Acceptance Speech

Your Majesty, Royal Highnesses, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Some years ago, wandering in a secluded valley in Friuli, Italy, I went to the library of one of the local Cultural Record Centres to inquire about a poet who, a hundred years earlier, had written an intriguing Hymn to Matter.  But the librarian, clearly incapable of imagining that anyone might be looking for a book for  his own personal satisfaction, fixed me with a look and asked bluntly:  “But you, who do you represent?”

I had no idea, then, how to answer such a question.  I could have said that I represented many categories:  bipeds, teachers, husbands, travellers, fathers, sons, flat-owners, mortals …  I felt that the luckless Self – my own, everyone’s – was turning into a kind of stand-in.   Not for nothing was I born and reared in Trieste, a city of that Hapsburg Empire redolent of men without qualities; the city in which Joyce began Ulysses, and Ulysses, as we know, is Noman.

But today – as I receive this great honour paid me by the conferral of the Praemium Erasmianum, and having heard such generous things said about me – I know who I represent.  I represent all those who have built my life, who are part of me like the rings of a tree trunk and without whom I could not have experienced, understood, written or done so many things, including those that attracted the attention of the Jury of this Prize.

I think of the people in my life – my companions, parents, sons, teachers, friends – close to me in times both good and bad, who like so many brothers and sisters accompany me towards the end of the road.  I think, too, of brief encounters, people who have helped me to touch, if only by a smile or a challenge, some basic cord of life.   Without them I would not be here, which helps me to accept this prize with gratitude and humility, overcoming the melancholy that surprises us amid joy, when the bestowal of a great gift – such as this prize – compels us to reflect, to balance the books of our existence and to discover, as always, a deficit.

I am grateful for and proud of this great prize, and particularly  happy  to receive it together with that symbol and embodiment of freedom, Adam Michnik, a long-standing friend of mine whom I have long admired both for his books and for the good fight he has fought.
Moreover, I am glad to think that if I receive this prize it is because I have been able – despite all my mistakes – to bear witness to people whose achievements and destinies are far greater than, but which I cannot separate from, my own.  To write, for me, is to transcribe something greater than oneself, just as the light of evening is greater than the eye which nevertheless takes it in.  So the epigraph for one of my books is a parable of Borges’ concerning an artist who painted landscapes, mountains, seas, rivers, and in the end became aware of having painted his own face.  Our face is there, outside, in the world, in the features and  destiny of others.

This has to do with my personal poetic and feeling for life, but also, I think, with what today is perhaps the central problem of our civilisation: tolerance.  Truly to accept and respect otherness, one must feel that the other is also a part of us, that he is us, that we would not be ourselves without him. Tolerance means knowing not only how to cross the border that separates us from the other, but also how to consider that border as a bridge where we stroll up and down , mixing with the passers-by, going from one bank to the other until we no longer know what country we are in. Thereby we rediscover goodwill towards men and the delight of the world.

Never so much as today has tolerance meant knowing how to shift or cancel borders, in order to find ourselves again in others.   In the vast global crucible where all identities are melted down, we shall be lost if we do not learn this capacity to rediscover ourselves in the other.  The laager mentality begets hatred and death. If the bridge becomes a drawbridge then the border becomes an idol – and idols demand blood sacrifice. Yet at the same time borders are essential to the defining and defending of values when we find ourselves confronting not simply different but also opposing values, irreconcilable ones, proof against all discussion.  A Liberal can and must negotiate with a Socialist, a Christian with an Atheist;  but whoever believes in dialogue cannot and must not negotiate with the racist or the exterminator.  This is the tragic predicament of tolerance, that in its impulse to overcome so many false borders of prejudice and fanaticism it must establish real borders  against fanaticism and inhumanity.  

Tolerance becomes more difficult to exercise in the context of a rapidly transforming world.  There is probably occurring today – in a mere couple of years instead of millennia – an anthropological mutation which will change the feelings and perceptions of the individual, his nature, his history, the experience and record of it; will produce, perhaps, the Ubermensch prophesied by Nietzsche, one who is not the traditional superman, but rather a “Beyond-man”, almost a new stage in anthropological evolution, a new form of the Self, no longer a compact unit but composed – in Nietzsche’s phrase – of an “anarchy of atoms”,  a fluctuating multiplicity of drives and psychic nuclei no longer hierarchised in the age-old, millenary unitary structure of individuality and consciousness.

Man, Nietzsche wrote, is a bridge that must be crossed, and we today may well be that bridge, soon to be passed over.  Tomorrow man may be something else, totally different in the way he experiences individuality, family, sex, generation.  Perhaps the distinction between man and the other living forms of nature, upon which our civilisation and our morality are based, will be challenged.  Perhaps, in the face of some new laboratory creature, we shall have to ask ourselves  the question, albeit in a different sense, posed by Primo Levi: “whether this is a man”.  In the meantime, however, we are on that bridge, we are that bridge, and we do not want to see the centuries-old face of the man we have learnt to love disappear.  Our poor humanistic self, beset on all sides, defends itself like a guerrilla against the armies of the great.  In this process – which both enriches and impoverishes, frees and binds – it will be difficult to fix the limits of tolerance, what to tolerate and what not, what to say yes to and what no.

But sometimes one is assailed by a fearful doubt,  the doubt as to dialogue itself and its efficacy. As one notices from certain pauses, signs, silences in his debate with Luther on Free Will, no one so much as Erasmus, the humanistic genius of tolerance and dialogue par excellence, has experienced this particular doubt.  He refers to a mysterious sensation which invites him to doubt the struggle in which he nevertheless engages all his energies.  The rational humanist, believing in reason and the word, perceives that what really matters has been decided before the word, in the shifting, elusive depths of life, in the obscure affinities or rejections which inexorably draw men close or drive them apart.  One becomes aware that in dialogue one convinces only the already convinced, and that the fate of the word and of reason is to be misunderstood.
Such awareness is no less tragic than the Lutheran view of sin. The greatness of Erasmus, however, consists in his ability to transform this doubt into an element of faith in reason, in the symbiosis he effects between faith and irony, which helps us in vicissitude and enables us to live.  Never so much as today have we needed – so as not to be depressed when even the local librarian challenges our ego – the virtues of Erasmus.   His reticence, his evasion, his ironical smile are the expression of an amiableness preserved even when looking into the void – or into what seems the void at that moment. They are the expression, too, of the strength of mind of one who , though conscious of the precariousness of his ratiocinations, stubbornly continues to follow reason because he refuses to believe that that void is the final truth.

Such tolerance and such steadfastness help us to pass through the chaos of life, from its first to its last uncertainty. Man, so runs a Chassidic proverb, comes from dust and is destined to dust, but in the interval he can drink a glass of good wine.  Wine befits prizes. In 1619 Ben Jonson received a poetry prize, which consisted of a cask of wine to refresh his imagination. With the munificent Praemium Erasmianum I should be able to fill an entire Usselmeer with wine and offer a drink to all those – beginning with myself – who feel their imagination drying up.  Your Majesty, Royal Highnesses, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, dear friends all, one of the many men without qualities thanks you from the bottom of his heart for the great  honour now received by
Claudio Magris