Meelis, the plot of one of your most memorable works, your novel The Bees, is set during the Little Ice Age when local population numbers plummeted. Now, something similar is unfolding before our very eyes and this time on a global scale: although the temperature is moving in the opposite direction, human vulnerability and the frailty of existence are becoming apparent once again. It’s been said that it was impossible to write poems after Auschwitz. What’s it like in literature in the run-up to ecological collapse – in the early days of the sixth mass extinction?

Your question already holds a partial answer with its many references to the past. Literature does inevitably lean upon the past and temporality has been worked into both the writing and reading processes. Of course, you can say that leaning upon the past and interpreting it in that way is often done in order to find solutions to the problems of today. As such, literature is, to a certain extent, capable of shaping one’s understanding of the past and thereby influencing the future. Perhaps that is literature’s utopic opportunity: to create some kind of a new, chimeric world on the basis of what exists, not so much to prophetically foretell the world itself. I feel that right now, living in a premonition of gradual catastrophe, we can try to peer back into the past and see if we’re able to learn anything from it. Utopia arose as a genre in the early modern period, just when fears of apocalypse were spreading and the collapse of the existing world order was palpable. And indeed, both the political and religious structures that had shaped Europe throughout the Middle Ages did collapse and the modern world sprang up in their place. Utopias were a part of the process by which thinkers tried to articulate the program for the new world. Without having gathered any formal statistics on the subject, I feel like there exist very few utopic views presently – more or less moralistic dystopian/apocalyptic apprehension has proliferated instead. This is, of course, unavoidable and even necessary. We can’t get around diagnosing the situation and even caricaturizing it, but we seem to be missing the articulation of a credible and acceptable deliverance. Alas, if this deliverance isn’t put into words, then neither will it come about.

I admit that my question was less formal than I would have liked. On the one hand, I do understand the attitude that cries out that the building is on fire and there’s no time to focus on literature or other forms of entertainment, or that artists of all persuasions should be reassigned to productive labor. On the other hand, I’d like to yell back that currently there is no greater depravity than productive labor, which has led to our home planet being “produced” to the point of a coma. It’d be wonderful if people would make music, read, and write more instead of performing unchecked and ever-more-mechanized manufacturing; if they would fly through their mental worlds instead of consuming – not soar in a plane through an atmosphere that is already so fragile. What’s your view on this conflicting state of affairs?

I’m afraid it’s not exactly a direct answer to your question, but for a while now, I’ve been considering the importance of feeling bored and the necessity of (seemingly) doing nothing. In other words, I feel that both entertainment and productive labor are, in a way, still a type of activity – a way of keeping yourself active. Especially nowadays, you can entertain yourself constantly by watching a TV series or reading about politics online. Life just isn’t boring, unfortunately! Of course, one can say that having the opportunity to feel bored means someone else is doing the work necessary for you to stay alive, and in fact it’s impossible to experience true boredom for very long, because a person will go crazy if they’re kept in sensory deprivation at length. Yet at the same time, this endless running around a mental amusement park or frenzied work to meet pressing deadlines only feeds stress and anxiety. People grow cautious in an environment of constant general anxiety, but at the same time, they also become receptive to rapid and poorly-thought-out decisions; to swift hatred; to scattered concentration. The political anxiety prevalent in Estonia right now is, in some regard, a consequence of that same blend of fear and excitement – the way in which people are divided into heroic and dissident patriotic warriors; into radical protectors of what is good. It’s exhausting because of the monotonous feeling of unease – you simply cannot take any more. I do realize, of course, that if you don’t interfere in the world, then the world itself will interfere in your life, and it goes without saying that I’m personally not neutral, nor do I want to be. Still, it’s all just so tiresome, like a headache. You can’t feel bored, can’t do anything except think about the throbbing in your skull. I suppose literature has a certain preferential status in terms of this, as it’s slower and even a little bit boring in its meandering debates.

