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Friday, October 24, 2008

Is There Such a Thing as a Universal Ethics?

An Interview with Nihad Hasanović II

Read Part I here.

You have just published your first novel, About Barbecuing and Various Interludes (I'm translating the title literally). Can you tell me something about it, about the issues the novel deals with, and, following on from that, what do you consider the job of the writer in today's world to be, what should a writer be talking to us about at this present moment?

Today, more than a decade after the end of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a very subtle, subversive process of distorting the truth about wartime events in Bosnia appears to be reaching its climax or at least its moment of fruition.

The reality experienced by millions of Bosnians is gradually being concealed behind a veil of vagueness and imprecision. That's particularly true with regards to political analysis of the Bosnian war. What happened is now being portrayed as a kind of Hobbesian conflict of all against all in which a number of ethnic groups waged war on one another for dark and obscure reasons.

When you travel abroad foreigners interested in the war in Bosnia tend to ask you a series of predictable questions. These usually include a reference to "inter-ethnic" or "inter-religious" conflict. Those epithets are inappropriate. They offer no explanation whatsoever of the nature of the Bosnian conflict, which can be summed up roughly as an act of aggression perpetrated by one state on another with Slobodan Milosevic masterminding the project to build another, larger state - Greater Serbia.

Everything else that followed, including Fikret Abdić’s breakaway and the conflict in Central Bosnia between Croats and Muslims (to be more precise, between the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Croatian Defense Council forces, the HVO) stems from that original political project.

It’s very unfortunate that the story of the Bosnian war is often reduced to a few "incidental" events. So you see there was this barbaric war being waged between different ethnic groups and that unprincipled conflict resulted in various incidents like the Markale massacre, a “local” genocide in Srebrenica and the siege of Sarajevo.

I needed to explain the political environment in which all of the characters in my novel are immersed. In the book I have tried to show how, in this horrific but nevertheless unequivocal political context, the lives of a group of young people have been transformed as they passed through the experience of war and then later became the victims of their own individual experiences. Some of them manage to escape, others take the path of least resistance and let themselves be misled by their unassimilated memories.

Maybe. Because I'm not really sure whether the reason why these people fall apart is their experience of war or if it's because they are who they are and have accepted certain choices in life and not others.

I don't know. That short post-war period – I've come to realize that I'd be very sad to lose those memories. What I set out to do in this novel was to capture aspects of the relationships that existed between people I cared for, a general atmosphere, some of the discreet charms of the interactions between individuals, and their inner personal concerns.

The narrative unfolds around three main characters, each of them carrying the burden of their experience of war in their own different way. They don't discuss their experience with the others but are preoccupied with it and open themselves up to the reader. Mirela tries to repress all memory of the war. She regards the war as something not worth talking about or reflecting on. This may be a defense mechanism, the way a fragile, emotionally vulnerable individual protects herself from the explosive impact of negative energy.

That's my personal interpretation; someone else may have a different interpretation, that contradicts mine but is just as valid.

As for your question about the writer’s role in the world I think that it varies depending on the individual. I wouldn’t want to preach to anyone about a “right and wrong way of writing”, I have no wish to pontificate with a set of rules in my hand that the writer must follow. And it would be invidious for me to try and impose limits on the themes that a writer should be able to tackle in his works.

Danilo Kiš's brow used to furrow as he referred to what he called “woodworms”. If a man has no strong motivation and is writing simply for amusement's sake, he should give up the effort. Trees shouldn't have to be felled just so that he can play around with words.

On the other hand, if the writer has something really important to say, something so important that he is aflame with his desire to engage with the keyboard, convinced that he can express his desperate craving to write by producing something that will speak to the reader, then he has fulfilled his purpose.

One particularly important aspect of the writer's task is the way he or she deals with the relationship between political and social reality on one hand and personal life on the other.

Since the advent of television our understanding of that relationship has undergone a strange, perverse transformation.

We don't all have to be politically activists, or run our own non-governmental organisations, or be reporters. But the disappearance of politics as a subject of conversation is something that amazes and appals me.

It’s really bizarre, for example, that young people studying law at university and other disciplines that encourage abstract thought like philosophy, literature and language, are incapable of expressing an opinion concerning real-life politics. The demise of man the political animal is a terrifying prospect.

