[WATCH] ‘The best of times, the worst of times’ | Immanuel Mifsud

A contrived sense of false optimism, coupled with the total collapse of all forces opposing the current political/social/economic establishment, have caused author Immanuel Mifsud to ‘give up hope’ 

Author Immanuel Mifsud was interviewed by MaltaToday | Photo: James Bianchi
Author Immanuel Mifsud was interviewed by MaltaToday | Photo: James Bianchi

‘Hope’ is said to be the last thing to ever die. But whether this was ever said to Immanuel Mifsud is another question.

Like many others, the winner of the 2011 European Union Prize for Literature also doubles up as a public commentator on social media sites such as Facebook... and among his various posts about Mediterranean literary festivals or local theatrical productions, one particular observation stood out this week: all the more so for appearing against a stark backdrop of funerary black.

“I have given up hope, but I admire those who continue hoping for this country’.

Admittedly, Mifsud (the author) is not known for light-hearted optimism: though there is an undeniable streak of (mostly dark) humour running through his novels and short stories. But there was something ominous in that bald declaration of his. Not only does it appear to foreshadow a withdrawal from public life... but it also clashes rather conspicuously with another dominant message pervading the country right now.  

But let’s start with the obvious. What, exactly, has Mifsud ‘given up hope’ on? And what had he hoped for to begin with?

“Let me put it this way: there are a lot of things I see around me that I had once hoped would change. For example, I was one of those who voted in favour of EU membership  [in 2003]. I had no doubt we should have joined the EU. When the referendum campaign was going on, the idea that was pushed forward most by the ‘Yes’ camp was that membership would benefit Malta economically, more than in other ways. To be honest, my own personal interest in EU membership was twofold: first, from the artistic perspective, I was convinced – and I think time has proved me right – that Malta would acquire more visibility. Today, we have Maltese authors being published abroad, artists exhibiting overseas, etc.”

Mifsud’s own work has in fact been translated into several European languages: including Albanian, Bulgarian, French, Romanian and Serbo-Croat. 

“But I also expected – and this is where I think I was severely mistaken – that once we formed part of such a big political entity, the inherent ‘pettiness’ of local politics would die a natural death. I feel that basically, this same ‘pettiness’ is still there. Our membership in the EU, from that aspect, did not help.

“In fact, it did not even have an effect. For instance, we still yearn for the same old politics of the past: characterised by hampers, promises... I don’t think that’s the way forward. And that’s just from the political perspective. There’s also the environment: we have reached a stage when nothing matters anymore. Nothing matters. You build on land that was supposed to have been preserved in its natural state? Don’t worry, no problem. We can build on ODZ, so long as we pay a compensation fine.

“We have become so accustomed to measuring everything in terms of money,  that even if we destroy a plot of virgin land, we can always assuage our conscience by simply ‘paying something’ to make up for it. I expected we would become more sensitive and sensible towards our environment: but it’s not the case, absolutely. I think even our interpersonal relationships are being affected: not just by the lack of space around us, but also because of the mentality – which is not new: this has been coming for a long time, but now it has reached a certain apex – that the only important thing is ‘me’, and ‘what I have’... and we don’t give a damn about anyone else, or – and this is where the real trouble begins – about those who will come after us.”

This is not, however, a recent phenomenon. On the environmental front, Malta has traditionally tended to limit its outlook decidedly to the present scenario: we have a tendency to plan only for today’s needs, without any serious long-term vision for the future. Some would say we have the same approach to politics, too... hasn’t it always been this way?

“One thing that is different today is that there is also a sense of optimism in the country, that I consider to be fake. Take the Labour Party’s slogan, for instance: ‘The Best Time’ [L-Aqwa Zmien’].  The impression this gives is that, basically, we can no longer improve. We have reached ‘the best time’: there is no further progress to be made. In a sense, we are seeing Fukuyama’s ‘the End of History’ happening right now... even in our political discourse. There are no new ideas; there is no room for new ideas. We were in a race for progress, but someone told us: ‘Listen, the race is over. We won. We came first... and now there’s no point in running anymore.’

