"I think that the creative is stronger than the destructive!"

"I think that the creative is stronger than the destructive!"

Manès Sperber's magnum opus, his trilogy of novels "Like a Tear in the Ocean", is finally available again. Editor Rudolf Isler explains in an interview why Sperber is still so important today
Rudolf Isler
About the person

Rudolf Isler was first a teacher, then a professor at the Zurich University of Teacher Training, specialising in the history of education, general pedagogy and professional practice. He was President of the Senate, was involved in international education projects (Ukraine, Ghana, Bhutan, Moldova, Bahrain) and held teaching positions at the FU Berlin. He is the author of numerous publications on school pedagogy, didactics, teacher training and the professional identity of teachers. He also publishes on literary topics, mainly on Manès Sperber, about whom he made the documentary film "Manès Sperber - ein treuer Ketzer". He is co-editor of the new three-volume edition of Manès Sperber's works, published in 2024. 
Rudolf Isler lives and works in Zurich, where Axel Timo Purr met him for this interview about Sperber's life, Sperber's significance for past and present generations and his masterpiece Like a Tear in the Ocean.

Wie eine Träne im Ozean

Manès Sperber | Wie eine Träne im Ozean | Sonderzahl Verlag | 1000 Seiten | 49 EUR

Axel Timo Purr: I would like to begin with a rather provocative question: Why read Manès Sperber today? A writer who, towards the end of his life, was showered with prizes including the Büchner Prize and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, but who himself said shortly before his death in 1984: "If you get big prizes, it means you no longer have much to say." Prophetically, this proved to be almost true not long afterwards. In the years following his death, his books seemed to have nothing more to say to the modern age; they were only available in ancient editions. That is, until the publication of this new edition, the middle volume of which, 'Like a Tear in the Ocean', you yourself have edited. So why read a writer today who long ago lost his readers and who hasn't made the leap into the digital age?

Rudolf Isler: The best way to answer this question is to read his acceptance speech for the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade - you’ll understand why you should read his work again today. The questions he poses there are highly topical. For instance, how should we respond to authoritarian or totalitarian powers? Can we achieve anything by taking a pacifist stance or should we remain on the defensive in the face of these systems? The hallmark of a totalitarian system is the attempt to achieve totality. Total power implies power that can also grow and must be restricted, with resistance if necessary, according to Sperber. And this is exactly what he made clear in his award speech, at a time when Europe was still up against the authoritarian regime of the Soviet Union. This question, however you answer it, is of course highly topical, especially in today's world.

You're right, you don't just have to look at Ukraine, but simply look at the latest Democracy Index, published in 2023, according to which only 7.8 percent of the world's population live in full democracies. It does make you wonder whether we've almost returned to the times in which Sperber set his novel "Like a Tear in the Ocean". But perhaps we should first clarify what it is exactly that Sperber is talking about in Like a Tear in the Ocean...

It is the story of people who allow themselves to be seduced by totalitarian ideologies and the resulting catastrophe of National Socialism and Stalinism. It is the story of how to find a way out of the constraints of a total ideology and find a new world, a democratic world. Daniel Cohn-Bendit once presented the book at the Swiss Literature Club and said: "You come out of it well. It may be a dramatic, murderous century that is described here, but you still come out of this 1000 page novel feeling good. Because you find something. Democracy. A democratic society. It's not just a plea against total ideologies, it's also a plea for a democratic society that develops incrementally. And that is simply very, very hopeful. Sperber himself says: "I am a skeptical optimist. And I think that the creative is stronger than the destructive." And that, among other things, is what this book is talking about. 

Yes, that's true. I re-read the first 100 pages on the way to Zurich. And I noticed how fascinatingly the internal structures of the communist power apparatus are described. I must stress how well Sperber tells it here, unlike Köstler's Solar Eclipse, for example, which I almost find inaccessible today, or Peter Weiss' Aesthetics of Resistance, a much later work revolving around this theme, and already a difficult read at the time of its publication . Sperber's novel is the complete opposite and is still a real page turner today. His work has aged well. The way hierarchies and exclusionary procedures are revealed in the first 100 pages alone is not only exciting, but also incredibly contemporary, because it is reminiscent of everything we now call cancel culture and Wokeism, the increasing rigidity and frictional intensity of our social bubbles.

Even at the beginning of the novel, there are discussions between the skeptical communists and the unquestioning communists. It's great dialogue, but sometimes I wonder whether young people today would still understand it. But once you really get into the text, you do understand it - everyone would, young or old. Especially the first chapter, in which a courier secretly travels to Croatia, a completely futile journey as the enemy already know everything. But it's not just about that, it's about the young communist Josmar Goeben, the courier, who can't see reality because he's blinded by his belief in Stalinist ideology - precisely why this journey is so futile. And that is very contemporary, as there is so much hype, so much ideology at the moment. And just as an aside: the protagonist is probably not called Josmar for nothing, it's short for Josef-Maria.

