On Theories of Interpretation, Exile Literature, and Continental Modernism

An Interview with Anders Olsson, Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Stockholm” (Suom.) Kirje, joka ei saavu: Tulkinnan teorioista, maanpakolaisuudesta ja modernismista. Keskustelu professori Anders Olssonin kanssa. A Finnish language version of this interview is available in Avain –The Finnish Review of Literary Studies 2008: (3), 58–63.
See also: http://pro.tsv.fi/skts/Avain308sisalto.pdf

A new member of the Swedish Academy and professor of Comparative literature at the Stockholm University visited Finland as a guest speaker invited by the Finnish Literature Research Society and the Finnish Doctorate School for Literature at the Monimuotoinen mimesis -symposium in April 15-16, 2008. Professor Olsson has authored approximately 15 books including collections of essays and poems, studies on poetry and the history of interpretation, and two monographies on the poets Gunnar Ekelöf and Gunnar Björling. Professor Olsson answered my questions during a break fitted in the tight symposium schedule.

Leena Kaunonen. You have authored many interesting studies on literature among which it’s difficult to pick up just one book for the topic of our discussion. Therefore I thought it would be a good idea to start with a more general question concerning your own way of doing literary research. In your books on Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelöf and Swedish language Finn, Gunnar Björling, you illustrate the life and oeuvre of these two poets. The personality of the poet, his ideas, philosophical stance and lifelong learning and development in his writer’s profession are highlighted in your books. Does this reflect your goals: you don’t merely focus on an analysis of text corpus by a certain author? Instead, you seem to prioritize a writers’ correspondence and other personal documents. Drawing on this material you portray a poet’s entire life and works.

Anders Olsson. It’s always hard to explain what you are actually doing. I have always been interested in what is at stake in the writers that I study and interpret. I have always felt that it is not enough with what is in the texts. I try to orient myself in the texts I study, that’s my principle. I think one should not mix life and letters too much. There are lots of bad interpretations reducing texts to life, and so forth. This interest: what is at stake in literature, what it has to do with other facts than literature …

L.K. Such as …?

A.O. Such as opposition in society, the kind of choices you make … it is not enough with certain skill, the ability to work things out in language … there is something more than the words, I think. That gives to the poetry me its resonance, when you read it.

L.K. Is there something you have learnt personally from these poets, Gunnar Björling, Ekelöf, eg. things that you mentioned earlier?

A.O. I don’t know I if it gives meaning to life, but it gives certain satisfaction to know of the adventure of writer’s life. In the case of Ekelöf, I knew that he had very dark background, lots of sufferings in his childhood, but it is never enough (laugh) to have a bad childhood in order to write something interesting. It can be very uninteresting indeed, if you don’t have certain interest to develop also what is mattering here … Certainly I have learnt something from literary studies, but more than learning it gives me a certain way to read that makes the text resonate more.

L.K. In your book, Den okända texten (1), you have dealt with the history of interpretation including a large body of notable thinkers and theoreticians in literature studies. You have written about German hermeneutics and French textual theories, among others. My next question is about your own conception of a literary text: which methods do you use in your textual analysis? Can you name a certain theoretical approach which has inspired your research?

A.O. I have always thought that it is impossible to translate literature and poetry into some kind of more rational language. If there is a method, the method is merely a way to come into a better understanding of the literary text. But method is never enough, you have to read yourself, you have to read the text with your own experience and your own reflections and intuitive grasp of the text. I think that I have learnt much from hermeneutics, but hermeneutics has always had this inclination to reduce literature into meaning … that’s why I wrote this book. I think there is an interesting provocation here from deconstruction that also developed hermeneutics in interesting ways, I can see it in late Gadamer; that he has reflected on these difficulties. This encounter between Gadamer and Derrida was important for them both: Derrida became more modest. When Gadamer died, he said that Gadamer was always right! There was an interesting article in German paper … on the other hand, Gadamer thought that Derrida was the only one that could understand him in the French philosophy at that time, and he revised his views on hermeneutical understanding in late text, and particularily I think it makes also meaning less central in poetics than before, I mean that the concept of logos, the concept of meaning, it was replaced by an understanding of the materiality of the text, the audible quality of the text that were not there so strongly before.

