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12 Swiss Books – 2015

Reflections in Mirrors. On the Self and the Other




“Vivid descriptions honed from his own experiences and portrayed with elegant, well-argued imagery.” BEAT MAZENAUER, VICEVERSA





MARTIN R. DEAN was born in 1955 in Menziken, Switzerland. He studied Ethnology, Philosophy and German Language and Literature, and lives in Basel as a freelance writer, essayist and journalist. His first novel Die verborgenen Gärten appeared in 1982. He has received various prizes, including an award from the Swiss Schiller Foundation. His latest novels are Falsches Quartett (2014) and Ein Koffer voller Wünsche (2011). PHOTO © Claude Giger

As the son of a Swiss mother and an Indian-Trinidadian father, Martin R. Dean has first-hand experience of the arguments surrounding foreignness and the hostility towards everything ‘other’. Throughout his literary career, in his books and essays, he has debated this question of the ‘Other’. The search for his own roots led him to Trinidad and London and finally to northern India, from where his ancestors originally set out for the Caribbean in 1867 as contract workers. His novel Meine Väter (2003) is a memorial to both his natural father and to his stepfather.
Just as his forefathers set off into the unknown to attempt to improve their lives and prospects, so Martin R. Dean also enjoys being on the move to new places and cities, in search of rich encounters with the ‘Other’. Cities like Paris and London are key for him: Paris, where so many different ethnicities come together; and London, where, as he writes, whole continents meet in a kind of “people’s laboratory”. In his wideranging and substantial essay, Reflections in Mirrors, he considers the question of the Self and the Other, and in so doing, brings to bear the sum of his own experiences thus far on this complex topic. “Identity”, he suggests, “is nothing more than an echochamber, in which the Self and the Other both reflect, and merge into, each other.”
Dean pursues his exploration of the Self with numerous references to the work of Thomas Mann, Elias Canetti and Friedrich Nietzsche, and, almost incidentally creates an image of a world in which the Other must remain just that: “It takes the Other to cause the Self to vibrate.”

TITLE Verbeugung vor Spiegeln. Über das Eigene und das Fremde
PUBLISHER Jung und Jung, Salzburg and Vienna
ISBN 978-3-99027-069-1
TRANSLATION RIGHTS Jochen Jung, office@jungundjung.at


German original (p. 7-8), English translation below

Das Fremde ist am Verschwinden. Die Fähigkeit, es noch auszuhalten, verkümmert in dem Maße, wie die globale Freiheit zunimmt. Das Fremde ist zum Kleingeld geworden im alltäglichen Gezänk politischer Parteien um die Ausländer, denen die Fremdheit durch »Integration« genommen werden soll. Sie sollen sein wie wir, sie sollen sich anpassen und jeden Rest abweichenden Verhaltens verlieren. Auch die Fremdheit zwischen den Geschlechtern wird durch eine Strategie, die sich an den Partnerbörsen alphabetisiert, verkleinert. Die globale Fremdheit wird durch Google Earth beseitigt, und wo in den Köpfen noch Unverstandenes lauert, wird es durch die am Kommerz schlagkräftig gewordene Rationalität getilgt.

»Ohne Weltenkenntnis fehlt’s an Herdverständnis. Ohne Globus auch kein Heimatbonus«, schreibt Botho Strauß. Heimat gibt es, in der Tat, im Überfluss. Aber was wird, wenn unser Bewusstsein nur noch Bekanntes wiederkäut? Das Wagnis der Differenz, auf das wir mit unserem Denken die letzten fünfzig Jahre gebaut haben, scheint verloren zu gehen.

Die Austreibung des Fremden bringt kein Heil, nicht mehr Vertrautheit und nicht mehr Gerechtigkeit; sie beraubt uns lediglich unserer Fähigkeit zur Toleranz. Sie nimmt uns ein Rätsel, eine Dimension der Erfahrung weg, die im Staunen, in der Überraschung oder im Schock ihren Ausdruck findet. Und in der Verwandlung.

Dem Reisenden wird heute die Fremde nicht mehr richtig fremd. Was wir an Erfahrung mit nach Hause bringen, ist oft nicht aufregender als die Souvenirs, die wir noch schnell am Flughafen kaufen. Reisen bedeutet nur mehr Auszeit von der Arbeit.

So besteht die Gefahr, dass das Ausgeschlossene zur Bedrohung wird. Dass es, gänzlich vom Eigenen abgespalten, zum Feind wird. Die grundsätzliche Einsicht Freuds, dass es keine Welt gibt, in der wir je völlig zu Hause wären, hat sich nicht durchsetzen können. Der Kampf gegen das Fremde führt vielmehr zu einem Verlust an Innenraum, in dem nichts anderes mehr Platz hat als das, was wir selber sind. Freuds Einsicht war ein Gegenmittel dazu, auch gegen das Gefühl der »Heimatlosigkeit«, das ganze Völker wie eine Krankheit heimsucht.

[…] Im vorliegenden Buch unternehme ich Spaziergänge durch die Gärten des Fremden, die, wie wäre es anders zu erwarten, das Eigene zum Vorschein bringen.


Excerpt translated by Michael Hofmann

Strangeness – the Other – is on the way out. Tolerance for it is withering away as global freedom increases. The Other is collateral damage in the daily political bickering about foreigners, whose Otherness is to be taken from them by “integration.” They are to be like us, they are to adjust and conform and lose every vestige of difference from us. The strangeness between the sexes is under attack from strat-egies and formulas once pioneered on dating-sites. Global otherness is removed by Google Earth, and wherever there is an alien concept still lurking in someone’s head, it will soon be wiped out by rationalization steeled by commerce.

“You need a notion of the world to get a notion of home. Without the planet no local bonus,” as Botho Strauss had it once. Indeed, the local is everywhere. But what if our consciousness is only given familiar things to chew on? The challenge of difference on which we have built our thinking for the last fifty years is under threat. But if the Other were to disappear, it won’t make us more secure, confident or just; it will just make us narrow-minded. It will deprive us of a conundrum, one dimension of experience that finds expression in surprise or shock. And, over time, in transformation.

To the traveller, abroad is not really foreign, not any more. The experiences we bring home with us are often no more exciting than the souvenirs we pick up at the airport. Increasingly, travelling just means time away from the workplace.

There is the risk that what is excluded will be perceived as a threat. That, split off from anything we recognize as ours, it will simply become “the enemy.” Freud’s foundational insight that no world exists in which we were ever completely at home, has not prevailed. The fight against the Other leads to a loss of mental space; nothing finds room within us any more – just us. Freud’s insight tried to remedy that feeling, and the sense of “homelessness” that persecutes whole peoples like an illness.

[…] This book is a stroll through the gardens of the Other, where, how could it be otherwise, each produces its own blooms.

“The author offers us his experiences of Otherness in well-crafted
prose. He swings between ‘self-preservation’ and ‘self-loss’, and makes
a plausible case that this vacillation is actually a positive way of life.”