Monday, July 19, 2010

On Writing

The question of why would anyone want to write a book nowadays, and not just a personal memoir, a travel log or a grammatology, unconcluded scientific postscript, phenomenology or politico-theological tractatus, is not one of easy resolution and perhaps worthy of consideration. Writing most certainly has its own history, just like republics, philosophies and religions do, perhaps it even has a history of its own, stretching all the way across the times, from the earliest stone inscriptions in Jericho all the way down to the latest Dutch novellas. Let us begin with two assumptions; first that "we" Jews have always written all sorts of books and second that it is through writing, and through this alone, that what we today call intellectuals, pay homage to their own age-old scholarship and add another peg to the already mad amount of worldly knowledge. Both assumptions can be easily challenged.

That the Jews, the people of the Book, write books, should come as a surprise to nobody, however the definition of book is rather loose since this major Book of Books, the most important best seller in human history, was not written by any specific Jew and if we follow the critical scholarship on the Bible, there were more than a few people, spanning through thousands of years perhaps, writing for this book as some sort of writing cooperative effort, which was only finished and canonized under very particular circumstances because first of all the Hebrew State as such did no longer exist and secondly this happened before the Romans would baptize the Hebrew inhabitants of Judea with the term "Jew", which is no older than the Roman conquest of the land. To any reader of average attention the Bible is nothing of a personal book and its first intent was certainly not to spread knowledge about anything, such as books like the Koran and the early Christian apologetic texts, which did have a world-historical mission. Secondly, intellectual is a sociological term heavily charged by tradition and it would certainly be refuted by a great majority of modern intellectuals in their deliberate rebellion. The wise men of the Renaissance wouldn't have understood the term and if anything, Lessing, the German playwright and philosopher might have been the first intellectual. This activity of the intellect was born standing in fierce opposition to the prevalent scholasticism of the European universities where these same intellectuals were trained and that had since the Middle Ages, fixed the canon of scientific knowledge on the pattern of the compartmentalization of theology. Intellectual might well be a term coeval with Enlightenment and Atheism. Modern authors that would not classify as "writers" strictu sensu, essayists and polemicists, theologians and literati, defined themselves in a certain sense of rejection of traditional scholasticism and metaphysics, and they could have been called intellectuals perhaps only in the narrow sense of the confines of academic philosophy that would turn people like Leibniz, Hegel and Heidegger into intellectuals rather than scholastics.

Being an intellectual today falls under the same rubric of disrepute that would befall all existing generi of philosophy, theology and metaphysics. This is a discussion heard often from young university students who reproach each other's opinion on the ground of being "too intellectual for my taste", or otherwise said, "you're not being realistic, this is just not practical"; following the rather mistaken and commonly held liberal assumption (grounded in British Utilitarianism) that all knowledge is expected to produce practical results and that politics or political opinions are at the core of the education system. The Platonic project of a philosopher-King turned out to be as doomed as the project of a God-ruler and in following the prevalent consensus of philosophers, who ever since the 19th century have accused their predecessors of "doing metaphysics" and self-appointed themselves over the previous generation (the discussion doesn't seem to span more than two or three generations back) as the true destroyers of the old and rather comatose edifice of Christian metaphysics, enterprise which hasn't been lacking in adepts from within the churches and the synagogues no less than from the theological faculties.

The now common attitude (that goes back to the 1970's France) to read works of religion and philosophy as literature has furthered even more the problematic nature of intellectual work. There's certainly a great gap between Proust and Voltaire for example, at the same time that writers like Leon De Winter and Harry Mulisch could be hardly severed from the group of opinionated intellectuals, journalists, critics and outspoken individuals of our generation. A linguistic turn has also taken place that in devaluating the aesthetic appeal of certain written works has equiparated all types of writing, academic and lay, religious and secular, literary and political, administrative and personal, under the same rubric of fundamental human activities, so defined by anthropology; that science that apparently rose from the depth of the Enlightenment and the modern age to deal a final deadly blow to all religious and theological jumbo mumbo. This opinion however has been rightly challenged by the most diverse humanistic disciplines, and not mistakenly. The activity of writing might be the same for all, but the spiritual and scholastic edifices that support one type of writing and not another are definitely a worldly reality and our sense of taste and judgment might help us discern which kind of works are to enter the world as works of art and which ones are to be merely recycled into the bulk of the diversity of the possibility of human language.

