Berkeley Talks transcript: Novelist Ilija Trojanow on the utopian prerogative

Listen to Berkeley Talks episode #151: Novelist Ilija Trojanow on the utopian prerogative.

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Intro: This is Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. New episodes come out every other Friday.

[Music fades]

Deniz Göktürk: My name is Deniz Göktürk. I’m a professor in the Department of German at UC Berkeley. And I would like to welcome you all very warmly to our fourth Mosse Lecture here at Berkeley. Special welcome to the Consul General of Germany in San Francisco, Oliver Schramm, who is attending. We’re very happy you were able to make it.

This event is being livestreamed on YouTube, so welcome also to our remote listeners. And having said that, we are delighted to hold this event in person at the Brower Center at Berkeley after a long hiatus due to a halt to public events, as you all know, during the pandemic. Our last Mosse Lecture was a conversation with filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger at the Pacific Film Archive back in 2019. We had actually invited Ilija Trojanow last year, but had to postpone due to ongoing restrictions to international travel. So, we are very happy that this is now finally happening in person.

Special thanks to our distinguished speaker who has come from afar and has been incredibly generous with his time. He was already here all last week for a writing workshop with colleagues and students from Cologne, Münster and Berkeley, and all participants benefitted greatly from our lively discussions at this workshop, from his passion for good prose and his thorough research and his political engagement, as well as his practical advice on matters of writing. He then went to L.A. for an event there and is back in Berkeley today for the Mosse Lecture before he leaves for New York tomorrow. Thank you so much, Ilija, for being here.

Allow me to offer some brief framing remarks about the event, the Mosse Lecture, and also thanks are due, before we give the stage to Ilija. The Mosse Lecture would not be possible without support from the Mosse Foundation. I would like to thank Roger Strauch from the Mosse Foundation for generously enabling these public events and helping to establish the Mosse Lecture here at Berkeley.

Roger, who is a bicoastal entrepreneur and philanthropist with a foot at Berkeley has been pursuing a quest for the lost and stolen art once owned by the Mosse family, a Jewish-German family that was of great significance for the economy, cultural life and the arts in imperial Germany and the Weimar Republic. Here in the United States, a first association with the Mosse name for many of you will be the famous historian George Mosse, an emigré from Nazi Germany who taught for many years at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where Mosse lectures have been held in his memory. These days, you can also stream them online on YouTube.

In Berlin, however, the associations with the Mosse name resonates further back to Rudolf Mosse, media mogul of the Weimar Republic and the inventor of modern advertising. The headquarters of his important newspaper, Berliner Tageblatt, were located at the Mosse house in Berlin, not too far from Humboldt University, where the Mosse lectures have been held as a prominent public humanities event ever since 1997.

Ours is a much smaller enterprise. We aspire to one a year. But we are very pleased to be associated with these events on an international scale. Many thanks, also, to our co-sponsors: The Institute for European Studies and the German Historical Institute, in particular, Heike Friedman and Ray Savord, whom you’ve already met outside. They have been a tremendous help with organizing this event and publicity. Ray actually designed the poster that you’re looking at and has been wonderful support on all fronts putting this together. He’s around and very eager help. He’s outside right now. Thank you Heike, thank you, Ray.

I’d also like to mention our tech support, Chris, behind the scenes, he’s waving there. His music was playing earlier as you were walking in. And also the newly established Environmental Arts and Humanities Network is a co-sponsor. Many thanks to Linda Rugg in absentia, she couldn’t make it today, for spearheading this initiative.

The ecological focus of our location, the Brower Center, and today’s topic of utopian literature and its possibilities resonate well with the goals of this group, the Environmental Arts and Humanities Network.

So, Ilija Trojanow will speak to us as a novelist who has spent the past years exploring the history of utopia and working on a utopian novel to be published next year. He’s a political activist who is very engaged in PEN Germany. He initiated the [German language] around the utopian space, a multimedia platform for debate on visionary, provocative thinking, in Vienna, Frankfurt and, I think, Hamburg. A recent television documentary produced by [Austrian language], the Austrian channel, Oasen der Freiheit, features the writer traveling to explore various utopian experiments. It is to be found on YouTube.

