In Mario Vargas Llosa's latest novel, The Discreet Hero (2013), a character has the revelation that the things of the world are spatial in their essence. But spatial in a special way. Disgusted by filth, the mass media and the cheap spectacles of publicity, he has surrounded himself with objects of perennial worth: art books, novels, music. He’s built for himself some pretty solid walls.
Don Rigoberto finds in this hoarder’s instinct a necessary reassurance and a rather bourgeois piece of mind.
"That was when he’d had the idea of saving spaces, the idea that civilization was not, had never been a movement, a general state of things, an environment that would embrace all of society, but rather was composed of tiny citadels raised throughout time and space, which resisted the ongoing assault of the instinctive, violent, obtuse, ugly, destructive, bestial force that dominated the world [...]"
What’s interesting here is not the idealisation of civilization as such but rather its enclavisation, its capacity to lock itself up in a closet of self-sufficiency. In other words, what we’ve got here is civilization’s ability to become a space, a territory. Or to be more precise: a series of spaces, a series of territories.
|Corral, i.e. enclaves. Source: Terrierman|
Keeping viruses out
Vargas Llosa posits the works of human civilization as fortresses built to gain good defense against threats. Security before everything else! In Abraham Maslow’s famous pyramid of human needs, security is right there, at the bottom, after physiological needs, two of the most wide-spread wants: ones that are at the same time the most desired and also the most lacking.
One is tempted to say that all is good when all is safe. But there’s another sense of the threat that makes a lot of sense in the wider scheme of things. This one indicates that the idea of threat is appealing because it offers the best justification for creation. And I mean the creation of everything: from an antidote to a virus to a dam to impede future shortage of electricity; electricity, itself created to impede our lack of light and heat. The creation of everything: from poetry, which keeps returning us to a state where we dread being but where we love to see others performing well, to photography, which keeps us from falling into some fictional dark ages devoid of images and perhaps of imagination. This urge to produce has been equivalent to our need to make things safe for ourselves.
What will happen if we ask this simple question: why is literature necessary? The great majority will say: because without it we would be uglier, worse, more wicked, less moral. You see how the affirmation of the art of writing, among all this, starts from a negation: least we become this; least we become that. Least we return to that state. Least we grow horns and hooves. Least we end up mocking Creation.
The enclaves we construct to safeguard (this word, which has never gotten into proper use because it’s been hijacked by ideologies from its very beginnings) the world – these enclaves are, in fact, vaccines meant to put our fears to rest.
Prisoners of literature
It is perhaps due to these enclaves that keep us safe (enclosures, corrals, confinements, detentions, gaols) that literature, for instance, rests on such an abundance of entrapments.
Trapped in a gesture (Sisyphus and perpetual motion, Atlas and perpetual stasis, Ulysses and perpetual transition); trapped in storytelling (Boccaccio’s Decameron, Chaucer’s Tales, The One Thousand and One Nights), trapped, of course, in a place (all the utopias where humanity fares better but is never allowed to live to tell the tale); trapped in admirations (Kobo Abe’s Woman in the Dunes¸ Yasunari Kawabata’s The House of the Sleeping Beauties, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores); trapped in desires for something better, something more (Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina) trapped in exercises of imagination (Le Petit Prince, Alice in Wonderland, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot).
|Atlas. Source: Wikipedia|
Perfections and the intertext
Because the threats are great, the defense also needs to be close to perfection. Hence the need for round novels, the need for systemic philosophy, the need for poems that read in one breath. Hence the requirement for authors with oeuvre, who can be recognized ten pages into their latest book. Hence the factor of elimination, applicable when the next volume is unlike the benchmark. Hence, indeed, the need for benchmarks at all, for standards that stay unchanged for as close as possible to forever.
The enclaves require isolationist politics; they need to be
so perfect in themselves that they cannot possibly communicate beyond their
borders. This is why it takes serious effort to understand intertextuality, and
why, for instance, the rise of electronic literature is regarded (still) with
so much scorn. Because in intertextuality the limits are negated in the name of
a text that grows outside its own limits, outside its own enclave, and which, more
importantly, grows in ways impossible to predict. With the intertext there
seems to be no more entrapment. The growth comes, then, from somewhere else,
from an internal tension, from a need to expand: a need that is organic, a need
that every text has, since texts don’t grow in isolation, by themselves and for
themselves. Digital writing reaches out to similar new limits (or rather to the
lack thereof). For one thing, hypertext is a concrete materialization of the
principle of intertextuality. A link expands the text, makes it part of Borges’
universal library – it becomes that library itself. And because of this, the
digital universe, a multidimensional conglomerate of texts and codes and circuits,
feels so much more at home in the notion of the Sublime. The space of the
digital, like the space of the intertextual, is an enormous space, a space of
non-limits, grandiose, overwhelming, disempowering. Therefore, frightening.
|Escher's neverending buildings, a form of intertextuality. Source: Crystalinks|