That sounds almost cosy: “Father’s box”. Almost like wanting to Lukas Bärfuss, notorious discourse provocateur from Switzerlandjoin the many writers of his generation who, in recent years and decades, have rummaged through the literary estate of their ancestors in order to conduct genealogy research, bring childhood memories to light, uncover family entanglements or meditate on the passing on of things.
The subtitle, “A Story About Inheritance”, also seems to point in this direction, but the back text already clears up any misunderstanding: “Inheritance”, in the decidedly political and radically moral thinking of the author, who was born in 1971, is a process that goes far points beyond private constellations, which rather refers to the “participation of those born later, whose fate we determine with what we leave them”. This slim book aims again at the question that the work of the playwright, novelist, storyteller and essayist Bärfuss has been stubbornly circling around for two decades: “Do we want to continue living as we have up to now? And if not: then how?”
“We” here means that part of the species that has the wealth and power to dictate its way of life to the rest of the species, thereby defining how future generations will find the planet and human society. In the meantime, events have occurred that ensure that this question is no longer only asked by intellectuals and environmental activists, but has reached the consciousness of a broader public and is worryingly gnawing at the instruments of repression. Bärfuss’ text is as close to current events as it can be in terms of publishing technology; It is based on a lecture that the author gave last fall at the law faculty of the University of Zurich and, in an extended form, in March of this year as one of the “Weimar speeches” at the German National Theater. The attempt to think about the “rights of those born later,” he notes, soon turned into a confrontation with one’s own origins, one’s own inheritance.
Why changes in milieu like his remain isolated strokes of luck in a global context
Lukas Bärfuss would actually be predestined, to carry out this discussion in widescreen format, in the tradition of the genre of “autosociobiography”, which flourished above all in France and whose grande dame Anni Ernaux has just been awarded the Nobel Prize. His way out of poverty, lack of education and homelessness via various trades to the Büchner Prize winner and university professor is exemplary for the rise of a disadvantaged person, which has become so influential in literature, who overcomes social determination through intellectual effort and yet always remains marked by his or her milieu of origin. But the critical analysis of society, which is embedded in the epic life stories of the French models, was always carried out by Bärfuss independently of his individual state of mind.
Here, in an essay the length of a lecture, he vividly describes his family background, his desolate youth and adolescence and his self-liberation through literature in just a few pages. And at the same time he lets it be known that he does not intend to report on it in more detail: For a long time he did not feel strong enough to do so, “and now that it was me and I could have told this story, there was no longer any need for it”.
However, it is necessary for the observer and thinker Bärfuss to elucidate historical, political and economic connections that lead to biographies like his remaining isolated strokes of luck in the global context. For whatever he has to say about the conditions in his country of origin, he is aware of what a privilege it was to be born into one of the most prosperous economic nations in the world and to have access to infrastructure during his change of milieu – albeit one that he worked out himself to be able to, which are only available in the rich West.
“Father’s box”, the trigger for the review, is a cardboard box, a banana box that was handed over to Bärfuss after the “man who was said to have been my father” died alone on the street as the black sheep of the family and which the son then kept closed for 25 years like Pandora’s box. What she revealed upon opening were the sparse but succinct testimonies of a botched life, documents about poverty, debt and crime. They once again confronted the author with the misery in which he almost sunk himself. And they trigger a train of thought, repeatedly interrupted by short narrative passages, in which Bärfuss relates the current state of his society, our society, as revealed to him by experience and analysis, to the past and the future. This happens erratically and associatively, boldly asserting and sharply dissecting, in sweeping sweeps and detailed considerations, but always on the basis of reading and viewing in equal parts.
It is about inheritance law and private property, Darwin’s “Origin of Species” and the invention of the nation state, social anthropology and metaphysics, language and democracy, technology and inequality. It’s about spiritual legacies and profane rubbish, about war, vapor trails in the sky and the cenotaph in Hebron, about deception and lies and the question of “what we’re hiding and when”. And in between, it’s always about the father, who, despite more favorable conditions, unlike the son, hadn’t managed to settle into a middle-class life.
Bärfuss spans such contradictions in his essayistic arc from Genesis to the present, in order to then derive concrete proposals for action from his findings, which take into account the responsibility for the legacy of future generations. That may seem adventurous – and it is. It’s worth checking out slightly different version as “Weimar Speech”, which is still on the MDR Kultur homepage, to compare. In both variants it becomes clear that Lukas Bärfuss is presenting a dramaturgical guide for thinking in context – and there is hardly anything that is more urgently needed in these disoriented and existentially threatening times.