An interview with Jozef Banáš published by a prestigious Russian magazine

on . Posted in English pages

Jozef Banáš seems to be the voice of Slovak writers beyond Slovakia´s borders. After being interviewed by the media in Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary, now the bi-monthly Prime Russian Magazine has asked him for an interview. What an honour for Jozef Banáš to find himself in the company of the world´s prominent intellectuals, top managers, analysts, writers, scientists such as Robert Kaplan, Robert Lawrence Kuhn, Vladimir Levin, Frank Pascal, Ben Goldacre, Victor Tambone, Nils Christie, Dmitry Bondarenko, Pavel Krusanov, Richard Castelli, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Nate Silver and many more. Now, a Slovak has been given the opportunity to express his ideas in this prestigious magazine as well. That is remarkable.

In an extensive interview with PRM (issue March/April), Jozef Banáš presents his thoughts on liberties and restraints of a politician and writer, on Havel as an author, on the power of weapons and ideas, on what will follow after the fall of the Anglo-Saxon empire, on mainstream propaganda, on diplomacy, on a letter to Ms. Merkel and the German Ambassador to Slovakia, on hypocrisy during communism and today, on media manipulation, on the war in Afghanistan, on Moscow´s and Brussels´ potentates, on banks exploiting states and citizens, on Bhutan setting an example of a spiritual life style, on dogmatic theology, as well as on what will defeat materialism.  

PRM: What intersections do you see between politics and literature?

Jozef Banáš: If we understand politics as a process of handling public affairs then an integral part of such a process is exerting influence over public opinion. I prefer the word ´manipulating´ public opinion in such a way that a politician receives the necessary public support for his or her political decisions. In this sense, a writer – at least those writers whose books are read by masses – acts as a politician to a certain extent. The difference between him and a politician is the fact, that a writer does not need public support; his role is to continuously watch over the acts of politicians. Thus it is clear that you cannot be an active politician striving for public support and a writer overseeing politicians at the same time – that is impossible. I know from my own experience in high politics that a politician cannot live the liberties a writer can. If a politician could think and decide freely he or she would not be successful in politics where the ideas of a certain group of people joined in a political party are pushed ahead. There are three professions which I regard as highly restricted: politician, journalist and clergyman.


PRM: Writers often become great politicians like Havel for example, or at least they have influence in politics like Solzhenitsyn. Only rarely it is the other way around – although Winston Churchill received the Nobel Prize in literature, but the world still remembers him rather as a politician than a writer. You have chosen the opposite direction – from high politics to great literature.

Jozef Banáš: With all due respect to Havel´s activities in anticommunist dissent, his human aspects strongly surpass him as an author. In my opinion, Havel´s essays are brilliant, which I cannot say about his theatre plays. This is supported by the fact that during the days of his opposition to the communist regime, his plays were brought out in more than two hundred theatres all around the world; after the fall of the regime, the theatres have gradually stopped performing them. After his entry into politics, Havel practically did not write any more. The same goes for such a genius as Goethe who was not able to combine the uncombinable – the liberties of creativity with the restrictions of politics. He described this schizophrenia in his play Torquato Tasso in the relationship between the poet Tasso and the politician Antonio who sighed: “Two souls alas! are dwelling in my breast”. Churchill was a productive author, yet he wrote historic texts and memoires and did not have to deal with the creative dilemma of liberty and restrictions. My way to writing has not led via politics; I have rather returned to something I have been doing continuously alongside my professions and the four years (2002 – 2006) in Slovak Parliament which provided wonderful study material for my first book Idioti v politike (Idiots In Politics) – an immediate bestseller. So, my stay in politics did pay off. J Whereas a common man is willing to make a fool out of himself only within the limits of his own possibilities, a politician crosses them on a regular basis even though he may not be aware of it. I remember situations when I myself opportunistically started interpreting any filthiness I knew about or did (in voting, for example) in ways that let me still pass muster with me. 


PRM: A few years ago, the Venezuelan analyst Moisés Naim wrote a book called The End of Power presenting the idea that nowadays, no one with absolute power existed, no single institution which could accumulate significant reserves. Do you agree with that? To what extent is this phenomenon positive?

