Danilo Kiš: Advice for the Young Writer

What follows is my translation of an excerpt from the autobiography of one of the greatest writers in Serbo-Croatian language, Danilo Kiš. As the title suggests, it is a series of advice to the young authors. It is witty, entertaining, truthful and perhaps even useful. Somewhere halfway through you will find core belief behind this blog. To quote Kiš: “Do not allow them to persuade you that all of us have equally valid opinions, and that there is no accounting for tastes.”

De gustibus non discutaband, was the Latin saying translated as “There is no accounting for tastes.” In saying this, however, it is probable that the Romans had the opposite in mind from what most people that use this quote for today. Back then, rules of good taste were clear-cut and, for those familiar with those rules, it was not a matter of discussion what good architecture, poetry, or music is. That’s why they said: there is nothing to be discussed about tastes – to those who have a developed taste in something it is clear what good taste is. The same might be applicable to literature.

If you haven’t heard of Kiš, I suggest looking him up, especially his “Encyclopedia of the Dead.” It is an incredible piece of work and I will need to write about it in the future. For now, let’s get down to his advice for the young writer:

Doubt reigning ideologies and the princes.

Keep away from the princes.

Be careful not to contaminate your speech with the language of ideologies.

Believe that you are mightier than the generals, but do not measure your strength with them.

Believe that you are weaker than the generals, but do not measure your strength with them.

Do not believe in Utopian projects, except in those you are creating yourself.

Be equally bitter towards the princes as you are towards the crowds.

Have a clear conscience regarding the privileges that your writer’s trade provides.

Do not mix the curse of your profession with class oppression.

Do not get obsessed with the urgency of history and do not believe in the metaphor about the trains of history.

Do not board, therefore, “the trains of history,” for it is nothing but a silly metaphor.

Always keep in mind: “he who hits the bull’s eye, misses everything else.”

Do not write pieces about the countries you visited as a tourist; do not write pieces at all, you are not a journalist.

Do not believe in statistics, in numbers, in public statements: reality is that which cannot be seen with the naked eye.

Do not visit factories, kolkhoz, workplaces:  progress is that which cannot be seen with the naked eye.

Do not practice economics, sociology, psychoanalysis.

Do not follow eastern philosophies, Zen Buddhism etc; you have better things to do.

Be aware that fantasy is fabrication’s sister, and therefore dangerous.

Associate with no one: the writer is always alone.

Do not trust those who maintain that ours is the worst of all worlds.

Do not trust prophets, you are the prophet.

Do not be a prophet, your weapon is doubt.

Have a peaceful conscience: the princes do not affect you because you are a prince.

Have a peaceful conscience: the miners do not affect you because you are a miner.

Keep in mind that the thing you did not say in the newspapers is not gone forever.

Do not write according to the order of the day.

Do not play all your cards on the moment, you will repent it.

Do not play all your cards on eternity either, you will repent doing this as well.

Be discontent with your destiny, only fools are content with theirs.

Be content with your destiny, for you have been chosen.

Seek no moral justification for traitors.

Stay clear from “absolute righteousness.”

Stay clear from false analogies.

Trust in those who pay a great price for their inconsistencies.

Do not trust in those who pay a great price for their inconsistencies.

Do not promote the relativism of all values: there is a hierarchy to all values.

Accept the awards awarded by the princes with indifference, but do nothing to deserve them.

Believe that the language of your writing is the best language of all, for you have no other language.

Believe that the language of your writing is the worst language of all, although you would not replace it for any other.

Do not be servile, because the princes will employ you as their doorman.

Do not be arrogant, because you will look like the princes’ doorman.

Do not allow them to convince you that your writing is useless to the society.

Do not think that your writing can be considered “useful to the society.”

Do not think that you yourself are a useful member of the society.

Do not allow them to convince you, because of that, that you are a social parasite.

Believe that your sonnet is more valuable that the speeches of politicians and princes.

Have an opinion on everything.

Do not say your opinion on everything.

For you, your words cost you nothing.

Your words are the most precious thing.

Do not represent your nation, for whom else could your represent but yourself!

Do not be the opposition, for you stand not across the princess, you are down below.

Do not stand next to government and the princes, you are above them.

Fight social injustice, but don’t make it into a manifesto.

Do not allow the fight against social injustice to lead you astray from your path.

Become familiar with the thoughts of others, and  discard them afterwards.

Do not create a political program, do not create any kind of program: you create from the magma and the chaos of the universe.

