Ulrich Baer: I am a writer, editor, translator, and critic. After arriving in this country at age 20 I worked as a waiter for several years and then studied first at the University of California Berkeley, then at Harvard University and finally at Yale where I received my Ph.D. in comparative literature. I was very fortunate to have inspiring teachers, among them Jean-François Lyotard, Shoshana Felman, Avital Ronell, Geoffrey Hartman, and Jacques Derrida.
Although some of these teachers are philosophers my first love for a long time was poetry, and I devoted myself to rendering more clear to myself what moves me so much in reading first-person lyric poetry in particular.
After teaching for a while I started getting involved in administration. I greatly enjoy facilitating projects that allow students and scholars to work especially in international and diverse environments and new contexts.
After 9/11 I edited an anthology with writings from New York City about that fateful day, and then began translating the Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke to get through a tough year. It had been my impulse to contact writers of fiction and poetry, because journalism failed fo explain to me what had happened that day. I read about 9000 of Rilke’s letters and distilled the wisdom I found in those into several edited books. I return to academic writing occasionally but do not think that that genre alone can convey what I want to say.
In all of my work I try to discover what we do not know about ourselves, and yet manage to bear witness to through art.
I have written extensively on the representation of trauma in photography, and have recently started making my own photographic objects using images of people who mean a lot to me–For example W. E. B. Dubois–and printing those on new surfaces. And I write stories – I’m a parent and a prolific storyteller for my children and others whom I love.
I speak fluent German, French, reasonably bad Spanish, and fool myself into believing that people in Shanghai understand me when I try my Mandarin on them. I write mostly in English but occasionally in German. I have hopelessly teen taste in music – not the top 10 but really only the top 5 of what’s being played on mainstream radio. Maybe a bit of Orff, too, and very late Wagner, with my Lady Gaga.
I practice Shaolin kung fu, and see no break between that practice and the work I do writing, teaching, or helping NYU become a place where scholars and students can truly explore new ideas.
My next book to appear is an edited collection of essays on Hannah Arendt, to which I contributed some reflections on Arendt’s outrageously regressive take on race in America.
Glenn Wallis: I’m here with Ulrich Baer in his apartment in Greenwich Village, New York City. And, we’re going to have a conversation.
Ulrich Baer: Hi, how are you, Glenn?
GW: I’m just going to ask you a question to start off, and we’ll take it wherever it goes. You’ve translated and written about Rilke, Baudelaire, Celan; you’ve written reviews and critiques of artists, both conceptual and representative; you’ve written about photography; you’ve written on philosophers—Heidegger and Arendt; you’ve written creatively, in the form of short stories. Is there is a single interest of yours that runs through all of these people and genres that you choose to work with?
UB: I was actually thinking about this type of question, anticipating it a bit, and I was thinking whether there’s anything that ties all of my work together. I think it’s hard for people to see my work as coherent, in a way, but I think that there is something that I’m trying to figure out or do. What I’ve been trying to do in my critical work, when I’m writing on Celan or Baudelaire or Rilke, is to show how art—or poetry in this case, really—has to interrupt itself to say something. I mean several very specific things and something very general. The specific things are, for example, how poetry has to continually challenge its own forms. So, how poets use certain forms and then break those forms apart in order to say something. I’ll get to what I mean by “saying something”—it’s speaking for yourself or on behalf of yourself…
GW: …now when you say—sorry to interrupt you—that poets use certain forms and then break those forms apart, do you mean that they come into the form with certain ideas about what constitutes, say, poetry, but then in saying what they want to say, or are trying to say, they find that they must necessarily alter the form somehow?
UB: That’s part of it. I tried to locate Baudelaire as our first poet of modernity and Celan as the last poet of our modernity, and Celan on this point between modernity and post-modernity. Maybe I should say something about why Celan is not really a postmodern poet. A postmodern poet would be someone who takes a form and very self-consciously breaks up that form. Celan remains a modern poet. He inherits certain forms. We all inherit certain forms and ways of speaking, certain patterns of language and so on. And Celan has no reason to challenge this form. There’s no—these poets are not thinking there’s not enough space for me, or anything like that, or a need to create something new. It’s rather that, trying to say something always means interrupting yourself, interrupting yourself from a certain habit of thinking, let’s say, interrupting language itself, or turning language slightly against itself. Slightly, and only so much that you’re still comprehensible to yourself and others, and not in a self-conscious and deliberate way, which I would consider a kind of postmodernist project in that you continually point at the structure as you’re undoing them and it’s a very self-aware process. That’s fine, that’s one thing to do, but it’s not what these poets are about, these…
GW: …well, in Celan’s case, he, this kind of stutter, this inability to speak is also what he found in himself in writing about his experience, so that the form he employs just echoes that struggle to speak…
UB: …right, yes. There is this dimension in a part of my work where I investigate whether there is a difference in writing about trauma in the 1860s and the 1960s, and…
GW: …you think Baudelaire was also writing about trauma?
