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20 May, 2013

Is This the End of the World?

Thoughts about my upcoming participation in the world’s largest philosophy and music festival

As I contemplate How The Light Gets In 2013 which will be held 1–2 June 2013 in Hay-on-Wye, Great Britain, I cannot help but recall everything I have written about the end of the world. Yes, there is no slip of the pen here, as I am going to talk in the festival about the touch of evil, the devil in politics, and the end of the university. The question arises — how can we imagine modern life without such things as hope, faith, and education? Is it possible to live here and now without books? Mapping the way in which I think and feel now about those things allows a glimpse of the contemporary world. 

I often find myself daydreaming that if I were – oh no, Ladies and Gentlemen, please… Of course, not “a rich man,” as Tevye the Milkman would have it in The Fiddler on the Roof. If I were a philosophy teacher for the nobility or a librarian in the Age of Enlightenment, I would happily live in the world of books only. Alas, that is not the case, so I have much less time for books than I would like.

Funeral music has been played for the book more than once. The most acclaimed theory of its demise was that of Marshall McLuhan who thought that the hands that built the city in Europe and elsewhere wrote the book. Therefore, the global village and media age would replace the age of the book and the city. He thought, with sound reason, that ours is an age of fundamental change in our grasp of the world. Once our perception of reality is not the same it was for centuries, why should we think that the world of logos still dominates humanity?

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What if we live solely in a realm of images where concepts and words have been replaced by images and image-ideas, as Milan Kundera and Jean Baudrillard suggested? Not in the sense that they stopped existing as part of our cognitive reality, but rather in the sense of their remaining as a sort of secondary need which in no way continues its presence as a reality-shaping force. In his novel Immortality, Kundera went so far as to imply that reality retreats and tends to disappear nowadays as we rely on images provided by image makers and spin doctors, instead of the world as it is – he writes that a countrywoman in the 19th cent. Bohemia was far more in control of her life and, in a way, of the human world, then we are now. In fact, we live in a different world today.

Even so, it is too early to beat the drums of impending doom. In their book N’espérez pas vous débarrasser des livres (translated into English as This is Not the End of the Book), Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière argue that the book as a fundamental form of human experience and as human memory itself, if properly understood, is fated to exist much longer than we think. I subscribe to this point of view. Books deserve a completely different approach compared to the other modern sources of information. I do not want to believe that modern technology can ever replace books completely.

Why? Because that would lead to a complete change in our perception of aesthetic reality and the aesthetic experience itself. Can we imagine ourselves being completely immersed into the perfect reproductions of the most famous paintings as shown on the computer screen? A perfect vividness and quality of the picture can be attained through using a simple monitor, but people still keep visiting museums to see the originals.

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The same thing happens with books. Part of the reading, of experiencing books is in the touch, the smell and the way we see the paper slowly fade away. We have to feel the delicacy of the book to empathize with it. Form and content is connected. People who shape brilliant pieces of literature also shape our relationships to them.

One of the books in which I can constantly immerse myself is Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. This is one of those books I read when I was 15, 35 and one I still read now. I think such books are marked by ingenious human insight. One could compare this book to Federico Fellini’s approach to humanity. He never mocks, never pokes fun, and every sentence is full of sympathy for the human being. I think that Don Quixote created a whole system of deduction and criteria which we can use even today.

George Orwell once wrote in his essays that among six books allowed to take with him to an uninhabited island he would certainly take Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, although that book is deeply permeated by its author’s disdain for humanity and misanthropy. While I strongly agree with this choice, I would add that love for humanity cannot be the sole reason for a book to become immortal. William Shakespeare and Mikhail Bulgakov wrote their masterpieces on evil and hatred, yet we cannot imagine modern moral, political and aesthetic imaginations devoid of them as major themes.

Hatred is a traveler. It comes in many faces changing its names. It longs and craves for No Man’s Land where no sympathy, curiosity and compassion exist for the most vulnerable and fragile. True, hatred is a traveler. It changes its appearances, yet the great books on it stay forever. They fight our sense of hopelessness and senselessness in a hopeless and senseless world.

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Therefore, we have to inject more optimism into the world of ideas and the world of public affairs. The book is to stay, and so is the university, no matter how challenging, confusing and odd some tendencies of change would appear. More than ever we have to think not about change, which is replacing reason and conscience, but rather about wisdom and daring of early modernity, which anticipated so many dramas of today. 


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