The Swiss Times - Swiss News in English

The dilemma of freedom and sustainability in two new books

The unrest over the state of the climate has reached literature. Two related books seek personal answers to the fundamental conflict between freedom and sustainability. "Landkrank" and "Zugunruhe" give rise to quiet hope.

The essay "Landkrank" by Nikolaj Schultz is a book of the moment. The young sociologist experiences the unrest first-hand. It is summer in Paris. The pent-up heat in the room robs him of his sleep at night. A fan could help, but it "massively increases energy consumption". There is no cheap way out of the dilemma.

Schultz spontaneously travels to the sea, only to realize that many people do the same. The nature-protected island of Porquerolles off the Côte d'Azur is a hotspot for day-trippers. The local ecology is suffering as a result. How much prosperity will we have left, the sociologist worries, if all our actions exacerbate climate change?

The great good of freedom

The great good of freedom is fundamentally called into question today. The Dane Nikolaj Schultz starts with this insight in his essay in order to bring a new form of "geosocial" balance into play. We must seriously ask ourselves how we shape the world if we want to have a future as a society.

"Land sickness" is the catchy formula for a feeling of unease, to which the Swiss poet Levin Westermann adds another word: "Zugunruhe". This is the title of Westermann's first novel. The title refers to the restlessness of birds that can no longer sleep in the fall before their migration to warmer climes, as if "they felt at night that something was pulling them into the distance". Westermann's narrator also senses this when he is out and about researching the topic of "landscape as a setting".

An abandoned military position demonstrates to him how landscape always serves as territory for war. Conversely, nature overgrows the wounds of human intervention with astonishing speed. To speak of "renaturation", the narrator insists, is "brash and arrogant".

Nature does not need man. Westermann takes her side completely. But he doesn't really want to write about it, he gets too lost in a web of his own observations and acquired knowledge.

The landscape does not remain still, it is "not passive", but repeatedly eludes the limited "sensory experience". What remains is the intensity with which the narrator encounters it - when he walks alone through the forest, "free of people, motors and garbage".

Sick with restlessness

Both "Landkrank" and "Zugunruhe" reflect a collective feeling in a subjective way and thus attempt to show ways out of the dilemma. While Schultz starts to brood on hot nights, Westermann reacts first and foremost with "a red-hot rage", whose name is "shame".

Essentially, both authors come to similar conclusions. Westermann calls for a move away from the "idea of more and more money and endless growth", which is causing us to slide towards the abyss. And Schultz advocates making a clear distinction "between the world I live in and the world I live from". In order to bring them into harmony, economic, social and ecological issues must be considered together.

Freedom can no longer be limitless, because such freedom is spaceless, Schultz emphasizes. It is not grounded, adds Westermann. That is why there is no escape into the boundless, both criticize with a view to cynical oligarchs who dream of leaving the filthy planet Earth behind.

Intensive experience of nature

"I have to find my freedom together with others in society", it says in "Landkrank", in order to "localize it in my subjective inner sphere". And the narrator in "Zugunruhe" seeks his freedom in the intense experience of the landscape.

In this sense, the narrative essay and the essayistic novel are kindred spirits. They link personal experience to collective experience, and vice versa. As an author, Westermann also aims at language. He calls for a "grammar of the animate" in order to document the mystery of the world with respect for all creatures.

Schultz concludes his essay with a punch line from Italo Calvino (1923-1985). The important Italian author wrote in 1972 that it was not a question of leaving hell, but rather of discovering "who and what is not hell in the midst of hell, and giving them continuity and space". It is precisely this hope that remains*.

*This text by Beat Mazenauer, Keystone-SDA, was realized with the help of the Gottlieb and Hans Vogt Foundation.

©Keystone/SDA

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