In the past 20 years Philosophicum Lech has made quite the name for itself in the German-speaking region. With numerous high-calibre guests the event in September of this year will once more invite guests to discuss the most burning questions of our time. The man behind the renowned series of talks is author Michael Köhlmeier. Together with Lech’s mayor Ludwig Muxel he has made the symposium a fixed institution in the alpine region. In his talk with La Loupe the author provided insight into his musical projects, talked about his hometown of Hohenems and shares his personal highlights of this year’s Philosophicum.
L.L. / Mr Köhlmeier, this September Philosophicum Lech will take place for the 20th time. Would you say the Alps are a good place to think about the world?
M.K. / That may seem like an odd question at first, no? But it really isn’t. I actually think the mountains are good for thinking about the world and life. Nietzsche knew that and always liked to stay in the mountains. The mountains are sensations. You don’t take them seriously at first. One sees them as god’s way of showing off. And then, they show their amazing effect: The mountains make us seem small and big all at the same time. That means they give us the feeling of participating. In what? In whatever we believe in. Some only notice that there is something they believe when they are in the mountains. And then they start thinking about what it is they believe in.
L.L. / You as its initiator brought the international event to Lech. What is your personal connection with the place?
M.K. / Please don’t take it personally when I don’t want to see the Philosophicum be called an ‘event’? I wouldn’t want to participate in an ‘event’. And if the Philosophicum comes across as an ‘event’, I should like to apologise. That was not my intention. But you can believe me that in the past twenty years I never heard that word in connection with the Philosophicum.
My connection to Lech? Well first of all there is my long-standing friendship with mayor Muxel and his family and with Paul Pfefferkorn. Then there are the mountains. The walks. And last but not least there are the great thoughts that I always take home from Lech. Each year in September Lech becomes the thinking capital. And that is the truth, so help me Socrates.
L.L. / The 5-day symposium’s title this year is ‘God and the world. Philosophy in troubled times.’ What talks are you looking forward to in particular?
M.K. / All of them. The discussion between Rüdiger Safranski and Herfried Münkler is something I’m looking forward to. Two of the biggest thinkers in our cultural area bring up their arguments. A talk at such a level – that’s philosophy at its best. What initiated the confrontation was the problem of immigration, but it is – as is always the case with philosophy – really about everything. Philosophy is man’s most noble game and we all know that we are never more serious about something than about our games. Doing something without playing is like eating without the indulgence.
L.L. / The Philosophicum’s programme is filled with talks and discussions. However, should you find you have a break in between – how does Michael Köhlmeier spend his free time in Lech? Do you prefer enjoying nature or culinary delights?
M.K. / Were I forced to choose – that would be a shame! But in Lech you can get both. And what’s more beautiful than being in the beautiful nature with friends, enjoying delicious food and talking about philosophy?
L.L. / In his introductory essay scientific head of Philosophicum, Konrad Paul Liessmann, writes that aside from the big questions of humankind this year’s topic will also be about the individual’s ‘small portion of happiness’. What is it that makes you personally happy in daily life?
M.K. / When I unexpectedly remember something.
L.L. / You live partly in Vienna but most of the time you are in your parents’ house in Hohenems in Vorarlberg. What is it you like about these two very different places?
M.K. / I like that Hohenems is very familiar. The old paths that still hold old thoughts. The quiet. The familiar people. The memories, I grew up here. Our house. Our library, Monika and I have ten thousand books, they are our friends. Liking Vienna is not difficult. We live close to Naschmarkt where many people from many nations are out and about, I hear so many languages every day. Plus: When I come to Café Sperl in the mornings I get my breakfast without having to order it. And where will you find a more beautiful museum than Vienna’s art-history museum? But I mostly love Vienna because of the many friends, artists, musicians, painters, authors, filmmakers, actors, cabaret artists…
L.L. / Where is it that you most like to write?
M.K. / At my desk in Vienna or Hohenems. But I also like to write aboard the Rail Jet on seat 62.
L.L. / Your successful novel contains the following (loosely translated) lines: ‘What makes a story a good story? When it is built just like life.’ How much of Michael Köhlmeier is in your novels?
M.K. / I don’t understand the question. It’s just me. Who else. I don’t copy. But I do flirt. I know what you mean. Autobiographical. This and that. I ruthlessly and shamelessly exploit myself and my life. The author starts at the point where most people start to get embarrassed.
L.L. / Before you became successful as a bestselling author you were mostly ‘retelling’ classical myths and biblical stories on Austrian radio. Where does this passion for these kinds of texts come from?
M.K. / I always asked myself why the classical myths and biblical stories or fairytales aren’t loved by everyone. I have been dealing with them since I was a child. Not in a scientific way. As a fan. Man is a storytelling animal. He wouldn’t last three days without telling stories.
L.L. / We are, as the title of this year’s Philosophicum says, facing ‘troubled times’. Do you think people are increasingly looking for stories that work as anchors in times that are increasingly difficult to make sense of? Does the world need more modern myths and fairytales?
M.K. / A fairytale helps you make sense of yourself. Myths help you understand what happens between individual people and groups of people – power, greed, wealth, prejudice… The fairytale is directed at me, it shines a light down the abyss of my soul. The myth tells us about collectives. Shakespeare managed to unite both components in his dramas. Which is why he is the greatest of them all.
L.L. / Music also gives people support and optimism. You and Reinhold Bilgeri used to be a successful duo back in the 1970s, particularly with the song ‘Oho Vorarlberg’. You still write lyrics for other artists, usually in Vorarlberg’s local dialect. As an internationally successful author – how important are your roots and your traditional language to you?
M.K. / Wow, that was a long time ago. Back then Reinhold and I financed our studies with that one song. For me singing in dialect is easier than singing in standard language. And English really is not my language. I have not put any more thought into it than that. Theory seldom leads to a good song. Simply take up your guitar and sing! That should do it.
L.L. / Your last book ‘The girl with the thimble’ came out last February. Are you already working on a new project? And is Michael Köhlmeier taking up the microphone again any time soon?
M.K. / Do you mean whether I want to sing or play the guitar? Anytime. One of my dreams: putting together a band again – accordion, Pedal Steel, double bass and I on the guitar, oh and if there’s a violinist available, come on in! In private, on the stairs in our house, I play every day anyway. Just by myself.
Fairytale or literature? Literature.
In dialect I dream about….nothing, I don’t.
My favourite book at the moment…a Kafka story collection.
My secret tip for Lech…the Café at Hotel Krone.
For writing I need…myself, pencil, paper.
City or countryside? City.