Magdalena Kostova-Panayotova·Bulgaria

Literature – the Chance of being Yourself through Someone Else

Please, allow me, at the outset, to express my gratitude to the EU Ambassador Laura Baeza for the invitation and to our hosts for creating the opportunity for writers, representative of different literary traditions, to discuss a topic such as “Literature and Dialogue” – a topic which has a key role in a melting pot world, in which the messages of the creative human spirit are summoned to be the force that weaves the threads of unity, which overcome boundaries and draw us from the quagmire of contention.

I come from a country in the Balkans – the latter being often referred to as a melting pot – a country located at the crossroads of the East and the West, the crossroads of different traditions, the intersection of many cultural influences and maybe that explains why, for us, Bulgarians, tolerance and a crossroads kind of existence have for centuries been our fate.

Religions and cultures coexist peacefully among us. It is well known, for instance, that during World War II Bulgaria did not allow the deportation of the Bulgarian Jews and in this way literally saved them from fascism. Together with the other institutions the Bulgarian Orthodox Church also expressed its support for the Bulgarian Jews. The Bulgarian Pen Centre lent the heartfelt support of its members for poet Ashraf Fayadh, just as it supports the right of every artist and human being on the planet to freedom of speech.

In this dynamic moment in which the world as a whole, and Europe in particular, are the arena of various terrorist acts, speculations, immigrant waves, it is extremely important that we seek a way to overcome Babel’s fate – the fate of division. In this sense, the languages of literature and art are those magical stones that could turn scattered messages into a dialogue and find a path away from the walls of alienation.

The image of the Other has always been an issue. Sartre’s “Hell is other people” easily comes to mind. Human consciousness is afraid of otherness. In order not to frighten, otherness has to be catalogued, explained and made part of the known, stereotypical life. We have to strip it of its appealing unpredictability, to get it stuck in a banality rut. This gives us a sense of security – deceptive or not. Being a mediator, a figure on the border, the alien by definition sets off comparisons of values, “translates” cultural signs into the language of other cultural signs, unsettles the established norms, provoking fear or stimulating phantasmal ideas in the “others”.

Peoples, as well as individuals tend to create useful pasts and this usually happens at the expense of the image of the Other, which we invest with everything negative. Or almost. And dialogue becomes very difficult. “The alien is always an interpreter”, but the interpretation is by default incorrect and of unclear value.

The turn of the twenty-first century has faced us with many dilemmas and paradoxes, one of the latter being connected to the evident communication technologies boom, on the one hand, and to the emergence of ever new barriers to direct interpersonal communication, on the other. Technically speaking we can traverse the whole planet in a few hours, but in practice we more often reach for the keys and buttons on our mobiles, TV sets, computers, etc., instead of going out to meet people in person. Striving to create a comprehensive language, the socio-political media space often uses words and collocations like tolerance, consolidation, inclusion, dialogue, as if they are charged with some “magical” meaning.

It appears to me, however, that the twenty-first century arrived already extremely tired with such partnerships and in it communication has come to mean less dialogue than “dissemination”, to use the term John Durham Peters has used in his book Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (1999). Peters considers two concepts which, according to him, have different origins and distinct traditions in the history of culture: dialogue and “dissemination”. For the author of this book dialogue can be tyrannical whereas dissemination is something altogether different.

Communication, Peters suggests, following Levinas, carries the sign of failure and inauthenticity when it is regarded as identical with the merging of souls. To him it is at best a dance between differences rather than a joining of souls. In this sense one-way communication has certain advantages. A great part of culture is not necessarily dual or reciprocal, Peters asserts. A person has the need to communicate, to share thoughts, ideas, sensations, scents, without necessarily expecting a response to these. There is wisdom in the consolation that comes from understanding that the other cannot experience the world as you do and that it is not necessary.

