Our Winter issue features fiction by Alexander Kluge: “In Medieval Angelology, There Are Nine Orders of Snow,” twenty-two stories on some lines from Ben Lerner’s The Lichtenberg Figures. Kluge made a rare trip to New York a few months ago, appearing in conversation with Lerner at the Goethe-Institut and at Princeton. Afterward, they talked over sushi. The interview below is excerpted from their conversation. They continue to send poems and prose back and forth to each other.
The current issue of The Paris Review includes stories you wrote in response to The Lichtenberg Figures, my first book of poems. How did you encounter the book?
A coworker found the bilingual German translation. He said, Here’s a book you cannot buy anymore. The title is The Lichtenberg Figures. He knew that I was very interested in Lichtenberg, particularly The Waste Books. Your book costs seventy-eight euros because it’s out of print. German publishing houses always prefer fiction to poetry. Lyrics are concentrated forms. It’s a much better way to express yourself. In all these deserts of information we need some oasis, and that’s what the lyric is.
And so how do you think about your short prose forms in relation to lyric poetry?
My language is not as beautiful as lyrics. This is something that you have to know how to do. Poets are diamond polishers. But there are also collectors of raw diamonds—I am a good archaeologist.
But you also are a master of montage, which is very similar to enjambment in poetry—the startling juxtaposition. Do you think of yourself as a poet of a sort?
I cannot judge that myself but I like to hear it. I think what we are both doing is creating constellations. We deal with moving bodies. Moving reality. And this is something that you cannot present in a linear way, but in the form of constellations. There are suns, moons, planets. There are also the dust particles, tiny particles that orbit around the sun for centuries according to physical laws. And there’s no hinge, no screw that connects them. Invisible connections. Concentrated prose and lyrics have that in common.
Do you want anything else to eat or drink? I’m kind of starving.
Maybe a dessert.
They have a really delicious dessert here that is a green tea crème brûlée.
We take it three times.
You’ll eat three green tea crème brûlées? Good.
It is quite nice here.
Yeah, it worked out. I wonder if they’re holding people back. I made us sound very important—I mean, you are very important. So they might be scared to come take our order, but we’ll see.
I know that the person whose job it was to “fact check” your fiction had an interesting time because it’s very unclear in your stories when you’re working with historical facts and when you’re making them up. How do you think of the relation between fact and fiction?
Something is authentic and it can be authentic because I’ve invented it or it can be authentic because you find it. Connecting and inventing are the same—you have to check for authenticity, that’s the main point.
You have these beautiful passages in the new stories about how there is no historical record about what color the sky was at twilight at a particular point in the past. I feel you are investigating what escapes official history—what’s beneath the level of perception or above it—too micro or macro. Is that one way we can think of you as a writer of fictions?
Since I’ve read Homer at school, I’m interested in the word dawn—in German it’s the redness of the morning.
“The rosy-fingered dawn” in English.
The rosy-fingered Eos. Eos. I met a soldier before Moscow at dawn in December 1941. What would I write about him? The little change in the gray of the horizon, almost not seen, you can barely see it, it could be snow coming over. Now you compare Syria—you look from Aleppo toward the east at five o’clock in the morning, what kind of a sky is that? It’s almost never rainy, because the rain comes from the Mediterranean. The monsoon comes from the Indian Ocean, it doesn’t reach Syria. That’s why the Euphrates was so important. Two kilometers away from the Euphrates you have deserts. And the camera within me records these pictures, these facts.
Can we talk about angels a little bit? The angels in these stories—it’s not that they don’t exist, it’s that they’re poorly organized. In a lot of your work you take the language of metaphysics—angels, spirits, whatever—and combine it with the language of what I’ve heard you call “planification.” The language of administration, bureaucracy.
And the language of the heart.
All in one space. Are these poorly organized angels a reason to hope—they are, after all, angels—or a reason to despair—they don’t get much done?
I myself am not the judge of the angels. And I by myself am not a subject either. I have the rabbis in Babylon. They stayed there after Nebuchadnezzar. The more sophisticated, deeper form of theology. The rabbis in Jerusalem are influenced by Rome, they’re a little bit more cautious, but the genuine theologians, the genuine philosophers, are the rabbis in Babylon. Sholem is the bridge between them. He has big ears, very big ears. The fiftieth birthday of Habermas, he talked to my wife and I think that my son was created because of him. Because she had confidence about the way he was talking. This is how I am connected with the angelology. Because these angels do exist in reality because there are these rabbis, these authors, that you have to take seriously and they talk about them. It would be arbitrary to say that we cannot know anything about angels just because they very rarely come into laboratories.