As a young researcher, I happen to find myself often in libraries, those temples of knowledge and find myself at loss when discovering how much material is there available about just every possible topic of knowledge, especially in the Western type of libraries and universities. Then what would be exactly the point of writing today. My guess would be that what interests me is not the tranmission of knowledge which has been secured by Western scholarship neither the Rousseauian type of confession, for which I would rather resort to the privacy of intimate friendships and personal journals. What I am assuming is that academic writing limits the possibility of both knowledge and experience in the sense that it is a completely selfless enterprise in which the world is not being discovered as "new" or "radical" in any critical or imaginative way by the rather passive writer.

In these turbulent yet complacent times it is no surprise to hear people say that this is a loveless world, that there's no faith in anything now, not in governments or love partners, not in churches or institutions. We are living in contemptuously ascetic times in the sense that we find it increasingly difficult to love the world and the whole enterprise of postmodern bourgeiois society is built upon the assumption that "knowing how to live", that is, enjoying earthly pleasures, signifies more a way out of the world than an anchor towards it. There were these early Christians who found solace for themselves in the caves and the spiritual meditation, half-reversing the political philosophy of Plato; tendency which is today more prevalent than ever. The passivity of entertainment culture (when culture gains an institutional function and does not stand on its own, it needs to be consumed as well) and the deliberate avoidance of the political, declares faithfully the prevalence of this mood. The vast number of books written about self-help, meditation, godliness and human communication written for the business manager and the accounting clerk seem to only further even more the divide between our aspirations and our own world. The decline in the quality of communication and human relationships is more obvious than ever, in the age of the internet particularly.

People are using less and less words, in so far as there're less words, there is less of a world, and the world, as the locus par excellance of faith and love, is becoming an increasingly small place where any point can be reached not only by plain, but merely with the 25 seconds of flash news at the hour in all radio stations and the world of postcards inundates the "cultured" version of television in its tireless efforts to "bring you the world in an hour". The world in fact is becoming so small that it seems to hold only enough place for mass media and all too little or none for everyday people and everyday speech. We are becoming the passive spectators of an ever unfolding show of celebrities that travel the world and gives us through the screens, a little bit of a taste of what it should be like, without demanding from us to engage in a war to conquer new lands or leave the screens in order to enter this world. There was a time in the 1990's when I was growing up that the Internet revolution made its way into the household and when a whole array of new possibilities opened up for me, since I was able to find people all over the world and write long letters to possible acquaintances, friends and lovers in countries near and far, but today, I get the impression that I live in a world much poorer than the one in which I spent my chidhood, between the distances of Amsterdam and Bogota.

The younger generation (those even younger than I am) have accepted this poor state of affairs as a version of reality beyond the might and hand of the human community and in view of the endless possibilities afforded by the Internet age they communicate even less. What one day had been for me the possibility to speak to people in places far away, has now turned into a laziness to speak to the people in places just too near. Sex dates are made through the internet within the same street block and the local newspapers have limited their contents to the most vacuous headlines in order to serve the ever so restricted attention span of the new readership that wants to consume the world in 25 seconds. This is the reason why one should write books nowadays, book on paper, to increase the attention span of people, possibility upon which relies the actuality of faith and love in its concretemost terms.

People who no longer love the world, stand very little chances of wanting a place in it, let alone know it, and thus, the age of the greatest technical possibilities for human communication may as well go into history as the most communicatively passive and wordless of all ages, that is, if it goes into history, and someone might want to write this history at all, for the reliance that the Internet shall know everything about present and future is so widespread that the masters of the word and priests of truth, in the academies and temples of knowledge, have surrendered to it, taking away the serendipity found in the contact with words and papers that have, for ages, built the relationships between humans and the possibility of bonds. The Creation of the World came to us as a Book, and whatever faith you uphold today, there's little doubt that those men who read that book, were willing to sacrifice their own lives in order to uphold this simple truth. Internet users do not have Holy Books, it seems, but what they do have, is an appalling sense of loneliness, different from the solitude of erudition, which seems at best served and silenced by nameless sexuality, rather than placed at the center of the human concern about why it is impossible for young people today, building meaningful relationships that do not take as its starting point a very limited view of sexuality together with a consumerist, maximized and historically worldless version of radical needs.

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