UB: Trauma in the way that Walter Benjamin defines it, as the extremity of modern experience, involving the impact of too many sensory impressions to assimilate. So, just too much information that you could consider—it’s not the same as other kinds of trauma—but a kind of trauma. Benjamin uses Freud’s description of trauma, that it’s overwhelming experience. And then my question was, when there is catastrophic trauma, in Celan’s case the Holocaust, to which his parents fell victim, and the Germans murdered his entire community. He’s trying to account for this, to bear witness to this. And there, I think you’re right, the form has to be changed. But actually, Celan is not somebody who only, and exclusively, wants to speak about this destruction. He also wants to speak about the possibility of affirming language as still testifying to life. So the aspect of poetry claiming a space in language that is outside of habitual, everyday language. I think this is what interested me in Celan probably as much as the testimonial aspect to the catastrophe.
GW: So maybe in such a case, just replicating existing forms would ring hollow somehow, would just come across as…
UB: …I think because—we all live in existing forms, we speak in sentences and patterns that have been handed down to us, and that’s how we exist in the world. That’s part of what the world is, to accept that we’ve been born into structures that outlast us and preexist us. But the other part of being in the world is to re-create and re-fashion those structures. So, poetry gives us an example of how this is done, of how you inherit these accepted forms but then undo them from within. The way in which we become human beings in a world that is given to us, but it’s not entirely our world. It’s always a little bit, something we have to claim for ourselves. So, this is what poetry, it stakes this kind of claim on, on [pause] being present—which seems absurd. You would think you wouldn’t have to claim anything, you’d just say something, and there you are, you’d just speak, and there you are. But poetry says you have to speak and make sure that this is you who are speaking, that you’re not just echoing something else.
GW: You would think that in endeavoring to do this, to speak in this way, you’d have a natural and, again, maybe necessary, resistance to pre-existing formulas and structures, because those conventions end up doing a lot of your speaking for you.
UB: Yeah, they do. And it’s important to think that this is a good thing. If you refuse all given structures you’re probably in a completely different space, you’re in the space of psychosis or something like that. You’re just speaking to yourself, you’re speaking to nobody else. So, poetry has to find a way to break—like I said earlier, poetry is an art that has to go against itself.
GW: Can I ask you something about that? You mentioned that earlier, and it stayed with me. I was thinking of how when we speak we constantly interrupt ourselves. Because it’s not that we have some idea fully formulated in our heads and we then just spill it out with language. But rather we’re thinking it through, we’re formulating the idea along with the language. Do you mean something similar in an art form, this idea of constant interruption of oneself?
UB: Interruption in a certain way is also something that, well. Celan gives this speech in the 1960s, the Meridian speech, a very important speech, in which he talks about art and Büchner and traditional Romantic art and representational art, and he says art has to be directed primarily at art and against art. And there’s a certain part of Celan coming out of Brecht and people like that who think that art has to destroy its own forms. But in an interruption, there’s an opening. When you say we continually interrupt ourselves because we don’t quite know what we want to say yet, or something like that, I think we do this to create an opening for ourselves to think…
GW: …so literally a rupture of sorts that…
UB: …yeah, because you break a pattern, suddenly there is a gap. And something can happen in this gap. And poetry is particularly important, I think, because it’s very, very close to thinking. Because it is also language in this intensified, condensed form. It allows us to see what we’re actually doing when we think. So—and this is not my idea—this is Heidegger and Arendt thinking about poetry. To them, poetry is closer than other art forms to thinking, to how we actually think, because we think in language. We think mostly in language. Some of my other work is on images, which is something I’m interested in because I’m not sure whether some people actually think in images. I mean, I’m not sure if that’s actually possible, or if that’s thinking in the way I mean it. There’s something else at stake here. But if you think about how you interrupt yourself to say something, when you’re correcting or hesitating, and saying it in a different way, in those moments, in those intervals—this is when you’re thinking.
GW: So in that sense, thinking is not just some sort of discursive practice, this kind of interior chatter that is regurgitating data and information derived from the sense organs, data that can only be spit out via linguistic formulas that we all know, so that the other person optimally understands us. But it is rather thinking that thinks against these conventions, these formulas. So, poetry is closer to thinking because of its—I don’t know—somewhat, not cryptic, but its, its hesitant nature—it often risks incomprehensibility. And we don’t do that, risk that, at least not intentionally, in everyday conversation.
UB: I think a lot of, I assume a lot of what we do in thinking is to face the incomprehensibility of ourselves and of the world. And then we try to make sense of it, which is, you know, kind of impulse. So this incomprehensibility is not that there is this overarching—it’s not that everything is incomprehensible. But there are moments in ourselves that are empty and open in this way. And what those moments provide is the possibility that there, in that moment, we can see the world in a slightly different way. So when you’re talking, and somebody says something, and you think, hmm, I’ve never really thought of it this way—you do this to yourself also. But it’s rare to do it to oneself, I think. Language, in some way, and poetry in particular, can do this. Freud teaches us that when we misspeak—make a Freudian slip—we reveal our own unconscious to ourselves in that moment. You know: I didn’t really mean to say my son; I meant to say my brother. This displacement reveals something about how I feel about my family structures, or whatever. So, Freud says that language reveals an unknown part of ourselves to ourselves. Poetry can do that. Poetry can show to us—when it’s incomprehensible, or difficult or obscure—that there’s a part of us that’s obscure to us, that we continually try to reveal to ourselves and to others. But if there is a part of me that hasn’t made sense of some feature of the world, and I want to make sense of it, I don’t want to make sense of it in ways that others have made sense of it. I have to make sense of it in a way that matters to me. And at the same time I’m trying to communicate this. I’m saying that it matters to me.
