Alicja Gescinska on Freedom and Love

For Your Lab, we conduct interviews with prominent creatives, entrepreneurs and scientists whose work features a strong sense of engagement, to the self as well as their environment. These interviews are a source of inspiration for our programmes, and interviewees are invited as guest trainers at Your Lab. This time we went to Brussels to see Alicja Gescinska, a philosopher who is also a member of our Advisory Board. 'In our actions is where we find engagement and freedom.'

by Robin van den Maagdenberg

Brussels Central Station, right beneath the Departures display, is where we’ve agreed to meet each other. Alicja Gescinska lives in a village nearby the Belgian capital. She became well-known for her television show Wanderlust, in which she goes on walks with prominent Flemish and Dutch writers, artists, musicians and philosophers. An exceptional appearance on television, she never tries to impress either her guests or viewers, seems to be at ease with silence, and can even be shy at times. Her sense of wonder is captivating. Apart from her work in television, she is mainly a philosopher and author. Recently she joined Your Lab’s Advisory Board.

 

I wait for half an hour, but there’s no sign of her. Something came up: her son fell ill and had to be picked up from school. A good hour later we meet after all, at a café close to the station. There we start our conversation, with frequent stretches of silence. She speaks of the freedom her parents hoped to find by migrating from Poland to Belgium. Of her father’s lack of initiative, and how she resented it. Of her award-winning books: a philosophical inquiry into what it means to be free in today’s world, and a novel; a quest for the meaning of love. As we cautiously tackle these subjects, it is not only Gescinska’s powerful mind that impresses—it’s her ability to combine mental acuity with great passion that is effortlessly seductive, letting you drift along with her thoughts and impressions.

 

‘More often than I like to admit, I’ve felt incapable of getting myself started. I’ve been through periods of complete inertia. Gradually that state of immobility transformed into movement. The transition set in when I read the novel Oblomov. About a lethargic character who puts everything off until tomorrow, and it eventually destroys him. A sizable book, so I had plenty of time to identify with the story. There was so much I recognized. “I’m dying just as well,” was my thought when I had finished it. I was always procrastinating. Plenty of plans, but in the end I was living in my head much more than in real life. That was the first wake-up call.

 

‘The biggest kick up my arse was my father’s death. He had cancer at age 59, and shortly after his sixtieth birthday he passed away. My father was a person who was always planning to do things someday. It was tragic that his illness took away that ‘someday’ definitely. But I also thought: what if it had been me? What have I contributed to the world? What’s the purpose of my life? Suddenly my own lethargy became unjustifiable to myself. From then on, I decided, I was going to do the things I wanted to do. Not that my life has become all work and no play, mind you. When I intend to write a book, I now know that I need seclusion, I need to write, to study and read books. But I also know when to spend time with the children or when I can open a bottle of wine. I’m still not the most disciplined philosopher, on the contrary—I often feel swamped in chaos, but I don’t waste my time any longer. Every day, I make a conscious effort to lead a meaningful life.’

“We often tell ourselves: I’m stuck, so I’m going in search of my true self and then I’ll do something. I don’t believe in that. It’s in your actions that you’ll find yourself.”

‘We all have different pasts, different fears, sometimes traumas. Looking at my own story—and I’ve made no in-depth study of this—it seems possible that the fact of being a Polish migrant in Belgium was a cause of my blockage, my lack of faith in my own capacities. Some school-teachers were dismissive about migrants’ intelligence and maybe I began to believe them. After I emerged from my state of inertia, I didn’t want to spend too much time looking back, I don’t feel the need to do so. We all have our own blockages, there is no magic formula. All you can do is ask yourself why you think that you’re stuck. The answer might not even be the correct one—we don’t necessarily understand our own traumas well.

 

‘There still is a lazy side to me, staying in bed is easier than getting up. Then there’s also uncertainty and doubt. That hasn’t changed, my nature has stayed the same. We often tell ourselves: I’m stuck, so I’m going in search of my true self and then I’ll do something. I don’t believe in that. It’s in your actions that you’ll find yourself. Want to know if you’re courageous? Put yourself in situations that require courage, that’s where the answer is to be found. Don’t crawl into a corner to think about it, you’ll never know for sure. Do it! Live your life! That is who you are. As the Hungarian writer György Konrád once put it so well: “to the important questions in life, your life is your answer.” Are you a writer? Are you a loving mother? Are you an initiator? The only way to find out is by really taking on that role. It’s the ‘doing’ that sheds light on who you are.