At a time when news of droughts and floods and war and destruction and violence and hunger dominate our minds and screens, as we reckon with humankind’s destruction of nature, Ilija calls for a reboot of utopianism and reminds us of literature’s potential to imagine alternatives and possibilities. Ilija Trojanow is the most worldly and well-traveled among the writers in the German language, I think. Carrie Smith-Prei has called him a “cosmopolitical public intellectual.” He’s a prolific transnational writer, translator and editor who works across languages as a [German language], a language shifter and has published some 40 books, I think, I stopped counting, many of which have been translated into multiple languages including Bulgarian and Turkish.

Born in Bulgaria, he has lived in Germany, Kenya, India and Austria. In 2001, he crossed Tanzania on foot, retracing the roots of British Orientalist explorers, Richard Francis Burton, whom he featured in his best-selling novel, Der Weltensammler/The Collector of Worlds, which was awarded the prize of Lustig Book Fair in 2006. Another book that is devoted to Richard Burton is Nomade auf vier Kontinenten/Nomad on Four Continents. 

He has reported regularly on India, Africa and other parts of the world for newspapers, such as [German language] and has published multiple volumes of collected essays, continues to write about current affairs in a column regularly in [German language]. With Ranjit Hoskoté, he co-authored [German language], English translation is Confluences: Forgotten Histories from East and West and in his equifictional novel, [German language], translated as The Lamentations Zeno, he took on the melting glaciers and travels to Antarctica. We might hear a very brief passage from that book at the very end of today’s discussion.

Further recent books include Macht und Widerstand/Power and Resistance: The Gripping Memories of an Aging Dissident in Bulgaria and Nach der Flucht/After Flight, which isn’t out in translation yet, but being translated. It’s a book inspired by African American painter Jacob Lawrence’s Migration series and composed of aphorisms and short scenes that incapsulate the experience of exile.

The essay, “Hilfe? Hilfe!: Wege aus der globalen Krise”/”Aid ways out of the … ” co-authored with Thomas Gebauer, offers a critique of philanthropy and then, most recently, the novel, Doppelte Spur/Dual Trace, published in 2020, is a Cold War novel about a dual agent.

He’s a masterful narrator and I think he might well be Germany’s candidate for the Nobel Prize someday. So, let us open our minds to utopian impulses. There will be an opportunity to engage in discussion after the talk and you’re also welcome to stay for a conversation over a little reception we have planned in the foyer, which I think is being set up as we speak. We can only serve wine and water to those in attendance, no way to do that remotely through YouTube, but we will be sure to raise a glass to everyone out there.

So, please join me in welcoming Ilija Trojanow. Ilija, thanks for coming. The floor is yours.

Ilija Trojanow: Good afternoon or good evening or good morning, whatever you prefer. Thank you very much Deniz, and thanks so much for the invitation. It’s really wonderful to be here.

I don’t know whether you know Nasreddin Hodja, my favorite trickster. Kind of an Oriental wise fool or maybe a foolish philosopher. One day, he was invited to give the sermon at the local the mosque. So, after Friday prayers, he went went forward, he stood up and he asked the congregation, “Do you know what I will talk about?”

People shook their heads and said, “No.” To which he replied, “Well, if you don’t know what I’m going to talk about, what’s the point of talking to you?” And he left. Next week, he was invited again to give the sermon again at the local mosque. So, after [foreign language], he went up, he looked at the congregation and said, “Do you know what I’m going to talk about?” Of course, people had wisened up by then and they said, “Yes, sure.” So, he said, “Well, if you know what I’m going to talk about, what’s the point of talking to you?” And he left.

Next week, he was once again he was invited to give the sermon, which says a lot about the patience of the Imam at that particular mosque. So, he went up and he looked at the congregation and said, “Do you know what I will talk about?” People had really spent the week thinking of the right answer. So, half of the congregation said, “Yes, of course.” Half of the congregation said, “No. How could we?” At which Nasreddin Hodja said, “Perfect. So, those in the know can explain it to those who do not know. Have a good day.” And he left.

