Talk held for the Swedish Academy on 1 September 2017
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The King takes a shit in his chambers. There is blood in the stool. There are throbs of pain in his belly. He is dying. A mysterious visitor arrives, claiming to be able to provide just the right ointment. In some versions of this tragedy the visitor is the King’s old rival for the crown, looking for revenge. The ointment drives the King mad. He murders his wife, his sons and all the lords. He goes to war with France. The rival replaces the ointment with goose fat. The king dies. The rival takes the throne. France invades. Everyone dies. In yet other versions of the tragedy, a trusted servant realizes what is going on and replaces the ointment with goose fat. The king comes to his senses. The rival is exposed and executed. The servant receives a lordship. The pain in the King’s belly returns. But he is no fool. He realizes the servant plotted the whole thing from the beginning by poisoning him and manipulating the rival to do his bidding. The King burns the servant alive. The King lives. France invades. Everyone dies.
The essence of literature is cruelty. As new concepts emerge literature expands its realm but at its core it remains humanity’s tormentor. In a couple of decades, when the digital and the physical worlds have merged and become our new existence, our preferred form of entertainment will be to cause beings of our own creation immense pain. You don’t believe me? Everything I say is true, for I have blue eyes and fair skin. The King dies in act 5. The King lives.
The work consists of a huge amount of pages. But not of an infinite number of pages.
What is the value of literature? Perhaps you would be inclined to say something like this:
“Literature conveys human experience. Reading is a way of being open to your world, of nurturing your spirit.”
But humans were designed for a life of roaming the plains and being subjected to a strict tribal code. True human experience requires a life that no one lives. Literature is part of culture, and culture is a structure of beliefs and norms justifying mutual ambitions larger than the tribe’s survival and reproduction. It manipulates the original impulses and instincts of man. So any appreciation or positive acknowledgement of the intrinsic value of literature must, beforehand, account for the fact that literature is complicit in eroding the value of life.
The work contains objects that are not words, sentences or stories. They are not natural objects, they are not man-made. They are made of ink on paper. They are not easy to spot. But once you’ve identified them they are impossible to dismiss. Like a cloud in the shape of a dog. “How do you see a dog in there?” you say to your loved one, who saw the dog before you did. You squint at the summer sky… and it dawns on you. The tail. The nose. The ears. The legs. A dog. When you have found these objects you have no desire to read it any longer. You have finished the work.
The notion of the modern individual, free to discover the world without limitations such as prejudices or physical constraint, is an extrapolation. No particular individual enjoys such freedom to its full extent. But humanity as a collective does – as long as we are engaged in the task of maximizing individual freedom by any means necessary.
“Oh, so the hot air balloon crashed on its way to the North Pole? Well, then, we’ll just have to figure out what went wrong and send another balloon. We’ll get there in due time. We know no limits.”
Maximizing individual freedom expands the capacities of the collective in an exponential interplay of ever-growing forces.
Günter introduced the work, after it had been found in a storage locker at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. Who had put it there? And why? The location is arbitrary, Günter insisted. The reader is not important. The writer is not important. Context does not matter. The only way we can begin to understand the work is to think of it as utterly foreign, a dimension to which we have very limited – if any – access. I have already mentioned the word “infinite” in connection with all this. But an ordinary storage locker cannot contain an infinite number of pages. Nothing can. When I asked Günter about it – had he ever counted the pages? – he just laughed:
“And then what?” he said. “Weigh them? Measure the volume? Describe their colors? Maybe I can take pictures of them in various staged interiors?”
The modern project of growing our collective capacities through the empowerment of individuals is one that celebrates transparency as a chief virtue. Nothing escapes us, not even the inner lives of our forefathers. But there are fields of human activity that need not be covered by any science, business operation, governmental body or advocacy group. This is where literature – or “art” in a broader sense – comes in. As we race towards becoming Gods we should be very suspicious of the assumption that literature has any intrinsic value. It is simply the final layer, the embellishment, of the human death machine.
There are pieces – small pieces – of literary perfection scattered throughout the work. They are delicate, serene and passionate. They are dull. Pure perfection is akin to glass. But it is possible to appreciate these bits if you concentrate hard enough. And if you really push it, and read and reread them a couple of times, you will notice one thing: The author, whoever he or she is, is holding back. It is actually not perfect. There are indeed spots, here and there.
Why hold back? Perhaps complete perfection is not dull after all – but extremely dangerous? This ties in with what I said earlier about literature being rooted in cruelty. We must be open to the possibility that each individual becomes a creator – a God.
Everyone dies in act 5 except the king. Everyone lives. The King goes to war with France, the King makes peace with France. He kills his brother, he shoots his dog, he flees the battlefield, he marries a commoner. The pieces – the doctor, a duke, the servant, a jester, the battlefield, the courtroom, the forest, the crossbow, an oil lamp and countless other characters, locations and objects – are endlessly combined in monologues, dialogues and stage-directions so as to form a whole range of different tragedies to the point where it becomes impossible to call it nothing but – a tragedy simulator.
When cultural artefacts, and thus culture as such, become subjected to algorithmic data processing there will be no need for any of our current categories. The term “literature” will – at best – attain the status we now confer to an ancient Greek word whose use has been lost on us.
When mankind expands its powers our collective suffering increases. Literature is the great enabler here. When we question why we suffer the way we do, literature confers value to existence so that we will not revolt against it. It invents the beauty of the moon. Its main source of energy is therefore cruelty and pain, and a truly “perfect” work of literature would reinvent existence to the point where anyone who reads it would cease to exist.
The image of the caged human stands in stark contrast to the image of the explorer. But the former is a logical consequence of the latter. We will have nowhere to go – but – we will go on. And thus finish the construction of our own cage.
We will be (are) imprisoned by our successors. Literature has been (will be) annihilated, together with all things human. How do you account for literature when this brave new world is on the horizon? You cannot. There is only the moment, the energy, the act. The act. It becomes all about the now. It becomes all about stretching the now into the infinite and the ink dot towards the eternal. Resistance against spatial and temporal restriction is not literature’s last hope. It is the end of literature.
I was invited to talk about the work. I believe I have failed to do so.