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The Slowness of Literature and the Shadow of Knowledge (newyorker.com)
52 points by lermontov 6 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 18 comments





> Science and literature alike are readers of the world. And, sooner or later, both lead us to the unreadable, the boundary at which the unintelligible begins.

I wonder, would it be redundant to include history with these two and make it a trio? If the case being made is that science and literature are both reflective of society in a way that continues to fascinate the mind and inform future generations for time immemorial, is history as a subject or practice somehow precluded from individual consideration because it is a subset of literature? As the article notes, it is not only non-fiction, but fiction like prose, poetry and epics that have proven themselves to be an indelible mark of culture and the force of ideas and imagination.

History, at least in my opinion, is different enough from these kinds of works in both its value and its standards of research and veracity that it merits consideration. After all, history has proven that it often repeats itself and, in a way, history represents the results of these indefatigable undulations caused by, or recorded in science and literature. It is a series of guideposts in a sense, serving as records of massive success and massive failure and charting out exactly why and how it came to be this way.


A fantastic thing about reading fiction is that it allows us to feel we are in somebody else's head. We can HEAR THEIR THOUGHTS. That is not possible in real life nor in movies.

Watching a movie does not create this illusion because we feel we are still we, looking at the scene.


Voiceovers are the typical film trope for this.

Yeah, unfortunately both internal monologue voiceovers and narration from the off seem to have declined in popularity with film directors over the decades. I really like what these devices can bring to the table when used skillfully.

There are strong opinions on several sides of this (I'm not particular for or against).

They can be an overused trope. They can be a critical (and often comic) element of films (Woodie Alan, Annie Hall, etc.). And there are times where a character can speak volumes without words, with the right acting, direction, cinematography, and editing.

In text (absent illustrations / comics / graphic novels), words are very nearly all you've got.

(Again: a few exceptions, largely notable for proving the rule.)


Still I think he effect is much stronger when reading fiction.

In a movie you hear someone speaking. But when you read the thoughts of the protagonist written in a book those thoughts just enter your brain. The experience of reading them in the language used doesn't much differ from when you think your own thoughts.


Agreed.

Maybe you could design an even stronger experience of hearing someone's thoughts, by using VR + voiceover + some machine learning to match the viewer's own voice. I wonder if people have tried using something like that for brainwashing.

That would be cool and trippy. Isn't audio-book a bit in this direction? Depends on the book of course

> I’m not thinking of how long it takes to read a book but of how long its effects can be felt, and of the strange phenomenon that even literature written in other times, on the basis of assumptions radically different to our own and, occasionally, hugely alien to us, can continue to speak to us—and, not only that, but can tell us something about who we are, something that we would not have seen otherwise, or would have seen differently.

I think other works such as the Bible, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Bhagavad Gita, and the Koran would have made the authors point much better about how books written a long time ago and in very different circumstances still can tell us who we are.

Surely, these books have far more influence on our world than Lucretius's poems or Faust.


> Surely, these books have far more influence on our world than Lucretius's poems or Faust.

Faust had a pretty big influence on Goethe, who used it in order to create what is "considered by many to be Goethe's magnum opus and the greatest work of German literature" (to quote Wikipedia).

I know that in the Anglo world things like German literature and the romantic movement generated by guys like Goethe didn't have that much of an effect (I think that Keats' and Lord Byron's influence was rather short-lived in practice), but here on the Continent the romantic movement's prestige was immense almost for the entire 19th century and going into the 20th (at the limit guys like Proust and Kafka can certainly be considered as romantics).

For example here's a Faust-related quote from an article talking about Lenin's high interest in European literature [1]:

> At home, Shakespeare, Goethe and Pushkin, among others, were read aloud on Sunday afternoons (...) He devoured Goethe during his two decades in exile, reading and rereading Faust many times.

And talking about the Soviets, let's not forget that the same legend of Faust also inspired Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita" [2], one of the most interesting literary works of the 20th century.

For comparison, the Bible was not at all seen as interesting in Europe during the 19th or the 20th century, only the "réactionnaires" (as they were called in France) had any interest in it + the Pope in Rome who had almost no influence at all after Napoleon's wars.

You might accuse me of euro-centrism, and you would be right, but the fact is that almost all of the world's most influential ideas had been devised in Europe up until WW2, and only after that has US started to challenge Europe's intellectual influence.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/25/lenin-love-lit...

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Master_and_Margarita


>For comparison, the Bible was not at all seen as interesting in Europe during the 19th or the 20th century, only the "réactionnaires" (as they were called in France) had any interest in it + the Pope in Rome who had almost no influence at all after Napoleon's wars.

Is that true? This was the time when Germany was creating higher criticism.


> but the fact is that almost all of the world's most influential ideas had been devised in Europe up until WW2,

It is difficult to take for a fact vague statements that make sweeping generalisations without even an outline of the issues at hand. Maybe we should begin by making a list of the world's most influential ideas first?


We can look at the most influential people of the 20th century then. Leaving aside the Europeans and most of the Northern-Americans (who reguarded themselves as an European cultural colony well into the 20th century, things have started changing only with the 1950s and especially the 1960s), when you see that people like Mao-Zedong, Ho Chi Minh or Pol Pot were either European-educated or greatly influenced by European thinkers and writers (the case for Mao) then you might tone down the “unfounded generalization” accusation a little.

Any accusation of "unfounded generalization" -- words that I did not use but that you still put in quotes as if I had -- I may have been making was towards your original point (influential ideas, not people; of all time, not just the 20th century), and not the shifted goalpost. So I don't see how your examples refute the objection in its original context.

Second, even in the restricted context, sure many very influential non-Europeans may have been European-educated (as a result of European colonisation), but that doesn't mean you can casually discard the bases of their ideologies that came from their non-European roots. Take the case of Gandhi in India. European-educated for sure, and probably the most influential Indian of the 20th century: but his most influential ideas were distinctly non-European.

Third, what about influential people who weren't European-educated or in any obvious way influenced by European thought? Take the case of Abdul Sattar Edhi, considered Pakistan's "most respected" humanitarian (quote from Wikipedia). No European influence in sight.

Outside shifting goalposts and cherry-picking, I think your original point was a bit of an overreach. You might as well add most influential in Europe, really. The world is bigger than Europe.


Hopefully that was intended with the implied restriction "in modernity", i.e. since approximately the lead-up to the Enlightenment, since that'd be a position that could be given a credible defense, at least.

Yeah, of course it’s related to cultural “modernity”, before that the great majority of the people could not read and they couldn’t care less about the literary works posted by the OP. Yes, that includes even the Bible, I’d say that the majority of European peasants were de facto pagans until the mid-19th century (when literacy rates started increasing) for in fact they did know how to read the damn thing (and outside of Europe almost nobody cared about the Bible before the 1700s).

Our modern interpretation of the devil owes more to Faust than any of those, even the bible.



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