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Posts tagged ‘Writing and the Future’

Losing my Edge

This is Not the End of the Book – Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière

“The book is like the spoon: once invented, it cannot be bettered.”

Apparently some people have started to toy with the idea that current advances in technology – computers, the internet etc – pose a genuine threat to the future of the book as a means of conveying information.  This existential crisis of the humble book is in fact just one focus of Mr Eco and Mr Carrière’s transcribed conversation about the brave new world lying in wait for literature.  Whilst discussing the possibility of a dystopian future without hard-copy writing, they also take the opportunity to look back at the history of the book, in particular the history of its persecution at the hands of various bigots who have seen in its ability to impart knowledge a serious threat to their own power and legitimacy.  This leads nicely into an exchange about the internet’s ability to keep censorship at bay, a chapter entitled ‘The Internet, or the impossibility of damnatio memoriae’, in which Carrière states bluntly that “for dictators, the future is bleak.  If they are to succeed, they will have to operate in total darkness.”  Eco agrees and points out that the continued publication and distribution Rushdie’s Satanic Verses owes itself at least in part to the irrepressible nature of the modern global communication network.

Clearly technology is not all bad then; Danny Boyle’s tribute to Tim Berners-Lee during the opening ceremony of the Olympics was a touching reminder of the ability of the internet to connect people across cultures and nationalities – something that undeniably fits with London’s sense of plurality and openness, qualities that seem to be in short supply in other places at the moment.

However, there is another side to the ubiquitous electronic platform that is more ambiguous – its use as a sort of proxy for memory.  In other words, as a replacement for any real connection with information: the internet is a great safety blanket for anyone doing research or called on to produce dates and statistics.  Eco and Carrière broach this subject in the chapter ‘Do we need to know the name of very soldier at the battle of Waterloo?’,  a chapter that looks at the problem of how to filter the infinity of information supplied by the world wide web.  Since we know we don’t have to remember much anymore, we don’t, leaving the internet to accumulate a universe of information for us instead. Clearly, as the conversationalists of the book point out, we don’t have to know the name of every soldier at the battle of Waterloo, but it is probably out there on the internet somewhere, and if it’s not it soon will be.  One problem with this is that it demands that we become increasingly selective in the way we deal with online sources – the supply of information is no longer the preserve of a select few publishers, so we have access to anything anyone wants to provide.  Even Wikipedia, the decider of innumerable mindless debates, is open-ended in the sense that the only people to distinguish between what is correct information and what is not are the users of the website themselves (ourselves).  If someone were to put up a fake list of all the soldiers at Waterloo, would anyone bother to challenge it?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this meditation on the value of online information led us, as editors of, to a bout of intense self-reflection.  How can readers trust the “information” provided on this website any more than they can any other?  The answer, of course, is that you can’t, but we would like to think that we might be able earn your trust.  And if virtual promises can mean anything, we promise that we have actually read all the books that are reviewed on the site.

The Editors


4. Writing and the Future

So far this series we have looked at various ways in which the novel can anticipate future trends and developments, both on a personal level and in the context of the broader changes that define society.  Fiction can, of course, look forward to the future, but this is not something that can ever be undertaken in isolation.  Even science fiction, the genre that most specifically looks at what will befall humanity in times to come, is anchored in the past and present.  In fact, science fiction is all the more interesting because, in looking forward to the future, it reveals aspects of our current world outlook: our fears, hopes and dreams.  The writer, after all, is writing in the present and does not, as previously discussed, possess any supernatural powers beyond a rational brain and an inbuilt but refined sense of intuition.  As such, any successful predictions of things to come can occur only by percipience, that is, by a writer’s vision of the world in its totality.  Ultimately, our conception of the future can be nothing more than a mental projection, conjured by the imagination and based on the possibilities of the present.

Take, for instance, H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel The War in the Air, written in 1907.  It is a book that eerily anticipates the use of aircraft in modern warfare, and yet it also reveals more generally a fear of industrial war on a global scale, a fear that would be justified by the outbreak of the First World War.  It shows that in the decade leading up to 1914, the idea of international war was a very real concern, at least for those with vivid imaginations, or for readers and writers of science fiction.  However, H.G. Wells clearly goes beyond the immediate future, and in fact the plot of The War in the Air bears more resemblance to the Second World War in its description of a transcontinental conflict that ends in a stalemate between superpowers.  Indeed, at the heart of the novel lies the seed of the great 20th century fear – the extermination of mankind resulting from international conflict and the exponential development of the technology to do it with.  It is a fear that persists in the 21st century.

