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entangled narratives and dionysian frenzy: an interview with dimitris lyacos

Dimitris Lyacos interviewed by Andrew Barrett.

Dimitris Lyacos’s cross-genre trilogy Poena Damni is among the most well-received pieces of contemporary European literature. Revised and rewritten over a period of three decades, the trilogy is currently translated into twenty languages with the English Box Set Edition having appeared in 2018, when Lyacos was also mentioned for the Nobel Prize. The Poena Damni is a complex and thought-provoking work that traces, in a uniquely polyphonous narrative voice, a darkly oneiric journey evoking some of the more harrowing scenes from classic works of literature (such as the Odyssey and Divine Comedy) as well as the Bible. I am now translating Dimitris’ work-in-progress, Until the Victim Becomes our Own: an ambitious and philosophically rich work that aims to complement the trilogy, (or rather, become the book “zeroth” that will turn it to a tetralogy) and explore the place of the individual in a society founded on bloodshed and permeated by institutionalized violence. The process of translation is also rather unique as I am working on the English version as soon as Dimitris has a new piece ready to send me, and this puts our creativity and thought into a continuous dialogue through a feedback process between the original and its translation. As we work on Until the Victim Becomes our Own various subjects come up and the following conversation is typical of our usual Friday Skype afternoon chats between Detroit and Athens or Berlin.


Dimitris Lyacos with Marsyas by Walter Melcher. Photo: Walter Melcher, Stallwerck 2020.


3:AM: Over the past few weeks, we have discussed that numinous scene in the book of Genesis where Jacob wrestles the angel — or God — for an entire night near the edge of a river and its importance to your current work. It is a scene that defies a clear interpretation, tending to slip into the hermeneutic shadows. I am wondering what your thoughts are on the imagination — as opposed to rationality or faith — as a source of knowledge when considering such mysterious scenes from myth and religion. By recasting such a tale through creative acts of the imagination, can we come to know something of its meaning or essence?

Dimitris Lyacos: I wonder if this is a little like a Catch-22 situation, as one would need to have some advance knowledge of the meaning or essence of the story, in order to measure any reimagining against the original. This certainly happens here because the story is exceptionally mysterious, as well as being brief and elliptical. It unfolds in only ten lines with its main theme being accounted for fleetingly: and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. A struggle that lasted for a whole night has a reading time of roughly 1.5 seconds. Narratologically speaking, this is a major acceleration of “discourse time” with respect to “story time”: only half a line is there to account for an incident that lasts several hours. As if this were not enough, the story contains gaps in the narrative that are puzzling, for instance, Jacob falls asleep with his family in the brook of the river, then wakes up to take them to the other side and after that he immediately returns to wrestle with “The Man”. Why does he do that? There is ample room for creativity here, quite a few gaps to fill. The Jewish interpretations have offered their answers, and the artistic and literary versions of the story have added more: but the story is so open-ended that I don’t find any of them particularly revealing. They are more like throwing a stone into the water several times and trying to evince from the splash in the water the weight of the stone. As it happens, some of those splashes are more spectacular than others and in Rilke’s poem Der Schauende, we have one of those spectacular interpretations. According to the poem, the individual existence should abandon itself to the overpowering, divine force. It is this major romantic defeat that will make our petty lives meaningful.
This is a fascinating view, and yet it struck me, as being the opposite of what I had come to think as “the meaning” of the story. My understanding was that Jacob wanted to keep on fighting and that it was the Angel that wanted to stop, Jacob, up to the end, seemed ready for one more go. What stood out for me was Jacob’s dogged resistance, so my piece developed out of that. I wonder if you would say that I was influenced by my own prejudices and worked from those. For me the overpowering Angel in the story brought to mind the frontispiece of Hobbes’s overpowering Leviathan and from that I was led to Leviathan in the Book of Job. The Angel, in the end, became a composite structure, a structure of power, against which individuals wrestle until they are finally assimilated. In contrast to Rilke’s version, for me this was more about resistance than assimilation. It looks like I ended up turning the story into an extended Agon of an ancient Greek kind by inflating the rudimentary Bible description. I see that more as a gradual and non-spontaneous act of the imagination, disparate parts that gradually came together, the work of “prefrontal synthesis (as the evolutionary theory of the imagination would have it) together perhaps with the odd spontaneous insight. Parts swallowed into a larger entity, here you have a kind of intertextual Agon — I wonder of Harold Bloom would agree. Anyway, in our piece, nobody seems to have been swallowed by the other, or is he?

3:AM: I think that is correct. Although there is a certain intimation that our Jacob will be assimilated into the corpus of the Angel. I’m starting to wonder if the image of Jacob wresting the Angel is possibly symbolic of not only the individual’s romantic struggle with divine force (Rilke’s interpretation) or the individual’s dogged resistance of structured power (your interpretation), but also of the individual’s epistemological struggle to know what the Angel (or the Leviathan) exactly is. Do you think there is any validity to that thought?