Applied to literature, Peters’ ideas reveal how unfounded the accusations of the distortion of dialogue are insofar as the book founds its characteristic communicative strategy on the idea of “dissemination”, while dialogue is a secondary concept. “Tuning oneself to a particular frequency” the author does not pursue sharedness of the world. The author shares one’s perceptions of the world. “The world exists in order to be put into a book” as Mallarmé would say. And the book… It is the humble version of happiness, as Borges would say.

The literary man today is reminiscent of the man of Babel: left alone in the midst of the multilingual, alien world, he has to construct a new meaning for himself, and to do so with the awareness that it is impossible to complete the jigsaw puzzle, to put together the ruined whole. Because pieces from the puzzle seem to be missing and it turns out to be unclear what really is alien, and who is the alien. This, it seems to me, is one of the characteristic features of the discourse of the new century.

“Literature is deletion”, says Roland Barthes. It is a draft that we each time read differently, trying to enter the intimate space of the text. The natural link between deletion and literature could be read as a kind of command – “Read your deletions” (in French the sentence “Lis tes ratures” sounds exactly like the noun “literature”). In this sense dialogues in literature are endless and most often silent: we wander around the huge field of texts, embedded in the cultural memory of humankind, seeking those signs that reflect particles of ourselves.


The leaves unfold and there I see you.
The raspberry jam’s telltale stickiness
Clings treacherously to my hands. I wouldn’t
Be found out – a sign between lines stuck together.
The raspberry blood flows – a make-believe love.
I read the carnival of twisting signs,
And keep deleting. Isn’t each falling in love
But a reading of all inappropriate
And needless deletions?

Reading is not just the reception of information, it is a counter-manipulative filter as some contemporary psychologists assert. Reading preserves the individuality of the contemporary man. The man reaching for the book not only reaches for a therapy to treat a sense of emptiness inside, but also uses the most efficient, balanced method towards maintaining information hygiene.

Reading creates new kinds of community and community identity.

Reading is a postponing of the end – in the sense Iser means it, achieved by means of the imaginary, a literary fiction, which shields us from the unbearable thought of death. Until we keep hurling texts at the immense universal abyss, death remains beyond.

There is another aspect of the “Literature and Dialogue” issue. I said earlier that we often create useful pasts for ourselves which usually happens at the expense of the other. Literary texts sometimes multiply the well-known, the stereotypical. As much as we would like to believe that books undermine stereotypes which have been layered in our consciousness, sometimes over many centuries, in some cases these texts actually assert them. In this way difference continues to carry within itself a latent hostility. Despite our wish to believe that we understand the Other, that the Other understands us, the languages of understanding are without a doubt far from neat and clear. And yet.

Man will always strive to overcome the consequences of division, to overcome Babel’s fate. Because that is how man is in his sharedness. In the choice of being oneself through someone else, through the vertical world of cultural memory, through the horizontal construct of the alien body. In the world of the Other we find our own self as a different world and together with that we re-create the Other as another us. In the boat of my “I” there is always space for another consciousness. And the keywords, in my opinion, are openness, mercy, compassion. I would like at this point to share a triptych of mine:

Among the ruins – a buttercup –
An out of place gentleness
In the bristling parade
Of destruction.

A bent old woman with a cane –
A Hieroglyph on the horizon –

When the sunset tumbles in the glass
And stiffens
As a lump in the throat,
When a barefoot child
Is eyes only
And shoulders.
When in panic your lips
Whisper soundlessly,
The world slowly tumbles
In my palm
Expecting a miracle.

We are all expecting the miracle of sharedness. Even when we think, like Emil Cioran in his book The Fall into Time does, that one should write books “only if you are going to say in them things you would never dare confide to anyone”. Because literature shows us the world not only as it is but as it should be. It is a kind of palimpsest. Each message reveals the hope of our remaining in the palimpsest of a future world, of a future book, of overcoming one’s mortality, of crossing over boundaries and divisions. The life metaphor – a humble version of literature.

To write is to replace the words of an exhausted Universe with the words of hope. I sincerely believe that writers are the ambassadors of hope.