Krystian Lupa: The Question Does Shape You Even If You’ve Left It Unanswered

Krystian Lupa. Photo by Laura Vansevičienė

Krystian Lupa: The Question Does Shape You Even If You've Left It Unanswered

Excerpts from Audronis Liuga's conversation with Krystian Lupa on August 1, 2020.


In his Austerlitz Sebald writes that we perceive history as pictures etched within our heads,  however, the truth lies somewhere else, in some yet undiscovered recess. In one of his interviews, he puts it even more radically – says that history takes place the very instant we start thinking about it. Austerlitz is a book about the horror of history but it contains no images of historical horrors as we know them. Sebald takes roundabout routes, wanders on the fringes. What makes this path of Sebald so special?

It is one of those things which have instantly become very intimate and absorbing to me. Sebald sees the process of writing not as writing about something he already knows or has learned, not as writing which reflects his intention, perceptions, clouds of narration. For him writing begins with the description of some primal reality. And the process of writing actually turns into a process of creating this reality. Reality seems to emerge from written sentences, from that which is provoked by them. He, therefore, does not avoid deviating from the points at which, I'd say, further narrative should evolve. In the process of creation the narrative seems to disappear and does not lend itself to regular structuring. As if that which the writer creates were transformed into a kind of chaos. (...) Sebald's method of writing... he seems to be getting ready for the moment which perhaps is hard and frightening to him, when he must start to write... Actually, Thomas Bernhard quite often writes about this dread too. About that which irreversibly occurs this very moment, because we now begin to write... Sebald used to create images by resorting to photos which he desired to approximate. In Austerlitz, the initial mysterious encounter between the narrator and the protagonist is like a result of an alchemical process achieved through images – collections of photographs. As these photos are being arranged, a search for certain associations, ties, and intimacy is taking place. That very instant begin the first initiations of this process and give birth to our protagonist, to his way of thinking which is slightly different from that of the author. And, I'd say, thus history is born, although it seems to be a sort of game the author plays with his own self.

In Austerlitz Sebald's writing is like a radical thought process. It reaches the limit of cognition and then presents mere facts. And, subsequently, it goes even further, invoking personal reflections. I memorized one sentence from your book Utopia: "I always hope that something still exists there, in the very end, or maybe even deeper, far beyond the end..."

Yes. Beyond the limits of the end... To transcend the limits of the end. Because, first of all, this end does not exist. When I read Austerlitz, it appears to me that from a certain moment on this end could be in very different places. I'd say, the protagonist of Austerlitz does not acknowledge the fiasco of his goal. Austerlitz's goal has become too advanced, too morbid to be given up... We all basically carry in ourselves the motif of the lost paradise, about which Rilke wrote that for us childhood is always associated with something lost. Because it, our childhood, pertained to many possibilities for us to become, to come into existence, and to this potential, the primary material provided for us by nature. In childhood, before we even get to know this potential, we lose a great deal of it. So this is a sort of common motif, and it is very important that this motif of the lost paradise, of the lost quest for oneself is universal. In Austerlitz this loss – when at some point in childhood the said collapse occurs and the authentic past with real parents and real beginning of life is lost – cannot be restored. Any efforts to effect this fail and raise the basic question – who am I? The war and its absurdity have caused a multitude of such collapses. All this has touched the lives of many people. The instant when Austerlitz's whole life gets as though stricken through is highly symptomatic. We're talking about the instant when a child's ability to disavow the real is so strong that we are dealing with a total disavowal here. In other words, the past is completely lost. It means that the loss at this moment is like a universal metaphor. And we have a protagonist in whom this universal theme gains a shocking example. He is as though carried over from an ancient tragedy, as if archetypal. And we could say that this is my own childhood, this is my story, even though I have not lost my father, and my childhood was not cut short, I was not adopted, and so on. I read this story as my own.

The symbiosis of Sebald and Austerlitz is special in the sense that one of them is a German, another one – a Jew...