Interesting. I’ve always thought, though perhaps it’s too bold of a generalization, that one’s ability to feel boredom is lost at a certain stage of inner development. At least when we classify boredom as a hunger for external influences; as a state that we experience often in (pre-smart-device) childhood, for instance. Nowadays, I’m tormented instead by the overabundance of external influences. When was the last time you felt genuine boredom, anyway?

I occasionally make a conscious effort to feel bored, meaning I don’t explicitly do anything and just stare out the window, trying not to make any mental plans or figure anything out. Thoughts come and go of their own accord, of course, and you can’t stay that way for very long, but a state of doing nothing – not even meditating or striving towards a goal – seems to suit me, somehow. Multiple recent studies have found that feeling bored is entirely beneficial in a creative sense. I can neither confirm nor deny their conclusions, but I suppose the sensation of boredom is something increasingly uncommon in and of itself. It is, for example, impossible to feel bored when you’re in a state of pain, fear, or jealousy. Boredom is very different from irritation in this sense, because you won’t get fed up with boring things. I find myself reading a boring book from time to time, but it’s such a particular sensation that I’m not bothered – I don’t resist, even though the writing doesn’t excite me. As you read, you’re at just the right distance from everything else. Of course, I’m not sure it’s always a style the author chose on purpose. At the same time, there are books that aim specifically to achieve excitement or emotion – it’s just that shocking a reader or startling them with shamelessness doesn’t seem much better than populist politics.

Sometimes, I think (though I don’t always tend to say it out loud) that if literature were capable of cultivating people, then Russia would be one of the most highly developed societies on Earth. Alas, here we are. Still, I am convinced it’s good that it’s a given for universities to maintain a literature department but not a computer gaming department, for instance. A certain type of writer or a novelist, akin to how Milan Kundera defines it, has been the pinnacle of modern human understanding. How vigorous do you think this tradition is?

Perhaps not vigorous in every respect, but extremely necessary all the same. Literature not only analyzes people, but it creates them, giving the reader a notion of what a person can possibly be. I certainly believe Dostoyevsky has had a great role in shaping Russians. His agenda was, mind you, to balance out “Western thinking”, and in many ways this has now been accomplished. If you look at educational programs in Estonia, you find that literature is one of the few subjects through which one comes to know humans. Neither human studies nor biology provides such knowledge and our schools generally lack lessons on ethics, philosophy, religion, or other such topics. It’s only in history and literature that the human spirit is addressed at all. Until the end of the Enlightenment, most of Western education relied primarily on classical literature and the Bible. Nowadays as well, reading literature is essentially one of the few ways to access such topics – entire nations assemble around a handful of works through which they self-identify. Books that everyone has read for some reason (as required school reading, for instance) can define entire generations: they find a common language through that writing, thus creating a shared thought-platform. Nowadays, of course, it’s become a problem that the works “everyone” has read are dwindling. This inevitably leads to cultural ghettoization and eliminates a chance to have references and cues that are shared among larger groups – a conspiratorial form of denser, abbreviated communication. We’re in danger of communication becoming stripped of irony and references altogether; of it becoming nothing but a straightforward exchange of information. I’m not sure how well memes and Netflix series will be able to replace it.

It’s hard not to agree with you there. People constantly bellyache about the ‘required’ part of required reading, and you namely hear it coming from contemporary authors who face overpowering competition on the institutionalized list. Even so, I feel there’s a danger of fragmentation that lies in the incredible plurality surrounding us today, and we must therefore place extra emphasis on the importance of classics. That way, we’ll establish a firm, common intellectual base that might enable us to have even a slightly deeper interaction. What’s your opinion on required literature? Did you tackle it with pleasure? Did Tammsaare’s Truth and Justice or Luts’s Spring strike the right chords?

