By Blanka Šustrová
The English Department at the University of Cologne in Germany has been a popular ERASMUS+ destination for many of our students. I have spent my summer 2017 semester at the Englisches Seminar I. (department focused on literature, culture and linguistics) and to anyone thinking about studying abroad at this department I can only say this: go! I have picked courses focusing mostly on American literature and culture and three of them were taught by the chairman for American Studies, Prof. Dr. Hanjo Berressem, a man who never teaches a course twice, who describes himself as “the Pynchon guy” and who agreed to be interviewed by me, despite the fact I’d been already spending almost five hours a week in his courses.
Looking at your research interests, you are not like any other scholar I’ve met so far. Some stick to a particular topic or time period but you have a huge scope of interests and I didn’t really know where to start. Maybe we can take it from the beginning. How did you start as a student? What was the motivation behind doing American studies?
When I started studying at university, my main topic was art history and for the longest time, almost after my BA, I thought I would do art history. My second subject was English studies. I was tendentiously more an art historian but then I found out there were people, who were fascinated more by the history of art than I was. At that time, I spent about a year in Michigan, as an exchange student and because that was more about American studies, I switched to my second subject, American literature. After that I stayed there because I felt I was more interested in that topic. But I always had a good interest in art history. And I think it is always important to have a second topic. A lot of people do America studies, but some do for example biology with it, and I always had this kind of art historian background which made my interests more diverse.
You get more points of view.
Exactly. I have always had a strong interest in the visual. And that helped me a lot because nowadays I also have to teach film and media.
You have to?
Well, you are supposed to. Because if you do American literature and culture, you have to do the visual media. I cannot do just literature, because in American culture, media are becoming more and more important. The art history always helped as a kind of inroad towards the visual. In Cologne, there are many people who do media studies and go to my courses. American film and quality TV are important today. . . having a background in art history has always served me well. I am lucky in that way.
During your MA and PhD studies, you did a lot of Thomas Pynchon.
I still do a lot of Pynchon! (Laughs) I’ll tell you an anecdote. When I was an undergrad in Aachen, it was not so easy and cheap to go to England, so students would drive to England, buy a lot of books and sell them at the Institute. It was so difficult to get English books here, it was almost unbelievable! And one of those books was a Pynchon book. I started reading it, but did not understand it. It has been always like that with me. Texts I could not understand would fascinate me. And I always had to do something about it! The same thing happened with Jacques Lacan. When I read Lacan for the first time, there was not a word I would understand.
I understand students who read Pynchon for the first time and are like “what the hell?” but it is worth it. It sounds stupid, but in a way, I always took something difficult, worked on it until I thought I had gotten it and then I needed to go somewhere else. When I felt Lacan was “done”, I thought “Well, maybe Deleuze is good because I do not understand Deleuze”. It is a good way to start because the texts you do not understand are mostly very interesting texts. If you understand a text immediately, there is no work, no excitement, no journey. You always have to go from difficult to difficult.
What do you find so fascinating about Pynchon?
That is a difficult question. I think he writes really well, it is a joy reading it. The sentences are great. He is extremely smart, and I think. . . he is a good guy. It is very stupid to say that in postmodern times, but the voice that you hear . . . it is like listening to a song by Neil Young; his heart is in the right place and I share his sentiments, and I always thought that Pynchon really is a person who likes the world and hates the things we have done to the world. He is on the side of losers, but he is not so sentimental about it. But you can feel deep down that it’s all fun and games. Somebody, who is lamenting about what we have done to the world. I just like it. Everything he has written has been a joy to read and to work on.
I was told you were in the movie Prüfstand VII, which was based on components from Pynchon’s Gravity Rainbow.
(Laughs) My time on the screen was about twenty-five seconds.
How can you even film Pynchon? Is it possible to remediate Pynchon?
No, it is not possible. Well, you can do it, like in Inherent Vice, but Prüfstand VII was about Gravity’s Rainbow. It was made by a German filmmaker, Robert Bramkamp. He wrote to Pynchon that he would like to shoot a film about Gravity’s Rainbow. But then Pynchon’s agent, who is also his wife, Melanie Jackson, said that only 20% of the film could be based on Gravity’s Rainbow. So, it is almost like a documentary and the Pynchon parts are just about 20 minutes. And the rest revolves around the rocket. It is a good movie! (Laughs)
It has 8 stars on imdb.com.