Jozef Banáš: Indeed, never in history there has been any one with absolute global power. In my novel Kód 1 (Code 1), I write about Jesus´ life in India. In those days, it was not the Roman Empire to hold the greatest power in the world, but the sixteen Indian kingdoms freely associated in Ancient India. Together they had a GDP one third higher than the Roman Empire. We, Europeans, love to pride ourselves on having established the eldest university in Bologna in 1088, but in India at least three universities existed already by that time – in Nalanda, Taxila and Varanasi – founded seven hundred years before Christ. Two of them (Nalanda and Varanasi) are still in existence today. India has been held together by the idea of compassion expressed in the old Vedas and later adapted by Buddha. Rome needed a sword to hold together. No empire built on the power of weapons has ever survived. This law is valid today as it was in the past – dominions or civilizations which are not held together by an idea but by force fall apart sooner or later. Today, we can watch the example of the Anglo-Saxon empire, or civilization, if you want. I refer to a period beginning roughly in the 12th century with the unification of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, later leading to the colonization of India, the slaughtering of indigenous people in America followed by the creation of the United States, further heading through three World Wars – the First, Second and the Cold one – when the Anglo-Saxon power culminated and now getting to its final stage. The torch is being passed on to the East and the spiritual – Slavic – sphere is taking over the sceptre. The fact, that there is no hegemon which could accumulate such reserves that would allow him to rule the world, is good news. The doctrine of “nation´s interests” pursued by the United States in areas such as Latin America to the Near East, exemplifies the aggressive professing of a religion similar to the bygone Christian Crusades.


PRM: Maybe we can see the closest analogy to our present situation in the year 1914 when the world was teetering on the brink of a major war. Today, like then, much depended on the level of diplomatic communication. What do you think is the state of today´s diplomacy?

Jozef Banáš: In summer 1914, European holiday resorts were filled with dancing small-towners who noted the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo as interesting and thrilling news in tabloid press. We could say metaphorically that they have moved from the dance floor to the train stations. Soldiers and those waving them were enthusiastic because based on the information from the official (mainstream) media they thought they were going on a trip. Fortunately, today we have the internet (so far...) and one can find out easily what the reality looks like and does not need to rely on the mainstream propaganda. You say, that the world is teetering on the brink of a major war; but the war has been here for long already. During the Second World War 52 million people died. Nowadays, every year 18 million people die of starvation, genocides and local conflicts (the statistics mention 33 wars going on right now), which means that the Second World War is repeating itself every third year and no one seems to take notice!

Generally a diplomat is perceived as a kind of mediator solving conflicts, but that is not the reality. A diplomat only translates the interests of his or her government. In this context, a diplomat resembles a soldier with the only difference that one of them has shiny shoes on and the other army boots. One could even say, that the soldier is more fair because he says openly that he only fulfils someone else´s commands, whereas a diplomat pretends to be in command of himself. Thus if I say that a politician is not a free person, then the same applies to a diplomat doubly. On the contrary, the importance of diplomacy is growing, which may sound a bit of a paradox, but that is true, because the politicians themselves are taking over the roles of diplomats. Today, Putin does not need to send messages to Obama via his ambassador, no, he simply calls Obama directly. A diplomat becomes handy in situations when Obama and Putin are so angry at each other that none of them wants to be the first to pick up the phone. Thus diplomats are becoming the spokesmen of politicians – good news is announced by the politician himself, bad news is told by his spokesman. Diplomacy is a job too comfortable and paid too well; you want to make sure you do not lose it. Hence diplomats supply their central offices with such news and information which are expected of them. I have written an open letter to Ms. Merkel which the German Ambassador to Slovakia has refused to send to Berlin because its content is not in line with Berlin´s expectations of him. Yet, the letter expresses the opinion of a significant if not major part of the Slovak society including its elites. What kind of information does such a diplomat send home then? He copies the mainstream media, communicates with people who share his viewpoints and makes those in Berlin believe that Slovaks applaud Merkel. Once I wrote a comedy about one of the most influential diplomats ever – Talleyrand. He used to say that a diplomat had a tongue so he could conceal his thoughts.


PRM: Your novel Zone of Enthusiasm shows the last decades of communism in Eastern Europe. How would you describe today´s environment of Eastern Europe? Compared with Western countries, Eastern Europe seems to have twofold memories: of an autonomous life outside the European Union, on the one hand and of a life under communism, on the other hand.

