighed down by a yearning for that past and a crippling fear of what will likely be a disastrous future, then the only logical conclusion to be drawn is to drastically alter the prevalent visions of tomorrow, in other words: to reboot utopian literature, to literally take matters into our own writing hands and open up our minds to literary possibilities that do away with the confusion between what is non-existent and what is impossible. What is progress, after all – at least according to Trojanow – if not utopian fiction come true? Should utopia not be framed as the rationale of the necessary rather than the art of the impossible? Naturally, this raises the ever more complicated question of to which degree inanimate words, otherwise known as literature, have the power to seep into our reality, thereby affecting actual change for the better. 

That literature can indeed affect the world we live in considerably – though granted, not only for the better – is not fiction but an undeniable fact. While it does not have to be quite as dramatically destructive as the infamous Werther effect, any words that urge the human mind to empathize, re-consider, and raise questions hold the potential to initiate action and, consequently, to spur progress – and what is the significance of giving those words a utopian spin? If literary scholars did not believe in the transformative power of literature in its broadest sense, our discipline would soon tumble into a dead end. And maybe it is about time that the optimistic social media spirit “If you can dream it, you can do it” found its way into further medial modes of expression to truly catch on. Since we can only take action in the present, looking into the gaping mouth of a future that we refuse to be swallowed by, a temporal predicament arises. How is one to bridge the gap between what cannot be attained and what could be? How do we navigate utopia as a place without a place that is nonetheless situated in a supposedly linear, stable flow of time? Maybe the solution is to deconstruct the category of time as a perceived given and to challenge its widely accepted status as an unchangeable backdrop against which human activity can run its course. Trojanow’s sleight of hand is to break down time into two distinct though intertwined concepts: chronos and kairos. While chronos suggests a continuity and sequence – in other words: a chronology of time, kairos enters the scene as its counterpart, referring to an opportune moment of profound change that makes anything seem possible, a fleeting opportunity to be seized. Utopian fiction, Trojanow argues, has to harness those elusive moments in order to challenge chronos persistently, thereby creating a multiverse in which glimpses of change infiltrate what is otherwise a frustratingly uneventful flow of time casting us in the role of a modern Sisyphos. This, in turn, prompts humankind to break away from strictly anthropocentric notions of time that make us out to be omnipotent agents against a passive backdrop of nature toward active attempts at puncturing our civilization in the places that need to be addressed in order to rediscover the abnormal in what has seemed normal all along.

One might wonder, however, whether utopia, being an unshackled ascent of fantasy overpowering earthly constraints, can be equated with escapism, away from the global challenges present generations are facing, into an imaginary, ameliorated future that holds little practical value? Is this nothing but a reboot of the hopelessly idealistic Romantic closing of one’s eyes when confronted with political realities that are spiraling out of control? While this may be a common concern flung at various artistic genres, Trojanow manages to assuage it: according to his poetics, a high-quality utopian novel must include a philosophical reflection not only on the nature of time but also, and perhaps more importantly, on the political energy of this temporality. That being said, there is hardly a more politically conscientious contemporary writer than Ilija Trojanow, whose novel EisTau (2011) and collection of aphorisms Nach der Flucht (2017), as well as his columns, habitually tackle the towering crises of our era, be it emigration, global warming, renewable energies, world hunger, wealth distribution, war and pacifism, social injustice, the pandemic – and the list goes on.

One cannot help but notice that this is a rather dystopian-sounding enumeration which raises a pressing question: to what extent do dystopia and utopia intertwine and possibly even hinge on one another? Can or must a utopian vision be built on a distinctly dystopian scenario and arise from within its poetics of the catastrophic? And what is a novel if not an account of human tragedy that sometimes, if we get lucky, culminates in a happy resolution? Maybe utopia can only emerge when humankind has lost all hope, as a postmodernist scenario that is echoed by the upbeat 2015 K.I.Z. rap song that was the unofficial anthem of the Fridays for Future movement and that fittingly serves as Trojanow’s concluding remark: “Und wir singen im Atomschutzbunker, Hurra diese Welt geht unter, Auf den Trümmern das Paradies,”1 driving home the point that the world as we know it might have to vanish in order for us to cling onto hope and to envision a brighter future on an otherwise clouded horizon – at least in writing, for now. And sometimes those threatening clouds turn out to be harbingers of change, after all.

End Note

  1. “And we sing in the fallout shelter, Hurrah this world goes under, Atop this rubble, a paradise”. Translated by Ambika Athreya, UC Berkeley.

About Qingyang Freya Zhou

Qingyang Freya Zhou is a PhD candidate in German Studies, with a Designated Emphasis in Film Studies, at UC Berkeley. Her research focuses on the intersections between socialist internationalism and postcolonial studies, particularly the literary and cinematic interactions between Germany and East Asia during the Cold War and beyond.
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