Talking it over

  • 2004-03-04
  • By Tim Ochser
RIGA - Uldis Tirons is one of Latvia's most renowned philosophers. As co-editor of Rigas Laiks magazine (along with Inese Zandere), Tirons has created something of an (anti) institution in Latvia. He means a lot of different things to a lot of different people and is an often controversial figure in his outspokenness. He met up with TBT's Tim Ochser to talk about philosophy, mountaineering and something called Uldis Tirons.

The first thing you notice about Uldis Tirons is his presence. Tall, shaven-headed, he has a face that leaves a lasting impression on you. It's a slightly sad face, ingrained with years of experience, but one whose strong features leave no doubt as to his resilience and intelligence.
When I meet him at the newly opened Theater Bar, a trendy little place across the way from Rigas Jaunais Teatras (Riga New Theater), the only free table is one tucked away into a window alcove. He knows the waitress, an attractive young girl, and chats with her in Latvian as she takes our order. A young man sits waiting around for her and we speculate as to whether or not they're in love. I say "yes," Tirons says "maybe."
I begin by asking him about the time he studied philosophy at Latvia University, but he starts talking about running instead.
"I used to run the 800 and 1,500 meters when I was a philosophy student. I was very good at it. I ran for Latvia and a couple of times for the Soviet Union," he says.
Out of interest I ask him what his fastest time in the 800 meters was.
"If I remember correctly it was around 1.49. But the best thing about when I did athletics is that it was a period of lost time, in the Proustian sense of the word. When I studied philosophy it was the same thing for me as doing sport. I was too stupid then to really understand what I was doing. I would say that my real love for philosophy began about 10 or 15 years ago."
I ask Tirons if he would actually call himself a philosopher. After all, it's hardly a term that comes with a job description.
"That really depends on who's asking. If I ask myself that question, then no, I can't be sure that I'm a philosopher."
Well then, what is a philosopher? Isn't that really the question?
"It's commonly said that a philosopher is a "lover of wisdom" after the etymology of the word. But I don't think that's enough. I'd say a philosopher is someone who is aware of philosophy. To say that someone loves wisdom doesn't actually mean anything. But there is such a thing as love of philosophy. Indeed, what makes a philosopher is a love of philosophy. But one has to distinguish between this and those people who are in love with the love of philosophy," he explains.
I ask Tirons if my smoking bothers him, but he waves my concern away. I imagine he has passed many a night lost in a cloud of other people's smoke. Instead, he tells me about how he was a mountaineer for five years and grimaces at the memory. He wasn't, he says, looking in "the right places" for what he wanted, that all elusive "something else."
Tirons is frequently referred to as an "expert" on Tibet, but he dismisses the idea with a tired-looking smile.
"It suits people to think that I'm an expert on Tibet but I'm not. It just happens that I was there and other people weren't."
He is certainly well traveled. He went to Mongolia in 1993 following what he calls an "unhappy love" but, in an eloquent turn of phrase, he says that his early experiences of travel helped him to "misunderstand" himself. It seems that everywhere Tirons went, he came up against both metaphorical and metaphysical mountains.
I ask Tirons why he so often talks about death in his writing, as one of my colleagues at TBT especially asked me to put this question to him. By this time, he's on his second coffee and is oozing with energy.
"There are very few things truly worth talking about. There's love, death and what I can only call a kind of energy. In Plato's Phaedo somebody asks what it is that philosophers do. Socrates replies that all they do is about death and dying."
At this point my lunch arrives, so I'm forced to put my pad and pen down. I have no idea what I'm eating, because I told the attractive young waitress to choose a dish on my behalf. Whatever it is, it's good.
From our alcove table, we can look up from an intimate angle at the passers by on Lacplesa Street and we both agree that it would be a good place to sit in the summer time.
After I'm done eating, I ask Tirons about Latvia. What does he feel about it? What does it mean to him?
"It's the place where I live," he replies after a moment's thought. "I can't say what Latvia is in general. It's a geographical entity. If we're talking about culture, then culture is something that's always dead. For me, our culture is our language. Language is the only thing that is truly alive, that is now, that is actual."
I tell him that I was impressed when the Latvian writer Nora Ikstena referred to her language as her home, but Tirons informs me that she "borrowed" the phrase from Heidegger, who said that language is the home of being.
I ask him what he thinks in general about the intelligentsia in Latvia, but he recoils with obvious distaste from the word.
"I hate that word. There's an annual meeting of the "intelligentsia" in Latvia, and I can only say that it's a grand-get together of fools. In general, the intellectual culture in Latvia is poor. Of course, I don't know every so-called intellectual, but I know only two men who I consider to be exceptionally intelligent - Arnis Ritups (who writes, among many other things, for Rigas Laiks) and Edgars Narkevics."
What about postmodernism? One of the most pivotal words of contemporary Western culture is significant by its absence in Latvia. Does it even exist here?
"No, there's no culture of post-modernism here because there's no such thing as postmodernism. At best, there is a modern philosophy. Unfortunately a lot of our younger writers buy into the myth of the postmodern."
I ask Tirons what he makes of Latvian politics, but he seems wholly disinterested in the question. He answers while looking out of the alcove window.
"I think politics ended in ancient Greece. It's not even worth thinking about," he says. Okay, what about EU accession - how does he think that will affect Latvia? "I think the EU will create better roads for Latvia," he says dryly. "But that's also not worth thinking about."
My questions and his answers become increasingly barbed as we negotiate his disinterest in these things. But I nonetheless need to put such questions to him, for his answers are still revealing in themselves. I ask him if he's patriotic and he throws Samuel Johnson back at me. "I was at the stupid barricades, but that doesn't make me patriotic. I was just there."
By this point Tirons starts to look a little tired. His eyes restlessly wander around as he talks. So I decide to finish up. Besides, I feel guilty. He's smoked several of my cigarettes during all the time we've been talking.
I ask him to say what Rigas Laiks magazine means to him. "Rigas Laiks is a magazine for being comfortable in Latvia. It helps me, my friends and some good people to live here. It is truly a magazine for living, but not in the cretinous sense of the term "lifestyle." For me, it's a place where you can be alive."
I finish up the chocolate desert that I have, while remarking that it seems to have come straight from a Rimi supermarket freezer. Finally, I ask Tirons if he thinks that he has lived. I can see from his face that he likes the question. "Sometimes," he says, his eyes smiling.
As we shuffle about getting ready to take our leave of each other, I tell him that I have to go off and make a sort of textual sculpture out of all the fragments he has given me. "That's okay," he laughs. "I'll leave it up to you to make a Tirons out of me."