That's absolutely right. Just a personal example: my son, who has suddenly become very "feminist" thanks to a new, vehemently feminist friend, is now judging arguments between my partner and me very differently than he did a year ago... Ideology today may no longer be tangible in the ideological blocks of 80 or 90 years ago, but it has the same intensity and very similar effects on the private sphere.

I would agree. It has the same intensity, especially when it comes to identities, gender orientations for example, then there is the same fierceness and intransigence in the discussion.

Intransigence and an unwillingness to listen. Just like the aforementioned courier who travels to Croatia in Sperber's novel, and who shuts himself off from the truth because he can't bear it.

These are, of course, timeless elements. And they can be found everywhere, perhaps even more so after a second reading. Politics dominate your first reading - the history of communism, Stalinism and the memory of it. It's great - so full of subtle detail. It's clear that Sperber knew this underground world of communist Germany well. It's with a second reading that you notice the timeless elements of his writing. That's when I realised that there are quite a few love stories...

Oh yes. Sperber does a great job of interweaving the futility and transience of love with that of politics. It's almost hyper realistic, the way he describes it. And that's also what makes the book so captivating...

An important supporting character comes to mind; Herbert Sönnecke, the head of the German communists. He is similarly described. Political activist on the one hand, the man in a failing marriage on the other, and how this affects his political commitment. This is further intensified by the description of his entire inner life; what happens to him when he realises that he himself is involved in the downfall of the communist idea. There are so many dimensions of the personality captured and explored, and it's the same for so many of this novel's characters.

I think this is also due to the fact that before his political work, Sperber was a therapist, psychologist and master student of Alfred Adler, who sent him from Vienna to Berlin in the early 1920s, where he came into contact with communism... And that too can be compared with today. Adler rejected Sperber as he moved further and further towards communism, just as today ideological rifts run through families and old friendships. This later caught up with Sperber again - arguments with his son from his first marriage, Vladimir, who remained loyal to the communist idea throughout his life, and then also disagreements with the son from his second marriage, Dan Sperber, when he professed radical ideas during the May uprisings in Paris in the 1960s...

I also find that very interesting. Most people know that Sperber was a communist, but not that he also worked with Adler. He always regretted this rupture in their relationship and would have loved to have had a reconciliation with Adler...

But that's exactly what he achieved in his novel.

 Exactly. There are two protagonists who often argue with each other. There's the hero, Dojno Faber, and then there's his teacher, Professor Stetten. And they share characteristics with Manès Sperber himself and Alfred Adler. Of course, we can't say it's actually based on them per se, but there is a rapprochement in the novel which takes place shortly after the real date of Adler's death. At the end of the novel, the two are companionably writing books together . This can certainly be seen as Sperber's dream for his relationship with Adler.

But that came too late for real life, Adler was already dead.

Yes, Adler had already died in 1937, when Sperber had not yet broken with communism. Incidentally, Sperber later always spoke of Adler as his master. For example, there is a television interview with Frank A. Meyer on Swiss television in 1983, a year before Sperber's death, where he also spoke of "his master".

All das Vergangene

Manès Sperber | All das Vergangene | Sonderzahl Verlag | 692 pages | 44 EUR

What was Sperber's everyday lingua franca? He translated "A tear" into French himself in 1949, but it didn't appear in German until 1961. I sometimes think he was like the later-born W.G. Sebald, who also moved away from Germany and thus lost the attention of his german audience. It's like football in the past: legionnaires weren't allowed to play for the national team for a long time. What did Sperber actually do in the years after "Tears"? Did he continue writing, did he work as a therapist?

His writing language was almost always German. Only a few texts are originally in French, even fewer in English. But Sperber grew up with a mixture of languages and lived his life among them; German at home, if only to be able to read the Austrian newspapers, then Yiddish and Hebrew (Cheder) from the age of three. Ruthenian was probably indispensable for communicating with the Ukrainian non-Jewish environment - as was Polish. French became dominant in the second half of his life, but he also made Yiddish training programmes for french radio.
   As to what he did after "Tears", which he finished in 1952: well, he never worked as a therapist again. He was employed by the Calmann-Levy publishing house where he was responsible for non-French literature. He worked there for many years - it was his livelihood. He did continue to write, even after "Tears" - many texts, in fact. In 1970 he published a biography of Alfred Adler, marking the centenary of his birth. Shortly after his death, a volume of essays was published, philosophical reflections, some of which are included in the third volume of the current new edition.

Which will be published in June 2024...