Do you know what I’m going to talk about? After all, this talk is on utopian thinking and storytelling, and thus it is a wager on a “not-yet,” propelled into existence by extending the imagination of the moment into a vision of moments to come, manifold and surprising.

Not only surprising but also liberating, in different directions. Into the past: memory is usually wrapped in power. Utopia unwraps it. And into the future: Utopia liberates the imagination from the constraints of feasibility.

In other words: Future is what could be different; history is what might have been different. And the two are interrelated.

Utopia is rooted in historical experience, because every utopian idea asserts certain axioms about human behavior and social organization, and if these are not confirmed by experience, the utopian vision has only a metaphysical, not to say eschatological meaning.

Utopian thinking challenges the debilitating inertia that emerges from an understanding of change arriving either too late or too soon. So, the polite people listening to Nasreddin Hodja are unaware of what they will be told. They are too early. Then they claim to be in the know, but wrongly so. Thus, they are too late. They are caught up in the present, subjected to a contemporary that is becoming — if we apply the story to our times — increasingly self-satisfied and lethargic. For many people nowadays the past is defined by nostalgia, an affliction that makes vast claims regarding a home that never existed, an invented lost paradise. And the future is contaminated with fear and angst, with apocalyptic horror stories. You just have to look at TV shows on Netflix or any other form of popular art at the moment. It’s dystopian to the extreme.

Frustration and a feeding frenzy is the logical reaction, which is exactly why we need utopia. It’s important to not confuse what does not exist with what is impossible, which is how most people use the word “utopian” in everyday parlance. “Tell the sun to leave the sky,” to quote the old evergreen, now that is impossible, unless you can privatize the sun. Abolish slavery, give women the right to vote or exterminate hunger, that seemed impossible, for a quite a while. Progress has at times been utopia come true. By envisaging differing realities, we are imagining alternatives into existence. This is what Robert Musil, the great Austrian author, famously meant by “Möglichkeitssinn.” Difficult to translate. But not impossible. Well, impossible for me, but I’m sure some of you can translate it.

However, there is an essential difference between a political manifesto that claims to be utopian and utopian storytelling. According to the definition of the Indian art theorist Nancy Adajania, the political manifesto announces, and I quote: “This morning we declare the advent of tomorrow. We proclaim that now is the future, but most of you are yesterday; or will be, if you do not recognize the truth of our observations. You would be truest to the time of the now if you were to leap out of it.” That is a drag. Boring and dangerous.

Utopian narratives should be the opposite, dealing in the provisional, presenting unfinished visions, so to speak. The reasons are self-evident, I believe: The blueprint of a better tomorrow is a didactic and dogmatic drawing, insisting on exactitude in the realm of imagination, it is a sociology of the fantastic — measured and calculated. Thus it develops its vision by limiting its scope.

Utopian stories should not be the construction plans of overly ambitious architects, but the sharing of a larger horizon, setting the future free of the shackles of the established social, political and economic orders. For all of us who insist on yearning and dreaming of different forms of social life and individual existence. Truly Utopian narratives challenge existing preconceptions by opening windows of thought and fantasy that give life to a multitude of possibilities.

It goes without saying, this form of utopia can only be a work in progress. The exact opposite of the Ten Commandments or the will of the founding fathers. It is aspirational, not foundational. Grundgesetz, the name of the German constitution, means Foundational Law and we can detect a certain obsession with the foundations of democracy, both in the U.S. and in Germany, an attitude typical of building contractors, implying ex negativo that any other structure is a luftschloss, a castle in the air, a mirage, a daydream. Which is how Ernst Bloch describes the utopian craving, as, I quote, “Träume von einem besseren Leben voller utopischer Hoffnung und Möglichkeiten” — “Dreams of a better life full of utopian hopes and possibilities.”

