Ulrich Baer // The Cagibi Express Interview

Ulrich Baer has a podcast Think About It where he speaks with leading thinkers about powerful ideas. A professor of German and Comparative Literature at New York University, he is a widely published author, editor, and translator, and an expert on modern poetry, contemporary photography, literary theory, and philosophy. Among his publications are The Dark Interval: Rilke’s Letters on Loss, Grief and Transformation; Rilke: Letters on Life; 110 Stories: New York Writes After September 11; The Shoshana Felman Reader; The Rilke Alphabet; Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma; and Remnants of Song: Poetry and the Experience of Modernity in Charles Baudelaire and Paul Celan. He’s published two books of fiction: a dystopian novel of eco-fiction, We Are But A Moment (2017), and a collection of love stories, Beggar’s Chicken: Stories from Shanghai (2013).

His forthcoming book What Snowflakes Get Right: Free Speech, Truth and Equality on Campus deepens an argument first made in the New York Times. More about both this book and the podcast Think About It follow the interview.

Cagibi: Hilaire Belloc, the early twentieth century Anglo-French writer and historian, wrote, “We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

Ulrich Baer: I do not wander for distraction; I get distracted easily enough sitting still. I don’t believe we travel for fulfillment. I believe we travel for transformation, namely to encounter ourselves slightly transformed in a new place by seeing ourselves as if through the eyes of strangers. Fulfillment sounds frightening to me, like stasis, being sated, satisfied. Quite like being dead.

Cagibi: Name some of your favorite distractions when you travel somewhere.

Baer: Listen to people I meet. Ask them questions and don’t let them notice that you’re not answering theirs. Try to speak in a foreign tongue (always, even if I don’t know more than a word). Go into shops I would never set foot in at home and buy things I’d never buy at home. Always take a sightseeing tour on a boat when it’s offered. Always go swimming when there’s an option.

Cagibi: A cagibi, loosely interpreted, is a space such as a cubbyhole, or a space where you store things. Or the workspace in which authors write. For ourselves we’ve translated it as “any shelter, no matter how tiny, that allows for big imaginings to take shape.” Pick what kind of cagibi would be best suited for your creative process: a) a super organized cubbyhole b) a super messy tool shed c) any restricted space d) a space as vast as the universe. Please explain your choice—we are dying to understand your creative process.

Baer: I try to keep my desk or table clear but even after one hour of writing it’s littered with pens, papers on which I jot ideas I don’t want to forget but can’t use, coffee mugs, and other books. I also have small boxes on my desk that contain little things people have given me, all worthless items, or random items I have picked up on trips. But they are asleep in small boxes so I cannot see them while writing.

Cagibi: You work in meaningful spaces where languages intersect. In the context of literature as resistance (or, literature as a place of struggle toward positive change in the world), could you speak to how differences in language are opportunities for resistance?

Baer: When a word can be used in different ways or when different words seem interchangeable but signal political differences, it’s a good moment to be conscious of our usage. “Immigrant.” “Asylum seeker.” “Undocumented.” “Native born.” “American.” “Foreigner.” The words we use matter. Listen to French, Brazilian or Chinese people explain how they say “homeland,” “my country,” “human rights,” and “freedom of expression.” Really listen. Ask them to explain the nuances. The difference in their way of speaking opens up your English usage and thus your mind.

When a word can be used in different ways or when different words seem interchangeable but signal political differences, it’s a good moment to be conscious of our usage.

Cagibi: In the mission of the Think About It podcast, you write, “conscious conversations play a key role in our evolution as moral beings.” How may we as individuals work toward making conscious conversations more possible in our lives?

Baer: Listen, and don’t think your job is to instantly grasp and translate what the other person says into something you can understand. A conscious conversation means a conversation where both speakers are attuned to the fact that a new, third reality comes into being in and as the conversation. A conversation is not the exchange of information but the creation of new knowledge. But you need to believe in this power of creating something new to make it work.