Milan Kundera points out in The Art of the Novel that the most prophetic writer of the last century was probably Franz Kafka, a novelist who envisioned the terror of the totalitarian state before the Soviet gulag and the Nazi concentration camp.  And yet Kundera also argues that Kafka’s greatness lay not in his powers of divination, but in his ability to see things about the world that were simply not apparent to others:

“Kafka made no prophecies.  All he did was see what was “behind.”  He did not know that his seeing was also a fore-seeing.  He did not intend to unmask a social system.  He shed light on the mechanisms he knew from private and microsocial human practice, not suspecting that later developments would put those mechanisms into action on the great stage of history.”

So what are the concepts currently appearing in fiction that will go on to define the 21st century? Perhaps it’s best to remind ourselves of another Kundera quote:

“Chasing after the future is the worst conformism of all, a craven flattery of the mighty.  For the future is always mightier than the present.  It will pass judgment on all of us, of course.  And without any competence.”

The Editors

3. Writing and the Future

Some of our most inconsequential writing is about the future.  As a species we have become accustomed to shaping our futures out of fragments of writing, drafting ourselves a patchwork future of to do lists, diary entries, meeting appointments, love letters, agreements, loan documents, websites, instruction manuals, commandments.  The texts we surround ourselves with are glimmers of the myriad futures we choose for ourselves or that we will for ourselves; of the futures we reject for ourselves as well.  Some are fulfilled, some fall away.

Perhaps, there is one eye of vanity on our desire to document the world around us. As though the world we live in is so very different to that of our grandchildren, or our grandparents. The trees still have leaves. The desire to record, to journalise, to document is surely didactic; ‘I have discovered this and I want you to know’, and failing that, ‘I want future-me to know’. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, through the organ of Sherlock Holmes, describes the brain as follows:

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it.”

Instead, and too often, we delegate our memory to others: post-it notes and google.  We give ourselves up too easily to pencil and paper, too often without thought, without memory.  We have lost touch with a long and lovely oral tradition that stems purely from the memory.  As powerful a tool as writing is for development, we are over reliant on it to our detriment if we cease any longer to build a future we can capture in our minds.

 The Editors

2. Writing and the Future

Good writing does not belong to a time. I remember explaining my relationship with my father as a teenager through the books I was studying and reading.  At GCSE we studied The Death of a Salesman, and King Lear, both were replete with themes that seemed particularly close to my experience, that seemed to speak to my understanding of the world, of the family, of respect and its place in our relationships. Those stories could not have been written about people and places more distant from my own upbringing in late twentieth century, home counties England. Yet I developed a reading of those books that fitted my own life experiences, that spoke to my own views of the world. Had you sat Arthur Miller and my sixteen year old self down and asked us to talk about The Death of a Salesman you would have heard us discussing two different books. I had a developed my own hermeneutic of that book: or more precisely I had read the play and taken from it what I wanted and left a great deal of the rest.  I have not read it since and I have never seen it performed.

Milan Kundera describes the distance between the author and his readers, opened up by the blandness, the coldness of the printed word in his wonderful book of essays, Testaments Betrayed“When a famous professor of medicine asked to meet me because he admired Farewell Waltz, I was most flattered. According to him my novel was prophetic; in my character Skreta, a doctor who treats apparently sterile women at a spa by injecting them secretly with his own sperm with a special syringe, I have hit on the great issue of the future. […] he looks me in the eye again: much as he admires my work, he does have one criticism: I did not manage to express powerfully enough the moral beauty of the gift of semen. I defend myself: this is a comic novel! […] I am baffled and suddenly I realise: there is nothing harder to explain than humour.”

Lear is different. I find with great authors like Shakespeare and Dickens, if you are to read them at all, relationships with them change a great deal over time.  Where I once loved Oliver Twist as a child, A Tale of Two Cities has surpassed all Dickens for me in early adulthood. Still, Lear is a most extraordinary tale of family.  The opening scene of King Lear, as written or performed, is among the most haunting pieces of writing I have ever read or seen acted: “Nothing will come of nothing.”