No wonder that this is regarded as subversive by the gatekeepers and security guards of the status quo, vilified as dubious or even dangerous. And I learned today, which is a very good example of this, that a certain narrative tradition in China, which was shown on TV and on the internet, engaging in alternative history and in time travel was forbidden because it seemed subversive to imagine different outcomes and to open our minds to different horizons.

So, our political architecture is based on the idea of stability. And some might argue that it has to be based on the idea of stability. But every inconsistency and injustice that is written into the foundation is solidified, even fossilized, while the empowering and liberating energy of the political imagination is shunned and negated.

Every sociopolitical space is defined, like the human body, by pre-existing conditions and inherent dogmas that need to be continuously challenged for they define our understanding of justice and well-being, of happiness and progress. A truly just and inclusive process has to be based on the assumption that convictions and priorities, instruments and institutions are fallible. Incidentally, the German Constitution starts off with an astonishing proclamation: “Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar.” Roughly translated as: “The dignity of the human being is unassailable.” This is either naive or political aspiration. We know that even in the wealthy societies of the global North the dignity of some of its citizens is trampled upon. The glorious first article of the German Constitution only makes sense as an idealscape. And the idealscape is the typography of utopia.

For a while now utopian thinking has been made responsible for the horrors of the 20th century, along the lines of Karl Popper’s argument that every utopia is a totalitarian concept that seeks to extinguish any other competing vision. It is understandable that the survivors of the II. World War, exhausted and traumatized, would yearn for pragmatic solutions, for modest words and even more modest gains. From a historical distance it seems clear, at least to me, that the totalitarian systems and the state terror in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union or China were more of a continuation of old principles and mechanisms, such as authoritarian hierarchy, fanatical nationalism, oppressive patriarchy, racism, nepotism, imperialism, and of course capitalism — even when the state runs the profit-making, exploitative machine, it is still capitalism. The only utopian aspect in these systems of subjugation and repression was in the realm of the rhetorical.

The contemporary absence of utopia is a debilitating social restriction. By the way, if you leaf through a bibliography of utopian writing, which exists, you will notice that eras of progress and of cultural and democratic flowering were accompanied by a wealth of utopian writing. In reactionary times, on the other hand, there is an evident lack of utopian visions. Such an absence is more than just a cause for cultural regret, it represents an existential threat to all of us.

Whenever there is paradigm shift, society requires the wisdom of radical imagination. It is no exaggeration to claim that we are facing the greatest challenge that a complex civilization has ever faced and that we need to envisage other forms of production, of interaction, of cooperation than the predominant ones.

Let us take one random example. In one episode of the TV show Shark Tank. This year, a technical solution to a major crisis: plastic. One entrepreneur has invented edible cutlery, perfect for fast food joints, ice cream parlors, motels, picnics, maybe even universities. The sweet or savory spoons, forks, knives, and chopsticks are not only ecological, but even tasty.

However, the sharks, these giants of entrepreneurial acumen, refused to invest in the business called Incredible Eats. They worried about the 10 to 15 cents mark-up that might scare away big companies thinking of exchanging plastic for a something good for the planet. One shark after the other proclaimed to be terribly worried about the effects of plastic — and they probably know, as we do, that by the year 2050, the amount of plastic in our oceans will exceed the number of fish. So, if you go fishing, you will be fishing for plastic, probably a new definition of fishing.

But saving the planet is bad for business, so on we pollute. The utopian storyteller on the other side would be happily munching on sporks made of wheat, oats, corn, chickpeas or brown rice. Why not, his starting point is the horizon, not single-entry book-keeping. Unfortunately, globalism means that this juggernaut we call capitalism truly rules the universe — as, by the way, the Sanskrit meaning of Jagganath foretold — without any exception. This in itself is a terrifying thought. Monoculture is bad enough in agriculture, in the political realm it spells doom.

In order to survive, we will have to redefine our modes of planetary existence, and this will be impossible without powerful utopian imagination. Thus, utopia is not the art of the impossible, it is the rational of the necessary.