Why Sperber was then forgotten after these essays and his death may also be due to what then happened in world politics. The collapse of the Soviet Union a few years later meant that his criticism of Stalinism, which was certainly central to his work, no longer had the same significance. Many suddenly felt that this was the end of the story, that everything would now finally be fine. We're only now realising that this is not the case. We had a Sperber Symposium in Vienna and St. Pölten in 2021 and discussed Sperber's work intensively. I asked: Why are we actually doing this? We're discussing things just among ourselves and yet everything Sperber writes about is so topical and fascinating - but you can't even get his books anymore. Shouldn't we use our energy to ensure that there can be a new edition?"

This was the beginning of the new edition?

Exactly. Then the three of us got together and the Austrian state, which spends a lot on promoting culture, more or less financed it and a small Austrian publishing house is now publishing it.

Why Sonderzahl Verlag in particular?

Austrian money, therefore an Austrian publisher (laughing). Two or three years earlier, Hanser Verlag would have produced an even more comprehensive edition of Sperber's works - it would have included his psychological writings such as his biography of Adler- but Sperber's son wouldn't give us the rights for that.

Dan Sperber, the younger son, the anthropologist and linguist we mentioned earlier?

Yes. He wanted a professor of literature as co-editor and to have it well secured by the university. Hanser would have been much better, of course, because Hanser has a marketing department and a powerful distribution system. It's a bit of a shame.

Yes, of course, that's true, because "Tears" in particular would be a great addition to current school reading... 
Thinking about schools brings me back to the question of why Sperber has lost so much importance in recent generations and I can't help but think of Ulrich Beck, of his idea of reflexive modernity, which Beck also places in the mid-1980s, when individualisation, risky freedoms came to the fore and people began to define themselves as individuals, responsible for themselves alone, and no longer by their class or trade union. This was also reflected in literature, the increasingly strong auto fictional format - the absolute pinnacle of this genre is Karl Ove Knausgård's My Struggle, which is as monumental as Sperber's "Tear", but could not be more different. In one, it's all community, union and party; in the other, there is only the solitary self. And after this fragmentation of society, a regressive evolution of the self sets in -  there are no more party ideologies and trade unions, but there are all the social bubbles that have a similarly strong identity-forming nature.

I also find the reference to Ulrich Beck fascination, because Sperber describes precisely this in his essays, how he has long moved in tight-knit communities. First in individual psychological circles, then in the communist party, and how he then left them - and more or less became an individual. And in doing so, felt that he was now completely alone. He'd left behind the dubious support that one people, one class, gives you.

Exactly. But without this support, you are of course much more tempted by totalitarian thoughts, because who wants to be responsible for their own misery?

Yes, this process of individualisation took Sperber a while, but he gradually realised that he was not alone, that there were other "free shooters" like him who were fighting against all ideologies, and that at base, they did belong together. Sperber describes this meticulously and quite thrillingly in "Tears", as well as how to resist together.

These are real  instructions that can be useful for any of the current "resisters" such as Fridays for Future or the Last Generation or any others that may follow. And as with all these groups today, " Tears" certainly has a "global" perspective, if only because of the Croatia storyline. And Sperber, as a Jew born in a shtetl in what is now Ukraine, and resident of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was of course a "citizen of the world" to a certain extent...

Yes, Sperber is at least a true European who connects East and West. That is, after all, his own personal escape: from the Ukrainian shtetl in the east to Paris in the west. And he has also been widely translated: into Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, but also into Russian, Greek and then into Persian Farsi, where several thousand books have been sold.

So Sperber is also an author for the so-called global South, which is swamped by autocratic systems?

Absolutely. All the values he represents speak for this. In certain passages he says: "I have lost almost all certainties, but one remains; that we should commit ourselves to justice and democracy, to a level of prosperity, to health and overcoming hardship and humiliation." And that, I think, is something completely global, something that affects all of us.

This reminds me of your epilogue in the new edition of "Tears", in which you quoted from a late essay by Sperber: "I have never encountered an idea that has so overwhelmed me and influenced the choice of my path as the idea that this world cannot remain as it is, that it can and will become completely different. This single, demanding certainty has determined my existence as a Jew and contemporary for as long as I can remember."

Sperber is a fighter. Until his last breath, his activity was devoted to what I have occasionally briefly referred to as "improving the world". With his reference to Judaism in the previous quote, he also speaks of the revolutionary idea of human equality, which for Sperber had become something profoundly secular; he surmounts all obstacles, even religious ones, with a resistant commitment.

He has always struggled with this. In the beautiful interview with Peter Stephan Jungk in Die Welt, he gets inordinately upset with Jungk for being late because of a Jewish holiday, saying he should seek therapy immediately...

