Prof. Valeri Stefanov, expert in literature:
Young people are woefully entangled in the online web
It is a fact that we rarely admit, but sometimes one is committed to the road of self-destruction instead of salvation
22 July, 2017
Close-up: Valeri Stefanov was born on 21 July 1958. He attended the Polytechnic High School and earned a degree in Bulgarian Philology from Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”, where he has been teaching since 1984. He served as head of the Department of Bulgarian Literature and dean of the Faculty for Slavic Studies. Stefanov has a PhD in philology and is a professor of history of Bulgarian literature. Stefanov has authored tens of fiction novels and books dedicated to literary analysis. Most recently, he released a book entitled The Drinking Man in the World of Pubs, co-authored by Milena Menkova.
- Prof. Stefanov, your latest book has garnered major interest. How did you come up with the idea for The Drinking Man in the World of Pubs?
- This book is a natural product of my fascination with identity problems, the way people structure their lives and invest it with meaning. There is homo faber (the working man), homo ludens (the playing man) and then there is homo bibens (the drinking man)... These three categories, work, play and drinking, have given different things to people. Our book examines people’s experience with intoxicating drinks. For thousands of years, people consumed exotic, dangerous and daring beverages. What did they look for and find in them, what happy occasions inspired them to drink, what consequences they had to suffer - these are the questions that I explore in the book. For centuries, the pub has been a place of social interaction, celebration, oblivion, elation, brawls, failures… The pub offers an escape from the world, a regressive mechanism. Such places are emotional switches as under the influence of alcohol people get inebriated and become someone else, for good or bad. Homo bibens is the unexpected version of ourselves, our merry or depressed alter ego. “I is another,” Arthur Rimbaud said once. This is why we visit pubs- to meet this other self, a side of us that lies deep beneath the surface, the shadows of our waking dreams.
- What is the book’s message to your readers and why did you opt for co-authorship?
- The pub world has its own coordinates, own rhythm, which is different from the everyday dynamics ruling beyond its doors. Something more than the ugly face of drunkenness stares back at us from the bottom of the glass and it is some barely acknowledged but persistent state of existential anxiety. As human beings, we are creatures faced with imperatives - to finish God’s work, to find meaning and a sense of completeness, wholeness. You can say time spent in the pub takes you on this strange journey to yourself, it allows the illusion of dissipating life worries and troubles locked out. If reality is a source of pain, then pubs are among the salves we have invented to remedy it. This particular “salve” is fiercely condemned as harmful, destructive but people never gave it up, stayed true to it. It is a fact that we rarely admit, but sometimes one is committed to the road of self-destruction instead of salvation. Pubs are a prime place for such missions. As for the co-authorship, it is an opportunity to present more points of view, to expand the scope of the study, to engage in a dialogue. After all, we share knowledge, why not share the process of constructing the message?
- How much philosophy can be found in alcohol and what is pubs’ place in Bulgarian tradition?
- Philosophy is not to be found in alcohol, it is in our minds, our ability to reflect. Many highly intelligent people have explored intoxicating beverages, their diverse and provocative effects. Socrates, for example, was a famous drinker, which never prevented him from being one of the smartest people of his time. Intoxicating drinks have been denounced but also glorified over the centuries. There is an entire mythology on the connection between alcohol and creativity. As one of Francois Rabelais’ characters says, the soul does not do well when left dry. Perhaps it explains why there are more renowned great figures who are drinkers than prudent abstainers throughout history. On the Balkans, people have always lived with their “sparkling wine” and “strong rakia” as the magic drinks that helped them survive and find solace but also march towards doom.
- In your opinion, why have we been caught into the trap of aggression? Children fight each other, parents assault teachers, patients assault doctors… What is happening with our society?
- Growing instances of aggression is the ugly manifestation of our collective psychological ailments. Daily reports of assault cases paint the pathological picture of a society that is depressed, devoid of hope and driven to primitive brutality. At the same time, aggression is the norm, a standard, a promoted behavioural pattern. Just look at politicians - constantly disgruntled, agitated people who assert themselves by raging and verbally attacking their opponents. The very anatomy of the modern human body is shaped as an instrument of aggression - steroid-pumped muscles, arrogant looks, doltish facial expressions. In this cruel barbaric world, good manners, good breeding and tolerance are suffocated. They are treated like too lofty civilisational norms that should be taken down, exposed and discredited. Good breeding is a control mechanism, seamlessly built into every person who is fully integrated in society. In Bulgaria, this mechanism has been fatally damaged and the soul-repairing workshops are overwhelmed by the problem.
- Where can salvation be found? Once, you said that there is this constant talk of educational reform and combating violence but that it should all start with the hearts of children. How, more specifically?
- Any answer to the problem of salvation comes down to the matter of values. However, values are not a written example in textbooks, but rather something practiced in society. In a society lacking in shared and collectively upheld values, good upbringing is impossible. For a number of reasons, the Bulgarian school is a failed institution in term of instilling values. It has proven to be unable to grasp the dynamics of the trends that have literary changed the world in the span of one or two decades - access to information, attitudes, minds… Young people today are different form their peers from 15-20 years ago in many ways. They are deeply entrenched and woefully entangled into the online web. The world wide web is an information treasure trove but it is also an existential trap. Has the school system developed mechanisms and projects that can help children navigate their way in the virtual world? Knowledge itself should be restructured and presented through innovative, interesting and thought-provoking teaching methods.