Fresh Air From The Age

“I see a harbor filled with masts and sails, wearied by the sea wind that wearies me.”

This began as a school essay, optional for extra credit, during a final exam in 2008. I read it and re-read it, there were 45 minutes left to write it. I had taken the rest of the exam with no glitches and now this… I stared at the question for the remaining exam time, unable to answer it. Last month, I made an attempt.

(This course has dealt extensively with modernist challenges to western civilization, traditionally defined. Of the many object of the critique, the literary ones stand out: the disappearance of literature, the decline of literary reading, our failure to read interpretively, our difficulty with metaphors, and not least our own problems with literary expression or even argumentation. Just so, we have read a great deal of literature in this course – from epic poetry and drama to philosophy and history. We have also defined “literature” as “writing of permanent worth or
value”. Still further, we have considered the maxim that “literature is not an ornament of civilization but is civilization itself”. We have in the process discussed such classic “literary devices” as metaphors and similes which force us to see one thing in terms of something else.
With these issues in mind, discuss what “writing of permanent worth or value” suggests about human values, aspirations, or potential.)

The maxim that Literature, (with a sanctioned capital “L”), is not an ornament of civilization but civilization itself is a comme il faut aphorism. One should not attempt to define “writing of permanent worth or value” without citing timeless tidbits of literary marvels through the ages; one should not even attempt to write this essay without a certain scholarly weight or professional ballast found only in years of experience your humble narrator still finds alien and conflicting. In order to truly satisfy the premises of this essay the most inquisitive historians, disheartened philosophers, and gifted wordsmiths must be brought together in a small room and left there for years. Only then can these ubermensch grapple with the task at hand. I am not yet any of the aforementioned people, so it seems I am not qualified to write this essay. However, this text offers an exercise of will and talent, to be repeated every five years of my life; as a sort of recounting, an echo of voices heard and styles stifled– a languish of language or an exaltation of verbalization– ultimately, eventually, “writing of permanent worth or value.”

What do I know about Literature? Apart from the quotidian structural concerns of plot, character, and style development, I only know that Literature is among the most beautiful yet useless mediums of expression man has to offer. I know that language came first, of course; first as a system of monosyllabic exclamations then it evolved into a series of exchanges, subtly integrated into an increasingly clever society of naked apes. What happened afterwards only historians and other members of the alienated intelligentsia really know. A possible source of Literature’s evolutionary decline has to do with (ironically) the reason why many learned to read and write and why books were produced en masse in the first place. It has to do with square one which is, to this day, the greatest and most marketed (or vice-versa) work of fiction ever conceived: the Holy Bible. Yet, I now find myself out of my depth. To continue would be to spell out my youthful, anarchic and existential prejudices, to make an argument that cannot yet be defended. (Note to self: for the next draft, dethrone the Bible as cause for the stunted growth of literary merit).

The Dark Ages, the Renaissance– all of these happenings, though curiously sanctioned with capital letters as well, are still a metaphysical mystery to me. In creative or artistic terms (airy, flowery, non-absolute predispositions) the race has not changed in hundreds of years of history of blunders and miracles, as though there were an inherent capacity for creation that struggles against overwhelming tides of go-with-the-flow. In fact, in terms of literary merit, very few persons are considered timeless, (or worth studying, anyway), usually maladjusted philosophers of their simple times that were able to verbalize a foundation of being. Most if not all of my impressions on this matter are, as of now, shaped with non-absolute nothings. To attempt to organize what has happened is an exercise in futility– all or nothing, Caesar or a peasant, a life’s work, resulting in a masterpiece, or a few pages of half-finished sentences.

However, it is inevitable to admit that, somewhere along the line, we took a wrong turn- just as an infant is born and immediately starts to age, to die, so does Literature falter and fade in the lazy, clumsy hands of a populous. I believe this is due to a shift in mental facilities toward the advancement of technology. It should go without saying that it is easier to invent a salable object, designed for ease and comfort, however trivial, than it is to invent (or rather reinvent) an art form such as Literature. It should go without saying yet it does not. Alas, our species’ unpardonable mistake. To reinvent Literature, to have it evolve into something greater, would mean to dethrone language as a whole and much (if not all) of civilization as we know it– a man, an inventor, faced with these circumstances would forgivably opt out and create, say, a dandy kitchen appliance. And so, our day to day lived have never been simpler or more comfortable. Gone are the days of nomadic hunter-gatherers, replaced with stay-at-home parents and nine-to-fives. The inevitable advancement of technology promises a future in which the quality of that which is literary will decline further; into synergized pseudo words and sentences so concise yet fragmented our language will become multisyllabic utterances from hushed and hurried people. What is most regrettable, truly unpardonable, is the fact that the species will consider the future, their present, the best and most marvelous epoch history has to offer; with insane and surely inhuman advances in the technologies of “communication” and just about everything else. To have the word “communication” in quotations offers me chills and worrisome predictions of a post apocalyptic human landscape in which, if we are lucky, we will have to start again from square one, syllable one. This is my abominable fear, my regrettable study, my reasons for suicide and, suddenly, my halfhearted mission statement: to grow out of trivial distractions and needless cynicism and judgment, to study the path of man and to make this decrepit, dishonorable decomposition of the written words evident to any and all.

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