Jozef Banáš: After November 1989, we were hoping that hypocrisy and deceit would come to an end. But nothing of that sort happened. When comparing life during socialist days and today, I find one very strong common aspect and that is hypocrisy. During communist times people were afraid to open their mouths for political reasons, today, they keep quiet for existential reasons. Our memories are twofold and life under communism has taught us above all not to believe everything the media tells us. I think that somewhere here we need to search for the main reason why today people in Western European countries can be easier manipulated than us who have experienced a communist regime. As we did not believe the official media we were looking for alternative sources of information. In Western Europe people were bombarded with the image of inhuman communism and its fall only seemingly proved the media to be right. That is why today, Slovaks do not trust media claiming that the war in Afghanistan is okay, because we have been told the same about the Soviet war in Afghanistan. As far as I am concerned, I used to be very much in favour of the European integration, since the European Union seemed to present an ideal means for conflict prevention. Time shows however, that the aversion we once felt against the potentates in Moscow now seems to grow stronger against those in Brussels. Moreover, in comparison with Moscow´s ruling authorities, those in Brussels give us the feeling that to them, citizens from former communist countries are second-class. I know what I am talking about as I have experienced it myself. Furthermore, from the emotional and linguistic point of view, Slovaks have closer ties with Russians, Serbs or Ukrainians than with Americans, Germen or Belgians. Naturally, Slovak pseudo-intellectuals will not agree with these words, but it is their problem if they want to stay deaf to the truth.


PRM: Where do you see a way out of the situation in which our world is today? Large unification projects like the theoretical globalization or, specifically, the European Union are facing deep problems. Do you think that humanity will attempt to build a joint system of values (if so, what will the synthesizing ideology look like?) or will each unit go its separate ways, will the states try to survive and rescue themselves individually arriving at a global disintegration and some kind of new self-sufficiency, or establishing smaller alliances? In other words: do we need a united world, or one that is multi-polar? Or will the dream of a common language, as the poet Adrienne Rich called it, remain only a wishful fantasy?

Jozef Banáš: The world, fortunately, is not just us, humans, but it is a compact system in which everything is interconnected – earth, water, forests, flora and fauna, man. Our planet does not need the man. I see the solution in the example set by a small and quiet country, which I have visited recently and about which I am writing a book now. It is called Bhutan, a kingdom ruled by the open-minded royal dynasty of Wangchuck and its present king Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck leading his people along the path of happiness. Not material happiness but spiritual one, because they know a person giving too much significance to the material world can never be happy. Their Constitution even talks about the Gross National Happiness instead of the Gross Domestic Product. This draws on the idea that the intrinsic desire of man is not to be rich but to be happy. Here, in our Christian-communist-capitalist material society, we perceive life via continuous growth. Why must every country demonstrate permanent economic growth indicators? So that the state and its citizen can pay off loans and interests to the banks which continuously exploit us. But does wealth guarantee happiness? In country rankings based on the Gross Domestic Product, Bhutan is ranked on the 160th place, which means that it is one of the poorest countries in the world. Yet, in happiness rankings it is on place eight and takes the lead among Asian countries. Japan, for example, holds the third place in GDP rankings, but as for happiness it ranks 80th. Bhutan´s success is based on the fact that the fish does not smell from the head but its scent is nice. The king lives according to his words. Thus, the question whether the world will be bipolar, multi-polar or x-polar seems secondary to me, because if we do not follow the spiritual path, but the path of the intellect, then we face the danger that the world will be, but without humans.


PRM: In your opinion, to what extent are ideas touching the issue of fatal predestinations such as a collision of civilisations, the end of Europe and the like productive? Don´t you have the feeling that we should rather cultivate individual opinions and support the so called role of individuals?

Jozef Banáš: As far as I know history has recorded twenty great civilizations such as Egypt, Sumer, Babylon, Rome, Greece, Germanic peoples etc. and all of them collapsed. The American writer, journalist and Presbyterian minister, Chris Hedges, described the state in which the world is today: “We now live in a nation where doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, universities destroy knowledge, governments destroy freedom, the press destroys information, religion destroys morals, and our banks destroy the economy.“ I believe that Hedges is right. If the things he mentions are the consequence and, God forbid, the purpose of globalisation, then I refuse such a globalisation. Neither do I accept the argument that nations should bring sacrifices in the interest of the world. That is why more and more people including myself turn to the inner worlds and search for solutions there. And these solutions are rather optimistic, though it may not seem that way. We live in times when the Age of Pisces, the age of materialism, draws to a close and the Age of Aquarius, the age of spirituality, begins. Materialism will weaken and the world will emphasize personal growth of individuals and thus turn to countries and philosophies based on the spiritual essence of man. Spiritually oriented Europeans look eastwards at Buddhism and Hinduism, because people feel that the dogmatic theology is overthrown. Thus materialistic societies will not be destroyed by missiles but by fast-foods, McDonalds´ and Coca-Colas. What is the way out? I will answer quoting the words of the former German Chancellor Willy Brandt whom I had the pleasure of meeting. When I asked what his life motto as a leading European politician was, he replied in an almost Biblical tone: “People have a natural desire to be better than others. But the only truly meaningful desire is to be better than yesterday.”

Interviewer: Maxim Semelyak

Copyright © 2012 Jozef Banáš   |