That’s beautiful. We should order.
I don’t want to stop it because I’m afraid I’ll delete it.
You make me think of the Kabbalah, the complicated numerology, the concern with numbers has always been there—maybe it’s always been a question of angels and administration.
Yes, and with the lyric, too. Numbers and animals. Suddenly the number seven is flying, something strange in quantum physics—half and whole numbers represent the little reality that we have in the world. But if somebody says to me, Angels don’t exist, then I would answer, How would you have observed that?
That reminds me of the beautiful moment in the stories where you say how the knowledge from the Library of Alexandria persists even after its destruction. Disembodied knowledge.
When the people of Israel left Egypt and they had to march through the desert, and so that they would find the way back if necessary they buried stones in the desert. And those stones went up all the way to Prague over the centuries. And from these stones were built modern roads.
If someone asks you if you’re religious, what do you say?
Why “of course”?
I don’t know any serious people who are not religious. Though I’m not Catholic, I’m Protestant, out of respect for my father. I’m pagan, you see? But Paganism is a religion. But for a poet it doesn’t matter how you answer, because poetry doesn’t depend on what you think, it depends on what you write. You have to listen to inner voices, something that does not lie. But without religion you would not have an ear.
If you ask me whether I come from the rib of Adam, that I would deny. I would say I come from the rib of Eve.
All of your writing—fiction, theory—uses images. Can you say something about why you combine, or how you combine, text and image?
Some words, some sentences, are images. Others are texts. Text is something like a net, yeah? Like a spider’s net, a web. It doesn’t create images. But some images are really writing emblems. So on the coat of arms of Achilles on the shield you have the entire Iliad. Is it a text or is it an image?
Can we talk about your friend and teacher Adorno’s appreciation, or lack of appreciation, for film? You’ve become so involved with the moving image, and Adorno was comparatively uninterested in or pessimistic about film. Did he understand your films—did he see your film work?
Yes. And we actually wanted to write a book about film music together. The films that I’m creating are iconoclastic in a way. Diminishing pictures, never augmenting pictures. Very often I take an image, a scene, and then I say in the commentary the same thing. I repeat it. And I get a relationship between image and text. And if these things are sort of perpendicular to each other, then it’s good.
And is that the same principle in the prose with the image? That perpendicularity?
As a poet, I’m actually creating differences, as many differences as possible. And it doesn’t matter if I do this by sequencing images, by putting them up to each other, or by composing text, but it’s always best when I switch between them. I’m a patriot of books because books are very patient. My connection to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, this is something that I cannot create in a film. And also I cannot put it into music. If I had my way, I would move between speech, text, moving images, music, still—the work would always change, switch between them.
But you do do that.
I try it, yes.
Have some—pickled vegetables. They’re very crunchy. At Princeton, you told me that Adorno would make people listen to his dreams—and that you felt he was lying, or making up his dreams. Why did he do that? Was he appealing to the authority of the unconscious? Was it that he wanted to pretend that his ideas came from another place?
There’s an automatic voice within me that I have to listen to. And this voice is without intention, it’s intentionless. And it’s strongest during the night.
What does that mean, intentionless?
Superego. That the superego does not command. All the noises of me are absent and now I am really there. I’m a prince. And there’s something true about that voice. And in the morning hour, when I wake up I write down my dreams, I write the minutes and I doubt that these are really dreams. But these are the prescient years of the eos, of the pink morning nights.
You told me you sleep very well.
Do you remember your dreams?
Yes. But I don’t trust dreams. I think it’s only the disorder of the day. But I like what I think immediately after I wake.
I mentioned your humor, but the prose can also be quite cold—it can mimic, as we mentioned, the language of bureaucracy, of standardization. Can you say something about coldness in your work—the language of dispassion?
I don’t like lukewarm. I cannot eat anything that’s too hot and I also can’t eat anything that is too cold. In outer space it’s extremely cold in some places, unbearably cold. And this is how you can approach the question of coldness or chill, we come from a cold place. Five hundred million years ago, this was a snowball, the earth was completely frozen, the oceans that existed had frozen to their bottoms and our predecessors were microbes and they retained small corners in that coldness, and then there’s suddenly a very rapid warming of the air over a hundred thousand years. And everywhere in the world life expands, and at that time the oceans were thirty-seven degrees Celsius and we still have the mirror of that in our liver. The liver has the same acidity as these oceans, the same amount of salt. And this was the last time when we were sort of related to nature.
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