Léa Ypi: “Hope is a moral duty” | Autobiography and memory
Lea Ypi grew up in the last Stalinist outpost in Europe: Albania. She had no idea that Xhafer Ypi, the former prime minister of Albania, a man she had to lip service to, was her great-grandfather, or that her parents were anything but enthusiastic about it. regard to the communist regime. In his award-winning memoir, Free, she recalls that in 1991, at the end of communism in Albania, her parents revealed the truth and told her that the country had been an “open air prison for almost half a century”. She continues to write about her harrowing experience of civil war in 1997. Ypi is Professor of Political Theory at the London School of Economics.
You explain that “biography” was a heavy concept in communist Albania. Was it ironic in your mind when you launched into your memoir?
I had no intention of writing a memoir – I was going to write a philosophical book but the Covid-19 arrived. I was in Berlin safe from my children who were always chasing me around the house. They thought if we were all at home it couldn’t be that some people were working, everyone had to play and it was always Sunday. So I was hiding in that closet, and the book became more and more personal as it was about this very experience of physical restriction surrounded by great uncertainty about what freedom meant in a liberal society. I had been confined in Albania, in 1997, and although completely different and terrifying because there was a war outside, there was a sense of deja vu.
Your childhood was a time of ignorance. Did having the wool pulled over your eyes affect your later ability to trust?
It is the passage from non-knowledge to knowledge that challenges: is the new truth just another story? The feeling of skepticism about the truth being revealed after a big lie never really left me. This is what attracted me to philosophy. I work with Kant Criticism pure reason and one thing that shapes his philosophy is this effort to detach reason from dogmatism and skepticism. For me, being critical means not accepting dogma. But the opposite danger is skepticism – once you reject the truths you are given, you can be left with very little and an inability to trust that can be crippling. I try to stay away and find ways to ground myself in abstract morality.
What was Albania like as a country apart from its politics, and do you miss it?
I miss it a lot – its scorching, hot summers and dry, windy winters. Growing up on the coast in all seasons creates a different relationship with the sea. It has a whimsical character. Our high school was close to the sea and we sometimes went there during our breaks… Even when I was little I knew that there was a world far from Albania on the other side of the sea, so that had also this suggestive aspect.
Where do you live now?
When people ask, “Where is your house?” I always answer: Heathrow, Terminal 5 [laughs]. I don’t know where I belong…it’s not Albania anymore because I have an immigration relationship with it. I travel a lot and I have connections with many countries. But let’s say my official citizenship and residence is in London.
Your grandmother said, “Hope is something you have to fight for. But there comes a time when this turns into an illusion. What did you hope for when you were a child? What do you expect now? And is hope for our planet an illusion?
I hoped to be a good citizen. I grew up with a sense of political responsibility. I felt that I was a pioneer and identified with the state and the party. What I hope for now is actually not too different: I want to be a good, responsible member of society and promote freedom. I have a philosophical answer to the last part of the question. Hope is a moral duty – we must act as if there is a chance that things will turn out in a way favorable to what we want to achieve. If we were nihilists, we could not maintain this sense of duty.
Freedom is your constant concern. How do you define it?
Freedom is also a consciousness of duty, the thought that you can do your duty however difficult it may be. The inner moral dimension gives me the basis from which to criticize society. We live in a world of asymmetrical power relations at all levels in which there is exercise of power by the powerful and those who are weakest and most vulnerable are the passive recipients of that power. This dynamic of power relations is fundamentally hostile to freedom.
You grew up in a Muslim family bound to denounce the creed. Do you have a religious belief now?
Albania was constitutionally atheistic – God was a bunch of lies. As every truth I believed in turned out to be a lie, I wondered if the lie about God could have been true. In the 90s, I used to go shopping at the Religion Free Market. I was Catholic for a few months, then I started going to the mosque and practiced Ramadan. I was going to explore Buddhism but ended up studying philosophy because I didn’t know the answers. I am agnostic now.
Your mother comes across beautifully as a knife-wielding, powerhouse talker…are you at all like her?
I have always been inspired by my mother’s fearlessness. I try to imitate him, even if I’m not sure I can. As a child, when we walked together in Durrës, my hometown, it was very dark at night, there were many drunks and I was very scared but I saw in her a total fearlessness. I was like, “This person is crazy, he’s drunk, he’s going to attack us.” And she said, “No, we’re going to attack him!”
You write tactfully about your mother’s escape abroad with your brother during the civil war, but it seems that she split the family in two. That must have been very upsetting?
It was. It was only later that I understood that she was in a situation where she felt she was saving a child but my grandmother always had this return: “You were leaving another child.” I kind of made peace with it but it was hard at the time.
Have you ever heard of your childhood friend, Elona, whose harrowing story you tell, who fled the country at 13 and became a prostitute?
She died a week after my book came out. Someone who recognized her wrote to me. I cried for days when I heard this news.
How did you become a professor at the LSE?
I studied philosophy in Rome – it was a straightforward academic career from there. I did a PhD in Florence, went to Oxford for a post-doc and got my job at LSE.
What kind of reader were you as a child?
I loved Greek mythology. I was completely obsessed with the gods and the fact that they were so powerful and powerless at the same time. In Albania, the choice of books was very limited. I read all the books in the bookstore and the children’s library, then I went to the adult library, where I started reading the Iliad and the Odyssey. And Russian fairy tales.
What book would you give to a young person?
Greek myths! My children are 11, 6 and 4 years old. I actually gave them to my kids when I was five…
What do you plan to read next?
Memoirs of Ismail Kemal Bey, a memoir by Albanian political leader Ismail Qemali, who was the founding father of Albanian nationalism because my next book is about the fall of the Ottoman Empire. And that of Vasily Grossman Stalingrad and a history book or two. And I plan to read The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth.
Is light reading right for you? Who do you turn to for comfortable reading?
I do not think so [laughs]. 19th century novels. My favorite book is Dostoevsky’s demons – an astonishing exploration of the history of ideas and the human soul.