The Future of Man and Technology, Part VI: Hans-Ulrich Treichel
Writer and literary scholar Hans-Ulrich Treichel interviewed by Roman Brinzanik and Tobias Hülswitt.
(Berlin, September 20, 2009)
Tobias Hülswitt: What is the meaning of transience for your writing?
Hans-Ulrich Treichel: I’ve always felt it as a strong threat, on the one hand. You want not to let go, because of course death is always lurking at the end of human time. On the other hand, I’ve also felt that there’s something like a longing for passing time, a longing for transience, a forwards nostalgia. And swings back and forth in perception. But writing, and especially writing about your own life, is of course an attempt to fix, to freeze phases of life and moments of feeling. You can at least apparently succeed at that, at holding fast in a text the past and the transitory and at the same time beginning anew. On page 1, so to say. And that disburdens you of the unrelenting dictate of advancing time.
Hülswitt: People like to use phrases such as “The author brings the seventeenth century back to life” – but that’s not true. The seventeenth century is over, and nobody is going to bring it back to life by writing about it. My impression is that this is about a very well functioning illusion, which has a soothing effect, but nevertheless the past is gone and the passing of time continues unchecked.
Whereby I dimension that much more narrowly in my own literary practice. Who knows, perhaps I might be able to amuse myself by writing an historical novel, but my most inner impulse is not to resurrect some epoch. Actually, it is always to rescue myself. That works quite egocentrically. Based only on myself, on my experience. To set something against this relentlessness, this passing time – but also to throw yourself into it and relish it fictively! You describe development processes of life in fictive texts, in variations of your own experience on the one hand, but also processes of transience on the other. There’s not only time stretching but also time acceleration. All in all, this means that you make yourself sovereign of temporal processes and over lifetime. And if it’s also lifetime that has been taken out of your own life, that’s of course a charming affair. Because we never have this sovereignty otherwise.
“Man is artificial by nature”
Hülswitt: Your father wore a prosthesis.
My father had only one arm; he lost the other in the war and wore an artificial hand, and I remember the situation when a sales representative came round with a new prosthetic technology that enabled the movement of the finger - somehow or other through an electrical impulse connected with the arm stump. We children sat round the table as my father tried it, and it went click, click, and the fingers went up and down, and we children jumped down screaming in terror. This rigid and clumsy thing – my father had turned into a robot! The original prosthesis, which we always knew as part of him, was on the contrary his nature, so to say.
Hülswitt: You write in an essay that the original prosthesis was for you the only warm part of your father’s body.
That’s right. I had an affectionate relationship with this hand. It wasn’t the hand with which he hit me; it therefore expressed a much more pleasant personal characteristic than the living hand. And then it was of dark leather, not cold plastic. It was the part of my father that caused no fear.
Hülswitt: In the United States there’s a biomechatronics researcher who lost both his legs as a teenager. I heard him say in a radio interview that today he has a more intimate relation to his prosthesis than to his natural limbs. Does that makes sense to you?
Bearing in mind Helmuth Plessner’s statement – “Man is artificial by nature” – you could assume such an attitude to yourself instead of thinking in categories of natural / not natural. Moreover, processes of exchange begin very early. First, we’re always jettisoning something, hair, nails, scales, and the first prosthetic experience you have is at the dentist – fillings. Suddenly, there’s foreign material in you. And then at some point come glasses; there the prosthesis is external. In principle, it’s a matter of degree. With teeth, it’s become a convention, you forget with time. When people have stents, perhaps they don’t forget them so quickly because they’re a greater shock and the outcome of a disease worse than tooth decay. But there is already quite a bit of technology and, where required, prosthetics that we’ve incorporated and again forgotten about.
Brinzanik: In the near future it’s conceivable that the genetic makeup of a child will no longer be a lottery, through, for example, gene therapy on germ cells. And alongside sexual reproduction – the fusion of the egg and sperm of the parents and the random rearrangement of genetic material in the child – cloning could establish itself. A further novel possibility of reproduction would be this: Imagine two women who have a shared wish for children; the one gives the other her egg cells, the other contributes a skin cell that is reprogrammed into a sperm. Then everything goes as we know it from artificial insemination. Obviously, there are many ethical questions and concerns here, but wouldn’t such techniques also constitute an enrichment?
I have a double reaction. On the one hand, horror of course, because I imagine a kind of robot world, a laboratory world; but on the other hand, if I think about it more, I could say if you don’t have an unquestioned concept of nature, then it doesn’t really matter. This alienation from my own existence, including my physical existence, that I felt as a child when I looked at my hands – that’s a funny thing the five fingers there, what are they for? – if I take this alienation seriously, if I don’t accept the conventional equipment of human beings as an unquestionable naturalness, then the horror becomes relative.
An Infinite Perspective
Brinzanik: What about suffering as the stuff of writing? You describe in your books, for example, how your father dies of a heart attack – such things are right now being researched. The sciences and biomedicine are currently attempting to abolish precisely these typical forms of suffering that lead to death in old age and to shift the limits of mortality further and further. Then writers couldn’t write any longer about the heart attacks of their fathers.
It would at least be interesting because there would no experience any longer. Tuberculosis was a big literary theme, and syphilis wrote cultural history. Yes, that’s over. Experiences of suffering are also subject to historical processes. But I’m not worried that there won’t be new forms of suffering which will give occasion to be written about. And I don’t think that the quantity of suffering, the quantity of fear, has decreased. As little as I can believe in this sort of progress that would eliminate death, this utopia of immortality. Should it ever become real, then we would have to pay the price, of course. That would then perhaps be the end of art, the end of literature.
Hülswitt: There’s also the opposite opinion – that art wouldn’t become superfluous, but rather ever better, ever more intense.
I don’t think so, because art, if we no longer had this decisive fear, would serve only as decoration and no longer be existential. Why should anyone work hard if this fear were gone? And artists, real artists, artists in the emphatic sense, sacrifice a great deal of lifetime and effort for their work, without knowing the yield beforehand, and the effort is in most cases considerably greater than the yield, I would say. That, I think, works only because the fear of death bores into us, because of the existential anxiety. If it were gone, then man would still re-wallpaper, but he would not longer fight against his fear of life or his fear of death.
Brinzanik: In the history of literature, probably depending on the age and contemporary events, we can observe tendencies to positive or negative utopias, such as those of Sir Thomas More, Edward Bellamy or George Orwell. Although technical and medical progress since the twentieth century has given immense relief to millions, the visions of the future in the same period tend to be predominantly dystopian – for example, Huxley’s Brave New World or Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island, where the existence of clones is presented very negatively. Why?
It’s perhaps the insight that life becomes inhuman if we abandon the principle “All that exists is worth perishing”. Because for us precisely this so-called meaninglessness and finitude of life gives us in the end meaning. And we would lose ourselves in infinity; that’s also a horrible idea.
Brinzanik: So the abolition of death wouldn’t lead to an infinite liberation?
No, it would lead to the infinite depression of the entire population. Because possibly we couldn’t bear not having to fight any more. We wouldn’t have to fight any longer for the good life, we wouldn’t have to say any longer: I must do that, I still want to achieve that. There would be an infinite perspective.
Excerpt from: “Der Mensch ist von Natur aus künstlich”, in: Werden wir ewig leben? – Gespräche über die Zukunft von Mensch und Technologie, Tobias Hülswitt und Roman Brinzanik (eds.), edition unseld, Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag 2010
Copyright: Suhrkamp Verlag
Published with kind permission of the Suhrkamp Verlag