Some authors have accused utopian thinking of being crypto-religious. As if that were bad. What is wrong with a little bit of secular faith, with the belief in a life worth living for everyone, in universal communion? Having faith in freedom or justice means believing in something that will always be fragile and contested, even if we assume it will be attained in a more meaningful way than today.

A world of becoming. If I assume that I am partially blind because of my cognitive limitations as well as because of the mindset of the zeitgeist, then I must virtually break out into the otherworldly, in order to overcome my blindness. If I cannot see the present clearly, then I have no choice but to look more closely at the future. In this sense utopia is the healing of one’s partial or willful blindness.

But utopia is a marvel only in relation to our ignorance. In another world, the world of imagination, the world of the novelist, the world that I will now speak about, it is as normal as marshmallows or socks with holes in them.

Which is how we arrive at the question: How do you write a utopian novel? It’s actually quite a difficult questions. The practical execution. Writing a utopian novel means translating these theoretical concepts into literary forms. Most utopian novels have not, until now, been mindful of the difference between manifesto and storytelling, between blueprint and blue smoke. They have embarked on their visions of transformation with the attitude of bookkeepers. A fine example is the novel titled Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach, published in Berkeley, of all places, in 1975. Ernest Callenbach worked as an editor and taught at this very university, mostly film studies.

It tells the story of the first American to visit the new country of Ecotopia, a break-away nation consisting of California, Oregon and Washington state, since its independence, 19 years earlier.

The ecological visions in this novel are programmatic and detailed, which is why the main character is a journalist and his reporting is a documentation of a well-defined alternative reality. Many aspects in this country called Ecotopia are different to what we are accustomed to. For example, people seem to be very loose and playful with one another, as if they had endless time on their hands to explore whatever possibilities might come up. Some are surprisingly similar to our times. For example, the head of state is a president, in charge of a conventional cabinet of ministers. Some are close to the heart of this reader. For example, the buses creep along at about ten miles an hour, for no one is in a hurry. Others are less endearing to me, for example, there still exists an army.

The readers are offered a cold buffet of alternative ideas, the choice is theirs, but the appetizers are covered in aspic. This is the language of premeditated transformation, not a venture into an unknown, whose topography will have not only to be navigated but negotiated. This storyteller has drawn a precise map before setting out on his journey, he will not be surprised by waterfalls, trapdoors, or turning tables. And as in any other science fiction novel, some details are surprisingly clairvoyant in true Jules Verne style: “Feeling that they should transport their bodies only when it’s a pleasure, they seldom travel “on business” in our manner. Instead, they tend to transact business by … (something falls and hits the floor) … by breaking something. Thank you.

So, “Feeling that they should transport their bodies only when it’s a pleasure, they seldom travel “on business” in our manner. Instead, they tend to transact business by using Zoom.” I changed one word in that sentence. Others are less convincing five decades after publication. So, this particular utopian novel, this style of utopian writing, is a question of hit and miss.

The disappointment of the readers lies, I believe, somewhere else. Like most other utopian novels Ecotopia presents a closed system of thought. We are invited into a luftschloss, a castle in the air, but the rooms therein are not ephemeral. They are completely furnished, including carpets and fittings. They mirror, in a progressive way, Hearst Castle. If you’ve been there. There is a stark contrast between a fluid exterior and a rigid interior. We follow an invitation into the unknown only to discover that we are being held hostage by a know-it-all. That experience is rather frustrating.

I feel strongly that a utopian novel worth its salt has to be an open work of art — open-minded, open-hearted, full of open doors and open spaces, defined not by the exactitude of an alternate vision, but by playfulness, ambiguity and risk taking.

George Orwell famously remarked that “all utopias seem to be alike in postulating perfection while being unable to suggest happiness.” The opposite would be preferable. Imperfect imaginings suggesting happiness. One way to go about this is by taking human beings seriously as homo ludens. The excitement of utopian thinking translates into literary playfulness.

Art has always offered spaces free from concepts of utility. And like a magician’s wand, playful poetics can turn realities upside down, invent new rules, disorient and refocus on a different plane. On a visceral level, playing is fun and utopian storytelling needs to encapsulate a certain joie de vivre. By celebrating the limitless possibilities of literature, that kind of utopian novel can celebrate the existential excitement that some of us feel when we encounter utopian thinking.

