21 June 2019 Literature and Realities. About the 11th Conrad Festival

There are myriad ways of talking about literature. For example, we describe it as a great library with a maze of corridors where we can seek haven from the world. Or as an expression of feelings or thoughts without which we would remain trapped inside our minds. Or as a community of readers joined by similar sensitivities. Or perhaps as an internationale of authors who give us food for thought and fuel our dreams. We have maintained this position at the Conrad Festival for the last decade and we continue to do so, since literature cannot be described by a single definition or metaphor. In addition, every year our examination of literature takes a slightly different angle, and the multitude of these angles reveals the limitless wealth of literature which helps us look at reality.

This year we are aiming to explore the very core of our fascination with literature. Until now, we have been striving to show how to talk about reality. This time we reach for help from our authors and our readers to say what literature is as a reality, or – more precisely – how reality comes into being thanks to literature. Or, more precisely still, how literature extols different realities.

Let’s start from examining the idea of reality in different languages. In Polish, similarly to French and English, reality comes from the Latin realis (pertaining to things). However, in English we also have actuality from the Latin actualitas (pertaining to action). This ambiguity is not preserved in Polish but it is present in German. While Realität also follows the Latin etymology, Wirklichkeit comes from the verb wirken meaning to act and cause results. Thus, for some people reality means a collection of things that surround them, while for others reality is brought into being by human action. In the first instance, ready-made reality acts upon us, while in the second it is us that create reality. How? Mainly by speaking. We live in a reality conceived by our words – and it is not simply the case that reality changes according to language. Rather, people who share how they think, feel and speak live in a similar reality, while those who cannot agree on even the most important matters live in different realities. Naturally we all inhabit the same world ruled by the same laws of physics, chemistry and biology, but even in this common world people assign different meanings to the same phenomena, processes and values. For example, the reality of refugees is very different to the reality of politicians who do not want to allow them into their country, just as the reality of women living under patriarchy is not the same as the ostensibly equivalent reality of men. People who mainly live on Instagram exist in a different reality than someone who organises humanitarian convoys for the oppressed and persecuted. And so on, and so on. When individuals finds other people in their own reality, they also find a peaceful life; however, when discordant realities clash, this can lead to conflict ranging from heated discussion to all-out war. And here we encounter literature which doesn’t just speak about reality but which creates and shapes different realities; for literature is not a topic but a result of action and verbal description of the world. At times literature fits in with our reality; then we feel that the world is – or should be – as it is described by literature; at other times we reject literature or we cannot understand it because its vision of reality is too singular. But it should be stressed that although we all live in the same world, we don’t all live in the same reality, and it is this ambiguity and discord from which literature draws its extraordinary power.

During the 11th Conrad Festival, we will focus on just that: on how literature uses the means available to it to create different realities, and how these distinct, discordant realities converse, debate and fight one another.

Michał Paweł Markowski
Artistic Director, Conrad Festival