“The History of Literature is the History of the Progressive Conquest of Intimacy”: Literature in the Time of Post-Truth
The following text is made up of extracts of a talk that took place in Norman, Oklahoma on October 26, 2018 as part of the fourteenth Tierra Tinta conference, organized by graduate students of Latin American literature at the Department of Modern Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics of the University of Oklahoma. On this occasion, Juan Villoro was invited to participate as keynote speaker.
I’m going to talk about a subject that has to do partly with literature and partly with the context in which literature takes place. What are today’s challenges for the practice of fiction and journalism, in an age where reality is being distorted or transformed by new platforms, new ways of representing the world? You all know that, in Arthur Schopenhauer’s famous dichotomy between the world as will and the world as representation, he tried to address, once and for all, the subject of human action, compared to and put in play with the human representation of reality. That is to say, existence necessarily takes place at two different speeds: the world of facts, and the representation of these facts that exists in the consciousness of those who participate in them. Literature forms part of this representation of the world of facts, and in this sense, it serves as its mirror, but it also makes up a second reality. It is important to recognize that the products of literature are not necessarily products that escape from the real; on the contrary, through the system of symbols represented by literature, we can better understand our reality and incorporate into it products that have previously been merely imaginary. Who would say the Quixote doesn’t belong to reality? Who would say that Shakespeare hasn’t transformed our world?
When I was at Yale University, I had the good fortune to attend a seminar taught by Harold Bloom, the great interpreter of Shakespearean literature. The course’s title was a phrase that I find very revealing, and even provocative: “Originality in Shakespeare.” Harold Bloom’s fundamental thesis is that the present-day world is so Shakespearean that it has become very difficult to return to that initial moment when this didn’t exist, when the Shakespearean was absolutely novel and unknown. Getting back to that moment of rupture takes a lot of work, because today, even people who have never read Shakespeare can say that two young people in love are like Romeo and Juliet, or that someone is as jealous as Othello. In other words, the repertoire of Shakespearean themes has transformed our reality, since the reality of literature has to do with the world of facts, inasmuch as it interprets, questions, and transforms them.
Within literature, I’ve been interested in cultivating fiction as well as nonfiction, and I believe that, when we talk about this dichotomy between what is testimonial and what is imagined, we are not talking about a dichotomy between truth and lie. I believe it is an unnecessary simplification to state that literature belongs to the lie; I believe literature, as I have said in the case of Shakespeare or Cervantes, belongs to our reality inasmuch as the conception of the world, its representation, forms part of the real. The difference between testimony and fiction is not the difference between truth and lie: it is rather, exclusively, the difference between the verifiable and the unverifiable. That is, fiction has to be proven against reality, but that does not mean it is withdrawn from reality or that it ceases to belong to it. Fiction forms part of a reality, even if it has nothing to do with a principle of verification. This seems to me central in order to understand the tension that can exist between fiction and nonfiction.
In what moment do we find ourselves with respect to the practice of the many fields of fiction (the novel, the story, the short novel), poetry, and nonfiction (the essay, the testimony, the news article, the chronicle)? I believe we are living in a fascinating moment, still undefined, in terms of the representation of the world through new digital platforms, social networks, the virtual transformation of reality. We are witnessing the birth of communicative codes that we have still not entirely dominated. In the sixties, Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian communicologist, foretold that a new era would come, dominated by audiovisual media, and based on that vision he warned that relationships between people were going to change and that there would be what he called a retribalization of the species: that is, visual codes would become more important than written codes. One of the paradoxes of his theories is that he wrote an extraordinary book to talk about the end of books. This book is called The Gutenberg Galaxy. In it, he talks about the end of written processes and societies founded upon letters, leading into a new phase in which the tribes of the future will communicate through audiovisual media. It was the great moment of commercial television and of families coming together; like a tribe came together around a campfire, they came together around a television. This collective perception of programs was leading, he said, to a new tribal attitude: to see a message in collective. And there were extremely important messages that were not only articulated around what a family saw, but also around what the whole planet saw. For example, think about man reaching the moon; something witnessed by the whole planet in harmony. This is a situation that could not be repeated today, because at the time it was very important to take into account the possibility of what McLuhan also called “the global village”: the planet unified around a single message. What McLuhan put forth did not come true as he predicted, because the next great technological renewal came with the personal computer. This led the culture of literacy, which he believed would become obsolete, to return with renewed vigor, through devices that fed on letters, called computers, that we still use today.
Now, in the present, the greatest challenge is virtual reality. A conjectural reality in which we spend a lot of our time. It’s a novel process; so novel that I would dare to say we are the barbarians of a new civilization. We are only just beginning to learn the codes of this new reality. In a famous song, John Lennon said, “life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans.” That is to say, the substance of life escapes us; we don’t capture its essence because we are distracted doing something else. And we understand it better when we remember it as the past, or as the future when we long for it, but we are scarcely able to capture the instant in all its intensity. This sentence, issued before virtual reality, today has become more complex and more urgent, as we spend a good part of our time representing ourselves in virtual spaces and we have a PIN to access an account, we have a password, we often have an alias, a pseudonym to get into Twitter, etc. This capacity of a human being to live out an existence in the world of facts and, at the same time, to represent himself spectrally, in a simulacrum of identity built upon digital platforms, is a new phenomenon that did not exist before and that puts the discourse of the written word in question. How do we interact with this world? How does the virtual relate to the real? Important phenomena have emerged: in Japan we hear of the hikikomori, the electronic autistic who spends so much time in front of the screen that he is incapable of returning to the world of the real. We have also suffered a loss of our private sphere; our personal data is sold in data banks to companies that offer us products online. Yahoo, for example, collects 2,500 pieces of data per user per month, from the 250,000,000 users they have, and sends them over to businesses that want access to this personal information.
