Søren Larsen, 2016-2017 Thanks To Scandinavia Scholar at Cornell University
Søren Larsen is a Danish PhD. student at Cornell University in the Department of German Studies. He works primarily within the fields of philosophy, political science and the arts. He is a recipient of the Thanks To Scandinavia Richard and Alice Netter Scholarship at Cornell University.
What brought about your strong interest in German Jewish philosophy and literature?
If the writers I have been interested in were German-Jewish, that has been a serendipitous but unsought-for accidental reading. I was mostly interested in philosophy, and some of the best, to my mind, just happened to be “German-Jewish”– like Franz Rosenzweig, Walter Benjamin, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, or Karl Marx. But I would say this: what happens specifically in German-Jewish philosophy is an experience of Modernity, which is perhaps unparalleled, at least it seems to me. What is special about those writers is that they found themselves writing in a language, German, that was both very intimate to them, and which, like in Kafka, they mastered like no one else, but at the same time had this sense of non-belonging, of not offering a home. At the same time, many of them also felt estranged from the Jewish tradition. While such “disenchantment” and “homelessness” are often used to describe Modernity, this became a much more concrete experience in the German-Jewish tradition.
Who is your favorite author and why?
I would recommend the Hungarian Imre Kertesz. He is one of the most nuanced, direct, complex and important authors I know. He also most deservedly won the Nobel Prize in 2002, although he is fairly little read. Most of his work is set around his own life, especially his experience as a 15-year-old in a concentration camp and later in the Communist regime in Hungary. He insists he is not a “Holocaust-writer”, and generally, I would say he instead writes about terror, Totalitarianism, freedom, the possibility of the divine in a modern world. His style has an intensity and insistency that is very striking, often using long monologues, where he in complicated ways repeats certain sentence fragments. I often have a both very modest and very sensational feeling when reading him, saying to myself: “this is what literature can do” – it all comes together and it all feels so very important. My favorites among his work include Fateless and Kaddish for an Unborn Child.
Who is Kierkegaard to you and how did he influence you?
I love Søren Kierkegaard! He was a Danish Christian philosopher writing around the middle of the 19th century. He is an extremely sharp and witty writer. He is most often associated with Existentialism, but that is not what attracted me to him. I would say that he is very “contemporary” to us, not despite his theology, but because of it. For Kierkegaard it is never just about me becoming myself (as contemporary coaching-ideology wants us to believe), but rather of being able to relate to others. “God” is in Kierkegaard the name of the absolute Other, of the unrepresentable.
Define literature of “the witness”.
I understand “literature of the witness” to be a literature about memory and historical responsibility in the face of the 20th century’s great human catastrophes, in particular the Holocaust. Of course, there is no single overarching “literature of the witness”, but many, so it would in fact be better to speak in the plural about “literatures of the witness or witnesses”. In the writings of Imre Kertesz, Robert Antelme, Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, and Paul Celan, for example, we encounter the Holocaust through an individual account in a first-personal perspective, but such a perspective is also always bound up with deeply-rooted stylistic devices drawn from the Western literary tradition. We call this a literature of the witness and not simply a witness account, because these writers specifically write in a literary way about the Holocaust, a way that is not just journalistic or documentary. It is both highly personal and very conscious of its own style.
This literature must confront the deep difficulty of depicting atrocity, especially because anyone who did survive, really did not “witness” the atrocity in its greatest depth: death. Yet, those who escaped death carry a responsibility. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida often quotes the German poet Paul Celan in this regard: Niemand zeugt/für den/Zeugen (No one witnesses for the witness).
Are we all, in some way, witnesses?
Difficult, but important question. Yes and no. Again, I would quote the Celan line from above: Niemand zeugt/für den/Zeugen. No other subject can really witness again what the witness has witnessed first-hand. But there is still an obligation and a responsibility to try. I think that literature, or art in general, can try to portray that twilight zone of witnessing and not-witnessing at the same time, that zone of being included and excluded, of being inside and also outside a community.
In broader terms, though we should speak carefully here, everyone is a witness, because the Holocaust affects every political, ethical or ontological sphere after it. And just as the Holocaust emanates into a broad future beyond itself, it may also have emerged from a broad history before itself. It is a question to what extent that catastrophe was made possible not just by a singular barbaric political regime, but also by a technological world, and in a language, which was enmeshed in the history and development of Western culture and civilization. Since we still live in that civilization we are still inextricably tied to many beliefs and values inherent to that culture, albeit in different degrees.
What are the consequences of that responsibility?
There is of course no 1:1 balance sheet. But let us say that there is a responsibility to read and write about those literatures of the witness, a responsibility to uphold the fragile experience of individuals in the face of barbaric and indifferent history, and to do the most to avoid those kinds of political regimes and decisions that could ever again lead to such a human catastrophe.
Why study philosophy?
I like philosophy because for me it is about criteria for choosing, for living one’s life. How is the debate framed in the first place? What options are available in the way the context is presented? I think philosophy does not so much give answers, but rather asks whether or not “we” are asking the “right questions” That is to say, the very way the problem is structured is part of the same problem.
I think this more original purpose of philosophy is important to emphasize now, because it seems to me that philosophy and humanities in general are seen as making “consultants”. That is to say to take the riots in Paris in 2006, what the politicians asked of the philosophers was to “consult” them, how to appease them i.e. “control the crowds”. This is problematic, because, in my view, the role of philosophy is to ask, why were they doing it in the first place. In short, I think philosophy should not only be for consultants, but also to make a kind of “diagnosis” of society as well.
On a more personal level, I guess I was drawn to philosophy because I could never understand why I was doing the things I did, and I needed stronger criteria for choosing.
Tell us about your experience at Cornell.
Cornell is a really good university. I like the German Department because it is very diverse in terms of gender, research interests, age, nationality and so on. I really have the feeling that people work as a strong team there. Cornell has also traditionally been very strong in humanities. But for me it was more the strong personal connection with the people I met there. I did not see myself in the German department at first, because I thought the interests would then be more “limited” to specific contexts directly related to German language and culture. But, in fact, the opposite was the case, it was very “non provincial” in that sense, very internationally and interdisciplinary minded – which I think is important if something like “German studies” should continue to have the same relevance. I think universities in the US are a bit more “modern” in this regard. I would prefer to study German literature in the US over Germany or Denmark (which is a bit of a paradox). But it just seems to me, that the ambitions are a bit higher in the US. I feel as a student that I am more encouraged to take risks and that I can have time to do so. I miss friends and family in Denmark, of course, but I am truly grateful to be here.
What will you do when you graduate?
When I finish I do not know what I will do yet. I know I would want the thoroughness of research in some sense, but also want to be part of the public debate. I often feel a bit split between, say my love of these long-gone philosophers, like Kant, and my interest in contemporary culture and politics, like hip-hop. In the end it also just depends on where the jobs are. In a way I would like to go back to Europe, but I will have to see if it is possible. It seems right now that if you want to write books and do research, the US is the better (and maybe only) option.
What is your connection to TTS?
I think it is a fantastic organization. It reminds us of some of the great heroic deeds of the 20th century, of the fragility of human life, of the violence of history, of the need to respect and help each other. While I had grown up hearing stories about Danish Jews and their fate during the Occupation, it was only with TTS that I also got to read personal accounts, all of which are very moving and inspiring. TTS is today also helping scholars, giving them the opportunity to do their best work in the name of this legacy, and they have generously helped me. I greatly appreciate TTS and hope they can continue their work for a long time to come!
Interview conducted by Liv Grimsby