A position as post-doctoral researcher at the Department of English and American Studies brought Matthias Klestil to Klagenfurt from Bayreuth. His research currently focuses on material from literature and films, which addresses versionality and coincidence. In our interview with Matthias Klestil, he tells us about the paths that led him to Klagenfurt, and he reveals what he finds fascinating about the USA.
Matthias Klestil’s grandfather, an Austrian, came to Germany during the Second World War. He met his future wife and settled in the Rheinland region, near Mönchengladbach, which is where Matthias Klestil was born. Klestil’s father has Austrian citizenship to this day, while Matthias Klestil is a German citizen. Applying the age-old question of “what if” – in the spirit of versionality, coincidence, causality, and determinism – the question arises: Would Matthias Klestil have noticed the advert for the position at the University of Klagenfurt if his family had not had old ties to Austria? Among other aspects, his post-doctoral thesis project addresses precisely these “what if” stories in literature and films, which are familiar to audiences thanks to blockbuster movies such as “The Butterfly Effect” or “Inception”, or Paul Auster’s new novel “4321”.
When invited to explain how he chose to specialise in American Studies, he cannot immediately point to a specific event that triggered a chain of subsequent decisions. However, his ardent enthusiasm for the fundamental idea of US America is nothing short of contagious. “The USA were moulded out of the spirit of Enlightenment and ever since those times they have remained in daily discourse with the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, the very keystones of their nation.” This is a particular feature of the USA, as he goes on to explain: “On the one hand, we have founding documents that enshrine absolute human dignity, while on the other hand we can see that these could never have been fulfilled. Over the course of the history of the USA, steps were taken again and again to draw closer to a realisation of the founding ideas. Yet, much like a pendulum, the process repeatedly swings in the other direction as well. This is a never-ending process.” Founded by immigrants and initially reliant on slavery and racial segregation, the nation is perpetually renegotiating its internal conflicts in a truly rich cultural diversity. The continuous endeavour to fulfil fundamental values and the discursive negotiation in society offer literary and cultural scholars a bountiful field of employment. One, which should also produce much “from which we can learn”.
Matthias Klestil discovered his interest in literature at an early age, and he is all the more delighted to follow the literary path in his profession. He read American and German Studies at Bayreuth University, spending one year at the University of Warwick in the UK, and six months at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. In his doctoral thesis he examined the interplay of mankind and nature, and explored mainly African American texts from an ecocritical perspective, in the sense of environmentally oriented literary and cultural studies. He is due to receive a dissertation prize from the city of Bayreuth for this work on the 9th of November 2018.
Matthias Klestil does not regard literature as a closed system, but rather he is fascinated by “the bracing effect; by what the written word does to other discursive elements”. He adds: “Literature is extremely creative. It can incorporate so much, and it wields vast transformative power. We cannot simply ask ourselves: What does it do to people? But also: What does it do to the flows and the human development processes?” This is due, he believes, to literature’s capacity to represent complexity in a unique manner. “In the end, it is only profound, if it does not merely state things, but does more with it.” During his time in Klagenfurt, Matthias Klestil hopes to look into the depths of literature and culture. Literature asks questions. Matthias Klestil wants to discover some of the answers to how it poses these questions, and what consequences they may have.
A few words with … Matthias Klestil
What would you be doing now, if you had not become a scientist?
I’d be a musician, maybe a pianist.
Do your parents understand what it is you are working on?
For the most part, yes. Sometimes they even read the books I use in my research.
What is the first thing you do when you arrive at the office in the morning?
I make coffee – plenty of milk, no sugar.
Do you have proper holidays? Without thinking about your work?
I think so, but some people disagree. I do like to read in my free time, so maybe they have a point. Still, I am definitely able to switch to total relaxation mode.
What makes you furious?
I feel furious about the fact that Donald Trump does not make me feel as furious as he did at first. Accepting this as normality is dangerous.
What calms you down?
Nature and music.
Who do you regard as the greatest scientist in history, and why?
Tricky question. For me, personally, Michel Foucault serves as a great inspiration, because he encourages creative thought “against the flow”. More generally, I would number Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein or Marie Curie among the “greatest” scientists, because their ideas and discoveries have transformed science and the world, and still continue to shape them today.
What are you looking forward to?
In the long term, I am mostly focused on realising my new project and on meeting new people, exploring unknown places, and discovering new impressions and influences. In the short term: A pleasant winter semester and Christmas.