Interview: Elke Heidenreich: “A lot of people cause a lot of problems”

In her new book, Germany’s favorite literary critic sums up her life. Elke Heidenreich talks about problems in the world and society, about the soul and death.

In Travel Memories you quote Martin Walser: “If you’re not good at forgetting, you’ll bleed to death in the intensive care unit.” Did you bleed a lot while writing?

Elke Heidenreich: Yes, sometimes. Some things are hard to remember, but somehow looking back makes everything easier. This is what the title of Your Happy Eyes says. I am grateful for my life and trips that were never tourist trips. Of course, things happened over time that made me sad. And as you get older, friend losses get closer and closer. Saying goodbye to the ones you love is a lasting wound, but that’s part of being human. That is why you have to remember your own life, otherwise it will not make sense. You wouldn’t want it any other way. There is no such thing as pure happiness.

What really motivated this journey through time during your lifetime?

Heidenrich: In fact, I’ve always done that. Most of my books are about stories that happened to me. And now I have a space to tell them. In the end, each author writes by looking at things past and, thanks to his imagination, makes a story out of it.

There are authors who have not traveled much in their lives. But the trips in your imagination were not enough for you?

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Heidenrich: I don’t want to say that. But I was born during the war and raised in the 1950s. And at that time, I was just beginning to travel and learn about the world, which our parents did not know in this way.

It is said nowadays that for the sake of the climate you should limit travel. What’s your opinion?

Heidenrich: Well, we have become aware of the state of the world and we can no longer own everything as we did in the last 70 golden years. On the other hand, I understand that two years after Corona, people have a great longing to get out of the cage. And it’s easy for me to say you should cut back on travel, because I have that. In the end, I can’t say how to solve the problem.

Your book radiates so much joy and love. On the other hand, you wrote that Scotland, which gave you many ideas about human destruction, shaped you more. What do you think of the man now?

Heidenrich: Man is the greatest pest on earth. I always say sarcastically, I love people, but I hate people. Crowds of people really get on my nerves. People always want the same thing, they want to be happy and have a good life. Nobody grows up thinking I want to be bad and get killed and end up in jail. It comes from the harrowing stories of life and when you see these harsh landscapes of Scotland where clan wars have raged for centuries, you get a different perspective on people. He also tends to be destructive, wage war, and be selfish. It is in all of us. If you give him space, the world looks bad. Now it looks bad. Also because many have become very selfish and stupid.

How do you see the heated social debate about what is permitted in language and culture?

Heidenrich: These are negative trends. I find this gender madness, that every gender, every religion, every sexual orientation should be called in every sentence, very hysterical. But like any trend, this will pass.

Will the good win in general?

Heidenrich: Yes, in the field of personal relations. I think we try over and over to get over the hate. But in general – you can see that in Putin – I don’t think we’ll come to our senses and stop beating each other to death. I have little optimism for the future.

Does this speak of the pessimism of aging?

Heidenrich: This pessimism has crystallized in all of us. This has nothing to do with age. We already have 20-year-olds saying how are we supposed to live in this world where in August, chestnuts shed all their leaves because they had no water. Everyone can see that something is changing and that there are horrible leaders in power in some countries at the moment who are not doing anything good. We are eight billion people, and the Earth can’t afford it anymore. Lots of people cause a lot of problems.

On the other hand, her book is full of memories of cultural experiences. What roles do art and culture play as human beings?

Heidenrich: Without art and culture we would be barbarians. Literature, painting and above all music, which reaches our souls, is what makes us human and keeps our feet on the ground so as not to deteriorate completely. I am a firm believer in art and culture, and they are suffering a lot at the moment because there are so many crises that we don’t even notice anymore. Regardless, after the Corona period, people no longer like to go to the theater and cinema, which urgently needs to change. Because that’s what we need – also because of the societal experience we need after sitting alone at home for so long.

You have explored the globe sufficiently. But what about the journeys into the vast space that are slowly becoming possible?

Heidenrich: This will not appeal to me at all. Space never cared for me, neither moon landings nor aliens or flying saucers. I’m totally down to earth and every once in a while I look up at the sky and think ‘beauty’, but that’s all there is to it.

Don’t you like these beautiful alien images of the universe at all?

Heidenrich: They don’t tell me anything. My friend loves it and watches all the movies that have to do with space and black holes. I don’t care, I can’t change it.

The book ends with the anniversary of Roberto Blanco’s concert. Is “you gotta have a little fun” at the end the summary of your life too?

Heidenrich: Needless to say there should be a bit of fun, we don’t take everything too seriously. But these shallow poems are not universal at all.

What are you currently enjoying?

Heidenrich: life. And still, immersing myself in books and music is my biggest joy.

But at some point, as cited in Fernando Pessoa’s book, the “war abyss” arrived. Is the abyss really waiting for us?

Heidenrich: The wagon is already driving into the abyss, but until then we can drink a glass of wine and laugh a little.

Or is there another flight that may be waiting for us?

Heidenrich: No. With my last breath it’s over for me. Just as I don’t look up at the sky and think God is sitting there or aliens live there, I don’t think my soul is floating somewhere and looking down. At some point it will end. I accept this conclusion as well. I’m not afraid of that either. You have to accept it.

On the other hand, as you can read in the book, the letters “C + M + B” are written on your door every year on Epiphany – a Latin abbreviation for “Christ bless this house”…

Heidenrich: In the book I tell the story in Rome, where Pope John XXIII met me. Blessed as a little girl. And yet I think I want to bless my house on January 6th. I take a piece of chalk, write the letters and say a short prayer. I think it’s a nice habit that keeps bad guys away.

Is this not a religious belief?

Heidenrich: I don’t think about it. I’m the daughter of a priest and I studied religion, but I left that behind. Every religion has its god and everyone is at enmity with each other and finds their god is the only one. I don’t want to do anything with this mess. But if you want to use the word “God” for the beauty of nature, animals and plants, and the return of the seasons, that’s divine to me, a wonderful thing I also believe in. I would recommend Betty some strength of this sort, but not to the old man with the beard and white nightgown.

You talk about “your soul” in the book. Does it already exist?

Heidenrich: Everyone has it. Everyone has their own inner glow and a starting heart, as a writer once described it. Nor should you lose the initial heart. This is open, enjoys the world, life, love and treats others with compassion. If you keep this in mind, you can get a feel for it in a small circle. It gets more difficult when you look at the big picture, but everything is still possible on a small scale. And if the little circles draw big circles, maybe we can do that after all.

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