Beware of those who offer final solutions.

Do not be a writer minority of the minorities.

As soon as some society begins calling you its own, question what you are doing.

Do not write for the “average reader:” all readers are average.

Do not write for the elite, there is no elite; you are the elite.

Do not contemplate death, and do not forget you are mortal.

Do not believe in the immortality of a writer, that is nonsense taught by teachers.

Do not be tragically serious, for that is comical.

Do not be a comedian, because the boyar are used to being entertained by them.

Do not be a fool of the court.

Do not believe that the writers are the “mankind’s conscience:” you’ve seen too many sons of bitches.

Do not let them persuade you that you are nobody: you’ve already seen that the boyar are afraid of the poets.

Never follow an idea to the death, and persuade no one to die.

Do not be a coward, and despise cowards.

Do not forget that bravery commands a highs price.

Do not write for holidays and jubilees.

Do not write laudations, because you are going to repent it.

Do not write obituaries for the heroes of the nation, because you are going to repent it.

If you cannot pronounce the truth – stay quiet.

Beware the half-truths.

When everyone around you is celebrating, there is no reason for you to take part.

Do no favors to the princes and the boyar.

Seek no favors from the princes and the boyar.

Do not be tolerant out of politeness.

Do not require justice from everyone: “do not argue with a fool.”

Do not allow them to persuade you that all of us have equally valid opinions, and that there is no accounting for tastes.

“When both participants in a discussion are wrong, it does not mean they are both right.” (Popper)

“Allowing that the other one is right does not protect us from a greater danger: allowing that perhaps everyone else is right.” (Idem)

Do not discuss with fools about things they have heard from you for the first time.

Do not be on a mission.

Beware of those who have a mission.

Do not believe in “scientific opinion.”

Do not believe in intuition.

Beware of cynicism, even your own.

Stay clear of ideological gatherings and quotations.

Have the courage to say that Aragorn’s poem in Gepeua’s honor is blasphemy.

Do not allow them to convince you that both Sartre and  Camus were right in their polemic.

Do not believe in automated writing and “conscious unconsciousness” – you strive after clarity.

Reject all literary schools that are imposed upon you.

When “socialist realism” is mentioned, you leave the conversation.

On the topic of “socially engaged literature” you are as quiet as a fish: you leave that to the teachers.

You tell the one who is comparing concentration camps with Sante (Dante?) to go and take a walk.

You tell the one who claims that Kolyma was worse than Auschwitz to go to hell.

As for the one claiming that only fleas were being exterminated in Auschwitz – same procedure as above.

Segui il carro e lascia dir le genti. (Dante)

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11 responses to “Danilo Kiš: Advice for the Young Writer

  1. Miranda Myrberg

    Very interesting, entertaining and in a weird way inspiring! Thanks for sharing this!

  2. Roman Tskhovrebadze

    Amazing, truth-oriented and deep, witty, transgressive and counter itself.
    thanks.

  3. Pingback: Danilo Kiš – Advice for the young writer « Antimidia

  4. Pingback: Danilo Kis: Advice for the Young Writer | On Writing « Antimidia

  5. Thank you for the translation. I enjoyed reading this beautiful piece. However I will share some of the observations that stuck with me. Some parts are missing.
    After “Have the courage to say that Aragorn’s poem in Gepeua’s honor is blasphemy.” goes “Ne traži za to olakšavajuće okolnosti.”
    “Believe that the language of your writing is the worst language of all, although you would not replace it for any other.” is followed by “Tako, budući mlak, i nijesi ni studen ni vruć, izbljuvaću te iz usta svojih”. (Otkrivenje Jov., 3,16)
    The last remark is in translation of this sentence “You tell the one who claims that Kolyma was worse than Auschwitz to go to hell.” ‘Worse’ should be replaced with ‘different’ which gives the thought completely other meaning.
    Thank you again!

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  7. Is Danilo Kis highly appreciated in Serbia now?

    Was being/not being Jewish important to him?

    cambridgeforecast

    • Hi! He is still regarded as one of the top Serbian writers and is very appreciated. His father was Jewish and was sent away to Auschwitz when Danilo was young. Many of his books deal with political persecution and concentration camps (Pescanik) so I think that yes, being Jewish had a profound impact on him.

  8. Pingback: Danilo Kis: Advice for the Young Writer | Balkanist

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  10. Pingback: the rules not told by the warden, until the day of execution | arturoblogito

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