“It’s like we all died, and are now in heaven for all eternity, with nothing more to aspire to. I think that’s a dangerous mentality. That kind of talk only deadens our sensitivity towards certain things that... no, actually, they’re not ‘good’ at all.  The way we’re building everywhere, for instance, isn’t ‘good’. But we’re not even using words like ‘good’ any more. It’s ‘the best’ now: we are speaking in superlatives. I think this sort of language is dangerous, even because there is a new tendency to label all critical voices as ‘negative’. And this attitude walks hand in hand with the same fake optimism. We are expected to always have a smile on our faces... to believe that everything is not only ‘good’, but ‘can’t be better’... and if you find something to criticise, then you’re being ‘negative’. I’m not saying this only about one side or another... it is the discourse that is dangerous in itself, regardless who resorts to it. Excessive optimism always worries me...”

Coming back to his concern with the arts: in other countries, it generally falls to writers and artists to pick up the baton of ‘opposing the establishment’ when all else has failed. Is this true of Malta, too? As both an author and an academic, does Mifsud see the local arts scene playing its part in addressing social and political realities?

“I think the different artistic genres are responding in different ways. The most active genre, when it comes to ‘opposition’ in this sense, is music.  Obviously, within the musical genre, there are different styles. But if you listen to what is being written today by certain bands within... shall we call it the alternative scene? These are not bands you’ll hear on prime-time radio... they are coming out with very powerful messages. Naturally, they’re not the musical establishment; they’re not the most accepted or promoted bands. They’re not Eurovision material, to be clear. But they exist.

“In the sphere of literature, I think there is also an interesting movement happening at the moment... mostly involving young writers. But I think the biggest disappointment has been theatre. Theatre, I think, has entered a certain comfort zone – it has become more lavish, let us say – but it is no longer providing any real sense of criticism.  Now: this is not to say it hasn’t become more liberal... in recent times we have seen productions that were rather ‘osé’. But even that has become fashionable these days. Don’t forget we have now removed censorship laws: to be ‘osé’, in this day and age, is not as daring as it was 40 or 50 years ago. We are treading on terrain that is now ‘safe’. I’m not saying this to criticise those productions: but the sense of theatre as ‘opposition’, as ‘criticism’, I feel that is missing from the theatre scene today.”

And yet, if there was one literary form that has traditionally always been at the forefront of social commentary, it was the theatre. Playwrights such as Francis Ebejer and Oreste Calleja touched on deeply relevant social issues in their time... is nothing of that sort being written today?

“I’m not seeing it. We’re getting better quality productions... productions which can offer a certain mental challenge to their audience. But they’re not taking the challenge to the establishment. And it’s not just theatre. This is something else that I used to dream about a lot around 10 years ago or so; I dreamt of having a more critical citizenry in general. We are still far from that today. Some people, however, may be getting the opposite impression.

“What’s happening today is that many of us are very active on social media. We may put up a critical comment that gets, let us say, 100 ‘likes’... and we begin to think that makes us critics of the establishment. But even on the level of social media, at the end of the day we all form our own cliques. Those 100 ‘likes’ are not necessarily representative: there will be thousands of others who will not have seen your comment, or who disagree with it. I think that this culture of ‘optimism’ I mentioned earlier is affecting even those of us who ‘oppose’ – and I don’t mean ‘oppose’ as in ‘disagree with everyone’... but those of us who tend to polemicize issues. I think we’re being influenced by this optimism, too: in a very strange way, perhaps, but we’re affected all the same.”

What about University? Often we hear criticism to the effect that students worry more about parking problems than anything else – in fact, it has become a bit of a trope in its own right. But how true is that from Mifsud’s experience as a lecturer? Does he encounter similar concerns among his students, for instance?

