"You must find answers to your life”: An Interview with Lyubko Deresh

I remember when I was in the 8th grade, standing in front of a board with the schedule on it. Next to it, there was an interview with Lyubko Deresh, in which he described the years when he was a student of the same school. At that time, I was still trying to figure out how to survive my teenage years. He was giving some guidance in this interview, and I accepted those instructions and set a goal for myself: I will do such interviews, and students of schools and universities will be reading them and will set some goals for themselves, just like I did. Lyubko was an iconic writer at that time and people lived for his writing, especially in our lyceum, because he described it (including the teachers) in his works. He was loved by everyone in my circle, not only because he wrote about the life of the late 2000's in Ukraine, but also because he showed how it was like to be a teenager, who listened to Nick Cave at the time when Russian chansons could be heard everywhere. He explained to us that even though we were “different”, we were not alone. He showed us the darkest foundations of our being. And he showed us how to get out of them.  Still, when someone from our generation wants to recall those times, his "Cult" or "Worshiping the Lizard" are the best for getting nostalgic. But he has grown up, and so have we along with his books. And when you read them, you can feel how peace and light are filling you, as opposed to aggression, unrest and anxiety.

So who is Lyubko Deresh? He is the author of 11 books among which there are "The Cult", "Worshiping the Lizard", "The Arche", "The Intention!", "A Bit of Darkness", "Jacob's Head", "The Last Love of Asura Maharajah", "The Peacemaker", "The Songs About Love and Eternity" and "The Devastation". He is also a teacher of the creative writing course and an Envoy of Tolerance in the United Nations Development Program in Ukraine.

Would your writer's career be possible if it hadn't been for the Lyceum? How did your environment influence you?

It is hard to say because history does not have an "if" category. But, in general, I can agree with this sentiment. Such things as vocation manifest anyway — whether you study in a lyceum or not. I could have met Izdryk in 2004 or 2007 instead of 2000. It seems to me that an inclination toward a certain job cannot be accidental — you cannot avoid it as if it were a casual encounter. I could have read much better or much worse literature, and it would respectively affect my views. But I'm sure that fundamental things would remain the same. I believe in the patterns that unfold in you as you get older and you cannot avoid them. They are directly reflected in what you are writing. The problems I faced that pushed me to write, like the problem of aggression, transgression, or the problem of identity, would have come to me anyway, and I would have reacted to them through better or worse texts. Books are born as inevitability.

As for me, most of your books help to overcome some inner aggression and realize that you are not the only person who is so unusual in this world. At the same time, I liked your essay on psychedelic music as a kind of drug helping one to get on with oneself, especially during adolescence...

Talking about the connection between psychedelic culture and inner aggression, I was once deeply impressed by Aldous Huxley's essay "Paradise and Hell. The Doors of Perception". It was a fundamental text for Jim Morrison. It was revolutionary not only for me as a teenager but for all of Europe at that time — after two centuries of the rationalist era, the "cocoon of perception" of the European consciousness began to transform at the beginning of the 20th century. People realized that the definitions of the world we had were inconsistent with reality. Then, the works of Husserl incited the rise of phenomenology which induced new discoveries in physics. These discoveries attempted to unravel the tangle of links between consciousness and the physical world. Jung's psychoanalysis as opposed to Freud's heritage began to actively develop. It became clear that the role of consciousness in the formation of reality is much more important than it used to be thought in Newton's time. We started to look at what is a myth, at alchemical symbolism and at the culture of the natives from a new perspective. A similar tendency was happening everywhere: the need to turn consciousness and the process of its development to the place it deserved appeared after the rise of rationalism in Europe. What made Mircea Eliade so interested in the Amazonian tribes or shamans of Siberia in the 1920's? It was the feeling that something had been lost during the Enlightenment. There is a well-known alchemical emblem, where the alchemist climbs out from under the dome of perception, the moon and stars above it and the sun shining inside of it. This is a metaphor for transgression and going beyond one’s borders. Most of the 20th century passed under the motto of transgression. And it affected white-haired Christian society in Europe and America the most. It was the society that broke ties with the irrational and the traditional channels of taking out deep aggression which is always very irrational too. The sphere of religion, which was gradually losing its influence over the educated sections of the population, was the space in which the European urban man could get rid of the obsession of unacceptable desires, internal conflicts and contradictions. A man found a deep foundation for his own being not only at the existential level but also at the everyday one. The Christian European world, with its relation to the Other, gave rise to some ways of cultural channeling of aggression, like, for example, in the institution of chivalry, duels, modern boxing as a kind of sport. One might wonder how is it related to religion? It was the religion that added a value-based, ontological sounding to those things. Honor, dignity, courage arose from the acceptance of imperatives, the instructions of the Other. There were cultural ways to exaggerate one's own aggression, to provide it with culturally acceptable forms. As we know, Dr. Watson was the best boxer in the garrison. Therefore, when it came to one's honor, these issues could have been resolved with dignity. Your identity in such disarray was not destroyed. The problem of aggression in the modern world is that by releasing it, you risk "losing" yourself, you risk ruining your own identity and the irrational might be too big for you to handle.

