We met Gladys Ambort at the stand of her German publisher LAIKA. "Wenn die anderen verschwinden sind wir nichts" [literal English translation: "If the others disappear, we are nothing"] is the title of her book in which she writes about her harrowing three year-imprisonment under the Argentinean military dictatorship. She talked to us about essential questions of dedication, the otherness in ourselves, and the power of literature to change dictatorships.
AVIVA-Berlin: Ms Ambort, I was very moved by your book. As a reader, it was amazing to see how dedicated and rigorously you lived by your political ideals when you were just 17. How did this come about?
Gladys Ambort: Well, first of all I think that I am naturally idealistic and that helped me to militate and to be an activist. What also helped me a lot was the atmosphere in the country at that time. In Argentina there was a huge movement that within many young people started striving for their rights â€“ for a better society. So you can not understand my own activity without seeing the collective situation. It is true that there werenÂ´t too many young people at my age but I had the company of many people that influenced me: students that I met, my family, my brothers and sisters.
AVIVA-Berlin: In your narrative you show how isolation/loneliness and our conception of our own identity hang together. The title of your book already conveys this. Several times you refer to other victims of dictatorships during the 20th century such as Hannah Arendt for example. ItÂ´s fascinating how the thoughts and experiences of witnesses of different dictatorships resemble each other.
Gladys Ambort: ThatÂ´s true and I think that reading all this experiences of other people helped me a lot to deal with my own experiences. It started when I was studying and working for my PhD. I read a lot and suddenly I found the words to speak about my own experiences - words that I couldnÂ´t have written before. I couldnÂ´t even have written this book 20 years ago. It was impossible - I couldnÂ´t find the words. When I found out that other people where gone to the same experience and already put some words on it I simply had to put the rest.
AVIVA-Berlin: You write that literature was what ultimately enabled you not to be destroyed by everything that happened to you. Literature showed you the "other" in yourself and helped you find an identity again.
Often intellectuals and authors are the first people to be oppressed by totalitarian regimes. What do you think is the reason for this? Could it be that dictators, perhaps unconsciously, feel that literature has the power to give people individual identities and thus to prevent susceptibility to authoritarian structures?
Gladys Ambort: Literature is dangerous because it allows people to think in a different way. Dictatorships try to let people think only one way. And literature, as you said, allows you to find the other inside yourself. And as soon as your identity becomes more than one you find out that you can be different and you also accept other people to be different. Dictatorships can not accept that.
AVIVA-Berlin: In your book you respond to Hannah Arendt, who describes the links between totalitarian regimes and loneliness. ArendtÂ´s theory strongly recalls the philosophy of Karl Jaspers or Erich Fromm. Both described how isolation not only arises in totalitarian systems, but is also a condition for these systems in the first place. The flight into authoritarian structures derives from a sense of the insignificance of the individual. Authoritarian structures then tell us what we are. They create a sense of self out of obedience. Is there a way out of this vicious circle?
Gladys Ambort: I think there is a way. I think it was Hannah Arendt who said that totalitarianism has itÂ´s destruction in itself. She speaks about newborns. Every newborn is a danger for the totalitarian system, because it represents new ideas. So I think that by definition there is a way out of totalitarianism in the way human beings are. You can imprison an individual, but you can not imprison the otherness in ourselves. Sooner or later it will manifest. Do you understand what I mean?
AVIVA-Berlin: I do. And I really hope that it is as you describe it.
Gladys Ambort: I think it is. Have you ever found a system in the world that lasted forever? The perfect system does not exist, but thatÂ´s another story. Look at whatÂ´s happening in the Arabic world in these days. Sooner or later individuals realize that there is an alternative choice, because the otherness is inside ourselves, not only as individuals but also as a collective.
AVIVA-Berlin: Martin Buber wrote that "through the Thou a person becomes I". You came to know this via very painful experience. Actually this sentence could teach us to have reverence and show care for the "other" or the "thou", couldnÂ´t it?
Gladys Ambort: Yes, because if you are aware of that you take more care of the people around you. Somehow this is my philosophy in life. IÂ´m always thankful to people for being what they are. Serge Lebovici, a Romanian psychoanalyst, had a very similar conception. He said that the new born baby does not exist until the mother looks at him. ItÂ´s the mothers look/view which makes him an existence. This is also a truly beautiful thought. I think that this is an idea similar to what I wanted to convey in my book: Without the others we are nothing. And if you have understood that you can not place yourself above other persons anymore. You simply cannot.
AVIVA-Berlin: They wanted to silence you by isolating you from other people. In light of this, what does language and communication mean to you today and where do you see its opportunities and dangers? Do you think that communication today means more to you than to other people?
Gladys Ambort: I think so, and the more I get older the more I like to communicate, also in a very simple way. I donÂ´t need to speak about philosophy to be happy with people. I think that communication is extremely important â€“ our society should push people to communicate more. Not only through verbal language, there are many, many ways to communicate. Especially the control of communication in media (like for example in Italy these days) is always a very important indication of who controls the power in general.
AVIVA-Berlin: In your book you show the inability of language to describe the horrific things that people in dictatorships do to others. I find that the citations from other poets and witnesses that head the chapters of your book nevertheless manage to give us a small notion of the unimaginable.
Gladys Ambort: Well, many thanks if you think that I succeeded in this point. But in spite of everything, like I say at the end of my book, there still are things that I think I will never be able to explain. But if you think that I could give a small notion I am glad to hear that.
AVIVA-Berlin: Ms Ambort, thank you very much for the Interview.
Gladys Ambort with Anna Hohle (AVIVA-Berlin) at the Leipzig Book Fair
Please also read our review:
"Wenn die anderen verschwinden sind wir nichts" by Gladys Ambort