GW: And that could be the pivot point where you could spin either over into convention or into something creative, saying something that matters to you in a way that, first of all borders on being incomprehensible to you, yet is expressible, but requires an expression that is very—individual?
UB: Yeah. And it could be conventional in a—I’ve worked on Rilke for many years now, translating Rilke. Rilke’s great achievement is, he writes maybe some of the greatest love poetry in the twentieth century. For him, love is not a, you know, romantic, minor thing. It’s one of the two important modalities in which we can actually be in touch with ourselves and, for a moment, become a little greater, a little more, than ourselves in our usual, everyday ways of being. So we are in a kind of immanence in love that allows us to transcend our condition, for very, very brief moments. What he says also, then—you know, he’s a very realistic poet, sometimes he can actually be quite funny—and he also says: the problem is I fall in love with somebody and that person brings you out of yourself, perhaps a little more than what you had been until you met this wonderful, beautiful, amazing other person with whom you just fell madly in love. And then, he Rilke says, the other’s face is in the way, that beautiful face, because then you can’t see you can’t see transcendence or eternity or anything like that, because the other person is too concrete, literally obstructing the view. So, he also brings you right down to reality. I got to Rilke because I was interested in this idea that there’s a way in which we can, in our lives, reach a greater awareness, one that is not bound up in any religion, or in any hope for transcendence, in the sense of some super-human mind.
GW. Are you talking about a “greater awareness” in relation to what you had going into the experience—of falling in love or whatever?
UB. Um, in relation to, maybe, what you are at any given moment. The idea is that you can have a deeper awareness at any moment to the moment prior to it. That you can have epiphanies. You can have an understanding of something that you didn’t have before.
GW. So, do you think that that is a general function of artists and writers in general, and of these figures and genres that you’re interested in, to…
UB. …yeah, but, if you think about them, Baudelaire—I’ve never thought about them this way—Rilke, Celan, I mean there is a reason that I moved toward them from a certain direction, I started with Baudelaire and then I went to Celan. My native language is German. I couldn’t get to Rilke until I had passed through Celan…
GW. …why do you think that is…
UB. …who deconstructs—Celan deconstructs German in a very fundamental way, in a way where you can’t really reconstitute it afterwards. That’s why I call him the last poet of modernity. He’s at the end of a tradition and of a language used in a certain way. I’m not sure if that can ever be redone. And for him this is because it passes through being the language of a kind of mechanized genocide that is not easily dissociated from German as a language. And for me Rilke was too–the German was too melodious and it was too good, in a way. It was too complete, and actually had this promise of transcendence. And I thought, oh he’s promising something greater in German. And then I went back to Rilke after Celan and I translated Rilke into English. So, in some ways, what I find in Rilke is that it’s not the German which makes this promise, but he as a poet is continually trying to find this other place in himself to have some greater awareness, which means it’s not bound up with his German and his incredibly great gift for poetry. He was one of the greatest, a gifted rhymer—he was rhyming way too much. Lou Andreas-Salomé said to him early on, “you’re a great poet” –when he was 19 and she was his lover, she’s 36—and she says, “you’re really great and really talented but you really are overdoing it with the rhyming” (laughs). Take the foot off the pedal a little bit. It’s too much. It was too much in a way, too much “poeticity” in his poetry. And then Rilke kind of pares it down. So in the Elegies, later on, they actually, in a weird way, take away the poetic aspects, the artifice, and get to something—for me—more essential. He gets to something about how language relates us to the world.
GW: And there’s less rhyming, too?
UB: Less rhyming, almost none. And it’s not a form of the elegy anymore. It’s not conventional. In fact you could say it’s inventing a new form. But he’s trying to map out what it means for us to be speaking subjects in the world. Which is, what does it mean to us that we actually articulate ourselves as human beings, and that language is one of the fundamental ways in which we relate to the world, and how we constitute the world to us and to others. This is not an incidental thing. It’s not just another mode of being in the world. Language is a very fundamental thing. And there’s something—Baudelaire’s a fallen Catholic and breaks with tradition and is very conventional in certain ways, and writes these gorgeous French sonnets and writes against tradition, writes against Catholicism, but it’s heavily infused with Catholic prose and imagery. He’s close to Nietzsche in a way. He’s turning against God, but God is really present there.
GW: You don’t really make that point in the book. I mean you don’t even really talk about Baudelaire’s Catholic background.