Politics gives these people a headache. It exhausts their brains, wearied already by I know not what, it plunges them into a state of depression. The fact of the matter is that these apolitical Narcissi lack the necessary skills and information to be able to relate to the political situation in which they are inescapably and hopelessly enmeshed.

Are there any parallels to be drawn between this lack of interest in politics and the principles of postmodernist theory?

Although postmodernism has had an explosive impact in the West in important areas such as women’s rights and multiculturalism, at the same time it has narrowed the West's ethical perception of reality, and perhaps our own as well.

Many postmodernists would argue that there is no such thing as a universal ethics. Meaning that to kill someone here is not the same thing as to kill a person somewhere else.

Universality itself, they would maintain, is fictional, morality exists only within a cultural context, as the ethical philosophy of a specific ethnic group, so a universal ethics is a meaningless expression.

The cynicism of this way of thinking has never ceased to fill me with amazement and also anger.

I guess it must be pleasant to sit in your office in a Paris University, in a sort of dream world where you can theorize about the danger posed by a universal morality while being paid a rather better salary than you might have received had France left the people of Africa to their own devices.

A couple of years ago I had a conversation with a young man who just begun work on his Master's thesis in Philosophy at Sarajevo University. He was showing off his command of postmodernist clichés. When I suggested to him that the idea of a universal justice was a concept worth defending he replied with an air of disdainful superiority, "Do you really believe in universal justice?"

Without some concept of universal justice it would be impossible to have war criminals on trial at The Hague. The Hague Tribunal may have many shortcomings but without it the murderers it has convicted and sentenced to shockingly light terms of imprisonment would still be walking the streets. Thanks to the Tribunal they have at least received some form of punishment.
Read the Part III



Hi Jasmin! Another great interview - I enjoyed this one even more than the first. Universal ethics is much like asking if morality is relative. Every basic philosophical question like these has become twisted into a thousand amalgamations in the west.

For instance, look at the ideas of liberal and conservative in America. Liberalism has branched out into many subgroups based on gender, race and sexual preference. Conservatism has become associated with war and Christianity. Both have lost their true meaning.

I studied philosophy in college, but became so disgruntled with my teachers, I ended up changing studies as most teachers were ultimately biased and highly opinionated. Ethics is not universal, but should be. I think most philosophers should learn Zen to remove their egotism. I failed many assignments because my teachers could "prove" my arguments fallacious - not because my work was incorrect, but because they were biased towards their personal agenda.

No philosopher has all the answers! I do not believe in relativism so much on ethical issues. I believe it's wrong to hate, be racist, to kill and so forth - really basic morals. My true political position is one of "classical liberalism" - absolute freedom for all, both economically and personally - not the American brand of liberalism where they hate all things conservative.

The western model of morality and ethics is one of corruption, envy, greed and confusion; and a terrible example for the world.

I totally agree with Nihad's views on TV, purpose of writing and the cynicism of thinking universal morality is cultural. People often have their thoughts infected with certain political and philosophical views - keeping them from grasping the universality of absolute truth. I too struggle with this and am just trying to become a better, kinder more complete human being:)

J. C.said...

Hi Bobbz thanks for the great comment. It really boils down to what you have just explained. Some basics certainly need to maintained.

Dave Kingsaid...

That is the most thought-provoking post I've read for a long time - possibly because slightly off my usual subject matter. A fascinating read.

J. C.said...

Dave thanks so much for your words of support. When I was thinking about doing this interview with Nihad I was quite sure that it was going to pay off. What we have here are the musings of a great writer and a thinker.

Sarah Francosaid...

I really have to work hard on my bosnian language skills because I definitely want to read Nihad's book!

Sarah Francosaid...

I share Nihad's understanding and feelings about postmodernism. In fact when I decided to make research on former Yugoslavia I came across an academic who is very strongly influenced by post-modernism, and because of his influence I lost about one year studying it and as I became more acquainted with the facts of the recent past in former Yugoslavia and crossed them with the interpretation made by post modernists, I was shocked to realize how so many people who are intelligent and cultivated manage to get detached from reality.

yes, it's comfortable to dismiss universal concepts when you sit in a nice office... because then concepts exist just to justify the fact that one is paid to discuss concepts... the idea that concepts such as justice, truth and freedom exist because the correspond to basic human needs looses all sense then.

J. C.said...

Hi Sarah, really interesting points you have here, what I will need to do is to invite Nihad to answer on these really thought-provoking opinions. Cheers!

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