Literature, etymologically “things made from letters,” can be seen as a specific artistic process, containing within itself its own potential and limitations, one that began at a certain time in human intellectual history, a time when written words themselves were often believed to be sacred and magical, and a process that has evolved over the subsequent centuries, using generations of writers to fulfill itself.
But for many reasons—a radical change of focus, a discontinuance of the tools including writing itself, a sense of completion or exhaustion or irrelevance, an impatience with the attention demanded, a transfer of such activity into other media less “made from letters”—such a process can come to an end.
Some 33 all-too-brief centuries ago, the 13th-century BCE redactor of the then-500-year-old Gilgamesh epic, our oldest known sustained literary narrative, added a frame story that pretends to locate, hidden within a copper foundation box under the legendary ramparts of Uruk, themselves by his time long since fallen into dusty ruin, a text engraved on lapis lazuli and perhaps inscribed by Gilgamesh himself upon his return from his adventures, which presumably is the story about to be told—a modernist, if not postmodernist, metafictional contrivance right at the very beginning of what we call literature.
Which at the time was itself a new experiment, so new that the author of the original epic didn’t even have an alphabet with which to compose.
And these signs are not merely those of traditional literacy, of alphabetical language, of text, but now include streaming sound and moving images, as well as new rhetorical elements like multilinearity, hyperlinks, kinetic and metamorphosing text, haptics, immersive virtual reality, together with a multitude of ancillary tools and apps, elements that may eventually leave the screen altogether and environ us.
Sophists live in a world of ceaseless actional and, as we would say now, informational flow—that river one steps into, never the same twice, with man not at the center of it, just it.That is, man calls it river and so it is river, says it flows and so it does flow.For Sophists, knowledge—which is not a given, but is created—is power, and that power is accessed, classically, through rhetoric.Hurricane Dorian has dropped as much as 30 inches of rain in parts of the Bahamas, and is set to make landfall in the Carolinas sometime this week.In an interview with environmental reporter Elizabeth Rush, Smarty Pants host Stephanie Bastek asks what the future looks like for America’s coastal residents, especially as climate change contributes to rising sea levels and worsening storm seasons.Only mad religionists and some wistful librarians continued to venerate the printed word.A tool engineered to embrace and set in concerted motion not only language, but all signs and gestures, icons, objects, sounds and images, with instant access to global networks, has to be a powerful tool.Though literature as an art form may be fading away, raw storytelling seems to be part of everyman’s DNA, deeper than form or distribution mode, and as Boccaccio’s plague stories remind us, will probably continue to the end of human time. And even if narrative and lyrical artists, whether experimental or conventional, are reduced to stand-up comedy, eulogies, rap lyrics, and tweeted epigrams, they will still feel the tug of the obligations that Hesiod laid upon the Muses a couple of millennia ago: to engage with the national rituals and dogmas, to be witnesses of their times, and to provide consolation and entertainment—or as he put it, to make the gods laugh.Assuming you can find them, logged on and adrift in cyberspace as they are now.Literature’s mainstream is not a river that flows between fixed banks, but one that must be cut, and it is the experimental writer who, avoiding the backwaters of the often more lucrative and momentarily celebrated conventional writing, can be found at the cutting edge. But what if literature itself is an expiring holdover from the last century, using an outmoded technology and fast declining into an archival state of primary interest only to scholars and hobbyists, the current worldwide proliferation of writing programs nothing but an ironic death rattle?What if it’s over, and the wildest and most brilliant of experiments won’t revive it?