UB: No. I really locate him in Paris, the capital of the nineteenth century, as a poet of modernity. The Catholicism, I left that out. But in that book [Remnants of Song: Trauma and the Experience of Modernity in Charles Baudelaire and Paul Celan] I left out a lot of the prose writings, and the journals. I really was just interested in this one aspect how he tried to account for modern experience.
GW: So you say Celan is the last of the modernist poets, but yet he’s not a post-modern poet?
UB: So the distinction would be, I think, that Celan still believes that poetry and language is an authentic way in which one can articulate oneself in the world. The post-modernists wouldn’t believe in the idea of authenticity, they wouldn’t believe in the idea of subjectivity, they wouldn’t believe in the idea of self. They say you are constituted through different forces. There’s a kind of performativity aspect to it, or the self or the subject is formed through all sorts of other ways. It’s not that you can return to this kind of essence or this kind of idea, which is a really problematic concept, but the “I,” the voice speaking, is also very important for poetry. So Celan is trying to hold onto this, having suffered this incredible catastrophe, so he’s a kind of survivor of trauma, who’s hanging onto something. And he never takes a part of form for its own sake, there’s no playfulness, there’s no Philip Glass–like let’s investigate the forms where the form itself, or the investigation of the form, becomes the subject matter of the work.
GW: Celan is just struggling to speak.
UB: He’s struggling to speak. And he wants to speak and he believes speaking is still possible and really important. And then at some point it’s no longer possible.
GW: No longer possible for him, personally.
UB: For Celan. Exactly, for him personally. And he’s struggling on a personal level. And we never quite know what those connections are—between the personal life and the work. It’s an open question. Foucault, at the end of Madness and Civilization,talks about Hölderlin going mad, and he says, for us this would seem to answer the question, that great poetry ultimately goes into what we call insanity. And then Foucault says, instead, this remains a question for us. We have no idea how to make sense of it. We tend to think we know how there is a connection, and he, Foucault, says, what we need to understand is either the connection or the impossibility of linking those two things. So, for Hölderlin that isn’t a transition—you go from great poet into insanity—the kind of cult of the Romantic genius and madness. So Foucault says, no, this question remains our question today. We haven’t figured this out. And this would mean Celan reached the end of the possibility of poetry and committed suicide. Those things may be totally unrelated.
GW: There may be an interesting connection here with what you were saying earlier concerning this necessity of really saying what you have to say in the way you have to say it. Doing this may require that you shed certain conventions and speech formulas, and so forth, and, in doing so, push the boundaries of comprehensibility. Only then, maybe, is there some relationship between our thinking and our language and our being. I’ve been reading Artaud lately, and you see that—what is that connection, in his case, between this outlandish creativity and his insanity? Or is it coincidental? You know, you’ve written about it, this kind of shamanic activity of thinking and engaging with certain material, and how it effects how you see and act in the world. And it doesn’t just go in one direction, it has feedback effects.
UB: Yeah, it changes you. I mean, there’s also this way in which you produce work—it’s not really producing, I never think of my work in this way—but I guess when you are writing, you are not creating a product and then putting it out in the world, although I actually like to publish my books so I don’t have to think about these things anymore so much, I’ve never been this person to…
GW: …which things?…
UB: …all the things I write about, I always find I put them in a book because I can’t…
GW: …right, close the covers.
UB: Yeah. And I love the idea that they are books that you can print and put them in a bookshelf, I actually think that’s preferable to a computer file. Because they are on my shelf.
GW: It’s like capping the bottle with the genie in it.
UB: Yeah. Yes. And they’re externalized. And then they do other things and they’re not in me anymore. They remain in me too long, it’s not always comfortable, and you try to work things out because you’re trying to make sense of something.
GW: So, when you’re working on a project, whether you’re writing about an artist or your own short stories, for you that is a process of thinking through something or coming to a greater understanding, even in translating Rilke.
UB: Yeah. Yes. I work on translation, I edit other people’s work, I write about artists, I write stories. In some cases right now, they are all blending a little bit, so I’m writing on photography right now, but I keep ending up writing stories about the images and I invent all sorts of things for the people in these images.
GW: You’re actually writing stories now?
UB: I’m actually writing stories. It’s—I don’t know if anyone will publish them. So, I’m working on this critical essay on Seydou Keïta, this 1960s photographer from Bamako in Mali and he’s really a major studio photographer. I’m making up all these stories about the people in his pictures. So, that’s made up, and that’s fiction, and that’s imagination, and that doesn’t count as scholarship and documentary work, right? But I was rereading it and I thought, I’m actually saying something in it that I don’t think I can say in critical writing. And what I’m trying to say is sort of the affirmation of a person in an image and what this person is trying to do through this image because she is trying to communicate in this image and create a certain kind of community with others, through a photograph. And there are a lot of things going into her thinking, why she’s doing this, and a lot of work going into the thinking of the photographer, the artist here in this case. And I could lay it all out as an argument, but there’s something else that’s not an argument. There is something that is at stake. Something that can’t be described but that is actually enacted. And in your writing you can enact it sometimes. Some people are very good at this. I tend to think that I can do it better in a story than in a critical piece. And it has something to with what I said about Rilke, this kind of trying to break through or trying to work within art to say something where it touches on life, let’s say. And it’s what Artaud tried to do. In some ways, Artaud is trying to burn through theater to have this moment of contact with life, which is what art is trying to do, have contact with what we call the real world. Or life, or reality. Something like, you see a work of art, a good work of art—and I would use this distinction—it actually makes you feel alive, and it makes you feel there was someone struggling with some part of life—pleasant, unpleasant, horrific, good, whatever part—but struggling with something , to capture something, and that’s still in the work. And that’s beyond all the social, cultural, traditional things that went into the work of art. So you think of a painting, there’s all sorts of convention that went into it, they come out of a certain place. But there’s something they are trying to connect and that’s, I would say, what I’m trying to understand. For example, is that something that we would call human? Or universal? Or is that something specific to every culture?