You give an ideal example. Sperber himself was actually no longer a believer at all. There were Catholic interviewers, for example, who wanted to create common ground in the conversation about faith, and he reacted very sensitively. In one interview, for example, he said: "At most, if I became mentally ill, it may be that I would become a believer again." But despite everything, he acknowledged his Jewish origins and Jewish tradition. This was very precious to him. He then also became deeply involved with Zionism. That was very early on, in Vienna, in the Jewish youth movement, which you can read about in the first volume of the new edition. Then he rejected it for a long time because he was of the opinion that the Jewish question would not be resolved through the state of Israel, but through the society in which we live, a classless society in which these things no longer play a role. Later, he became more involved with these issues again. He was not a Zionist, but neither was he anti-Zionist. He visited Israel four times, spoke to many people there and also wrote essays on the subject. And he was also quite critical. In his opinion, if Zionism came to power, then it would be just as dangerous as any other other dominant ideology would be.

This of course also reminds me of one of my favourite passages in "Tears": "To understand a living man, you have to know who his dead are. And you have to know how his hopes ended - whether they faded gently or whether they were killed. You have to be more familiar with the scars of renunciation than the facial features." This is just as applicable to societies as it is to individuals. And it also includes the tragic complexity of intergenerational trauma, which also characterises the Zionist movement.

I organised an event to mark the publication of the three volumes here in Zurich, during which a visitor asked me: what would Sperber say about the conflicts today? On Israel and Gaza? It's not easy to answer something like that because it's hypothetical, of course. But what we can say with relative certainty is that he would have taken a nuanced view, as he has always done. He was absolutely in favour of the right to existence of the State of Israel. It is important for Jews all over the world that Israel exists and at the same time - as I said earlier - he didn't hold back from criticism, not even of "his own". And I think, if you can say anything at all, he would be neither pro-Palestine nor pro-Israel.

As he does in his novel. He shows all facets, all possible truths. And that everyone must always question their own truth or conviction.

In fact, he also says this in the aforementioned interview on Swiss television: "I regretted many things, I did many things wrong, but what I regretted most was that I stayed in the Communist Party for so long. I thought it was the only way to fight National Socialism. You can't do it alone, you need a strong organisation. But I should have distanced myself in1932 and not as late as1937 after the Moscow Trials." I'm only telling you this now to show that he was perfectly capable of questioning himself and addressing his own errors of judgement . Under no circumstances did he have this very common position that he would do everything again in exactly the same way.

There's another fundamental question where you can get so much wrong: how do we deal with political violence? Should we engage with right-wing, violent people, people who reject democracy? Certainly one of the most controversial questions of our time in light of the conflicts in Ukraine, Taiwan, Israel and all the political radicalisations such as the AFD in Germany or Trump in the USA. And Sperber shows very clearly in "Tears" that if you meet violence with violence, you become almost irrevocably entangled in something that can no longer be resolved.

The novel certainly poses this question and Sperber has answered it to a certain extent through his everyday life. He engaged with a huge range of people. He talked to those on the right who were very conservative. It took a lot for him to call someone a National Socialist or a fascist. Today, on the other hand, people are very quick to make that judgement. At the same time, he said that you have to remain capable of defending yourself, that you have to be able to defend yourself against violence. And with regard to the far-right German AFD, he would certainly have voted for a conversation, a dialogue, but a firm one. But as I said, this is all hypothetical.

After our conversation began with the question of why still read Sperber today, I would like to finish by asking why you yourself read Sperber back then.

In 1968 I was just 16. My German teacher was the leader of the Fortschrittliche Studentenschaft (FSZ) here in Zurich. He organized the first big demonstration here, the so-called Globuskrawall, and he was something like the Dutschke of Zurich. That fascinated me of course, I went to demonstrations myself and at some point I bought the red Mao booklet. But when it became known that the author of the preface, a certain Lin Biao, had died in a plane crash, probably in order to "dispose" of him, I realised that perhaps it was not all roses in china after all. As I distanced myself from my communist ideas, I came across Manès Sperber. It's very typical. Joschka Fischer and Daniel Cohn-Bendit have also read him. Joschka Fischer once had to explain in the German Bundestag why he had beaten up police officers during the house-to-house fighting in Frankfurt. He said: "If I had read Manès Sperber earlier, I would have renounced violence sooner." This book also has this biographical reference for me, as it does for so many others from the generation of 1968. Then I discovered that Sperber also deals with psychology. And that was the opportunity - somewhat by the skin of my teeth - to write my dissertation in education about Manès Sperber. And then I also took part in a psychological movement here in Zurich that was a bit sectarian and from which I subsequently distanced myself - a second move away. Two periods of distancing, just like Sperber.

Thank you very much for this interview!