Joachim Helfer; Novelist
The fiction of dialogue among cultures
and the reality of a culture of dialogue
All of us who have followed the kind invitation to this seminar obviously believe that it should do some good. And presumably we have come not merely for the undeniable! – pleasure of intellectual exchange with colleagues from other nations and different cultural backgrounds; rather, we seem to expect our dialogue to produce positive effects beyond that. In a tense international situation where some of our political leaders unfortunately prefer to demonise not just their respective counterparts but entire nations, writers come together, listen and talk to one another in a human way, as human beings. That at least was my motivation to come here as a fiction writer: to partake in the reality of human dialogue. May this reality help to debunk all rhetoric of “the axis of evil and “the great Satan as pure, if dangerous, fiction. Bad dreams of anxious old men.
I wonder, however, if our meeting could be a dialogue among civilisations or cultures; the two being generally used and understood as synonyms, I shall use the more poetic “culture. Let me explain and allow a man and lover of language to approach the problem from the linguistic side. As I sadly don’t speak Farsi I can’t judge whether the plural of ‘culture’, or ‘civilisation’ for that matter, sounds as odd to my Iranian colleagues as it does to me. But at least in the Teutonic family of languages comprising both English and my mother-tongue German, the plural form is reserved for objects and concepts that one can count. To be sure, culture counts, or at least it should count, and we all count upon it to help foster a better understanding between people and peoples – but can we really count it?
I am of course not into grammatical hair-splitting here, but a philosophical problem: Is the concept of culture not inherently universal? Could cultures thus coexist peacefully, or would they not be doomed to clash? Are we of lately not witnessing scenes from this erstwhile fictitious horror-scenario of a clash of cultures, or civilisations? Should we therefore not place our hope onto culture’s potential to unite and integrate different experiences into one? Is culture not brought about in constant exchange, and is it not, rather than any temporary state, this very process of constant change?
‘Cultures’, as a plural, may well have existed in parallel worlds as long as they knew nothing of one another: like, say ancient Peru and ancient China. In our modern world of telecommunication, air-travel and global trade we all know of one another, as this global seminar illustrates. As to the Islamic Orient and the Christian Occident which are basically coming together at this seminar here in Kish, we always knew of each other.
More so, we share strong common foundations. Religiously speaking we are all children of Abraham. Philosophically speaking it was Muslim Arabs who saved the thought and knowledge of Greek antiquity for both orient and occident. Historically speaking, our fortunes have been inseparably intertwined for better or worse not since the first crusade, but since Harun al Rashid and Charlemagne exchanged diplomatic gifts centuries earlier as of course Persia and Greece gained their respective identities against one another long before Mohammed and Jesus. Scientifically speaking we have learned from one another since these early times. Economically speaking, our wealthiest periods were those when we traded intensively.
Politically speaking, we are all citizens of UN-member states, which have all vowed to respect human-rights and refrain from military aggression. Speaking of literature, it was my nations greatest poet, Goethe, who coined the term “World-Literature not least under the impression of the invaluable inspiration he received from your nations greatest poet, Hafis. Goethes east-western Divan, written in the spirit of Hafis and Rumi as he understood it, is a prime example of the cultural practice of translation in a more than technical sense: the adaptation and integration of the other into one’s own culture, and thus into the inseparable culture of humanity.
So what exactly do we speak of when we agree on a dialogue of cultures?
Now, I certainly do not want to deny the existence of cultural differences. Our religions, languages, traditions, historical experiences, political points of view, economic situations and interests obviously differ. Nor am I blind to the fact that people tend to find a sense of identity in such differences. And of course I share the underlying assumption of this seminar that these differences can and should be communicated by means of dialogue: at least to prevent them from turning into destructive misunderstandings, at best in order to bring out the creative potential that lies in all friction.
But does such dialogue in order to take place not require a singular set of rules which all participants both respect and can rely on to be respected? And does dialogue not at the same time produce the understandings it requires – such as the general resolve to listen carefully and emphatically, to speak respectfully and politely as well as openly and honestly? And if so: what, I wonder, does this understanding constitute, if not culture? What could be more justly called culture than our meeting here in Kish? We all, I am sure, could readily agree on this culture of dialogue. It entails that no participant has reason to feel inhibited, even threatened to speak his or her mind. Hence it entails further that no party prescribes to the other what would be considered acceptable and unacceptable utterances.
By describing it, we could observe that this culture of dialogue is, like all culture, somewhat fictitious: not a possession but a project, never perfect, always and everywhere in danger, thus to be defended and gained anew against the equally persistent inclination to monologue among those who have power and mistake it for truth. In reality, entire peoples are called evil, while individual citizens are threatened, abused, imprisoned or even killed simply for what they have written or said in all too many countries.
This sad reality shows that the culture of dialogue, like all culture, is not to be had just partially, where or when considered useful by somebody for some purpose, and be violated under different circumstances. As humans, we can only choose between dialogue and monologue; dialogue with other societies both requires and produces dialogue within societies. Dialogue is possible among all who practice it; dialogue is impossible with or among those who practice monologue. Leaders who call for somebody to be killed just for what he has written or said deny all principles of dialogue. So do leaders who threaten to attack nations on the grounds of old animosity and vague suspicions. Maybe they do so out of a culture of monologue; if so, they should not count on dialogue to communicate this culture. There is no dialogue without freedom of opinion and expression; and like all freedom this one too is defined as the freedom of the other: the freedom to say what somebody else may consider wrong, silly or even offensive. Fiction, as opposed to poetry, may at times be harsh, cheeky or blatant, particularly so when of Teutonic origin; the resolve for dialogue entails the resolve not to be too easily offended by other nations ways of expression.
The universal logic of this culture of dialogue belongs to no one nation, religion or part of the world. As little as the call for dialogue can be abused to defend the long and droning monologues of oppression in all too many countries of the world, as little can it be abused as an offensive tool to impose one nations cultural practice and preferences onto others. Writers will always be opposed to cultural hegemony, which is but another word for monologue. Without its historical wealth of differences, our world would be not only unbearably poor and boring, but above all so much less capable to adapt to and resolve those problems which humanity will face in the future. In order to preserve this wealth we do however all have to actively support and partake in one dominant world culture of dialogue. By denying the plural to the term culture we would deny not cultural diversity or difference, but solely the horror-scenario of a clash of cultures. Culture never clashes, because it is by definition the opposite of aggression and oppression, of terror and warfare. Where they begin, all culture ends.