Certainly, the aim of Miller and Shakespeare was not to write for my sixteen year old self’s personal development, to explain the world to me in any way that they could imagine or even I. Yet, that is how I read them.  That is the reason that books make it from the past and into the future. In fact it is how books write the future, if they do at all: they go on being written each time someone reads them. They exist in the past and in the future because they are meaningful to both, more than mere political comment, more than historical artefact.  Books can bind us to an understanding of ourselves, old ones as much as future ones.

The Editors

1. Writing and the Future

The ability to predict the future has always been one of the most well regarded skills.  In this tough economic climate it is perhaps the one thing that is guaranteed to secure you a job: whether you’re applying for a position as a football pundit, economist, or anything in-between, the ability to successfully foresee future events is sure to stand you in good stead for a long and prosperous career.

Wishful thinking aside, the idea of being able to see the future retains an enduring place at the heart of popular culture.  Fairly recently, a Mayan calendar sparked an internet furore when someone dug up the fact that the world is coming to an end in December this year.  Indeed, Wikipedia tells me that Nostradamus’ Les Propheties has rarely been out of print since it was first published in 1555, despite the seer’s own admission that “the whole thing is written in nebulous form, rather than as a clear prophecy of any kind” – which is as clear a sign as any of a bare-faced liar.  However, it’s easy to understand why predicting the future remains a powerful concept: noone knows what is going to happen tomorrow, so when someone somehow manages to convince us that he or she might be able to, we like to indulge our long-standing taste for mysticism and the occult.  In any event, the failsafe for prophets is that whether or not a prediction has any truth in it can only be known retrospectively, in Nostradamus’ case looking back several centuries later.

Sadly, our fascination with being able to see the future by some mystical clairvoyance (or by statistical analysis – see Long Term Capital Management) often overlooks the fact that novelists constantly grapple with the future, not always explicitly, but in an earnest attempt to explore humanity’s experience of the world.  As Alex Starritt said in his Why read? article: “it is habitual for discoveries or advances in the study of the human to appear in fiction first.”  This is an extremely wide concept, and the interlink between art and science is something that requires considerable thought, particularly because it is only by looking closely that one can begin to see the connections.

A book that does a lot of the hard work for us, and does it brilliantly, is Proust was a neuroscientist, by Jonah Lehrer.  By examining specific instances in which scientific discoveries have been anticipated in writing, he gives us a convincing insight into the idea that in many respects man can see the future, just not perhaps as the Nostradamus brigade would have us believe.  To take one example of this, the book considers the poet Walt Whitman’s central conviction that, contrary to the Cartesian doctrine prevalent in the mid-19th century, the mind cannot be separated from the body; a philosophy that he developed during his time as a nurse in various military hospitals over the course of the American Civil War: “Behold, the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern, and includes and is the soul.”  This idea was brought into the scientific arena by the pioneer Harvard psychologist William James, who stated that “the actual content of our minds are always representations of some kind of ensemble.”  More recently, modern neuroscience has explored the interrelationship of the mind and body, with one renowned practitioner, Antonio Damasio, concluding that the two are indeed inseparable, that is to say, logical thought cannot function independently of the body’s feeling.

Science, of course, is not the only area of human thought that can be anticipated in literature: socio-political trends are prefigured to a greater or lesser extent in the writing of countless novelists, from Orwell and H.G.Wells, to Balzac and Dickens.  Fiction has the ability, after all, of looking at reality as a whole, without the need to focus on specific aspects of it.  This gives the author the freedom to explore ideas that may not have any solid empirical basis at the time they are written.  Denis Diderot, for example, wrote Le rêve de D’Alembert, a surreal essay in which the characters discuss the idea that nature is constantly evolving, in 1769, almost a century before Darwin published On the Origin of Species.  Furthermore, fiction can examine aspects of reality that haven’t yet been reduced by science or socio-political theory: the novelist is free to look around himself and write what he sees, what he feels.  Indeed, it is this feeling that is the mark of a good writer: the ability to see and express things others don’t or can’t, perhaps until someone with a microscope points them out fifty years later.

The Editors