I know! Isn’t that great? But my role is very limited. And I have painfully found out that the older you get, the more difficult it is to learn your lines. I was filming in Berlin, I was there just for a day and I thought I will just learn it on the train. It was not long but I had such a hard time when we were filming to get the words right, so I kept them up most of the night. It was a good experience and you know, Pynchon probably watched the movie at some point so I had a “fan moment”.
I wrote my dissertation on Pynchon, and the “Pynchon crowd” used to be quite small. People know each other. And that is why I still do Pynchon, he has been with me through my whole career. I have a tip for students: if you want to stay in academia, you have to develop one author and one theoretical field for yourself. If you get to be known as for example “The Auster Woman” or “The Pynchon Guy”, that will keep you in a peer group. You have to have an author and a theoretical position. It is not just about networking, you also want to have friends that you could talk about it. It is nice to grow up with those people.
Why did you decide to stay in academia? Have you ever thought about doing anything else?
No. (Laughs) I did not. My life plan was: I am going to study art history and English studies. But then I became a student assistant. And I thought: “You can live on the student assistant salary, you could draw this out until you are probably forty years old”. And if nothing had happened until that moment, I could always become a cab driver. I could become a cab driver but forty years of my life I would have done what I really liked. I never had any other interest. I was not interested in a job with a lot of money. I do not think I would be happy anywhere else.
I was lucky I had Pynchon there so I could attach myself to him back then. It was a personal thing between me and Pynchon. “You write – I understand.”
Everyone can say something new. You just have to find your thing. And then, if you are lucky – it is all luck – you get a job. If you do not get a job, it is not your fault. I was lucky and obsessed. You have to be obsessed, work hard for ten years and then you have a chance.
The time aspect is maybe what students, who are having an “academic crisis”, who may doubt their contribution to the field, often don’t realize.
It takes time. I have studied forever! But you have to study very intensively. But I have learnt that pretty late. And – that also sounds horrible – you must have a game plan. For example, if you want to do American studies You have to find an author to publish on, you should do something on the 19th century and 20th century, you have to have “your” author and you should publish something on a different medium. Because they will not take people who have “only done Pynchon”. You have it tougher than I had. People demand more nowadays. It used to be a big deal when you published one article as a student. Now, they ask you how many do you have? What else did you do? But it shows that you are dedicated.
Hard work, that is it.
But hard work that you like. Reading another book that you like. That is a big privilege.
I would like to ask you about the field of literature and science because I feel sometimes it sounds rather incompatible for some people. What is your approach to literature and science?
Science is a thing I don’t know anything about.
But you have written about it! (Laughs)
I know, but it was the same as with Pynchon. Reading Pynchon was like reading mathematics. I did not understand a word. And I do not have a science education. I was always bad at science. Pynchon, of course, writes a lot about science, so I had to learn through Pynchon. Trying to understand him I had to learn some science. I am more interested in certain aspects of science. I am really bad at mathematics, except for topology. It is about space so it interests me. It is more than a mathematical problem. Geometry, topology. . . I know enough to get by.
Then I got to know science historians and get to know science enough to know about ecology. In the 1980s everybody was doing chaos theory, so I burrowed myself into chaos theory. And then you see exactly these things are taken up by ecologists, who talk about entropy.
I have always used science in relations to literature and philosophy. Scientists are very clever people. (Laughs) So whoever is clever or interesting, I want to read books by them. There is nothing more beautiful than reading the 1930s scientists – Schrödinger, Bohr, Einstein. . . They are so clever and so simple and so unassuming. It becomes philosophy, poetry. Any person, who is an interesting thinker is worth reading. One has to develop a taste for a good thought. You have to be able not to judge but to feel. This is whatever “good” means. I am still getting there! (Laughs)
In the interview for KAArdian you gave in March 2017, you mentioned you want to write a book or a series on light. Where does that idea come from?
I don’t even know where the primal scene of that was, when I got first interested in light. Probably from Pynchon, he writes a lot about light. But every writer writes about light. To describe the evening, the morning. . . I have just begun to read novels and every time it mentioned light, I underlined it. I think many great writers have beautiful descriptions of light.