Not especially. I certainly read through all our required reading with diligence, but didn’t form any connection with Tammsaare or Luts in my school years. I very happily devoured Faust back then, though. Still, it’s not always necessary for a connection to form – you just need to drag yourself through those pages if you have to. Now, I have a much greater appreciation for those required works. I’ve reread Tammsaare a couple of times and am impressed by his ambition and scope. What school is meant to do, however, isn’t to teach kids what they already know or like, but what’s seen as necessary. We all study mathematics regardless of whether or not it piques our interest because society and teachers alike believe it’s essential for children to learn. That belief helps us to overcome any doubts we have over whether we really need to learn quadratic equations. Since we don’t have a similar belief in literature, there’s a lot of uncertain squirming. Just like how uncertainty will pass from an owner to a dog, so is society’s uncertainty of literature transferred onward. There has indeed been a lot of talk lately about how these social transformations with all their alternative facts, populism, and whatnot are something that can only be countered by knowledge of people, society, and history (i.e. the humanities). Alas, this hasn’t been stipulated all that clearly in official terms. One recent study found that philosophy is a better tool for identifying certain pseudo-scientific arguments than school-level mathematics or physics.

It might seem embarrassingly cliché, but I’d be very interested to know: what have your greatest reading thrills been lately? What would you recommend, and why?

I try to read a moderately wide range of literature, meaning books meant purely for amusement in addition to works of nonfiction. Lately, I’ve tended to be disappointed by films and TV series, but I’m usually not disappointed by literature – even though I suppose powerful and dazzling experiences have been more seldom than before. I suspect it has something to do with an inability to enjoy literature “just the way it is” – I keep catching myself analyzing the way a book was written and why the author made certain choices. Even so, some works do manage to bridge the gap. The last book I finished was Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories: a collection of short stories in which she experiments nicely with various styles. As for other short stories I’ve read recently, I enjoyed those by David Foster Wallace that were published in the Estonian-language collection Teatavate piiride poorsusest (On the Porousness of Certain Borders). Novels I’ve recently read and would like (for various reasons) to recommend are Lukas Bärfuss’s Koala and Daniel Galera’s Blood-Drenched Beard. Turning back to Estonian authors, I’d mention Nikolai Baturin’s Mongolite unenäoline invasion Euroopasse (The Mongols’ Dreamlike Invasion of Europe) from a couple years back – I believe it’s one of the best Estonian-language works published in recent years.

A question for you as a writer. In what direction is your (sub)conscious currently drifting? Is there anything baking at the back of your mind?

There is, or rather I don’t really know how to describe it at the moment – I thought I’d gotten pretty far with my next book, but once I started to reread it, I came to the conclusion it’s not up to snuff in its current form. I’m not quite sure what to do with it now; maybe I’ll have to start all over again. I’m relatively confused, this being my first experience looking at my writing and deciding it won’t work, but it’s an instructive one, too.

Long live instructiveness! I’ll finish up with a question regarding the Estonian literary scene more broadly: have you noticed any current universal tendencies? Do you think the off-the-cuff statements made by acting politicians has taken work away from authors of satire and the absurd? Has social media revived the author and an author’s biography become a significant part of creative writing?

It’s a fact that by the time post-modernism has made its way into politics, literature should already have moved on. That’s how I’d like to see the new modernity – a fresh attempt to make sense of the world. Behind those biographies might lie a quest for authenticity that is, of course, a very modern longing – it’s the very point at which an author begins rising from the dead, you know. I feel that authors are one opportunity for achieving some type of confidence, honesty, and credibility in today’s jungle of all kinds of made-up news and misleading lies; that behind writing stands someone who is truly taking responsibility and whose responsibility isn’t a mere construction.

Standing behind those words, at any rate, was Meelis Friedenthal’s e-mail address. Thank you and Godspeed!

Meelis Friedenthal represented Estonia at the 2019 Gothenburg Book Fair.

Mihkel Kunnus is a literary critic and a lecturer of environmental ethics