GW: What’s the “that” here?
UB: This part of being, of trying to be in touch with life for a very fleeting moment. And I’m saying fleeting because it’s not the eternal truth embodied here, but it’s what I said earlier, in Rilke, when he writes his love poetry and he writes the Elegies, he said there are moments, sometimes accidental, when we have a greater awareness of ourselves and of the world at the same time. For him, they are kind of, you could say, these mystical moments. They are also very simple. He writes a poem about a swing in a playground, it’s the moment of the swing when it reverses its direction, its weightlessness. When you are at the top of the swing, when it goes up and then at that moment—it’s when a ball is thrown in the air and then at its highest moment and then it starts falling down. But at the moment when there’s weightlessness, he said, for us that’s a very profound experience. It has nothing to do with religion and divinity and God and transcendence, it’s very immanent, and, for Rilke, it also happens to have something to do with our physical sensation. Rilke’s a love poet who writes very, very graphic sexual and erotic poems, which is really important for his work. He never dissociates those two things. He was very much a poet living in his body. Also happily neurotic and Austrian and all that. He was a vegetarian, and had all sorts of other regiments around him. Baudelaire as well, you know, was obsessed with his diet. So these people are not incidentally, I think, writing very, very difficult poetry about this kind of heightened type of experience. You could say it’s very esoteric, removed from the world, and at the same time Rilke writes these really erotic poems about making love to a woman. And he doesn’t use metaphors like “making love.” It’s much more concrete (laughs). So when you mention Artaud, it reminds me of this. Artaud is so concrete, so incredibly concrete, but there are only the briefest of glimpses that he’s in touch with what we call “reality.” I actually think art allows us to see that we are most of the time not totally in touch with reality, although we are living in it. We’re completely in it, we are nowhere else. We’re just here and now, that’s it. But we don’t really seem to be fully aware of that all the time. When I was translating Rilke I was very fortunate to have Harold Bloom blurb my Rilke book. He said this really interesting thing on the back of the book. He wrote by hand, and I have this letter. He said: Rilke is almost Asian in his differences from Goethe, Nietzsche, Freud. And I think he means this sense, let’s say this quest, for awareness or for some kind of oneness, presentness, whatever you want to call it, which sounds kind of Buddhist to us, something like that. And I’m saying it’s a quest, and then Bloom says something quite beautiful, he says: and Rilke tells these women a lie, which is that he loves them and they know it’s a lie and they know he knows, and still they believe it, and so it’s true. This is what we call poetry. It’s very complicated in some ways, that poetry gives us these moments, or art gives us these moments—Artaud, too—of us looking at a work and thinking, wow this gets us closer to reality. But we’re reading a work of poetry, we’re not any closer to reality, we’re not sitting more solidly in the world. But we want to believe that we are, and once we believe it—and this is what Bloom say— this is poetry. It gives us this sense of being more aware. Because it is nothing but a sense. You’re not more real at this moment. You’re not more real. But you are somehow deeper in the world or in yourself. And this is what’s interesting, so Bloom says, this is what all of love and belief depend on in all of poetry—this mutual self-deception (laughs). That’s great! I actually think this is a very fundamental way of being in the world. We convince ourselves we are really in the same world. So, if I can segue here for a moment, so what I was working on this year is, I edited a book of essays on Hannah Arendt, and what I just said is a very Arendtian thought. She says, our mutual belief and trust that we both—Glenn and I—see the world, this same world, from different positions. That’s what our coexistence depends on—that I believe you also see the world around you. That this table and all of this is here in front of us. But don’t know whether you are seeing the same table of course, kind of a Wittgensteinian…
GW: …or seeing it in the same way…
UB: …same way, exactly. But the one thing I know for sure is that I can never see the table from exactly your position and you can never see it from mine. So this in some ways, this is Arendt I think really at her sharpest and what she’s saying here, I can never take your position fully, I cannot presume we share our humanity, and therefore we can just swap places for a moment and I can see things through your eyes. A lot of people read poetry for this reason or literature, which is a good thing to do, or you look at photographs and say, oh, I can see the world of, you know, Shanghai or the world of the Lower East Side, or whatever, through an artist’s eyes. That’s not what art is about. Actually, art is to remind us that I cannot see the world through your eyes, and you cannot through mine. There is an incommensurable dimension of my existence and of yours that we cannot swap and exchange. For Arendt, this is not a negative thing, but this is the opening of the possibility of cohabiting in the world. Because we both have a blind spot. This blind spot is this part that you cannot see the world from my point of view, and I can’t see it from yours. And this awareness creates the possibility of living together. For her, that’s a political basis of everything. The other part of that is: why is that? Why can I never see the world from your place? Because I can never see myself from your position. I am blind to myself from that externalized viewpoint. And no matter how much Baudelaireian kind of self-revelation, I lay my heart bare, this kind of confessional poetry, no artist can ever be seen from the outside, you can never see yourself from this outside point of view. So art reminds us that we are always open to being seen from a place that we can’t occupy. This to me is a really fundamental opening of the world rather than a kind of loss of shared universalism, shared humanity. And I remain skeptical of this idea of a shared humanity. I think that’s a very problematic concept that we all have something in common. I actually think what we have in common is the fact that we know there’s something we don’t have in common. We’re both aware of it. We’re both aware that something in us is not quite accessible or open to the other.
