Fictions

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A manuscript of the Tristan and Iseult stories in prose, Dijon, Bibliothèque Municipale, 527

It is generally agreed that the tradition of the European novel begins with the compellingly bizarre Satyricon of Petronius. 1st-century Romans were finally able to consume a literary work which was neither history, philosophy, essay, personal reflection on nature or overt-covert attack on enemies. The trouble with the Satyricon is that one can’t place it anywhere – in the world of literary genre, it is genderfluid. And that is perhaps the reason why neither time nor cultural sensibility was able to drown its ambiguous appeal.

The Satyricon was a work of fiction, but it was like a comet visiting every few hundreds of years.

The European taste for fiction, so established in the modern period, survived Petronius’ odd concoction. To be fair, the Satyricon was too weird to beget imitators. It is fascinating but inimitable.

What was instead easier to follow, approach and approximate was the next great fiction tradition, that of the medieval roman courtois: Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Iseut, Yvain and the rest of the illuminated cast. The courtly romance developed forms which reached all the way up into the Renaissance and beyond, and few will deny that this typically Western medieval invention is still with us today, appealing and potently generative.

But what is fiction? I don’t mean the Anglo-American way of referring to the novel as a genre (how unfelicitous!), but the idea that something is created in the full knowledge that it is not real. To be fictitious is to be unstable, always on the edge of what could be and what could not. It is to reach down into the depths of human imagination in order to grasp that which can only be imagined, which doesn’t even reside there, never has but potentially will.

Reading between the lines

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A glossed manuscript of Juvenal’s Satires from the 11th century. The smaller words between the lines explain the words of the poem by way of synonyms and paraphrases, St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 871

What a curious expression, to read between the lines. To seek the space between the lines in search of the essence, the crux, the apex, the nexus, the heart of the matter. To read between the lines is to see what can’t be seen, to assume the stance of the discoverer, to be suspicious of those who say: check the lines, that’s all there is.

But the question remains: what lies between the lines? Though the lines are straight, the mind seizes the space between the lines circularly, moving around till the meaning is woven together into a furball. The text is textus, the woven fabric, the textile threads along the lines, spun and loomed.

The void may not be void after all.

In medieval manuscripts, the space between the lines was often taken up by glosses – explanations of the words on the line. These glosses could be synonyms, small paraphrases or even words translated into the language of the reader or the intended reader. This was a space of meaning-formation, of engagement, an arena of semantic wrestling – a moving forward of the mind beyond the text together with the text. To read between the lines is to orbit within the interval where the canon is bracketed in favour of the helpful paraphrase. In this context, the ‘in between’ is a necessity, the only way to come to grips with the text, not a means of ‘getting the gist of it.

It remains that reading between the lines releases unsuspected energies from within the text, inviting the reader to join her reading to the read text. To read between the lines is to collapse the barrier between the writer and the reader, to let the text breathe implicit meanings, those folded into (im-plicit) the fabric of the text.

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here

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It’s written on the gates of Hell, you’ve heard about it. Dante put it there, but he will tell you it was already there when he walked through the gate, the sign staring at him, him staring at the sign, his courage fading, though the writing endures, despite the age of the place, a pandemonium of odd scribblings, many of unknown origin and lost denotation, bar one which insists that the last warning is also the first, a devilish paradox whereby memory picks itself up by its own bootstraps, trying to make a living, in full knowledge that it is doomed to perish, just like everything else in the Underworld, as soon as Time starts cutting heads one by one, preventing the firing squad of funnily-named devils from getting into line and doing their own butchery.

Hell is a modern city, Ye Who Enter Here, just off Exit 1 – Netherbound, turning left, the sinister way, at the first roundabout, but certainly not the last, for who can walk straight when there is nowhere to go. The Infernal capital, welcome, Abandon Hope, population 1000 and rising, the busy shipping lanes scuttling the Malthusian catastrophe full fathom five, the cacodemonic metropolis of perfect town planning, circulation and division of labour, penalties and contrapassos, the El Paso del Sud, where things go south for all residents, without discrimination.

The P.A. system was demolished to install the digital board: Abandon hope, neon red, All Ye Who Enter Here, fluorescent green this time, to make you feel welcome, ready to party. Imagine a smoking cocktail in hand as you turn into the Faubourgs of Desolation. All Ye Who Enter, you can’t complain, you’ve come to the most inclusive town on the Southern Band, the all-inclusive resort of no final resorts, staffed and manned with care and dedication. Ye Enter Here, there is no there, you’ve long lost the luxury of freedom, options and deixis, that ship has sailed, and the local harbour is a one-way street, incoming traffic only.

A.H.A.Y.W.E.H – the flickering message on the board translated into every language, powered by Google translate, automatic language detection is on, so no-one can feel excluded. The first thing you see is a bit of text, and that is all you’ll ever read, abandon any hope of reading further, you’ve reached the end of the page, you keep scrolling down but the only way is up, and that is foreclosed to you, so you keep scrolling down frenetically but hopelessly.

There is no exit sign, no billboards on the side of the road, no traffic signs, though everyone follows the rules to a tee, moving counterclockwise in a roundabout without exists.

A tale of two texts

Text is like skin. There is one on the outer surface, the epidermis, and another, the dermis, lying underneath. The two layers may be perfectly connected and aligned, limpid and percolative, or they might get in another one’s way, blocking each other.

There is the text on the surface, on the hair side, so to speak, like the side of a piece of animal parchment. As you run your hand over it, you can feel the gentle bristle of where the hair used to be.

This text is superficial, lending itself to the easiest reading, always in contact with air, waterproof or porous, compelling us to engage with what lies beneath or leaving us indifferent. This is the text of the first interpretative act, the initial contact, the physical encounter, the bewitching foreplay.