L.K. In the concluding part of your book, Den okända texten, you write about reconstruction hermeneutics much in the spirit of Schleiermacher and Manfred Franck. Nonetheless you have some reservations about their way of interpretation, and you draw a distinction between your way of reading and their way of interpreting texts. Am I right in assuming that you set great store by involvement, reconstruction and transformation in the interpretative process?

A.O. I would say that it is impossible to reconstruct the true meaning of the poem in the way that Schleiermacher believes in some of his texts, I would say that the interpretative act must always be renewed, I mean that every time has a new way to see and interpret texts, and this revision of interpretation is necessary, and in that respect Gadamer was right. On the other hand Schleiermacher was essentially right in the sense that one can only understand what is at stake (I mentioned that earlier) if you understand also the conflicts between a writer and his surroundings, the conventions, the way to look at art and poetry at that particular time, the historical settings … that kind of relations that are there between a writer and his tradition. In that sense I think that literary studies in Academia should be oriented historically. I have some kind of sympathy for this perspective although I do not believe in this true reconstruction, I think that is a romantic myth, a
romantic idea.

L.K. Back to the origins …?

A.O. Back to the origins, yes. It has a sort of repetition of what is going on in the process of creation, it is a dream of recreation.

L.K. In the last chapter of your book, you go into Paul Celan’s poetry by writing about the hidden levels of meaning, scattered voices, and addressees, all of which are contained in the same poem. Obviously, very personal levels of meaning are part of the poem, and they never become disclosed by the interpretative process. Consequently, a poem looks mysterious, or even secretive, to the vast majority of the readers, and, supposing that I have taken your point correctly, you seem to regard hidden meanings as the fundamental characteristics of the poem.

A.O I think so. It is a part of the poeticity of literature that it remains hidden. One can describe it in different ways. I think it is essentially true that in order to survive, the poem or the literary text must remain in some aspects unclear or obscure … it evokes some kind of reading that is not there.

L.K. If I remember right Paul Celan once said that a poem is a letter put into a bottle? (2)

A.O. That image of the bottle that in some time will arrive, it is approximate, because the image implies that sometime there will be a person picking it up and reading it … that it should be read … I do not think that would be true. A true poem will always keep some secret, it will never arrive, in that sense I think it is a dream − that belongs also to the trope.

L.K. Curiously, there seems to be some kind of symbolism in Paul Celans life…. I confess, I don’t understand his poems, but I am touched by them.

A.O. Celan, you cannot understand him, in the sense that you can explicate the meaning of the poem, tell what it means in rational language, in some kind of a rational way, but still you can be touched by them, and that is important.

L.K. In your essay, Det sublimas förvandlingar (3), you provide outlines of the history of the sublime through the ages. You name four basic forms of sublime. First, the rhetorical sublime in which style and expression are most important elements. Second, the objective sublime which is to be found in nature. Third, the subjective sublime which means that the sublime is transcendental in relation to the nature as the object of human consciousness. This idea comes from Immanuel Kant and Romanticism in literature, music and painting. Fourth, the abstract and negative sublime which strives to represent something beyond the limits representation and language. This fourth form of the sublime is associated with the postmodernist ideas about the elimination of the subject as well as all metaphysical aspirations. If we are thinking of the status of the sublime nowadays, how important a concept is it in contemporary fiction and literary research? Can you find it in literature or in arts, or if we are thinking of literary research, would it make a good subject of research?

A.O. Hard to say. When I wrote that commentary to Longinus I tried to formulate the position of Lyotard, the way he understands Immanuel Kant, his idea of the sublime. But I am a bit sceptical now against the idea of the sublime in the postmodern sense, because I have found that Lyotard’s reading of postmodernism is very much modernist way to understand what is going on. Because if you see what he refers to there … it is always a kind of transcendence of the horizon of the discourse which is typical for modernist painters like Barnett Newman who is an idol to Lyotard. And this kind of transcendence, an attempt to surpass the conventions of a certain period in the arts is very typical for high modernism, and not postmodernism. I am not sure that the sublime has a position today in what is going on. Certainly, it is there, but the sublime, as I understand it, depends on certain tensions between what you can express as a writer or as an artist and what is impossible to express. − And this tension is, for instance, in Edith Södergran, it is wonderfully typical for her poetry. There are always almost sublime fragments, because of the play always with what is not said, although her language is pretty, in the syntactical sense. But I think that postmodernism in general has dedramatised this tension: there is not this opening towards mysticism, towards the unsaid. Everything is bound to language in many, many postmodernists. Maybe we are coming back… The postmodernist discussion was too much focused on language: everything could be viewed as linguistically bound, and this thinking doesn’t work very well.