GW: And yet on the other hand, some of what you were saying earlier about poets writing about experience, about suffering in certain ways, part of what makes us attracted to them is some sort of shared suffering or at least a sense of shared experience in life. What made, for example, the early modernists painting or writing so hard for the public to take was that it was presenting the world in a way that was not, or not yet, part of our shared experience.
UB: Yeah. I think there’s a critical and important other dimension to art and it is about actually opening up the world to this other viewpoint. That you can see the world—I said you can never see the world entirely through someone else’s eyes—but you can see large parts of it and…
GW: …or that we’re also, in painting objects in the forms of geometric shapes, or cubist art or whatever, it’s creating a subject who then can take that vision, that view, into the real world, and start seeing things in a new way.
UB: Yeah, and that’s an important and productive political moment to see some cubist work and say I could reorganize or I could see the structure of the world as not internal, not given, that someone could reimagine all of it, could see a house like, you know some German Expressionist or something, see a house and say this house actually looms larger than all the other houses on the street although it’s the same size, and looks menacing, or something else. You can see the world in a new way through art.
GW: You could also make the case, along the same line of thought, that one of the ways that art functions is, it’s not that it’s revealing the world more deeply to us, but for those who participate in it, their view, their visions, are being formed through what they’re getting from the artists.
UB: Yeah, and it changes them. I think art is actually a way—it changes your way of seeing and being in the world, different from teaching. You can be taught to see certain things in a certain way, you can learn a lot of things, you can absorb a lot of knowledge which will change things, but there are other ways in which art opens our eyes to the world. That’s a different way than being taught how to understand something. So there’s another aspect that’s not quite cognitive, but it’s experiential almost. It’s more the way experience shapes our view of the world. And art is an experience in this way. Art can be an experience the way teaching cannot necessarily be. Part of my move from critical writing to creative writing is that I’m not totally convinced that the teaching part is the only, or the best, or the exclusive form or the one I even want to keep on doing. There’s another one.
GW: I wanted to come back to that—a few moments ago, there was an interesting moment when you were talking about writing these critical essays on a photographer, and at some point you’d spin off into more “enacted” presentation by writing stories about the people in the photographs—what I pictured was like Butch Cassidy and his gang standing there getting their picture taken. And so we have this famous photograph. And, I picture that after the photograph was taken, Butch and his gang got up and they did stuff, stuff that outlaw men do, they ordered a drink, they slapped a woman on the butt. There was real life there, real people acting in ways that people do. I have that image in mind. What I find interesting though, in relation to the project I’m doing, is that you’re working within this territory of what constitutes proper work—say, writing a critical analysis—and how to go about thinking and formulating and making arguments, and you’re finding limitations in that. That’s interesting.
UB: Yeah I do find limitations.
GW: But there’s a bit of sort of, chuckle and tension there in your voice, that it’s somehow not very scholarly…
UB: (Laughing) That’s why I said, I don’t know who’s going to publish it yet, so we’ll see.
GW: Is there a tension there? Is that chuckle an implicit critique of scholarship and the work it does?
UB: I didn’t leave scholarly writing because it wasn’t doing its work. There’s a certain level of frustration that it doesn’t reach enough people, or it’s so complicated. I think part of it is because it is so difficult to gain a level of expertise, at least for me it was…
GW: …to read it, you mean?
