With You is the latest book by the poet and dramaturg Stefan Ivanov, and the first publication of the Center for Social Vision. A poetic-research essay about the need and at the same time the lack of conversation between us, with graphic design by Victoria Staykova. Here we publish excerpts from the discussion between Stefan Ivanov and the writer, journalist and publisher Silviya Choleva that took place in December 2022 at Swimming Pool.
Silviya Choleva When Stefan sent me the text, I immediately thought of Tsvetan Stoyanov and his text "For the good conversations". I remembered that this text was written 63 years ago. A text that has a lot of warmth, a lot of hope, a lot of light. This was actually the idea of writing – to communicate and to be who we are, to be free in this communication. To talk about meaning. Even in the beginning he says that for him conversation is art, as writing, composing are art.
Going from there to Stefan Ivanov's book, we tell ourselves that so many years have passed, but we still come to the same point – to the necessity of conversation. Because you wouldn't start writing this book if it wasn't an inner need of yours, if you didn't feel the lack of people. I wanted to know, is the book a specific impulse, Stefan?
Stefan Ivanov You and I have had a chat for twenty years, and we find it easy to talk to each other, formally and informally. But now I was thinking – it’s normal with age the people you talk to change, but suddenly it turns out that there are people you're a match with, and there are people you want the conversation to end more quickly. There are also times when people you used to talk to with ease are gone. In moments of long grief, of rethinking and reliving, I had the opportunity to be a part of those conversations each week at the Center. In order to join in, there was a requirement to write an open invitation prompt. I had it in my head even before that, but I didn't know how far it would go. It has a bit of a negative connotation, but participating was therapeutic for me.
Silviya Choleva Why negative?
Stefan Ivanov In Bulgaria, if you say that you write from personal experience, and from what you experience, it's kind of not looked upon well.
Silviya Choleva And isn't conversation the revelation that we don't always have the strength to achieve?
Stefan Ivanov Sometimes there's a sense of extreme candor, but only when you have a sense beforehand that you can be heard and understood. And sometimes you save yourself the extreme candor because it can create unnecessary conflict.
Silviya Choleva At other times, however, you sense a wall that you cannot get past. A reluctance to reveal yourself to the other. These conversations that the book is about are penetrating the soul of the other.
Stefan Ivanov It doesn't happen by force. In order for someone to take off their armor, their masks, you have to do it too. A kind of disarmament.
Silviya Choleva There is something else – conversation requires silence.
Stefan Ivanov Conversation requires a completely different space. Conversation is not media desirable. We live in a deeply aggressive culture of monologue, where the loudest deserves to have the floor, and the louder it is, the closer it is to the truth, regardless of whether it has anything to do with the truth. But it's not just the noise, we've lost a lot in the intervening years of the ethics of listening, of hearing. Neither can we read en masse and with pleasure what is happening around us, nor what is happening to the person across the room. There is a reluctance to look at his joy and his pain. These are some traditional Bulgarian cons.
But I am an extreme optimist and believe that everything can change with effort, consistency and a committed attitude.
Silviya Choleva Reality says otherwise. Now everyone is in a hurry, everyone wants everything to happen immediately. This nervousness, this constant vibration of one's nerves leads to a lack of meaningful communication, of talking beyond the concrete, of "touching" each other. Because conversation is touch.
Stefan Ivanov For better or worse, social media and its overuse can lead to self-induced ADHD. Reading doesn't lead to that - but only reading books, not an algorithm that constantly adapts to bring you dopamine, some pleasure or affect. But I think that will go away too, even before some big electromagnetic pulse fries the servers.
Silviya Choleva Where is this optimism coming from?
Stefan Ivanov In recent years, I have felt such radical dissent and pain from the way we have come to live. I don't mean the political and social situation specifically, but the way we live today in general. And there are so many people talking about this dissent and pain, and not just in artwork, but on Tiktok, on Facebook, on Twitter, if the latter exists next year. When an issue is identified that is global, little by little it starts to be talked about, little by little it moves into a forum of active dissent.
Silviya Choleva Since I've been on social media, I've been wondering where the balance is. To what extent is one wasting one's time and to what extent is one gaining, to what extent can one learn something or get to know somebody, even in this virtual way. However, the longing here is for the touch that was mentioned. To add, there's also something theatrical about the conversation, and you've been connected to the theater a lot more lately.
Stefan Ivanov There really is something tactile in conversation - people touching without being touched. And speaking of communication. Michel Houellebecq writes in all his books, amidst political meltdowns, illness, family deprivation, and all sorts and global changes, that the last refuge remains touch, conversation, and reading. For me, at least, this is evidenced in Anéantir, which, as black a title as it has, is actually an optimistic book.
Silviya Choleva Let's talk about talking to yourself. To what extent are we able to be honest with ourselves? That beginning is missing here, but maybe it's not a problem?
Stefan Ivanov Conversation with oneself, if it is to be unflinching and honest, is often unwelcome. If it were unwanted, we'd be living on a different planet, one that is much more honest and kind. The whole cultivation of responsibilities, of an inner self, or whatever has been going on since Christianity, is to think about who we are and why we are that way.
I've been a juror for a while, and on a wall in the Courthouse it says, "The revelation of conscience is verdict enough." Talking to yourself is a very wonderful thing, but if a values environment doesn't convey it to you as an attractive option, you shun it. This is true of many of the things that happen on a daily basis. And when people don't insist on it, when a norm gets completely swept away, Hamlet can come along and put together some disassembled centuries, as Shakespeare wrote, but he's indecisive, we're a little indecisive too, and you get the domino effect, the butterfly effect.
Silviya Choleva The point is to be "with you." "I want to be with you, with you, with you, but it doesn't always work out." We'll get back to the clichés that society is divided, polarized and fragmented. How does this affect us people who are involved in writing books and other arts?
Stefan Ivanov There is one thing that is very often speculated in the humanities and sociology. A sort of hypothetical ideal situation is created and it is compared to the present. Hypothetical ideal situations have a very serious downside, they're like the difference between something and nothing, they didn't exist. I don't think it was ever better or different, or Pascal wouldn't have written that one of the most serious problems is staying home and alone. If you don't feel good alone, you won't feel good talking either. It's all quite internal, quite subjective, quite inward, and these are all things that are difficult, that take time, that take effort, that don't get monetary or material expression. You can't share them on social media and get thousands of likes and recognition. It's an internal experience that is difficult and yet worth the effort because it leads to peace and ease. Because I know a large amount of successful people who are proud of their success, but what I don't see is any kind of ease and calm. Even just the opposite. Everyone depends on talking to themselves and only then comes the conversation with someone else.
Silviya Choleva Don't you feel that this is turning the public space into divided little groups where some are in contact and others are not, but there is no audibility between them?
Stefan Ivanov Undoubtedly. Over the years I've made sure that I can talk to a wide range of different people who wouldn't talk to each other because of prejudice, because they've decided that some people are not part of their everyday lives. It's extremely limiting to society, to audibility. It's like saying no to a diversity of life. Yes, it may be confusing, it may bother you, it may disturb you, it may disgust you, but it exists and you are given a chance to join in that world, to observe it, to be amazed by it, to enjoy it, to dislike it. And yet you are consciously depriving yourself of the opportunity to make life interesting. That's very hard for me to understand, and I don't comprehend it.