i was going over some stuff i wrote a few years ago – a couple of letters i thought about sending. one of them to paul auster and the other to eva hoffman. i do not really know why i wrote them any more. it certainly must have been the desperation i was going through trying to arrange the ideas i had while writing my ph.d. …
but here they are:
I’ve been toying with the idea of writing to you for a couple of months now. Bits of sentences that might fit into such an epistle kept spinning in my head. But nothing clear, nothing specific. Every so often, under the influence of your ideas about coincidence, I felt like jotting down something in the way of… “Hi! This is just a sign from a Romanian living in Austria, trying to work on a Ph.D. about identity, language and multiculturalism. Should you come across any of the above mentioned things these days, it means the coincidence theory still works! Oh, and my name is Gabriel…”
But it did not feel right. Because I do not intend this to be a fan-letter. I do like your writing indeed, but I never thought about writing an extolling note. I was just surprised by some of the stories in the ‘Red Notebook’. Leaving aside coincidences as such (which, by some coincidence seem to be playing a significant role in my own life) I am trying to figure out other puzzles: issues that deal with identity. That is, narrative identity. Not only of characters in a story, but of people, in real life. One of the philosophers I am interested in is Paul Ricoeur. He developed a theory of identity that is quite ‘clean’ (i.e., that does not rest on the idea of immaterial substance, etc.) and gives a few pertinent answers. I adhere to his ideas for various reasons (philosophical and personal). However, after ‘The Red Notebook’ I found myself facing a difficult question.
Ricoeur’s theory starts with Aristotle and Augustine. It receives input from the former in the dimension of narrative and from the latter in the dimension of time. After elaborate constructions, Ricoeur ends up going beyond analogies between narratives and life. ‘Literature is a vast ethical laboratory’, he says. Stories augment our understanding of the world. Our own story, when told to others or even to ourselves, puts issues of self-awareness and self-understanding in a completely new perspective. As well, as it happens in a story when contingent elements become necessary to the plot taken as a whole, contingent events become an integral part of our own life. Through the plot, through narrating our life, these diverse and different elements are brought together in a unity, under the sign of necessity. Now, how does one find a place for coincidences here? They are not contingent elements. It’s not as if we have many possibilities but only choose one thing. Because with coincidences one loses one’s power of choice and with that, one’s status as agent, as doer.
More: Milan Kundera’s ‘Immortality’. He goes overtly against Aristotle, saying bluntly that he does not want to chase the characters up the narrowing street of the plot, towards the climax point. Something like: ‘Let them be!’. The plot loses its Aristotelian structure: beginning, middle and end. It dissipates in a multitude of directions. Like a kaleidoscope.
So, how does one narrate one’s story at times when coincidences strike, when ‘being lived’ seems more in place than ‘living’? What’s the status of a coincidence? It seems it is definitely free from our power as agents. And it is not a simple event, something that purely happens. Might it be something in the middle, between motive and cause, between action and event, but with serious implications on us?
I do not know how to answer this yet.
Do you have any suggestions?
My best wishes,
Dear Mrs. Hoffman,
I am a Ph.D. student at the University of Vienna. My research deals with issues connected to identity, language and multiculturalism. I intend to use your book ‘Lost in Translation’ as a case analysis, trying to point out how intimately language and identity are laced.
Although it only happened a couple of months ago and by pure chance, reading ‘Lost in Translation’ proved to be a capital experience. After it, a good number of things started to fit together, to make sense.
I remember how, while still in Romania, I had to keep company to a Japanese physicist who came to visit some friends. Neither of us had a very good command of English but we managed to have a simple, straight forward dialog. At one point, he told me a little story, something that had happened to him. I cannot remember what it was because I got stuck when he said ‘I…’ and pointed, unexpectedly, to his mouth, as if trying to touch the word coming out, the ‘I’ which for me, until then, was located somewhere a bit higher than the solar plexus. Later, when I allowed myself to go over it again, I realized I just met another kind of ‘I’, another way a person related to their own identity. The ‘I’ was spoken; it had the apparent immateriality of words.
After a couple of years, in a small city in Canada, I was struggling to find a way to voice my thoughts, something that would allow myself and the world to meet without much complication. For a time I wrote, in Romanian, a sort of diary, something where I brought myself in front of myself, attempting a validation of my own ‘I’. But words just flew away, disappeared in a black hole, eaten up by emptiness, an absence of a ‘radiating haze of connotations’. An ‘I’ shaped hole in the written Universe. I tried to level it up by making use of English in all other kinds of writing which did not involve me directly. A failed project. My attempt to be faithful (on my own) to my native tongue, to keep the old associations words had for me proved to be a fiasco. The mistake was that I was trying to rebuild the world I took with me in my new surroundings. Somehow, following Plato, to make the world fit my Forms/Ideas, my Romanian Forms/Ideas. But the world I was living in was not Romanian any longer. My Ideas did not rest on anything real. I was living in an artificial world. Thus, I had to choose to live either in an artificial Romanian world or in a real English world. I opted for the second. I was aware of the challenges that came along but I remained determined in my choice.
Now I try to make sense of the changes I went through. My work is a sort of investigation in today’s unavoidable state of being ‘lost in translation’. As I received considerable help from your book, I try to get access to other essays you wrote that centre on identity and language. However, there is a difficulty I have to confront with: my minute search through the Viennese libraries did not bring much satisfaction. From the Internet, I got a few interviews and some book reviews but, although they were a good read, I am sure I need more. This is why I would like to ask you (if it is possible) to let me know of any (digital) resources of/about your writing and about works that you consider important or think might go in the same direction as your ideas about language and identity.