UB: Yeah, to both read it and to write it. I mean I don’t know, I probably spent something close to twenty-five years reading Rilke before I started writing about Rilke. I mean, I may be very slow, but I just don’t think you can really say a lot of things until you spend a lot of time thinking about it. So, a lot of it is you need this huge amount of preparation, and then you’re writing for people who need at least some preparation, otherwise it’s very, very difficult. And some things are truly difficult. I don’t think they’re reducible to a TED talk. What I said about Hannah Arendt just now, it’s so complex in a way, and you can sort of try—what I tried to explain about Hannah Arendt is actually a good example. How we are in the world. It’s so complex and yet incredibly important, I think, for how we exist in the world, how we coexist. But stories can communicate this, maybe, in a way that critical or philosophical writing does in a very different way. So, I wrote short stories about China, and I wrote these stories about people in Shanghai all of whom, with one exception, are Chinese. China-born Chinese, they speak Chinese, they’ve grown up in Chinese families, they live in Chinese society. And I’m a German who writes in English, which provided a bit of a challenge for some people, my editors, my agents, who said we can’t quite make sense of that so readily because you are a German writing in English and you live in New York and you’re writing about China…
GW: …and they had these doubts before they even looked at your text?
UB: Well, they just didn’t know what to make of this because I’m not the conventional, American boy who went to China to teach English. And I also don’t have the authentic ethnicity of—I’m the global writer who hails from some foreign locale and now makes it big in New York City, which we have really great examples of, we have amazing writers I think and there’s a kind of welcome increase in what we read now so we have people who are now being read who weren’t read before. They come from other places, they come from Nigeria or they come from China or something like that. But I wanted to write these stories because I lived in Shanghai. I met people I really deeply cared about. I got a weird and strange opportunity to see a little bit of their world through their eyes, with all the caveats I said earlier, a world I’d never seen before, which is the same everybody else sees— the big city of Shanghai—and so I thought I wanted to actually write about this without thematizing, oh there’s all these perspectives and all this, but I actually wanted to see what does this actually, what would it mean to actually live in China as a thirty-two year old woman? And, you know, sort of try to pay the rent and teach tai chi and have a landlord who is an asshole, and…
GW: …so one way to think through that was to write a story and create a character who…
UB: …yeah, part of it is also because there are landlords who are assholes in New York City and there are artists struggling to make ends meet here, so there were connections I found. And the great thing about writing fiction for me was I had to teach myself how to write stories, I didn’t just start one morning and write stories and publish them the next week. I worked on them for over five years and I took a class and I worked on them. There was a lot of labor. And I would sit here and focus and sit in silence for twenty minutes and think, what would she do next? And her character and her life, with all of the background that I can imagine, what would she do now? And this particular situation where she is forced to pay the rent on her apartment and the landlord is not going to give her another break, what would she do at this point? And it was, to me, as complicated as developing a philosophical argument. To say, within her character, her story, only this option is available. I couldn’t just make her do stuff. And I felt like I wanted to kind of make her do something and I realized this is no longer—the logic of the work begins to take over and when you’re in the work, I was so in the work that I couldn’t really make her do what I wanted to do. I wanted the story to end in a certain way, but it couldn’t end there anymore because she was this person that I knew—I had to imagine everything about her, from when she was a little kid to today. It had to make sense from within her character and her story. I like this work because I was thinking with the same rigor, but in a completely different way. Could I have written about Shanghai as the great new urban capital of the twenty-first century? Maybe. But would I care to read it? No. Do I want to go to China and read another book about China? No. Would I want to go to China a read a book that’s set in China? Yes.
GW: Do you think there is any link between what you were doing in those stories and what you were saying about art as showing…
UB: …in a way, um…
GW: …or do you think that something like that would be impossible?
UB: In Rilke, in the Letters to a Young Poet, he gives you all this advice—I translated these letters—he tells you how to be an artist, and he’s basically telling you how to be a person, and how to live in the world. And he says, well, you have to work really hard at it. It’s very difficult [laughing]. Be rigorous. Don’t, don’t trifle with your life, you only have one, you know, and it’s hard, and you should attach yourself to whatever is hard. And this was hard. So, I liked doing that part. It was the same way for the characters in my stories. They were living life because life is actually hard. And they took it seriously. So, I think it’s more this kind of an appeal to take yourself seriously. All of these characters in my stories, they all happen to fall in love, and are mostly unhappy, which is too bad for them (laughing). I wanted them to be happy but I couldn’t really…
GW …make it turn out that way…
UB: … I couldn’t make them happy, I know laughing)! That’s something that art doesn’t do. It doesn’t provide solace. That’s a sad thing. You want to feel better, and it doesn’t help. Although you’re fooled a little bit. You go, oh, if I tell my story well, and someone connects to it, but, nah, there is very little connection in the world. What was really fundamental for me about China was that I had never been in a place that was as different. I was fascinated—well, not really, fascination is usually very blinding. I was very drawn into it. I felt very drawn to it. Then, I studied Chinese, which gave me a lot of pleasure but was also extremely frustrating. Because I studied every day for an hour, and my head would hurt, and I thought, Oh my God, I can’t learn anything new in my life. And this was a fundamental insight. I thought: I can’t learn anything new in my life. I’m quite good now at writing critical essays. I could have a career writing about poets and philosophers and probably, actually, be pretty good at it, be a bit of an authority writing on Heidegger and poetry and whatnot. I could have some currency in academia. But then I thought: This is my chance to learn something new. So, I studied Chinese—I know a few words—and I didn’t know that I was going to write fiction at all. I’d never written fiction. I was never that person who has a secret drawer stuffed with poems or something like that. Now that was something I would never have predicted. I went there thinking I’m going to allow myself—I had this immense level of frustration and some sort of conventional mid-life crisis, thinking , so I am just going to go on doing what I’m already pretty good at, for another twenty year? I had an opportunity to learn something new. This is what I meant earlier, that art has to go against itself at some point. As an artist, you’re continually wrestling with thinking about your art form, and trying to get it to a place where it can be back in touch with your life. But if you get very good at it, it’s very hard to get back in touch with your life, because your life is becoming a production of this art. And you may become famous or successful and receive acclaim in some area. Those are of course important things for us as human beings, you know, recognition by others, fame, money, power, whatever. But you’re no longer able to connect it back to life. So, for me, I found it harder to connect my critical writing to life because I think it needs to be driven by a real question, not an abstract question that someone else gave you because it’s interesting to talk about. I did not want to write books about things that are just interesting to talk about. Who’s the best poet, what did Keats mean by so and so, you, know, those things don’t interest me at all. How do you remain awake in writing, or in creating? Somehow I got to this creative place, which was a challenge, kind of like going back to school.
