I must not deny that I always also have been leading two existences, one that comes closest to truth and that I am indeed entitled to call reality, and another one that I played; and both together over time made up an existence that kept me alive, alternately the one dominating or the other, but, mind you, I am leading both.
Thomas Bernhard, The Cellar (my translation)
I did my Master's degree in a subject of whose existence I had no idea before entering university: German Language and Literature of the Middle Ages. I encountered it by chance - and fell in love with the exotic beauty of both the language - Middle High German - and the literary works written in it.
Engaging with the literary self-expressions of this past historical period in the German culture region taught me a lot about the roots of our contemporary mindset - and about its contingency. It also widened and deepened my understanding of the art of writing, of what literature - as an art - is.
For example, there is the common belief that narrative texts of the Middle Ages lack coherence - incoherence is often viewed as a typical element of the Medieval narrative style. In my monograph on the first novel ever written in German language (Heinrich von Veldeke's Eneide) I reveal this to be a prejudice resulting from wrong generalisations of today's views on the stardards of narrative coherence. In response, I propose a new comprehensive model of narrative coherence that is sensitive to historical variations regarding what it is that makes a narrative text coherent as well as to the specificities of different literary genres.
Meincke, A. S.: Finalität und Erzählstruktur. Gefährdet Didos Liebe zu Eneas die narrative Kohärenz der ‘Eneide’ Heinrichs von Veldeke? (Finality and Narrative Structure. Does Dido’s Love for Eneas Threaten the Narrative Coherence of Heinrich von Veldeke’s ‘Eneide’?), Stuttgart: ibidem, 2007 (282 pp.).
Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur 138, 3 (2009), 397-399.
Arbitrium. Zeitschrift für Rezensionen zur germanistischen Literaturwissenschaft 28, 1 (2010), 38-39.
IASLonline, 7th August 2013.
I also learnt important lessons about the historical relativity of views on what it is that makes a text a good literary text and a literary text at all. Today, we tend to think that this is a story about the originality of the plot made up by the author through an act of fantasy. That is, we tie literary quality, and literariness itself, to originality - attributed to a creative individual ('the author') - and to fictionality - the fact that what is told in narrative texts did not happen in reality (even though it may be presented as such).
This not only unjustifiably ignores poetry - a genre from which to expect fictionality would amount to a category mistake. It also overlooks the possibility of alternative approaches and understandings of literature. In the Middle Ages, most stories were passed on orally from generation to generation before being written down. In many cases, 'the author' - the person who wrote it down - is unknown; and where the author actually is known, he understands himself not as a creator of something new and original but rather as somebody who passes on to coming generations what has been passed on to him from previous generations, and what is believed to be true - true not in the sense that it actually happened but foremostly in a symbolic, educational and often religious sense.
To write literature, in the medieval understanding, is to make visible the truth, where truth is not to be equated with facts, that is, with what we today would call 'reality'. 'Reality', as understood by people in the Middle Ages, consists of various layers of meaning which are enclosed in whatever is observable for our sense organs. The writer's task is to uncover and decipher these layers of meaning; and the quality of a narrative text will be considered the higher by the medieval audience the more sharply this truth hidden in reality is brought to light.
I discussed the question of fictionality with respect to medieval narrative texts by way of an analysis of the poetological self-reflections in the Late Medieval verse novel Reinfried von Braunschweig. I argue that what appears to indicate an awareness of fictionality is more appropriately understood as a poetological discourse about how to present the deeper meaning of the story told by the narrator.
I also think that these insights about the unique nature of medieval literature can directly be applied to both the interpretation of contemporary literature of all literary genres and the making of it - creative writing.
I presented some of these ideas in a talk on “Metaphysik, Wissenschaft und Fiktion” (“Metaphysics, Science and Fiction” at the public engagement event “EAM Science meets Fiction – Die Wissenschaft hinter den Bildern II” (“…The Science Behind the Images”), organised by the Excellence Cluster Engineering of Advanced Materials [EAM], 28th September 2017, Erlangen/Germany.
Meincke, A. S.: “Narrative Selbstreflexion als poetologischer Diskurs. Fiktionalitätsbewußtsein im ‘Reinfried von Braunschweig’?” (“Narrative Self-Reflection as Poetological Discourse. Awareness of Fictionality in the ‘Reinfried von Braunschweig’?”), Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur 136,3 (2007), 312-351.
PDF available here.
As it happens, there are also lessons to be learnt for philosophers from the engagement with medieval literature - both practically when it comes to philosophical writing and theoretically with respect to making sense of the concept of truth. While teaching essay writing courses at the LMU Munich, I reflected on this subject in an essay on philosophical essay writing, bringing together René Descartes's and Theodor Adorno's ideas on the methodology of philosophical thinking and the nature of truth - ideas that are less incompatible with one another than it may seem.
Meincke, A. S.: “Adorno und Descartes, programmatisch versöhnt: Der wissenschaftliche Essay als Form” (“Adorno and Descartes, Programmatically Reconciled: The Scientific Essay as Form”), Merkur. Deutsche Zeitschrift für europäisches Denken 63, 11, (2009), 1077-1081.
PDF available here.
I deliberately did my Master's degree on literature to satisfy my theoretical interest in this subject, given that there wouldn't be so much of an opportunity to do so later on again. Why? Because philosophy was calling me. I strongly felt that I am meant to be a philosopher and thus, since the day I received my Master's certificate, I have been pursuing an academic career in philosophy. However, being a philosopher does not prevent me from practicing literature - from writing. I have been writing since when I was a child, and I wouldn't be able to live without it.
Writing, for me, is a form of intensified awareness that dives into reality to bring out its hidden truth. It thus would be not entirely accurate to describe my writings as exploring - and stretching - the boundaries between reality and fiction (even though this is how readers may feel about it). I'm not sure that there is such a boundary - at least not in any strict, ontologically robust sense. Real life, I believe, writes the best stories - we just have to become aware of these and write them down. This is how I see myself as a writer. I don't have to invent or make up anything - it's all out there. My contribution is to put it into words. I can't understand writers who don't know what next to write about. Writers who desperately search for 'a new topic', 'an original plot', 'a fancy story'. And I can't understand critics who seem to think the crucial criterion for assessing the quality of literature is whether the plot was 'well-invented'. I am proud of not being in need of this sort of creativity. I am proud of giving sight to the blind and a voice to the mute. And I love poetry, by the way.
I have recently published a poem on our struggles to grasp reality when getting too close to it. It's entitled "mikrologie des seins" ("micrology of being") and was selected in a poetry competition run by the University of Erlangen, Germany, for display at a Science & Arts Exhibition (16th September - 27th October 2017 in Erlangen, Germany) and for publication in the accompanying book.
Thora Engel: “mikrologie des seins”, in: Science meets Fiction. Nano-Modellierungen: Poesie und Mikroskopie, ed. by Aura Heydenreich and Klaus Mecke, Erlangen 2018: homunculus verlag, 14-15.
PDF available here.
I am currently preparing a poetry collection containing several cycles of poems, such as "gedichte für dich" ("poems for you"), "jahreszeiten" ("seasons") and "philosophische lyrik" ("philosophical poetry").
Recently (13th December 2019, 17th January 2020 & 28th February 2020) I have performed three pieces - "Klimaabgesang", "Jahreswechsel-Blues in drei Teilen" & "Tinder-Elegie" - at the Slam B at the Literaturhaus Wien. The first piece tells the story of a date's failure over an argument on climate change; the second reflects on swinging moods as one decade is passing and the next one is approaching; and the third describes the ups and downs of online dating.