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.