I started off by speaking of the close link between past and future in utopian thinking. And, to me, in writing this novel, this has been the central challenge. I had to come to terms with two different concepts of time, the Chronos and the Kairos.

Chronos, of course, is the continuity and stability of time, once again, stability. It’s unchangeable flow. Kairos, on the other hand, is the moment of change or renewal, a fleeting opportunity to be seized, a crystallization point, a dramatic point of no return — suddenly anything seems possible, the floodgates of transformation are opened.

The Egyptian artist, Ahmed Bassiouny, demonstrated this difference in his work and his activism. In 2010, he was the performer in his own installation called Thirty Days of Running in the Place. He ran and ran and ran, on the spot. The title expresses the frustration of Chronos dominating life: We are moving, but getting nowhere, the time spent is not an opportunity won, we are victims of the merciless punishment that Sisyphus has to endure. Exactly one year later Ahmed Bassiouny participated in the protests on Tahrir Square and was killed on Jan. 28, 2011. As a citizen, he had sensed the revolutionary moment and had tried to seize it, tried to seize the Kairos, so to speak.

In my utopian novel, which is still a work in progress, a group of young activists called The Chronauts make good use of time travel in order to go back in history and search for the elusive moments of Kairos, that might or might not, no one knows, change the course of destiny. The ambivalences and varieties of utopian life are mirrored — thematically as well as stylistically — in the different historical eras they visit, eras seemingly known to us, but rediscovered through the eyes of time travelers from the unknown country of utopia who are finding it hard to make sense of what for us is normal.

And the interesting thing is that writing this novel, I had to force myself to rediscover the abnormal in what, in my life, had seemed normal. But once I rediscovered it through the literary process of imagination, I then had great difficulties reentering the realm of normalcy. So, I find our world even more abnormal than when I started writing this particular novel. And hopefully, it will gradually dawn on the reader that utopia — according to the meaning of the word — is not only a place without a place, but also situated in time, in a multiverse where Kairos challenges Chronos.

This is why the novelist Edward Abbey, a major influence on Ernest Callenbach, is the better writer. His back-to-the-future stories are situated on a timeline between an appreciation of nature, a very passionate appreciation, and a strong hatred for our form of civilization. Kairos for Edward Abbey lies in acts of rebellion that punctuate the arrogant unerring Chronos of our civilization. The small flashes of utopia in his work are more convincing than the well-lit holes of Callenbach’s detail-obsessed Ecotopia. In other words, utopian narratives have a tendency to turn their own imaginations into museums, thus stifling the imagination of the potential reader.

Some of the earlier utopian communities in fiction, just to name a few examples, in the novels of Edward Bellamy, of course the famous one by Thomas More, or a not-so-famous one by the psychologist B.F. Skinner, and some experimental utopian communities in real life such as the Kaweah Commonwealth in late-19th century California, which was inspired by Bellamy’s novel, A Look Back From the Year 2000, which the last global huge success by a utopian novel, actually inspiring groups of Bellamy-oriented communities around the world.

These experiments and these novels sought to eliminate risk and make the government fully take care of everyone’s needs, which is an expectation we can discuss politically, but I think, it’s not very good for literature. In literary terms, I prefer a different kind of utopia that includes risk, adventure and, of course, humor.

Our need for meaning, bonding, and pleasurable stimulation are just as biologically rooted in us as our needs for survival. One might even claim that we are born with a yearning for utopia. As human beings we often tolerate the intolerable because of our fear of the unknown. As societies we uphold the unjustifiable because we are weary of change. The utopian novel has to practice and exhort risk taking. It should consist of many leaps of faith, of hope, of playful creativity, of provocation.

Or, to summarize the whole talk in one Twitter sentence: In utopia we trust.

(Audience applause)

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Outro: You’ve been listening to Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. You can find all of our podcast episodes with transcripts and photos on Berkeley News at