Friday, January 16, 2015

Where have our dreams gone? The death of Western literature



The novel by Vladimir Dudintsev "Not by bread alone" was published in 1956 (*). It was a big hit in the Soviet Union with its criticism of the stagnating and inefficient Soviet ways. Together with other Russian authors, such as Vasily Grossman and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Dudintsev was part of a wave of novelists who tried to use literature to change the ways of society. That kind of approach seems to have withered out, both in the countries of the old Soviet Union and in the West.



At some moment, between the second and the third century AD, the Latin literature died out in the Roman Empire. Not that people stopped writing; on the contrary, the late Western Roman Empire saw a minor revival of Latin Literature; it was just that they didn't seem to have anything interesting to say any more.

If we consider the high times of the Empire, around the first century BC, it is likely that most of us would be able to come up with at least some names of literates of that time: poets such as Virgil and Horace, philosophers like Seneca, historians like Tacitus. But move to the late centuries of the Western Empire and chances are that you won't be able to come up with any name, unless you read Gibbon and you remember that he cites the 4th century poet Ausonius to evidence the bad taste of those times. It seems that the Roman Empire had lost its soul much before having disappeared as a political organization.

Often, I have the impression that we are following the same path to collapse that the Roman Empire followed, but faster. Ask yourself this question: can you cite a recent (intended as less than - say - 10-20 years old) piece of literature that you think posterity will remember? (and not as an example of bad taste). Personally, I can't. And I think that it could be said that literature in the Western world declined in the 1970s or so and that today is not a vital form of art any longer.

Of course, perceptions in these matters may be very different, but I can cite plenty of great novels published during the first half of the 20th century; novels that changed the way people looked at the world. Think of the great season of the American writers in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s; think of Hemingway, of Fitzgerald, of Gertrude Stein and many others. And of how American literature continued to produce masterpieces, from John Steinbeck to Jack Kerouac and others. Now, can you cite a later equivalent American writer? Think of a great writer such as John Gardner, who wrote in the 1970s and is today mostly forgotten. Something similar seems to have taken place on the other side of the Iron Curtain; where a number of gifted Soviet writers (Dudintsev, Grossman, Solzhenitsyn, and others) produced a literary corpus in the 1950s and 1960s that strongly challenged the Soviet orthodoxy and played a role in the fall of the Soviet Union. But there doesn't seem to exist anything comparable any more in Eastern European countries that could compare with those novels.

It is not just a question of written literature; visual arts seem to have gone through the same withering process: think of Picasso's Guernica (1937) as an example. Can you think of anything painted during the past few decades with an even remotely comparable impact? About movies, which ones were really original or changed our perception of the world? Maybe with movies we are doing better than with written literature; at least some movies didn't go unnoticed, even though their literary merits are questionable. Think of  "The night of the living dead", by George Romero, which goes back to1968 and has generated a tsunami of imitations. Think of "Star Wars" (1977), which shaped an entire strategic plan of the US military. But during the past decade or so, the film industry doesn't seem to have been able to do better than hurling legions of zombies and assorted monsters at the spectators.

Not that we don't have bestsellers any more, just as we have blockbuster movies. But can we produce anything original and relevant? It seems that we have gone the way the Roman Empire went: we cannot produce a Virgil any more, at best an equivalent of Ausonius.

And there is a reason for that. Literature, the great kind, is all about changing the reader's view of the world. A great novel, a great poem, are not just about an interesting plot or beautiful images. Good literature brings forth a dream: the dream of a different world. And that dream changes the reader, makes her different. But, in order to perform this deed, the reader must be able to dream of a change. He must live in a society where it is possible, theoretically at least, to put dreams into practice. This is not always the case.

In the Roman Empire of the 4th and 5th century AD, the dream was gone. The Romans had retreated behind their fortifications and had sacrificed everything - including their freedom - in the name of their security. Poetry had become merely praising the rulers of the day, philosophy the compilation of previous works, and history a mere chronicle. Something like that is happening to us: where have our dreams gone?

