Interview with Prof. Hans Bjarne Thomsen about “CARA”

by Aygun Uzunlar, ProMosaik e.V. – A very nice interview about our poetry project CARA with Prof. Hans Bjarne Thomsen of the Section for East Asian Art at the University of Zurich who wrote the introduction to the collection of poetry CARA. I would like to thank Prof. Thomsen very much for his time.

Aygun Uzunlar: For me personally CARA is a way of life of poetry at the interface between existential philosophy and mystics. How do you see this?
Hans Bjarne Thomsen: I agree, in CARA we see points in common with both mysticism and existential philosophy.  As we can see in the works of philosophers like Kierkegaard or Sartre, such concepts are difficult to explain in logical and concise words, and perhaps this is one of the roles of successful poetry: to make clear that which is hard to express, in lyrical and moving words.  Too often in philosophical texts, we have a closing of doors: a reduction of possibilities to a path along a long, narrow corridor.   The poetry in CARA does the exact opposite:  it opens doors and liberates the reader into a rich variety of new possibilities. 
AU:How important is intercultural and interreligious vision of poetry?
HBT: Not necessarily important.  Great poetry can also be made within religious traditions and such expressions can be seen, for example, within the Bible, the Torah, and the Qur’an. Such poetry tends to be focused closely on small communities within religious systems.   Yet, they are undeniably powerful poetic expressions. 
The attraction of the poetry in CARA is through its almost total lack of connections and contexts.   It floats, in a sense, between cultures and beliefs and forces us to make an effort to understand something that is essentially fragmentary in nature.  In effect, it expresses the beauty of ambiguity.   And this ambiguity is important for the intercultural and interreligious vision of this poetry, as well as for the accompanying paintings.  
AU:How can we promote peace by poetry?
HBT: Poetry can certainly promote peace.  But we should not forget that poetry remains a tool in the hands of the poet, and that the intention of the poet remains important.  If the intention of the poet is to inflame the passions of the readers to the violence of war, then this can be done: there are plenty of examples of this type of poetry.  Just as there are many examples of art that can bring us to hate, to erotic passion, or to inner contemplation: in all forms of art, intentions become important.  Poetry, art, and rhetoric: these are all tools in the hands of their creator and can become as destructive or constructive as willed by the person who brings them to life. 
How then can we promote peace?  By judicious selections.  By selecting the art or poetry that brings out the better qualities in the readers.  Not a censorship of expression, but a promotion of that which we judge to be for the better common good.  The publication of CARA is an excellent example: the poetry of the anonymous poet, the paintings of LaBGC, the work of the editors and publishers ProMosaik – all these people have come together to make a publication that asks us to contemplate on vital questions, for example, on our existence, on how to live with others, and how to communicate, with or without words.  Surely these are goals that should be promoted and those that can lead to peace within ourselves and with others around us.
AU: How important are universal and specific cultural values at the same time to promote diversity and common values at the same time?
HBT: This is of course a very topical question!  We see this right now around us every day, for example, in the question of integration within Europe.  Are there universal values that can be accepted by every culture?  Are there specific cultural values of some groups that make them incompatible when placed together with other groups?   How important is diversity when it can lead to the tearing apart of common social fabric?   How valuable are common values when they are the result of sacrifice and suppression of the specific cultural traditions of some groups?  
In such questions I believe that it is important to have a sight of ideals, but – at the same time – to be aware of the limitations of fellow human beings.  It is clear when we look around in the world that we are not one big happy family.  Conflicts seem to happen spontaneously across the globe; no area of the world is exempt from this sad fact.   We cannot expect spontaneous expressions of happiness and peace when we place different cultures next to each other – especially since cultural values are often based on differences.  That is, a culture identifies itself though the differences between it and the other cultures and peoples around itself; differences from the cultural norms of one’s own group are seen as threatening and as diametrically opposed to the preservation of one’s own cultural values.
At the same time, we are now forced to find common values, and an idealized view of mankind might not be the worst place to start.  By allowing diversity and encouraging constructive cultural values we may well lead to common understandings.   Integration is not a natural tendency, as natural forces tend to pull us apart.  Therefore process has to be active: we have to continually work against human nature and reflexive tendencies in order to create a world where both universal and specific cultural values are appreciated, and where both diversity and common values are promoted at the same time.         
AU: What can we learn from the Zen poetry?
HBT: Zen poetry is based on the idea of the kōan.  These are the ritualized questions given by abbots to monks during training, and form an important part of Zen Buddhist belief.  The questions might appear to be nonsensical (Such as the Zen Master Hakuin’s famous kōan: “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”), but the Zen Buddhists believed that religious awakening could result from the intense study of such riddles.  In effect, the monk is shocked into awakening. 
The great Zen poets have all undergone this training, and traces of kōan riddles appear consequently within the subtext of their poetry.  There is a great emphasis on exact wording, on unexpected twists and turns, and on logic turned on its head.   The appeal to modern audiences is undeniable, as it is a poetic form that gains its power from humor, from surprise, from tearing up traditions, and on providing fresh views into common existence.  There is indeed much we can learn from Zen poetry.
AU: Which are the most important aspects we can learn from traditional Japanese calligraphy?
HBT: Japanese calligraphy is a challenging field to understand.  This does not mean that it is inaccessible – there are indeed aspects that are more easily understood than others – but it does mean that there are parts of calligraphy that can only be understood through intense study and through a reading ability of the text. 
We might start with the word “calligraphy” – from the Latin it means “beautiful writing.” Yet there is nothing inherently beautiful about Japanese calligraphy. It can be brutal and forceful or elegant and lyrical: it can charm you with its rhythms or it can slap you in your face: the emphasis of Japanese calligraphy is on inner strength and not on beauty.  
A Western appreciation of Japanese calligraphy will include aspects such as the overall expression, the balance of the lines, the force of the individual strokes, and the modality of the ink.  These are important aspects of the calligraphy and ones that can be appreciated without a reading knowledge of the text. 
A Japanese appreciation of calligraphy is fundamentally different.  It will include the reading of the text: of starting on the first character and then proceeding through the text.  There is a journey over time from the beginning to the end, touching on all the points in between. 
The individual characters also have meanings and the way that the calligrapher expresses these meanings is significant.  He or she could express a certain character in any number of variations, but a choice is made and the way that this choice relates to the choices made on characters before or after is also significant.  The understanding of the audience is based on the reading of words and in the appreciation of how individual choices were made in depicting these words. 
Thus there are significant differences in the way that calligraphy is appreciated in the East and the West.  This is not to say that one is correct and the other is not.  Art is in the eyes of the beholder and the way that calligraphy is appreciated in the West is as “correct” as it is in Japan.  The importance in this art – as in any other art form – is in the serious engagement of the viewer and the will to understand.  There is much we can learn from traditional Japanese calligraphy if we are willing to bend our minds.