DL: You are absolutely right, the epistemological struggle is part of it and it is part of the complex behavior hardwired in our brain, at least since the age of “behavioral modernity, about 70.000 years ago. The question is, however, why is it worth engaging in such a struggle? And why do we need to interpret anything, including texts, and why do we struggle to do so? With texts we do it in various ways, intertextuality being one among those. Here we mentioned a few texts that might deepen our understanding of Angels and Leviathans. My intention, however, was not to come up with a new version that would cast light on the biblical story. My two characters are not Jacob and Angel, not even their mundane counterparts. I had no intention to focus on the epistemological struggle, the same way that people that engage in an actual fight do not think about the knowledge they are acquiring during the process. But you are right, in the sense that for us humans to prepare for a struggle is as important as the struggle itself – and the time we spend training and studying our opponent lasts usually longer than the actual fight against them. We consider this preparation as a great advantage, we think that the epistemological struggle and the knowledge we gain out of it will increase our chances to prevail — very much like the piece of steak that could have given Tom King the boxing victory in Jack London’s short story. And yet the outcome is always the same. An unexpected wind blows and we are blown away with it, as it happens in the end of the piece we discussed. This makes the epistemological struggle appear as nothing more than a survival technique that gives us a little more time, makes our clocks tick slower. It offers a self-reflexive awareness of our condition, you may call it “the consolation of understanding.” But both in our human setting, as in a setting of brute nature, the states of the hunted and the hunter do not diverge very much, even though the rest of the animals did not write any tragedies to encapsulate the understanding of their own condition.

3:AM: At this moment, I’m reminded simultaneously of Boethius and Beckett. Does this abstract human linguistic function, this ability to ponder and weave narrative, which separates us from the animals, offer us respite from suffering and death or, in actuality, just enfold us in paradox and absurdity – or even fashion us as something paradoxical and absurd when compared to the brute being of our animal friends? Your work – both the Poena Damni trilogy and Until the Victim Becomes our Own – seems perhaps deliberately ambiguous on this point.

DL: I suppose one way to express this would be to say that it is characteristic of man that “he is caught in the web that he is himself weaving”. This weaving results in a cocoon that may offer safety, and a sense of home, but it can be a prison as well, and I think it works both ways. But let’s take the example of Boethius whom you mentioned first, setting Beckett aside for a while. His respite from the suffering of prison and the executioner’s knife — or rope —over his neck was “weaving” the Consolation of Philosophy. Inside his cell he built another cell that would work to protect him, his “inner citadel”, a stoic view of world. How can life be endured when ill-fortune has taken everything you had and death knocks on your door? Under the circumstances, the ex-machina apparition of Lady Philosophy can offer consolation by changing the vantage point of the narrative: the philosophical perspective reminds Boethius that nothing he ever had really belonged to him and that, naturally, the wheel that lifted him up would topple him later. Immunity can be possible only by perceiving this wider narrative and employing rational thinking to contemplate the workings of nature, the ensemble of forces that make up the world and God’s prescient benevolence. So, here comes the platonic/stoic cocoon that Christian Boethius could use to make his final journey more bearable. It is his life-lie as Ibsen would say.
Weaving narratives of this kind has certainly equipped us with meaning. The problem is that they are constantly “un-weaved” and endlessly revised, a Nietzsche, say, will come and show you the skeleton in the closet. Our times offer an endless patchwork of different narratives, and we can pick the one we want to be enfolded in, be eclectic, or dispose of them altogether. Enter Beckett: His last, minimalist plays are a narrative dead-end, a stuttering that could be the end of all narratives, unless if one wants to interpret them as the stuttering of some kind of Caspar Hauser, who attempts to learn language again. Our friends the animals, however, do not give a toss about all that, they live life in its strife and pleasure and pain and peace, they have no need of narratives to help them keep their feet on the ground. That level of cognitive sophistication is useless to them, our narratives need to be hope-directed but they have no reason to hope because they have enough life force in them, enough conatus, to remember Spinoza, that helps them move ahead. We are not like that. We need those narratives because we need meaningful closure. And I need that too. So, I catered for myself, and ended up with this particular one. The title Poena Damni means, of course, lack of hope, indeed hopelessness of the terminal kind. So here you are right again, there is some kind of ironic contradiction between the scope of weaving a narrative and employing a title that undermines it. As an Italian saying goes, it’s like throwing a stone and then hiding your hand behind your back.


3:AM: One wonders if the nature of language and narrative is inherently paradoxical and contradictory – albeit seductively and fascinatingly so – and if it is a fool’s errand to search for an unambiguous sense of hope in the literary arts. Is actual hope only to be found in the negation of the idea of hope, the erasure of the word? To turn away from the left brain and simply be in the world?