Listen, and don’t think your job is to instantly grasp and translate what the other person says into something you can understand.

Cagibi: This is Cagibi Express and we are here to deliver news to your readers—what can your readers expect next from you? What are you working on now?

Baer: My book on free speech, What Snowflakes Get Right: Free Speech, Truth and Equality on Campus, appears in September with Oxford University Press. It’s a tribute to my students and their generation of young activists who will wrest the world back from those bent on destroying it right now.

Cagibi: How does traveling to a new place influence your writing? In what ways do you incorporate travel experiences into your writing?

Baer: I constantly write down ideas in small notebooks and also dictated into my phone. When I feel happy or very sad I write down what’s happening so I can access this state later on. I have written a book of short stories set in Shanghai and a dystopian environmental novel after keeping very extensive journals during years of travel. I have boxes of moleskine (yes, I know, Bruce Chatwin) notebooks tucked away in closets. I take them out and re-read them, hoping for the “abundant recompense” that Wordsworth hoped for on re-encountering earlier experiences.

Cagibi: Do you use your work as an excuse to travel? Do you use travel as an excuse to not work?

Baer: Oh yes, if I can schedule a podcast interview or do research I’ll travel. For the carbon footprint I try to minimize air travel. I have visited many archives that house Rilke’s letters to research The Dark Interval: Rilke’s Letters on Loss, Grief and Transformation. I don’t really schedule travel to escape writing; my writing time just happens.

Cagibi: Tell us about a book you read that made you want to go and visit a place you’ve never been to.

Baer: Clarice Lispector’s short stories, especially “Obsession,” made me want to go to Rio de Janeiro. I am very lucky and got to go. It exceeded all expectations.

Cagibi: Did you ever have to hide in an uncomfortable space in order to write? Where, and how long did you stay in there?

Baer: Never had to hide to write, thankfully.

About Ulrich Baer’s What Snowflakes Get Right: Free Speech, Truth and Equality on Campus

Ulrich Baer’s new book, What Snowflakes Get Right: Free Speech, Truth and Equality on Campus, will be published by Oxford University Press in September 2019, and is available to pre-order.

From the publisher:

What Snowflakes Get Right book cover 200w.jpegAngry debates about polarizing speakers have roiled college campuses. Conservatives accuse universities of muzzling unpopular opinions, betraying their values of open inquiry; students sympathetic to the left openly advocate against completely unregulated speech, asking for “safe spaces” and protection against visiting speakers and even curricula they feel disrespects them. Some even call these students “snowflakes”—too fragile to be exposed to opinions and ideas that challenge their world views. How might universities resolve these debates about free speech, which pit their students’ welfare against the university’s commitment to free inquiry and open debate?

Ulrich Baer here provides a new way of looking at this dilemma. He explains how the current dichotomy is false and is not really about the feelings of offended students, or protecting an open marketplace of ideas. Rather, what is really at stake is our democracy’s commitment to equality, and the university’s critical role as an arbiter of truth. He shows how and why free speech has become the rallying cry that forges an otherwise uneasy alliance of liberals and ultra-conservatives, and why this First Amendment absolutism is untenable in law and society in general. He draws on law, philosophy, and his extensive experience as a university administrator to show that the lens of equality can resolve this impasse, and can allow the university to serve as a model for democracy that upholds both truth and equality as its founding principles.

About Ulrich Baer’s podcast Think About It

Join Uli on his podcast Think About It where he speaks with leading thinkers about powerful ideas. A first series of conversations explores the critical role of free speech controversies in higher education and in a democracy. Other conversations focus on affirmative action, historical memory and monuments, and other urgent topics of our days. His Great Books series pairs interesting thinkers with some of the tradition’s greatest books to reveal how those books (as powerful exemplars of free speech, incidentally) chart new ways of looking at the world. Look for conversations on Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Duino Elegies, Paul Celan’s poetry, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, James Baldwin’s Another Country, and more. —from the podcast website

Appears In


Issue 6

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