The genius of Sebald's book lies in this special condition. Beside the already mentioned loss of childhood and one's very "I", it extends over Sebald's own loss of connection with his national identity and over his affinity to the Jewish people which was nearly destroyed during the war. All the things mentioned here merge together and become a multilayered story. (...) Austerlitz seems to accommodate within himself all the spectres begotten by the twentieth century. He is sensitive enough to perceive this and to suffer from this as a victim, but also, being a victim, he experiences and witnesses the fates of other victims. It's hard to imagine how it would be possible to sense them deeper without being a victim oneself. On the other hand, Austerlitz is a man too weak to live through this experience and he seems to turn into a victim for a second time while trying to do it, to comprehend, having become a participant in the processes of recognition. Together with Austerlitz we suffer defeat, yet this defeat of ours at the process of knowing is extremely significant, extremely valuable.

You once told the actors in a rehearsal that while speaking on the theme of the Holocaust, we can't experience artistic satisfaction, because failure is inevitable here. Why?

Because an artist's search for satisfaction is inseparable from his/her personal desires. And they often prevail, since we would rather score a success than struggle with a theme. Thus we abandon and betray it, especially if the theme requires sacrifice. I believe this is a special theme demanding sacrifice. At a certain point in the process of work, let's say, during the second phase of rehearsals, I often experience fear whether that which I'm creating is going to be attractive, interesting. Quite frequently this fear and concern about our success makes us betray our theme. Then we feel like prostitutes vis-a-vis the theme we are absorbed in. I very strongly perceive Sebald's resistance to this, and I value it greatly. Had Sebald been thinking about his success, he would have written more attractive novels. Yet he gives up on literary attractiveness for the sake of sacrifice. If Sebald wouldn't do it, he would betray his literary predecessor.

In his books Sebald uses documentary photos. To him they are important as he begins to write and think about the places he describes. In your production you make use of the documentary material from such Sebald-described locations – the former Breendonk and Theresienstadt concentration camps. What makes it important to you?

All these sights embody the absurdity which is too unbearable for our imagination. Those are damned places. One could say, stained by extraordinary mistakes, holding something inconceivable, something which transcends the region of normalcy. (...) Today these locations are dead and turned into memorials of crimes. I am greatly worried lest these places get overnarrated by us, lest they become an illustration. We shouldn't try to explain them, because these places defy explanation, they are just there. In the case of Austerlitz, these locations basically do exist when they distort thought, imagination, time. And thus hinder the viewer from understanding something in a simple and mundane, popular way. We shall not provoke the viewers' emotions through pictures of these locations. Here we are dealing with experiences which do not demand emotion. We are talking about new metaphysical experiences. Once we used to be puzzled by the strangeness of the world, and now, when the twentieth century is over, we are surprised by the weirdness of our own creations, by their monstrosity, and by humanity's mistakes reflected in our architecture.

In his novel The Rings of Saturn Sebald writes that with experience our ken gets narrower and our spiritual development by far does not imply real knowing, because we shall never comprehend these immeasurable influences which actually determine our path of life. We could say that Austerlitz as a whole is his one big effort to comprehend that which determines our path of life. For Sebald it was a personal effort. And for you?

Yes. All this is very personal. For me this question is related to reflection which I share with others. It is a very personal reflection. Sebald has sort of helped me to formulate it quite clearly and to do it in a somewhat different way. (...) Today when I think about the anxiety which pertains to the latest human experiences in various spheres of life, I am convinced that by far more important than any discoveries and achievements is to realize what is going on with us. It is important to cover this path regardless of  phenomenal success in thinking or in art. No matter how hard this path may be, we have to cover it. The viewer also should be somewhat prepared for the fact that our new artistic endeavours are not success-oriented because we are entering a period of increasingly complex confrontations. If we keep worrying just about success of our new works, we basically will grow ever more anachronistic. We have to change our artistic philosophy – this is of paramount importance. We must convey our need for renewal to the audience. We need to renew ourselves for the sake of encountering the more and more complicated questions even if we are not capable of answering them at all. Because what is an answer? Perhaps it is just a regular human error. According to Jung, the most important issues, the most important problems of mankind cannot be resolved, yet mankind keeps raising these issues anyway and seems to outgrow them. You live with a question which cannot be answered, and your life as though engulfs it. At some point the question does shape you even if you've left it unanswered.