Aggression can take hold of you.

Yes. Afflicted by anger, you can start to act in a way that is different from what you know about yourself. At this moment, you realize that you stop being yourself. If you don’t have an internal foothold given by religion or metaphysics, in some circumstances you have nothing left but to take your own life. Therefore, literature — including books for adolescents — as well as music, raves, drugs — is a space to some extent alternative to the religious one because it allows you to meet with yourself. A direct meeting with the nightmares of your own suppressed consciousness is often too traumatic. But reading, watching a movie or a play about it is a means of getting over the catharsis. It is a kind of "magic mirror" that helps get in touch with these destructive energies so that they can’t destroy you. What we consider a "subculture" is often an unconscious reproduction of archaic tribal practices: tattooing, dividing into tribes, searching for an ecstatic trance on techno parties, all of which are ways to channel aggression in the post-Christian world. The surface is hipster-y, mainstream, but internally modern society is struggling to master these "angels of wrath" which are breaking loose.

Talking about hipsters which are sometimes considered somewhat inept, I liked how in one interview you mentioned the fact that they created all kinds of hubs. It turns out that hipsters are former punks, emo and so on.

Hipsters are those who went through the re-socialization process. They came out of the tribal system of psychotropic substances and entered capitalist relations.

Yes. It seems to be peculiar for this generation: they are not afraid to change. They are not ashamed of accepting the new and do not complain that everything used to be better in the past. They have significantly less snobbery.

Generations Y and Z — the generations of Millennials are very dynamic. The generation X, i.e. our parents who grew up in the Soviet space, went through the brutality of the post-war generation, so the "ability of not being categorical" was one of their virtues. They passed this "open-mindedness", as a tendency to change on to the next generations, that is, to you and me. If we multiply our ability to change with such things as social networks and the Internet that makes the world as understandable as possible and lets you know how to build a robot or create an explosion within seconds, then we will get a new, very dynamic reality. The accessibility of external and internal travel (in terms of identity, for instance) accelerates the process even more. All this makes the world not just unsteady, but fluid. One of my friends referred to it as a flash identity. It is when you can very quickly take off and on some identity, almost like putting on some clothes.

I've recently had a similar conversation with one friend of mine. He says that he has lost the feeling of a "new" city.  When coming to some other city or country, you always feel comfortable now because you have yourself. And I noticed that I feel the same whenever I come to Kyiv, Vienna or Budapest: I am absolutely comfortable, even though they are not my home cities. It happens particularly thanks to electronic gadgets because we always have the whole world in our pockets. And there are no longer any states of getting out of your comfort zone because it is very easy to create one anywhere.

Due to the fact that the shock lines of transition in the world are becoming increasingly scarce. According to some studies, it postpones a person’s period of maturation for 10-15 years. What people used to comprehend at the age of 25 they now realize when they are 40. This kind of "peterpanship" is convenient for the market because you have a convenient "barbless" audience you know how to work with. On the other hand, our generation may become a generation of deep frustration. Why are there so many articles like "10 Things That Make Me Happy" today? Because there is a huge inner crisis of real happiness. One has to collect it piece by piece. There is a lack of important rites of initiation into adulthood that would entail additional responsibilities and provide happiness by overcoming the difficulties associated with them.

That's why university studies are so important to me. They provide a whole range of experiences to go through with your peers. No online courses or self-education will ever give it to you. It is some sort of a game, where you have to go through certain levels in order not to get back to your adolescent problems.

I agree with the importance of face to face communication. Perhaps it is even more important than studying itself. You learn to be human, learn to communicate, and in your teenage rebellion you begin to understand that there are not only peers, but there are older people whom you can also learn something from. The skill of behaving with other people not only when you feel comfortable, but also in a situation of conflict, as well as the skill of being able to act in a situation where you have to work together and there is no way to avoid it — this is precisely when the internal value core of a person is being created. Neither information nor technology, but this very value core becomes the basis of our creativity, which can bear a cultural and civilizational character.

It seems to me that we are about to face a major challenge as to how to cope with this technological progress ahead of us and to still remain human, as Harari wrote about it.