 

‘Our acts shape our personality and our personality causes us to act. That is one of the main themes in my work, which is also addressed in De verovering van de vrijheid (The conquest of freedom). Freedom is not a passive right, it’s a practical skill. Mastering skills is a requirement in order to be free. An illiterate may have the right to read, but it’s an empty liberty as long as he hasn’t actually learned to read. Gaining freedom is very active. At the same time, a retreat into silence or contemplation can also be an active deed, an assertion of personal freedom. It’s about living a conscious life, not a necessarily active one. Your life may be small, yet valuable, meaningful and free.

‘Every life is incomplete. My own life is thoroughly unfinished. There’s at least eight books I want to write, that are already buzzing in my head. And then there are subjects bound to grab my attention in the future, for me to write about. As if they were pieces in the puzzle of my worldview, of which I’ve only shown a few fragments. I don’t know what the completed picture looks like yet, I still sculpting. Philosophy is a perpetual discovery of new things, a curiosity for all the thoughts that haven’t occurred to you yet. Philosophy and literature are different disciplines, but both offer a clearer view of the meaning of our existence. They’re similar that way, which is why I’m able to develop my thoughts in novels as well as in non-fiction.

 

‘I’m not a philosopher who suddenly decided to write novels. Style is not my main concern, I want to communicate ideas. Authors often proceed from autobiographical experience, something close at hand, whereas my starting point is usually at a remove from myself. In my student days I read the diaries of Etty Hillesum, a Jewish woman who died in a concentration camp. She was in love with an elderly man, and she describes that love in her diaries. Reading that, I was struck by the fact that this love story seemed utterly remote to me. I thought: what is it that makes us love another person? What does love do to people? Simple questions, but on closer scrutiny they’re so difficult to answer.

 

‘For further investigation of this theme, I thought of writing a story about a young woman and an elderly man who love each other, perhaps despite themselves. I was curious whether I’d be capable of a convincing portrayal, avoiding the stereotypical ‘young student with mature man’. Why should we only fall in love with one of our own generation? Why not someone forty years older? Many people consider that perverse. Why? Is it about physical fitness, the intellect or experience of life? Such were the questions that engendered my novel Een soort van liefde (A kind of love).

 

‘I had many questions concerning love, and even though I have’t found definite answers, I do gain insights when writing. We often speak of love very rationally. We can exactly describe the type of person we’d like to be in a relationship with, and almost predict what kind of love it would be. But is that really so? Is there anything to choose or is it all decided for us? It might even be contrary to our own will. I think we have less to say in these matters than we like to believe. It can be a torment to love someone you can’t be with. Sometimes you’re in need of a fresh start but your heart is still caught up in the previous chapter. Very little you can do about it. In the media, love is often reduced to the notion that there’s someone for everybody. That’s not the kind of love my book deals with. It’s about the question how we love and how ideas about loving shape our experience of love.

I am a writing being. To sharpen my thoughts, I must write.

‘Elisabeth, the novel’s main character, is convinced of her father’s inability to love, so much so that she herself is incapable of loving. She thought of her father as a cold man, but reading the book one gets the impression there’s more to this story. He did feel love and he cherished a deep affection for his daughter. Her own interpretations stood in the way of engaging in a relationship. How often we think we know for certain what another person feels about us. It’s almost funny. We’re all just guessing.

 

‘While I was writing my novel I wasn’t consciously thinking about my father. But in hindsight I do see parallels between the book and my own life. Elisabeth is a person who only really gets to know her father after his death. She couldn’t love him and turned away from him. When she discovers he was not the man she always thought him to be, it’s a reconciliation.

 

‘I did live with my own father, but mostly he simply annoyed me. He was ill at ease and prone to strange behavior. I felt ashamed of him quite a lot. Only now do I see how much courage it took to move from Poland to Belgium, it must be really hard to leave your country behind. He was tormented, yet he kept fighting his demons.

 

‘It was never my intention for the character to be a version of myself. I didn’t know my father well enough during his life, let alone admire him. I did often tell him that he was annoying. Moments that can never be redone. He deserved a more loving daughter than I’ve been for him.

 

‘Only after completing my book did I see the comparison with a book that greatly impressed me: Embers by Sándor Márai. It’s about the friendship between two men who grew up together. Something happens, they lose sight of each other for forty years and meet one last time towards the end of their life, as friends. That is so intriguing. It raises all these questions about friendship: what is it that we call friendship? Can friendship endure a forty-year absence? Can a friend be forgiven the unforgivable? It’s a fantastic, spellbinding book. If my own novel raises similar questions concerning love, I consider it a success.

 

‘I am a writing being. To sharpen my thoughts, I must write. Philosophy is not a matter of mere chatting. It’s in writing where the limits of your knowledge and of who you are become apparent, and by writing you find ways to keep expanding those limits.’

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