So, you are approaching it from a stylistic point of view?
That is how it started. But then of course film is about light. The medium of film is light. I would look at movies in terms of lighting.
To study light – that is such a huge scope!
I know. That is why I am thinking what to do with light. You have to make it like five etudes or something. You take five moments, chapters on very specific things about light. The good thing is, you can still write what you want to write. At this point, if I go to a publisher they will probably say: Yes, do that. So why not to write about five approaches to light? Light in music, film, painting, literature . . . Light as a medium. The history of light. It is fundamental. It is where everything happens. Light goes back to particle and wave. It is quantum physics.
You could work on this for 50 years! It moves through all the fields you can imagine.
I know. And in one point it will kill me. (Laughs) But nobody has probably done the narrative of light from that position. There is a physical, moral, philosophical narrative of light . . . Enlightenment – we are the light, the world is dark, we bring the light to the world. But Deleuze says that the world is light and we are the shadow in the light. All these things are good to think about. I am looking forward to it. At some point, I will stop teaching because they will throw me out and then I will do these books. Hopefully. I have already published a couple of things on light. Strategically. So, when a publisher asks me what have I done about light before, I can say I have two articles out. On Faulkner and on Bill Morrison, an experimental filmmaker. He has made a beautiful move Light is Calling.
Do you prefer research and writing or teaching?
I really like to teach. It takes a lot of time, it has to be prepared. I mean, doing both is cool. If at some point I will not be able to teach anymore, I will do more research. I will teach until I drop dead. I love it. And you get a lot of ideas while teaching and just talking. It is fun.
You do a lot of teaching considering your position at the department. You are the chair of American studies, you do your own research and this semester you teach five courses.
I do five courses every semester. The fifth course is extra, I do not have to do it. But I still do. That is the “Oberseminar”. It is just people who are interested, they do not get any credit points. It is usually students who write MA thesis or dissertation. I had this course when I was doing art history as a student. It is for people who are interested in talking intelligently about difficult texts. It is really challenging and beautiful. No pressure, no credit points, no nothing. You do not wait whether the people come or not because you assume that whoever comes is interested. We do not even have a plan, we just have two topics and it develops. We take as long as we want for a text. This is why I do this course. And then I do four “normal” courses. It is stressful. And I do all this in three days so by Wednesday evening I cannot even say a word. I am dead. But it is fun.
You are known for not doing the same course twice. Every semester you come up with something new.
I don’t repeat courses. That would be freaky! That is the only way I can learn. This semester I am giving a course on Chuck Palahniuk. And I read the books during the semester, just like the students do. I have to read two hundred pages by tomorrow! I really like Palahniuk and I would not have time to “just” read him. So, I make a course! That forces me to read him.
It is not fun to do the same things over and over. Sometimes I repeat the courses, maybe after six years. There will be always a little bit of Melville and Pynchon at some point. I always do a course for everyone, including the media studies students; a course that is very intensive – just about one author, and a course that is very general – like American Crime. The general courses are mostly bigger but they are not as much fun as those intensive ones. Those are for the people who want to do literary studies the way I like it.
With the end of this interview approaching – do you have any advice for us students?
If you do not like to read it’s the wrong job. It is a hard job but also very rewarding. Never stop at secondary literature. Never believe what secondary literature tells you. Always go to the people who did it. If you want to understand the abject, go back to Lacan and Kristeva. Always go to the original people. Everybody else is just maybe faking it. You might not believe it, you might think it is stupid but inherently, it is coherent. The system is clear. Once you understand what they are after. And then test the secondary literature. Always question that and try to be one turn of the brain further.
Always look at what you think is going to be the next step. And you have to be able to take people along. To show them that you are fascinated with this and love that and then they will hopefully like it as well. Develop your own taste.
Prof. Dr. Hanjo Berressem
Prof. Dr. Hanjo Berressem is currently teaching at the English Department (Englisches Seminar I.), Faculty of Arts and Humanities, University of Cologne. His research interests include topology and literature, trauma studies, modern and postmodern American literature, poststructuralism, semiotics, film studies, hypermedia, psychoanalysis and literature and science. He is currently working on a project which focuses on light in literature and other media.