I believe there is a strong opposition to Harari's camp. These are different transpersonal schools, Jungian humanistic schools working with the irrational component of a person. They are different, but their essence is that they treat a person as something more than just a biological algorithm. There are pre-rational movements, including those interested in shamanism, or in some holistic ecological primitivism. There are also transrational movements, like Ken Wilber's integral approach. Now we can witness a growing of demand for emotional intelligence, leadership qualities, psychological life hacks that address the creative, integral side of a person. This is a very rich area for research. It can be a good balance for the dataism Harari writes about — from some very scientific integral movements to a number of esoteric trends that are important as well.

At the same time, we have plenty of literature on some low-quality practical psychology without any bases for programming our subconscious.

Today, technologies are being traded better than intellect because they are far more easily sold. Customers do not need to shape their worldview, they just want to make the pain stop and fit everything into place. They do not care that today I am working with the chakras and tomorrow I will go to church — it is more or less the same for them, but what is the basis of all this? Does one contradict the other? How do all these phenomena coexist with each other? A very small number of people are interested in it. The element of the prerational is still prevalent. Whereas the other wing, a transrational one, brings something more than some kind of ability. It sprouts over rational ideas and makes it possible to understand that there is something beyond intellectual stages of development. Such a transpersonal approach may also find its reflection in literature. Today's request for emotional intelligence is a confirmation to the fact that practical people like the leaders, for example, know that intellect is not enough — something more is needed.

It's a pity that before reading books on emotional intelligence people don't think that it is necessary to sort out your own feelings first. I have also noticed that there is an increasing number of people who take drugs, but I cannot understand whether they take them to improve emotional intelligence or just to have some fun.

I think this is a sign of a very strong frustration. Any psychologist will say that this is the first sign of a person not being able to cope with the life that has fallen on him or her. If you can cope with your life, then there is no place for drugs in it. This is because you feel significantly higher and much cleaner states simply from the process of self-realization. When you get used to eating canned sprat and suddenly you are offered some high cuisine dishes, you realize that you don’t need "sprat in tomato sauce" anymore, for there are some more refined tastes out there. So it is with drugs: if you have a finer taste when you are coping with your life, what do you need this thrash for? A lot of people simply give up when there is not enough understanding of life and when everything doesn't work out. It is kind of hard to sort everything out at work when you also have a child, wife, and the war is going on in your country...  Naturally, one would have the desire to huff something just to make it through the night. Our mind is like a ball of mercury that sprouts some kind of tentacles, like the liquid Terminator 2 T-1000. These tentacles are feeling this world, trying to put together pieces of your understanding. But sometimes it happens that those pieces do not match, and it makes a split inside of you. And then you start to feel that you need to go back to the point where you felt full, the point where you are just a ball of mercury that knows nothing. So when you drink, you seem to be losing your inhibitions, simplifying your mind to the level where your inner conflicts disappear. You artificially "draw in the tentacles" so that they cannot tie the pieces of the world together, otherwise something new will not match again and it will hurt. The problem of pieces of life not coming together is a problem of more than just people who drink or take drugs. This is not even a problem of the Third World countries. This is the general problem of humanity as a species. In the course of his development, a human is constantly opening deeper levels of being, which don’t bind into one picture of the world. Even if you live in Canada or Monaco, and it may seem that you are doing well, it does not absolve you from the responsibility for the pieces of your life you must find answers to. 

It seems to me that literature is actually one of the keys to allowing us to link different fragments of life together. Why is there a phenomenon of the memory of literature? Why don't we say that Homer is old, and we need something new? You get access to a human experience that has already encountered this life, that has already gone through all its conflicts. Someone has already sewn these fragments of life together. Literature isn’t just a guide, not "100 tips for all occasions". When you read fiction, it gives you aesthetics. Taking the Iliad, for example, there is Achil, who drags the dead soldiers, there is also Troy under siege, a thirst for vengeance and the death of your loved ones. When you are 16, it seems like some cool action. But when you gain certain life experience, you begin to realize that there is a place for death, honor and shame in real life just like it is in the books, and perhaps one day you will have to face all this yourself. Literature is an experience of beauty and love, the beauty of being and the love to being. Literature is actually a small packed being that lives inside of us. This is why we respect Homer, Shakespeare, Dante. Because they preserve this fundamental experience of human existence. And this is, as I see it, the purpose of literature: to be a stabilizer for mankind. Culture in the broader sense means my ability to withstand being. If you look at the well-known books with more mature eyes, then you understand that “Romeo and Juliet” is not about teenage love. This is a packaged existence.