DL: It is true that we stumble upon contradictory narratives all the time. Dostoyevsky may have felt this way when he stood in front of Holbein’s Dead Christ. At that very moment the depiction of rotting flesh must have been a blow against any firm Christian faith in him. “How is it possible for the disciples to stand in front of the spectacle of His putrefaction and still believe in the Resurrection?” wonders one of his characters later on, in The Idiot. Indeed, how is someone supposed to react to examples of such narratives contradicting each other? “Erase one from our mind and firmly believe in the other” would be one way to do it. You can decide to either go for the scenario of the putrefaction or that of the Resurrection, be an atheist or a believer. Kierkegaard’s leap of faith is an example of the second choice, but you there will have to discard rationality and leap into the unknown. This is one example of erasure of the world. Of course, most of us never follow that path, and our personal existence can never coalesce into a conclusion as Kierkegaard would say. We usually drift through disparate narratives and our life is full of mild contradictions. In a way, this helps us be open to new possibilities, integrate and accommodate new perspectives within the scheme of preexistent ones. We use our different narratives pragmatically. We have many small hopes instead of a big one, and we put this long concatenation of hopes to follow the line of our lives. This is the way we have to adapt to the circumstances. Each one of us has their own makeshift narratives, not only those of literature or the speculative kind but also our simple everyday stories. We don’t mind some versatility and contradiction either. When we go to church we allow that the universe was created 5500 years ago but when we return home and watch a documentary it becomes 14 billion years old. Add to that the workings of our imagination, counterfactual situations, dreams, the stories about past and planning for the future, and you end up with our overpopulated brains. And there won’t be any future change there. We will continue to generate more of that and exchange them with the other minds around us. Our narrative production has been unfolding for millions of years and cannot stop, our brains have developed in sync with it. You can’t disentangle the software from the hardware. We cannot be in a world deprived of narrative flux, and we have no idea what any world would be like without our stories about it. Where we now stand, we have no other way but hope that we will keep rearranging our narratives so that they will continue to feed us and we will still keep busy writing this collective work of vast proportions. Will anyone read it in the end and will we be offered some Salvation for writing it? I don’t know but John’s Logos that was there in the beginning, will certainly be with us to the end.

3:AM: To bring the conversation back down to earth, one thing I know, which is neither paradoxical nor contradictory, is your love of football and your team PAOK. Perhaps such simple pleasures can be considered a gentler form of hope?

DL: They are indeed that and more. It is a hope that is renewed every week with the anticipation of the coming match. Our complex narratives recede in the background, the mirror neurons in the brain get activated and we may sit in our seats, but our bodies move virtually with every movement of the players, we virtually dribble or score ourselves. It is a highly intense fight in which nobody is seriously hurt and there is a feeling of communion in being part of it, one that runs counter to our guarded, individualistic lives; our entangled narratives are left behind and, suddenly, there is more room for straight and unadulterated contact. Here is brief story about it: The other day, while watching the Champions League PAOK vs Beşiktaş match in a café in the Greek island of Folegandros, I ended up making conversation with one of the supporters that had gathered there. It turned out to be the actor Andreas Kontopoulos, and we eventually passed from PAOK on to our common love for Georg Trakl (perhaps my favorite European poet of the 20th century), Andreas’s performance of Othello and Büchner’s Lenz – another big favorite of mine – before we safely returned home to football again. I wondered for a moment how such disparate worlds can be reconciled, how can someone play Iago and then make his way up to the Toumba Stadium, in the almost childish anticipation of the match and the experience of it. Indeed, the experience of it, this is the word that sheds light here. No more narratives, but the experience of being part of the fans in Gate 4, or watching them from some distance jumping up and down in their Dionysian frenzy, this is what makes everything come together. Sometimes it is such an experience that we are missing and crave for. I wonder if you remember our BOMB interview where we talked about the Eleusinian Mysteries, and their secret knowledge now lost. Well, I think, it is not the knowledge that we have lost, it is not this that makes us miss out on them. It is the μέθεξις, the “being part of it” that we cannot retrieve, it is the sheer experience that is not there any more for us, that part that cannot be narrated. And, to return to our first question, here you have an Agon accompanying a ritual, same way as during an ancient Greek festival, the hope offered by cyclical time and its renewal of life by a sacred rift in the profane space.


Andrew Barrett is a translator and musician, who lives in Detroit, Michigan. He translates from the ancient Greek, modern Greek and Latin. He is working with modern Greek poet Dimitris Lyacos on his follow up to the Poena Damni trilogy, Until the Victim Becomes our Own. He is also one of forty translators working on a new translation of the late-Antique epic, the Dionysiaca, which is expected to be published next year by University of Michigan Press. He teaches ancient Greek mythology at Wayne State University.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, September 18th, 2020.