At first glance, it doesn’t look good – and at second, far worse.
To the panicked masses running through the street, soot on faces, smouldering koalas clawing at depleted human breasts, embers hanging in the air like some jury’s verdict, we say ‘It’s going to be ok. We’ve brought literature.’ The koalas suddenly de-smoulder. One of the huddled masses looks at you and wells up: “Thank god you’re here.”
You brandish a collected volume of JS Harry; you hand it to a stranger and hold her gaze for an Instagram moment. She offers a palm of resistance, a small shake of the head. ‘It’s fine,’ you say, ‘I have enough.’ After six minutes the image on Twitter attracts the comment, ‘Not all heroes wear capes.’
Fade. ‘I See Fire’ by Ed Sheeran plays while credits roll.
This is not, as they say, ‘based on a true story’. But you get the belaboured point – or rather, the rhetorical question: Isn’t bringing literature and criticism to the world as it currently burns a bit like bringing a wet Tim Tam to a street fight?
Maybe. But, ‘as a philosopher’, I’m required to ask what this might, in fact, entail. The mere presence of a Tim Tam says nothing about how it might be enlisted in combat. It isn’t self-evident. At just over 18 grams and 131 calories per biscuit, the Tim Tam possesses the same potential energy as one and a half sticks of TNT. Alternatively, the same biscuit, fired directly into someone’s face at or over 320km/h would be enough to kill them, or at least produce existentially crippling disfigurement. Shot at a speed of 500km/h or over, death would be assured. Most grievously of all, fired at someone at this speed while triggering high energy fission, the Tim Tam would literally blow a target’s head off – maybe like I am now, with you, with these astonishing facts, in this talk.
I could, of course, rest my case here, having already offered a sufficiently rigorous demonstration of my main thesis, but I’ve been asked to speak for a full five minutes, not just two.
So again, why literature, why now? Because how else would future generations have known that we were once intelligent? How, faced with endless reruns of Real Horny Sexbots of Rockdale and Ow, My Dick Hurts! would they have ever realised that human beings could at one point think in whole sentences?
If it weren’t for those few remaining tomes which somehow survived the Great Minimalist Purge of 2030, in which all literature was pushed into the ocean because it didn’t Spark Joy, we would have no sense that humanity could have gone in another direction, taken the road less travelled (to use a by-then-unknown phrase).
It is too late now, but we would have realised that in ridding ourselves of literature we didn’t stop telling stories for the sake of something we glibly called ‘the truth’; we just told bad stories and then pretended they were the truth. We’d have understood that a flashing neon antipathy towards something called “theory” simply entailed an ignorance of one’s own and a hostility towards others’. We might have come to understand that literature was always intertwined with a kind of thinking, a form of intelligence, a mode of action, of defence, of attack, of showing what we might owe to whom and why.
We may have seen, but didn’t, that literature was never a luxury, something to indulge in, like a pale kale Negroni at the end of a Real Day’s Work. Attempts to arrest literary creation in the name of something more productive only replaced a better cultural life with a poorer one. We didn’t end up reading nothing – we just read shit; we didn’t substitute action for thinking – we just substituted thinking well for thinking like idiots. (Certain kinds of ‘praxis’, it seems, are really only good in theory.)
Our fatal mistake was to see literature as identical to the books who were its proxies, to figure thinking as something that always consumed oxygen rather than a force that sometimes supplied it, of seeing literature as something that simply filled space like furniture and washing machines did, as something that displaced other, more important things, like sushi and screwdrivers and dental dams and petrol bombs. But we were wrong: before we page-bombed the lobsters, literature occupied space like angels had once been said to; it deployed armies of ghosts to swarm and possess us, not just to relieve us of the often dismal burden of being ourselves, but because of the responsibility of being attentive to everything outside the calcified prisons of our own skulls.
We should have thought more and thought better; we didn’t. We can see it now. Literature was not some unjustifiable triviality undertaken in defiance of the crushing order of duties given us by virtue simply of being alive at the time we were, the moral exigencies attending our world-historical moment; and not because literature is inherently worthy. Good literature must exist, not simply because bad writing needs to be answered, but because writing must show even those things which attempt to marginalise it why they are in error. Literature existed not to slit power’s throat, but to make it go red in the face.
Before it was all Kondoed into the sea, literature helped us to imagine other lives, other times, with no guarantee, sometimes not even the pretence, that these were true. Often they weren’t; and sometimes this was called out. And good literature was filled with enough self-doubt, a virtue now increasingly hard to remember, to realise this was a possibility, perhaps even constitutive of literature itself. Even so, while it still existed, literature wagered that someone who had lived in different towns was less likely to be deceived by the village idiot in their own; the person who had inhabited different eras sometimes received partial immunity from the great plagues of advertorial bullshit that poured from the megaphones down the street. Literature was one of the last stands against the cheerless chauvinism of the present, of the distortions of the cultural near-sightedness that are as much a part of the human condition as the descended larynx and the compulsion to draw shit on walls.
We needed to understand that what fronted us then was not a new foe but an ancient one, newly vexed. We had always been facing rivals to the serious business of working – we were always breaking up or starting anew, losing jobs or our keys or minds or finding them, falling face first, mouth agape, in shit, and getting up, being anesthetised by our Twitter feed or self-righteousness, or tequila. We were deceived, fatally, by waiting for something poorly specified to end or something to start before we finally got to work. And then it was too late.
Not that the outcome would necessarily have been different. We were and are always obliged to leave the Yet-To-Come in fate’s hands, for fate will keep this for herself whether we leave it to her or not.
But at least we can say: things might have been different if we’d not abandoned our stations. They might have been. Now we must content ourselves, like Spengler’s fellaheen, to crawl on all fours through fragments of un-newsworthy mishap, improvising currency from the roaches and the rubble, the dead coral, from the lifetime stench of seaweed marinara we used to call The Pacific, the soiled Barbie heads, and corpulent nits to nibble from each others’ peeling, sunburned scalps.
Perhaps we should be thankful – it was a ride wasn’t it? Fun while it lasted. Even Kafka was fun. And right. I hope they end up knowing at least we had a good time – some of the time, even if they’ll never be able to quite work out why.
Oh, and that we’re sorry.
This is an edited version of a talk given by Chris Fleming at an SRB shindig many moons past.