“Life Transposed into Words: Literature and Truth in the Works of Herta Müller”

By August Hagemann

On Tuesday April 23rd, Miami University’s Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies hosted its annual lecture, this year delivered by the winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature, Herta Müller.  Müller was accompanied by her preferred English translator Philip Boehm, a playwright, prolific translator to English from German and Polish, and founder of the Upstream Theatre in St. Louis.  Through her work and life experiences, Müller discussed the role of literature, truth, and art in combating Ceausescu’s dictatorship in Romania, and dictatorship in general.

At the beginning of the discussion, which also featured the Director of the Havighurst Center, Stephen Norris, and Professor of German, Nicole Thesz, Müller talked about her notion of objective truth; she talked about how she would not write if she did not believe such a thing did exist, and that she had some sort of access  to it.  That is not to say that she feels she is able to write down objective truths — rather, Müller attributes her thoughts on truth in writing to the writer Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt.  That is, that literature is life transposed into words.  It is not a falsification, but an interpretation of the truth.  Müller also believes that it is impossible to really express the whole truth without literature.  While historical and documentary works are useful and necessary tools for working through the tragedies of dictatorship, Müller believes that literature is the only way to understand what people experienced and how they felt.  Thus, the full understanding of any dictatorship is dependent on literature.

According to Müller, this ability of literature to reveal a critical and otherwise hidden part of the truth is what makes it such a threat to dictatorships.  She argues that one of the hallmarks of any dictatorship is their constant need to falsify.  This is essential while the dictator is in power, so that power can be maintained, as well as after the fact, so that people can justify their actions under the dictator, and excuse the crimes and atrocities that were committed.  Literature, as an illuminator of true lived experiences, undermines these falsifications, and so cannot coexist with dictatorship.  Either the dictatorship will suppress and control the literature, or the literature will gradually erode and, potentially, play a role in the collapse of the dictatorship.

The Romanian dictatorship fell into this pattern, relying on falsehood to maintain its legitimacy.  Falsification was also a critical element in how the Ceauşescu regime went about persecuting those who posed a threat to it.  Müller recalls how she was never brought in for interrogation explicitly because of her writing — after all, for the dictatorship to admit that they were engaged in an existential battle with literature and the truth would have undermined their legitimacy as much or more than the literary works that such a battle aimed to suppress.  Instead, the government would arrest and interrogate Müller and other writers on whatever made-up charges they wanted; oftentimes, it was an accusation of prostituting oneself to foreign visitors, and accepting payment only in valuable Western currencies.  By involving literary figures, who dealt in truth, with the world of dictatorial untruths, the regime was able to preemptively undermine what was perhaps its most fundamental ideological opponent.  This policy only made literature that much more valuable a tool of resistance, however.  Since literature, as Müller mentioned, is capable of capturing individual experience, and exists as an interpretation of objective truth, it could capture the contradictions inherent in a system founded on falsification.  This is not to say that pro-regime literature did not exist; it certainly did.  However, anti-regime literature could not be spun the same way that anti-regime facts or anti-regime news items could be.  Anti-regime literature was concerned with individual experience, so a dictatorship, which, according to Müller, is inherently a collective experience, could not coopt it to its own purposes.  The Ceauşescu regime could only counter literature by silencing it.

Also essential to the government’s whole power structure, according to Müller, was fear.  A primary purpose of the interrogations, the constant impending sense of being criminalized, the thought that one’s neighbors could at any time be reporting one’s activity to the secret police, was to instill fear.  It was the Romanian secret police, the Securitate, that got Müller fired from her job at a factory,  and it was those same secret police who then harassed her for being unemployed.  This fear further contributed to the regime’s ability to falsify in order to support themselves, as people who are afraid are far less likely to try and share their individual experiences; that is, they are less likely to do perhaps the only thing that had any chance of directly undermining the regime’s power.

As a result of this widespread fear, being interrogated also often lead to social isolation.  Müller recalls how the only people one could expect to stand by them after coming under government suspicion for any sort of crime, no matter how implausible, would be one’s closest friends and family.  Most people simply wanted to be left alone to continue living their lives, and the best way for them to do that was to distance themselves from anyone who had gotten on the wrong side of the Ceauşescu regime.  Initially, Müller herself admitted she did not plan on being a writer; she thought that maybe she could be a hairdresser, or a tailor.  Müller was drawn to writing because it allowed her to have some creative thing that was entirely her own.  Only gradually over time did her writing also became a way to expose the crimes of the Ceausescu regime, a way of remembering and defending her friends who had been killed and then classified as suicides to cover up what was really happening.

Müller’s life and her work both testify to the power of literature to combat dictatorship.  Müller said that she hoped to write for all Romanians who suffered under dictatorship, and the experiences of evaluating and rebuilding that followed.  Only through the individual, interpreted truths that literature is able to capture can the fabrications of dictatorship be revealed as the falsehoods they truly are.

August Hagemann is a junior majoring in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies.  This past academic year he has served as a Havighurst Center fellow responsible for covering the ongoing series about “truth and power.”

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