“Literature is dying,” says the parents to their children

“Literature is dying,” says the parents to their children, as their parents at once said to them. As though it were an heirloom to be passed on – words of both wisdom and condemnation. It is what it is, but it’s your fault. Yeah, yeah, but what’s new?

Shaj Mathew has written a short little historical piece over at Lapham’s Quarterly (“Predicting Their Own Demise“) surveying this perspective in the work of Verne, Bradbury and Shteyngart. While it is a common cause of most writers to throw themselves at the feet of their forefathers idolized in marble in despair, decrying the intellectual collapse of everyone and everything, I found Verne’s criticism particularly interesting. Apparently Vernes wrote an entire manuscript Paris in the Twentieth-Century (1863; published, interestingly enough, more than a century later) detailing what he believed the consequences of the prevailing intellectual trends to be; in short, “the classics” and art as we knew it would be substituted for the savagery and coldness of science. As Mathew summarizes,

“So all that fame had lasted less than a 100 years! Les Orientales, Les Méditations, La Comédie Humaine—forgotten, lost, unknown!” To Michel’s [the protagonist’s] dismay, math and science have infected contemporary literature; popular titles include Decarbonated Odes, Poetic Parallelogram, and Electric Harmonies. Aghast, Michel decries the dominance of “science and industry here, just as at school, and nothing for art!”

While it is a little disconcerting that we have gone this long without writing “Poetic Parallelogram in many ways it is a reflection of a concern the poet John Keats had that Isaac Newton’s theories had turned the gloriously beautiful rainbow into simple, boring prismatic colors. Hell, this kind of tension is prevalent even today when New Wave Spiritualists resist scientific inquiry because it supposedly tries to reduce every qualitatively pleasurable experience to cold, hard numbers. By not seeing something for what it is to the naked eye, the argument goes, science is blind to the bigger picture: it’s beautiful without explanation and scientists can’t see the forest for the trees. And I’d say this is true because expanding our understanding of how the world works is meant to make things even more beautiful. Instead of seeing the forest for the trees we try to see the cells for the organ for the system for the body for the ecosystem for the elegance of complexity arising from chaos and our ability to discern the difference.

But to return to the claim to the common claim that all of literature is dying, the sensationalism loses its effects after a while. In 2011, we’re told by those-who-know that we are each standing idle, watching as this last great staple of culture – literature – throws itself upon the floor, apoplectic, gasping for air as darkness encloses.

As it’s been doing for decades.

No. Centuries. Millennia even.

So it seems that literature either (A) takes forever to die or (B) this is the way it’s always been and we’re mistaking for death contortions its normal movement. Frankly, it’s always been a mess and every generation stumbles upon it, praises it for its Golden Age of gagging on its tongue while later damning their successors for the way the mass can’t even scream because its jaw is broken. You killed it, dammit!

This desire to claim or define a Golden Age for a field is a natural one of course – we can hardly comment on the present without tacitly commenting on the past – but we must not assume our predecessors to be gods. In fact, we must always be skeptical of any aura of divinity we try to attach to certain individuals and their beliefs, styles, etc. We must always be conscious of the fact that they, too, were humans. They, too, were accused of killing literature, art, politics, society and all of Western civilization. But hey – they weren’t, we survived and things will be OK.

And the reason for this is because even though certain values and dies may vary in the way they are expressed they nonetheless are expressed.

Writing in three different centuries, these authors, taken together, remind us that debates over the future of reading are nothing new. They remind us of the value of the liberal arts, the art of thinking deeply. Perhaps they may have indulged in some hyperbole—Verne’s scientific texts like Poetic Parallelogram have not taken over the bestseller lists—but by documenting their fears, these writers capture the intellectual concerns of different eras. After all, as Bradbury once said, “I don’t try to describe the future. I try to prevent it.”

And I swear to God I’m going to be the one to write Poetic Parallelogram.

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