“My impression is that those who are interested are few and far between. University – as in, the full student body that makes it up – is also in its comfort zone: and has been for some time now. It is comfortable. And when you’re comfortable, it creates an environment where you don’t feel the need to be critical. This worries me. When you see that, at University – and now, this has spread to all other post-secondary institutions as well – student politics only ever takes place between Pulse and SDM... and we all know who those two are... it starts from there, really.

“Already, we have this idea that ‘politics’ means that I am on one side; I meet with you from the other side; we debate... and most likely, our debate will also be very petty. How do we not have a third or fourth political force present, even at this level? In this respect, I think we have actually regressed. The presence of political parties in post-secondary education institutions is now overwhelming. I was at University this week, and there was a meeting for new students starting next October. I was... how can I put it? Shocked? Stunned? Scandalised? I don’t know.  But already, the two sets of political activists – remember, that these students haven’t even started their course yet: some of them came with their parents, because they didn’t even know where University was. They’re young – but already, they’re split into political activist groups, trying to snap up as many students as they can. This is not how politics is done. Or at least, it’s not my idea of politics. Just look how powerful the two parties have become: ironically, they are even stronger than they were before.”

This raises an additional future concern. It seems that, inevitably, public debate tends to be polarised between the same two opposing political camps. But while the two parties argue over everything, they do not necessarily represent substantially different ways of doing politics. They have converged on all but the most peripheral of issues. Can a country really advance at all, when the only available choice is between two largely identical mindsets?

“On a political level: no, I don’t think it can. Because a priori, what we are saying is that politics can only take place between two opposing forces. In this day and age, you will find people who rebel against their parents, or their family traditions... but what do they do? They vote for the other side. It doesn’t occur to them to take any action outside the sphere of party politics: to oppose from the outside. There is this accepted political sphere, and we all have to work within it. So whether you rebel against the political beliefs of your parents or grandparents, or whether you don’t – you still remain trapped in the same circuit.”

In that scenario, he goes on, the only important thing becomes one side winning, and the other losing. This culture of ‘winning’ at all costs is taking a heavy toll on the parties’ credibility.

“I’m not a Nationalist insider – I have no idea what goes on in the corridors of that party. But I was struck by those candidates who, because they were not elected, went into a sulk and disappeared altogether. These were prominent people in the PN campaign before and during the election. They expected to get elected... they didn’t... and that was it. It’s so childish: ‘if I don’t win, I’ll no longer play’. Then you hear a lot of talk – this is why I no longer believe most of what I hear – about entering politics ‘to serve’; ‘for the good of the country’, and so on. It’s not true at all. If these people really entered politics ‘to serve’, their principal aim would not be the egoistical aim of getting into parliament. But the way candidates go about campaigning... giving out hampers, etc... suggests that their sole aim is that THEY get into parliament. Nothing else matters.”

That seems to be true also for the issues we discuss. Before the election, for instance, the country was engrossed by allegations of corruption, money laundering tax evasion, etc. Yet no sooner did the labour Party win the election, than...  

“It’s all dead. And there are two other things to add to that; the people who pushed those allegations the most have also gone quiet...”

Because they lost?

“Precisely. But apart from that, I think the PN is in such a serious situation... I don’t know what polls they were looking at, but they gave their own supporters a sense of optimism before the election. We all remember Simon Busuttil saying how he had managed to narrow the gap in three years, let alone how much he would manage in the last few months.

“And then, all of a sudden, there’s a defeat: and not just any defeat, but one that was worse than in the previous election. I think, at this moment, the PN doesn’t have the strength to carry on pursuing these scandals, or suspicions of scandals. And that is where the entire country suffers: because if our idea of ‘opposition’ is restricted only to the party in opposition... well, at the moment there isn’t any opposition at all. Until a few weeks ago, there were serious suspicions about certain individuals. But because the opposition party has grown tired, or because it is now more concerned with what it’s going to do about its own situation... there is nothing and no one to continue keeping the government on its toes. Those problems are still there, and need to be addressed. We can’t just say ‘everything’s finished’, as if nothing happened... just because one side won, and the other lost.”