The Future of Literature, Literature of the Future

Some time ago I gave a haiku workshop at the Schule für Dichtung (Academy of Poetry) in Vienna. The students were from mixed backgrounds, accomplished adults, many of them with published work to their name.  I was somewhat shocked to find out that each member of the workshop strongly believed that the game was up, that it was only a matter of time before this failed experiment – life – was over and that it was too late now to save the planet.

I disagreed with them, of course; otherwise, how can we talk of a future for literature, or a literature of the future, if no future exists? On receiving the Börne Prize, world-acclaimed literary critic and philosopher, George Steiner, reminded us that we are guests on this earth. We should behave courteously, graciously. His speech of thanks had an apocalyptic warning: ‘Tons of rubbish, of poisonous filth, lie on Mount Everest. Seas are dying. Innumerable plants and animal species are being destroyed …’ Steiner makes us ask ourselves, what kind of guests are we at all? His diagnosis is alarming, his prognosis even more so: ‘The guest has become a technologically intoxicated, blind vandal. He systematically wrecks the hostelry which had welcomed him…’  Who could disagree? But, how is our planet going to recover? Steiner’s view is bleak: ‘The environment will only recover after the self-destruction of a humanity made crazy by money mania. Only if we vanish does our planet have a chance …’ (Quoted in Kulturchronik No. 2, 2003).

Where does literature fit into this terrible scenario? Can creative literature actually be destructive, can it hasten the planet’s end? And I do not mean the amount of forests needed to create mountains of books; I mean can literature create despair or can it give hope? Should it give hope and comfort or should it sing a song of despair and lamentation if such is what our artists truly envision? Can we, as artists, actually shape the future or is what we do and say nothing more than the dust of the future? In J. G. Farrell’s colourful novel The Siege of Krishnapur (1973) the following words are put into the mouth of the novel’s protagonist, years after experiencing the horrors of the Indian Mutiny: ‘Culture is a sham… It’s a cosmetic painted on life by rich people to conceal its ugliness.’ And, of course, the reader is inclined to agree, it is a logical conclusion to what has gone before. And yet we cannot fully agree. No. For then, everything in life is essentially useless, ugly, crass, pointless … a mess that ends up in a mess. Convince young lovers that it is so! No. If the whole exercise is pointless why write in the first place? Is not the act of writing a symptom of life, of energy and imagination: is not creativity ultimately linked with love and with mysteries that continue to fascinate us? Had these mysteries ceased to fascinate us, literature itself would have come to an end. (And we have all heard of the Death of the Novel, but that idea died some while ago).

Steiner talks of the destruction of plants and animals species. But we should also be talking about language loss. I am frequently disappointed by literary events which debate everything under the sun except the death of languages. Hundreds of languages will die in this century alone and how many writers – for whom language is the very medium of their vision or on which their chosen profession depends – how many writers will concern themselves with this frightful prospect or raise their voices and shout ‘Stop!’

As to rubbish accumulating on Mount Everest …. What happened to its local name, a name more fitting to its cultural and spiritual significance?

The future of literature and the literature of the future will depend, will it not, on the publishers of the future. With the internet, practically anybody can put their writings out there for someone, somewhere, to look at. But I hope that the book will survive. And I hope that there will be publishers in years to come who will bring to our attention the writings of authors in minority languages and maybe even bring to light some lost masterpieces in these languages. Such a future will also depend on the work of translators. José Saramago said, “the author with his or her language creates national literature, world literature is created by translators.”

Of course, reading is a leisure activity. We need time to enjoy a novel or a book of essays. Who can fully savour a volume of poems at one sitting? We need to return to poems again and again. But for millions there is no time, no leisure. Millions do not have the price of a book. For them, literature has no present – not to mind a future.

If nothing else, literature itself offers a forum, a stage, on which these and other issues can be illustrated, debated, dramatised. And yet, even today, many writers are silenced and who knows the exact number of writers in exile? We must look to a future when no writer can ever be silenced again, when no writer need feel threatened or go into exile. In 1990 the great Albanian writer Ismail Kadare sought asylum in France. ‘Dictatorship and authentic literature are incompatible,’ he said. ‘The writer is the natural enemy of dictatorship.’

The future of literature lies in hope, the literature of the future must be a literature of hope – or else, what hope is there?