GW: In the old system, and it’s probably still like this in France and some other places, we had the idea of the intellectual, the public intellectual. It wasn’t considered dilettantish to write about all kinds of different things. In fact, that was your job, you were expected to do that. You were a thinker, you understood connections, and you saw how things fit together, and so you wrote about them. But here in America, particularly in academia, if you do that you have to be apologetic about, and defend yourself against charges of dilettantism.
UB: I think you’re right. It’s not so common. I actually…
GW: …it’s not common because it’s not valued institutionally, you’re not rewarded for it…
UB: …my short stories, for instance, don’t count, academically speaking. In the institution they do not exist. That’s odd to me, in a way, and not necessarily in a bad way…
GW: …it’s odd to you because you think it should not be that way or it’s odd to you…
UB: …ideally, I think, a book should be reviewed on its own merits. If it’s a good book of stories, fantastic. If it’s a terrible book of stories, you should be gently and [laughing] politely told you could have worked on it a little more. I’m also a translator. Translation is in the same category. It’s not considered real work. It’s considered some kind of service to something. It’s not acknowledged properly. It doesn’t get remunerated. I’m an editor also.…
GW: …and you don’t really care?
UB: I loved editing 110. Stories. I was in a very, very, very bad place in my life. It was the only thing that kept me going that year. I translated Rilke’s letters and edited 110. Stories in one year. My father died, totally unrelatedly, eight weeks after 9/11, and I couldn’t get those two events separated in my life anymore—these books really sustained me. So, I had to do these books. Having these two texts to work on every morning gave me a way to write. It was not a secondary activity.
GW: Can we revisit this idea of a “blind spot”? When I speak, it’s not as if I have fully formulated what I want to say in my head. Rather, I am figuring out what I am thinking—and what I want to say—as I’m saying it. And the person I’m talking to plays a role in that as well, because what I’m saying is influenced by…
UB: …yes, and these blind spots, you can access those in yourself by realizing, in a conversation, hmm, I’ve never thought of it this way before. This is, for me a very profound thing, to be able to say I have never before looked at the world in this way. This is very profound, that art or critical writing can do this for you. And this experience of reading an article or an essay or a story or looking at an image and seeing the world through—in another way, is to me not unrelated to encountering a person and talking to that person and being in conversation with that person. That person lets you see the world in a new way. It’s a very profound experience.
GW: That is, of course, the basic idea behind my project, Lines of Flight, which I’m borrowing from Deleuze. Reading something, looking a photograph, having a conversation can send you off on some creative trajectory to—who knows where you’ll end up.
UB: Right, and we don’t know. I think the great thing is that you are taken somewhere, and you didn’t know you were going to go there. This line of flight metaphor, this is actually the greatest thing, when someone can open you up, and you start getting excited about something. And so you continually evolve and grow. You take the line of flight and you surprise yourself.
GW: Your also making yourself vulnerable in doing that. A lot of times we—and a lot of people—resist that call, resist the impulse that would unleash the excitement and allow a new direction.
UB: And I think that resistance is understandable. For one thing, it’s scary, because you are becoming someone else, and you’re risking a lot of different things. You are risking alienating the people who are around you. This is very important. Rilke talks about this. In one of the Letters to the Young Poet he says: Allow yourself to change in this way. Have the courage. But be very gentle with the people around you. Keep them attached to those parts of you that you don’t have to change. They value this in you. You don’t have to break with everything and everyone because you are now becoming a painter. There are people who love other parts of you. And it’s really very wise what Rilke says. He says, those parts can still be part of you. Keep these parts. Don’t think, I have to shed everything, reinvent myself, and reemerge like a phoenix. Rilke says, do this, and be gentle. People will be hurt because these changes mean that you’ll have to detach yourself from certain attachments. So, let the people around you slowly learn that you are a different person, but you are also the same person.
Featured image: Seydou Keïta
See “Writing” page for gallery of book and samples of Ulrich Baer’s writings.