But it is also  true that man doesn't live by bread alone. We need dreams as much as we need food. And dreams are something that Art can bring to us, in the form of literature or other forms; it doesn't matter. It is the power of dreams that can never disappear. If the Roman Literature had disappeared as an original source of dreams, it could still work as a vehicle for dreams coming from outside the empire. From the Eastern Border of the Empire, the cults of Mitrha and of Christ would make deep inroads into the Roman minds. In the early 5th century, in a southern provincial town besieged by barbarians, Augustine, the bishop of Hippo, completed his "The City of God", a book that we still read today and that changed forever the concept of narrative, perhaps the first novel - in the modern sense - ever written. A few centuries later, when the Empire was nothing more than a ghostly memory, an unknown poet composed the Beowulf and, later still, the Nibelungenlied appeared. During this period, tales about a warlord of Britannia started to appear and would later coalesce into the Arthurian cycle, perhaps the core of our modern vision of epic literature.

So, the dream is not dead. Somewhere, at the edges of the empire, or perhaps outside of it, someone is dreaming a beautiful dream (**). Maybe she will write it down in a remote language, or maybe she will use the Imperial Language. Maybe he will use a different medium than the written word; we cannot say. What we can say is that, one day, this new dream will change the world.



(*) A brief comment on Dutintsev's novel, which I bought and read in an English translation as a little exercise in cultural archeology. Read more than half a century after its release, it is difficult to see it as still "sensational" as it was described at that time in the Western press, which had clearly tried to cash an easy propaganda victory against the Soviet Union. As a novel, it is slow and overdrawn, although that may be a result of the Internet-caused attention deficit which affects most of us. In any case, the novel has defects. One is the protagonist, Dmitri Lopatkin, so heavily characterized as a perfect altruist to make him totally unbelievable as a real world person. But the book is still charming in its description of a Moscow, which is no more, but which remains perfectly recognizable, even though so much changed today. To see the characters of the book in action, you can watch the movie made in 2005. I already commented a short story by Dudintsev in this post.

 (**) From a group of remote islands known as Japan, a man has been producing one masterpiece movie after another; Hayao Miyazaki. To understand the decline of the Western forms of narrative, you have just to compare two animation movies which came out together in 2014: the nearly ignored  "The wind rises" by Miyazaki and the blockbuster "Frozen" by Walt Disney Studios. It is like comparing Augustine and Ausonius and the ongoing collapse of the Western Empire is all there. 




16 comments:

  1. Mr. Bardi, you should watch the recent documentary about Miyazaki which is still in theaters in America -- he pretty much declares himself a peak oilist in that film, although not in those exact words.

    When people scour the ruins, a process that will take many centuries, I am guessing that they will probably get more excitement from finding a copy of Three Kingdoms, Dostoyevsky, Hugo, or Dickens than they will from David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, Dave Eggers, or any of the cheap mystery novels that fill many homes. I am building my library accordingly.

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    1. The scariest thing is that "fill many homes" is wholly incorrect. I was recently in a house that had exactly two books in it: two coffee-table comic book illustration collections.... And I've been in many more 'homes' -- can such a house be called a home? -- that have no books at all. In the few 'literate' houses, at least in the area in which I live, a shelf of "cheap mystery novels" would be reassuring -- at least even the most one-syllable-worded of them usually have a white hat and a black hat, and the good guy wins. When I do see books it's usually of the kinky sex and/or (usually 'and') appalling, vicious, senseless violence genres. If we are what we read, what does this say about current writers and readers?

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  2. This is true indeed. My home library, not at all intentionally, breaks off so dramatically after 1965 that the decline in quality of writing could almost be described as a Seneca's cliff itself. It makes me wonder if we're some little inescapably ordained repetition in a greater infinite fractal. How does one escape the repetition!?

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  3. Ugo, thanks for this interesting posting. However I do not really agree that during the last few years (or decades) no more excellent pieces of literature, movies, music etc. have been produced. I could name quite a few - but probably you wouldn't know them. The real "problem" is that the number of books, movies etc. has been increasing considerably - and that now peoples' interests and preferences are much more diversified than before. For example a few decades ago there were only a few TV channels and everybody watched them - now there is the internet with a myriad of options. Before everyone of the same generation knew - and probably liked - musicians like Elvis Presley, the Beatles etc. - now there is a myriad of music groups and even styles you and I probably have never heard of. It is the dispersion from homogenity which has the effect that there are no "famous" persons any more - except for those who have spent a lot of money for optimizing their "click rate".

