Confessions of a Young Literary Comparatist

/ by Aljaž Koprivnikar

Let me begin this short essay with an introduction of my profile as a young scholar. I have completed the first and second cycle of comparative literature studies at the University of Ljubljana, under the Bologna declaration, and am continuing my PhD abroad, as part of the much-popularized expression ‘brain drain’, at the Charles University in Prague. My academic field of research deals with world literature, and currently focuses on literature from the end of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. I am involved with literature in all aspects of my life, slowly approaching my 30th year and realizing, even before finishing my studies, that a not-too-bright future is waiting – I’m chronically unemployable. To add to my personal profile: I belong to the middle class of Slovene society, and was born to a family with a weird, yet still functioning mixture of bourgeois background and the ideals of the past socialistic social system. I nurture ideas of an individual’s free decision, equality of all classes and, foremost, the value of knowledge and education – through that, a wanting for a path to construct your being as an independent, critical individual with a holistic way of perceiving society and the world, as well as making the choice whilst growing up, to reach transcendental awareness, fuelled by my interest in aesthetics.

These few personal facts are not as unimportant as one might first think, as the aforementioned starting points of humanistic acquisitions, culture in its broadest sense, have influenced me through my upbringing in the fields of art and literature, and were upgraded later. As such, literature became my raison d'être in my childhood, having committed my full attention to it later in life, as well as my studies – the means to opening new horizons, possibilities of deeper insight, not only between the covers of books, but much more so in the world outside, constructing critical thoughts and personal development through literary discourse, surpassing all other discourses in its power, storing all that is human in us. However, as much as researching and dealing with literature fulfils me, through the advancement of my studies, which is almost at its end, I grow increasingly uneasy because of the pressure of reality. I connect it with the current state of society and the changed role of the humanities in the world, something I experienced after entering the university, the beginning of my independence, if you will. If, in the past, humanities still held the role of furthering moral and ethical principles, and helped with the regulation and perfection of society, this drastically changed over time - in the case of Slovenia’s reality, its role started to shift significantly after the societal structure slowly migrated from socialism to capitalism, and my generation, after the economic crisis of 2008, already felt the radical change on our own skin. The increase in social inequality and supposed anti-crisis regulations have taken their toll on all levels of society, even education – through calls for re-organizing the humanities (and social sciences), the gradual decline of employment of scholars, reduction of available spaces for “unemployable” courses, taking away financial support and scholarships for students, as well as through various reforms which, in reality, tried to bring higher education to a neoliberal market. If, in the past, knowledge was one of the key points of human development, and enabled different members of society to climb the social ladder, as well as further their personal development, the reorganization under the reform of the Bologna declaration, amongst others, changed it to the oft-heard expression ‘factory of (not)knowing’, encouraging students to finish their studies as soon as possible and get employed, for the well-being of society and the country (even if the system of education should be changed with time, I personally don’t believe it should go in the way of reducing its quality and accessibility).

Besides that, in Slovenia as well as, I imagine, elsewhere, a big problem can be found in the sparsity of work places and publicly visible results of young scholars in the fields of humanities. But even more troubling is the fact that our studies are less valued and, accordingly, our work is also underpaid, in comparison to studies of natural sciences and technologies, as well as other “more useful” vocational qualifications. Even though I have been working during my studies as a literary reviewer, editor, poet, author of multiple literary projects, organizer of festivals (and I could list more), which all serves nicely to fill up my CV, this work doesn’t even enable me to earn a minimum Slovenian wage, and nothing points to it getting better in the future. With the restructuring of higher education and society, as well as meagre earnings, an even greater problem is posed by the public opinion, which is not favourable towards the humanities, and even less so to culture, the area of my studies and work. In my small homeland below the Alps, an increasing number of people see my studies and occupation as an unnecessary luxury for the upper class, and students of literature (and looking more broadly, of the humanities, cultural workers, and so on) lowly parasites of public money, a cancer of society, without an appropriate perspective on life, so that we have (I have) to excuse my existence and defend my choice of studies and my field of work. For humanities and culture represent the unwanted critical part of society, which has lately been in decline, replaced by individuals who are, in a supermarket way, quickly satisfied with their lives, and are especially susceptive to any suggestion that leads to a passive transformation of the human into a working machine of capitalist production. Because of that, continuing my studies enabled me to further my development of knowledge and critical thinking, while also, practically speaking, gave me additional time – in comparison to my colleagues, who were either forced to work for a grotesquely small amount of money, or search for social support, as they have no other alternatives to explore the possibilities of what to do in a world, which feels increasingly cold.

At the time I finished my Masters, the option to have your PhD co-funded was taken away in Slovenia, though it has now been reinstated. In the Czech Republic, however, a PhD is free of charge, and one also receives a scholarship (though this could change any time). Studying literature offers me the option of thinking alternatively, and the option to be able, and to be allowed, to do what I personally want in my life, even if many think it doesn’t help towards acquiring capitalist profit.

So how to explain why I keep studying literature, where I see myself in the future, what contribution I will make to society? Let me be honest, I seriously doubt that my PhD, dealing with the thematics of horror, the erotic and death in the expressionist paradigm of Slavic nations of the past Austrian-Hungarian monarchy, will bring the needed social changes for the better. But the study itself will equip me with social contacts with other like-minded people, with whom I can, as part of a creative mosaic, influence changes, not only in literature, but in the world. To do so, in the course of our studies, we have to do our best so that the role and meaning of literature (and even the humanities) remain added value for humanity, and not a product for the neoliberal market. We have to try to use our knowledge and strengthen it, to become part of an alternative, maybe even revolutionary possibility for the world – while constantly fighting for the freedom of our choices (more and more policies are meddling with certain programs and vocations, under the nice guise of trying to make us more employable after finishing our studies). We have to fight for free education, accessible to all, to enable scholars to survive after they finish their studies, and even more, to change public opinion, which is increasingly belittling the humanities. Without it. we all lose, no matter our education, social position or other criteria of divide, it is upon us (upon me) to sustain the primary human values we have gained throughout history, and improve or reshape them in the future.

Aljaž Koprivnikar

, a PhD student at Charles University in Prague, poet and literary critic, was born in Slovenia. At the moment, he lives halfway between Prague and Ljubljana, which are often accompanied by a third city, Berlin – in those cities he is sometimes playing a role as a literary organizer and guest editor for literary magazines.