The other text lies deep beneath the first one, occupying the flesh side of the parchment, smooth and creamy. It is the text of the connective tissue of meaning, never exposed, never vulnerable, but fertile in meaning, fed by the undercurrents of deep significance. This is the text that matters, protected by the integument of the first.

The second is also a trace of the first, the indelible vestige of a knocked-down temple. Shoshana Zuboff alludes to this when she writes about the problem of the two texts in the digital world: the text of our online presence, the tracks in the snow, the crumbs we leave behind; and the ghost-like text which remains after we’ve long gone, the illegible cipher of our former circumstance. Illegible by us, but not by those who built the online agora of our lonely steps. The first text may fade out, but the second is beyond our control, doomed to stand against us, scrawled in the strange cacography of our digital panopticon.

Just like skin, text can get bruised, bleed and lacerate.

The mighty pen

Everyone knows the pen is mightier than the sword. Yet, no monograph has been written on the various powers of the pen. Such a topic could be tackled like this:

The power to defame, malign and blacken: the poison pen, the dipping of the pen in gall.

The power to make unintentional mistakes, to get things wrong, there’s power in that: the slip of the pen.

The power of commitment, the ability to articulate thoughts and record them: putting pen to paper.

The power to preserve irrelevance: the pen pusher. Everyone knows one if they’re not one themselves.

The power to pursue ill-advised liaisons: the dipping of the nib in the office ink.

The power to allow situations to change before the ink is dry.

The power of superfluity, spilling much ink just because the ink is cheap and the pen-flow facile.

The power of thrust, creating ink slingers of topmost precision.

The power to kill insects. The Roman historian Suetonius tells how Emperor Domitian liked to spend hours alone in his study catching flies and stabbing them with a sharp pen, showing how one can practice neutralising adversaries even without spilling any ink, poison or gall.

Finally, the power to cause writer’s cramp from handling the pen too much like a sword.

 

 

 

 

Can writing save your life?

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Pliny the Elder writing his Natural History and dedicating it to Emperor Vespasian, Le Mans, Bibliothèque Municipale, 263, f. 10v

Writing has saved many mental lives, though it has also probably helped some lose theirs.

Writing dissident tracts during a totalitarian regime led to many deaths. Writing propagandist works during a totalitarian regime may have saved some lives. In those cases, it’s the quality of writing that seals the deal.

But has writing on its own actually saved anyone’s physical life?

If I say ancient calamity, you say … Vesuvius and Pompeii – arguably the most renowned disaster in ancient times and the world’s best-known archaeological site. We all know it.

We know about the effects of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD from the spectacular remains in Pompeii and Herculaneum. But the eruption itself comes to life in Pliny the Younger’s letters about the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder. The breathtaking report of a breathtaking disaster. Literally.

Let me pause here for some unsolicited advice to forthcoming parents: avoid naming your children after your own name, especially if you’re famous. They might become famous themselves, and that will confuse later biographers and historians. Throughout the Middle Ages, the two Plinies, uncle and nephew, were thought to be one person. Pliny the Elder left us his monumental Natural History – the Wikipedia of ancient Rome -, while the younger Pliny bequeathed an impressive body of letters to us, including the famous 6.16 which describes the eruption.

Uncle Pliny learned about the eruption from his sister Plinia, the younger Pliny’s mother, whereupon the inquisitive naturalist expressed his desire to scrutinise the natural phenomenon more closely. Having ordered a galley – he had just been appointed fleet commander of the Roman navy -, he asked his nephew to join him. The latter refused.

But why?

When Mt Vesuvius blew up, the nephew was completing some homework in his uncle’s company. Neither uncle nor nephew understood how serious the situation was. For them, the eruption was like an eclipse – fascinating but harmless.

The nephew protested that he couldn’t go because he hadn’t finished his homework. His uncle had assigned him a written exercise, and he didn’t want to put it off.

Sometimes, FOMO doesn’t stand a chance against a good old Latin exercise.

The elder Pliny boarded the galley without his nephew, but just before setting sail, he had received an urgent message from friends across the Bay who were marooned and needed a ship to evacuate.

Pliny would never return from his ill-fated field trip, turned rescue mission.

On the other hand, a writing exercise saved the younger Pliny’s life. It saved both his life and the memory of his uncle’s last hours, for no other report of Pliny’s death survives.

Ratings

Ratings and truth are not the same and don’t always correlate.

If 100 people agree with a statement, that doesn’t make it true. They could all be wrong. In the realm of opinions, ratings may improve the probability rate, but they are not an indication of truth.

In the realm of facts and science, ratings establish truth and validity.

If 100 scientists agree with a theory based strictly on the scientific method, that theory is true and valid. The problem is that not everything scientists agree or disagree on is the result of the scientific method. The more a theory or an idea moves away from its grounding in fact, the more likely it is to be subject to disagreements, even within the same professional community. It may still enjoy the status of science, but that wouldn’t be the same thing.

Scientific paradigms shift when the gap between fact and theory becomes unbridgeable. Facts have nowhere to go, so the theory must leave. There is limited space in the room for too many theories. New theories are born all the time, but they settle into the property when the old ones have checked out.

But back to ratings. In our culture, ratings have been trying to usurp the sovereignty of truth and set themselves up as measures of credibility and value. You can’t be wrong if you follow a good crowd. And a good crowd usually has the numbers on its side. The bandwagon fallacy is one of the most resilient.

Everything gets rated because we feel everything needs to find its place in the pecking order. We rate movies just as we rate professors of history on rateyourlecturer.co.uk and Burgundy wines on Vivino. We give them a number, we assign them a value and find them a place.

It’s always easier to rate than to interpret, to count than to tell a compelling story.