All This Has Been Written Before, Literature As Oracle
We have already been revealed, both our leaders and ourselves, by writers of the past.
BOGOTÁ — Great writers are not just observers, narrators or interpreters of social happenings: They are also prophets who survey history. They send us auguries from above.
The rise of Donald Trump in the United States, Marine Le Pen's ascendance in French opinion polls, Brexit and Colombia's No vote to the peace deal with the FARC guerillas have drawn readers to apocalyptic works of fiction like George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Reading such works can give us a deeper understanding of what is happening around us, and what we are leaving behind. I'm going to cite three texts that have held up a mirror to the world and have illustrated how our lifestyles are making us forget our human nature.
Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote an article in 1950 in the paper La Nación entitled "The Wall and the Books' (La muralla y los libros) about Chinese Emperor Shih Huang Ting. He wrote, "I read some days ago that the man who ordered that almost infinite wall of China was its first great emperor, Shih Huang Ting, who also ordered that all books preceding him be burned. I was both inexplicably satisfied and worried that one person should be the source of two vast operations, one of putting up 560 leagues of stones against the barbarians, and the other, a rigorous abolition of history or the past."
That text reminds me of our own times, when walls that had come down are being rebuilt stone by stone to ensure we stay ignorant about other people's humanity and to make us deaf to their voices and languages. Like that Chinese emperor, history today condemns us to forget ourselves, our pasts and what we did to arrive here. Burning books symbolizes the destruction of all knowledge and the histories of peoples; it robs us of our legitimate curiosity and the right to mold our reality.
Borges in 1976 — Photo: Wikipedia
The world today is sending us back, blinded, to situations and tragedies that must not occur again. The French playwright Eugène Ionesco foresaw our present fate in the mid-20th century, when automation was already underway as part of the grand strategy of productivity. He told a conference in 1961 that "the modern, universal man is the busy man. He has no time and is a prisoner to necessity. He cannot contemplate the absence of utility. He also fails to understand that useful things are themselves a useless, depressing weight."
Such individuals have not only forgotten an innate curiosity inherent in human impulse toward knowledge and beauty. They have also placed themselves at the eternal service of whoever commands them, sacrificing their lives to mass production, and paying homage to an empty life filled with wealth and belongings.
Lifting himself above his primitive needs, he made himself human.
Borges and Ionesco both painted accurate portraits of our current time. One depicted the historical forces that would move us, with an emperor that may remind us of Trump or Le Pen. The other revealed to us ourselves — the people who work everyday and submit to the reckless rhythm of productivity, without curiosity or a moment to pause and admire a setting sun.
Besides bequeathing us their predictions, the souls behind those masterful writings invite us to recall everything we have forgotten: our taste for beauty, our pulsating minds, the yearning for knowledge itself.
Japanese writer Kakuzo Okakura observed in The Book of Tea (1906) that men transcended their animal impulses with the first bouquet of flowers they offered a girl. "Lifting himself above his natural and primitive needs, he made himself human. And when man sensed there was use in the useless, he entered the realm of art."
With these words Okakura reminds us of our identity, and fills us with nostalgia. He helps us see how the present — that overwhelming tide that brings all and takes all — has cast the treasures of our humanity on a distant shore that's waiting to be found.