You once mentioned in the interview that this reconsideration of literature came to you when you lived in Egypt. Tell us about your journey and life near Sinai before 2012. Were you afraid of the end of the world and wanted to wait until it was over? What was the reason for it?

We were all thinking about the end of the world back then…

And hoped…

Yes, and so did my friends. Especially those who had taken loans for their apartments. To be honest, I simply had an inner crisis associated with writing and an understanding of myself as well as my purpose in society. I wrote "A little bit of darkness", a book about suicide. Then I searched for what else I could express in my writing. In addition, I was intensely engaged in internal psychological practices and I realized that I had to put emphasis on them at that point and not on my social life. And the third reason was that I met my first wife in Sinai. If it hadn’t been for her, I wouldn’t have had enough courage to move there. I considered going to Nepal as an alternative.

I also sometimes think about leaving everything and going to Nepal, so I understand what you are talking about. But to a certain extent, this can also be called "an escape from responsibility".

An escape from responsibility, when you understand that you are not a citizen, not a man and not a public figure can lead you to the fact that a person immerses so deep inside that deep down he finds a micron of his own self — the soul everyone speaks about. That's what happened to me. But once you had an encounter with yourself, you realize that you must take responsibility and that it is useful. You suddenly realize that you are responsible not only for Ukraine, humanity and the Earth but for all being. This is another extreme. And this is where something interesting begins. You truly find your place and your role between these two extremes of hyper-responsibility and irresponsibility. And this role starts to lead you. This is the beginning of your "sincere" life. You step on your own way and start to live your own life. You do as much as you can on it.

That’s how we came to the point that it is difficult to be a writer in Ukraine. Political responsibility involves you in different processes, sometimes against your will.

Indeed. The responsibility chases you. It is good if you are mentally ready for it. Otherwise, social networks — all those holy wars and hate — can simply destroy a person the same way as drugs can. The main thing for the writer is to feel a balance between his own vocation and opportunities. I admire my colleagues who can express themselves out loud on important social topics. I tried to force myself to regularly reflect on public occasions, but I am not a blogger in nature. Now I am writing one article per week on a regular basis and this is currently my maximum.

You were much criticized and reproached for being non-patriotic when you were trying to advocate people on the opposite side of the front line yet at the beginning of the war. Did you feel hurt because of that?

When you take steps, feeling internal consent with them, you don’t have any dissonance with what happens afterward. For example, I have found out about some negativity towards me only recently. I didn’t have even the slightest clue about it before. There were times when I felt such negativity on myself. But when you have courage to say what you feel and to much extent it matches your values, it automatically mobilizes you for the expected reaction. In any case, I do not regret standing on the line that I have chosen and I continue to pursue it. My understanding of patriotism is quite broad. I understand people who love Ukraine in their own way and who can disagree with what I say. However, we have to also take into account the fact that Ukraine does not exist in a vacuum. You do not have to be a citizen of the world, but there are some global processes, so you cannot treat Ukraine in isolation from them. It is important for me to keep to the universal outlook in my public life. And I am doing it as long as I have enough understanding to hold this discourse and translate it into different languages for different audiences. My participation in a project devoted to tolerance is some sort of a school of translation. There is a sociological study that shows the word "tolerance" as one of the most intolerable and having an aggressive connotation in the East of Ukraine. But if we try to better understand this notion, its ideas and what kind of future is actually behind it, and if we start to communicate it to others – this is one of the writer's duties, I believe. And eloquence here is a very necessary tool. 

Having focused on the genre of the interview, I noticed that we lost our ability to communicate with each other as well as understand what we are talking about. We ask a question and don’t listen to the answer of our interlocutor. So it means that we ask only to avoid inconvenient silence. We do not exchange energy, because we do not accept the words of others due to our vanity. We start a discussion having a position we are not even going to change.

Yes, this is the metaphysics of communication. I am interested in it and an understanding of “the Other” in the dialogue in particular. In my opinion, our ability to communicate face-to-face comes from respect for the other. That is why I was so impressed by the previous project of the UN Development Program "Reinvent Respect" in Ukraine, in which I participated. If I simply respect the other for no particular reason, if I simply give him significance in my perception, I have an opportunity to start, as you called it, the exchange of energy with him. If I look at the Other as some microbe, we cannot have this exchange. I will never accept what he says, I will never even try to understand his argumentation because he simply does not exist for me. "The Other" vanishes. A very powerful metaphysical move comes from this presence of "the Other" and it undermines the entire modern civilization narrative. We seek unification and universalization. But the philosophy of "the Other" is much more complex than the philosophy of “The Only” ...


Interviewed and photographed by Justina Dobush

Translated from the Ukrainian by Yulia Lyubka

Caitlyn Garcia