L.K. What are your present research interests?

A. O. I have become interested in exile writing, the new attempts to read modern literature from the horizon of Said and many of these thinkers who have reflected on deterritorialisation in many different ways, this term from Deleuze can be used in a more concrete sense. I think it is a fact that modern literature, and not least modernist literature, is very much a product of movements between periphery and centre, between the countries that were not at the centre at that time. And the idea of where literature is taken place is very much bound to the idea of metropolis. We have this centripetal movement towards Paris, being the metropolis of Europe. It was there that modernism is founded, in certain sense. It is exactly for this reason Joyce and Beckett moved from Ireland to Paris. They left their background as national writers in order to make a career as internationally recognized writers, and that has to do with internationalisation of Letters, of course, but it also has to do with conflicts: conflicts between what is locally bound in many senses and what suddenly becomes possible on an international scale. This whole gigantic movement is of great interest. One should see modernism in the light of these movements and their dynamic.

L.K. You mentioned the concept of deterritorialism.

A.O. I would like to use that in a more concrete sense because in Deleuze it has other meanings, but I think that what is happening in modern literature or modernist literature is that writers suddenly feel that literature is a question of deterritorialisation: it must always lack some kind of origin and it is because of this, for instance, that Octavio Paz suddenly can say that he came home when he was in exile. When he leaves his homeland, his roots for Paris, for international career, he suddenly comes home, and that is a paradox, big paradox which occurs in modernism. it is not only the case of Paz, it is the case of Joyce, of Beckett, of many other writers. From Sweden Gunnar Ekelöf goes to Paris, and he finds his own Swedish language in exile. Why? It is a new conception of writing, of the writer in conflict with this previously existing national viewing: that you are writing things in certain culture, in certain language. But I think it is a way to view your own language, your mother language as an object of experiment … when you are not so close to it you can start to experiment with it as an object, particularly, when you meet others who are doing the same thing. It is this intensive exchange that was going on in Zürich, Paris, London, in metropolises, that makes these experiments interesting. That is what the modernism is all about: recreation through experiment.

L.K. Would you elaborate a little further on the concept of the centre?

A.O. The centre should not understood as a centre of homogeneity, but a centre is a centre of pluriosity of many voices, of many different languages. What is important for the centre, has to do with the exchange, the intensity of the exchange but this exchange always allows for the different voices to express themselves (in that sense you’re right). But what is problematic, though, the whole history of modernism has been very much centred on Anglo-Saxons. They have dominated the whole literary field as far as criticism is concerned, and as far as language is concerned: in this global age it is English. A big deal of modernism that is interesting, as far as I am concerned, is not at all recognized in research. I mean, one always talks about Eliot, Joyce, and so forth, but who has heard of Gunnar Björling, for instance, who has heard of these extreme radical modernists who had not been translated in a proper way, perhaps they can be translated in proper way… but there exists a big problem in modernist research.


1. Stockholm: Bonnier, 1987, (‘The Unknown Text’).

2. Celan formulates his metaphor of a letter in a bottle during the ceremony at which he was awarded a literary price of the city of Bremen on January 26th,1958. In what follows, is an excerpt of his speech: „Das Gedicht kann, da es ja eine Erscheinungsform der Sprache und damit seinem Wesen nach dialogisch ist, eine Flaschenpost sein, aufgegeben in dem − gewiß nicht immer hoffnungsstarken − Glauben, sie könnte irgendwo und irgendwann an Land gespült werden, an Herzland vielleicht. Gedichte sind auch in dieser Weise unterwegs: sie halten auf etwas zu. Worauf? Auf etwas Offenstehendes, Besetzbares, auf ein ansprechbares Du vielleicht, auf eine ansprechbare Wirklichkeit. Um solche Wirklichkeiten geht es, so denke ich, dem Gedicht.“ (Paul Celan 1958/2000: Ansprache Anläßlich der Entgegennahme des Literaturpreises der Freien Hansestadt Bremen. Gesammelte Werke, Dritter Band, 186.)

3. Afterword to a volume, Om litterär storhet (‘On the sublime’) Göteborg: Anamma, 1997.

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