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    1. This is a possible interpretation of the phenomenon, sure. Something similar happened also for the Roman Empire in the 3rd and 4th century AD. I think it can still called decline: quantity increases, but quality doesn't increase in proportion

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  4. The difference between past times and present times is that there will probably be no revival this time ... ever.
    The Methane Monster Roars

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  5. Well, I can think of a few writers into the 80s, Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe in particular. Then there is Thomas Pynchon, who wrote Gravity's Rainbow, V, Mason & Dixon and just published Bleeding Edge in 2013. I haven't read that one yet, but Gravity's Rainbow and V are top on my list of Great Books.

    Also I have to mention Neal Stephenson, author of Cryptonomicon & The Baroque Cycle (3 LONG novels), also top favorites of mine.

    So I don't think the narrative is quite dead yet.

    RE

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    1. Well, the 1980s were 30 years ago! As for the writers you mention, I must say that in this remote province of the Empire, they are not well known!

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    2. I don't think we are talking about "the narrative being dead". Lots of great things are created nowadays. But there is a difference between "very good" and something truly unique that is remembered and read centuries later.

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  6. I never thought of literature as providing "dreams", much more being able to describe the "reality" of the time (or any time, the "meditations" of Marcus Aurelius for instance feel as modern to me as anything else), spiritual or otherwise.
    And maybe at a time of effective downslope, you would need to be really super human to be able to bring that, in front of a huge "why bother ?" wall.

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  7. I favour the view that it is not just a matter of recently being swamped by supermarket type retailing of 'culture' (like 150 different choices of toothpaste). I went over my own Seneca cliff of literature sometime around 1970 (only a very few years later than one Anon above).I probably gave up movies about the same time - but now might try Miyazaki if I still have the 'bottle' these days. It was a curious experience less than a decade ago to read 'World Critics' choices of best 100 movies they had seen. I had seen a good fraction of their choice.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/1577421.stm Pablo Picasso is about as insightful enough an authority we need: quote: When Pablo Picasso visited the newly-discovered Lascaux caves, [paintings dated to 30,000 years BP) in the Dordogne, in 1940, he emerged from them saying of modern art, "We have discovered nothing".

    best
    Phil

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  8. Ugo,

    The USA has many excellent writers still producing in recent years. As well as Pynchon, mentioned above, there was the recently decease David Foster Wallace and Cormac McCarthy (who has even written a collapse novel). I wouldn't worry too much about the death of good writing just yet, the times we're living through should have plenty of material for good writers.

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    1. Of course this is a perfectly legitimate opinion, but give a look to my next post on this subject. Then, note also that during the dramatic events of the fall of the Roman Empire, 3rd-5th century AD, Roman writers produced nearly zero literature worth remembering! The exception was, of course, Augustine who, however, was living in the periphery of the Empire and he himself was probably a Berber in origin.

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  9. Wow, you just wrote down the exact same conversation I had the other day with my father. I totally agree with you.

    The decline in the "empire"'s cinema, represented by the fall of Hollywood was specially striking. Yes, great movies are created nowadays, mostly by independent movie makers. But nothing in the whole compares to the Hollywood of old, which admittedly was bolstered by great writers who were fleeing europe (specially Jews). What great scripts.

    Though now that I think of it the descent in other forms of art like painting happened even earlier. I mean, just look at what nowadays passes for public works of "art", or beautiful architecture, mostly painful to the eye beyond trends and styles...

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  10. There is plenty or relevant, timely, and socially thoughtful literature being produced though it is harder to get published without a big name. Barbara Kingsolver and Alice Walker come to mind. Also, on the front lines of criticism and advocacy, there is the Blue Collar Review . Cinema and popular entertainment are more problematic, functioning as cultural propaganda for the empire.

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  11. The novel Freedom by J.Franzen, perhaps we are becoming more superficial living in tech societies but the spark of divinity remains.

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)