Espionage has also become a constant. From the Snowden case, we know the major intelligence centers are keeping watch not over external threats, but over everyday life. That means any citizen may be subject to surveillance, investigation, etc. We have somehow lost the sphere of privacy, which turns literature into one of the last existing reservoirs of private life. Writing a story about one person’s intimacy is somehow an act of resistance in a world where intimacy is being lost.
The history of literature is the history of the progressive conquest of intimacy. Many texts were written to be believed, they were seen as found manuscripts. Faced with the question, “who is speaking here?” someone would say, “I found this text somewhere.” Such is the famous case of the Quixote, which is not a text manifestly written by Cervantes. Theoretically, an Arab author wrote it, and Cervantes is transformed not into its father, but into its stepfather. He is the one who adopts the text and, based on this adoption, gives it greater legitimacy because he suffers the difficulties of finding it himself. He tells us, “I sent the novel off to be translated, I didn’t get the translation on time; in the meantime, I’ll give you a novel to entertain you until I get the translation.” So, he is playing metatextually with his own manuscript. He receives it, he admits it, and in this sense he makes it credible because he gives us the source, the origin, he informs us of how it came to be in his hands. This is something that rarely appears in a book; he goes so far as to mention the places where an author could find stories written in Arabic. And so, literature has always had an origin that we have tried to explain in this way, and so we see all literature in the third person, the omniscient narrator who is a sort of God who knows all that takes place in the minds of all the characters, and literature progressively begins to adopt a conduct and a vision of the individual, and even of consciousness. In other words, literature begins to conquer a progressively deeper territory; and we see that some of the major novels of the twentieth century are novels that have to do with the internal monologue, with the famous stream of consciousness. For this reason, if literature has to do with a progressive conquest of intimacy, and the life we are living today somehow requires intimacy to be functional, inasmuch as we are the objects of surveillance and manipulation of our personal data, I believe literature takes on, from the point of view of its social and cultural importance, a tremendous weight, because it serves as an extraordinary reservoir of intimacy. We are faced with the possibility of coming into contact with a consciousness that even, in the case of books like Ulysses, in its famous final monologue, or the literature of Virginia Woolf, or many other authors, puts us in contact with thoughts that are not yet formulated, the free association of ideas of a character who experiences the stream of consciousness.
Literature still has that condition of maintaining the individual, and I think that’s one of its great inheritances. This conception of individual consciousness pertains to fiction (the novel, the short story), but it also has to do with nonfiction (with the testimony, with the chronicle), because nonfiction depends largely on an effort to capture the thoughts of the real witnesses of an event in order to transmit these thoughts through the chronicle. When Gabriel García Márquez writes The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, he writes it in the first person, stepping into the skin of the tale’s protagonist. This text was originally published in instalments in the El Espectador newspaper of Bogotá, as if it had been written by the shipwrecked sailor himself, unassociated with García Márquez’s name. Only after he became a famous writer was the book republished under his name, and he, in a gesture that makes it clear that he understood that the text’s co-author was the shipwrecked sailor himself, gives the author’s rights to the sailor. We must take into account, of course, that García Márquez no longer needed any more author’s rights, since he had already become famous with One Hundred Years of Solitude. So, it is clear that the possibility of entering into a foreign consciousness also pertains to the testimony. One of the richest aspects of the chronicle is precisely that it combines the resources of testimonial reporting with the resources of literature that allow us to investigate, to delve into the inner lives of those who protagonize a story or of those who witnessed it. Consciousness is also submitted to reporting, and I believe this is one of the most interesting things about the contemporary chronicle. For example, one of the masters of the chronicle in the twentieth century, Richard Kapuscinski, upholds as one of his essential precepts the need to consider that every person has the right to be neurotic, every person has the right to be irritated, to give incorrect information, to get annoyed; so, a lot of his chronicles—and not necessarily chronicles of people whom one would associate with a stormy temperament, but simply chronicles set in Africa among common people—manage to communicate not only how this person is living or carrying out their role, but also how he is feeling, how he is thinking, and how he is dreaming. There is an interiorization of reporting, and I believe this makes the reporting particularly important.
In the context in which we live now, it seems there is a complex conflict (and I believe literature inevitably has to participate in it) between the more or less homogeneous representation of a world that we see on all the various screens we view (the television, the computer, the cell phone) and the representation that is presented in literature. And this has led to discourses that somehow oppose one another: the famous cases of “fake news” that were so hotly discussed during the Donald Trump campaign, here in the United States, and that, of course, are discussed in other political campaigns; the distortion of reality that can take place on many platforms where there is no filter; a court of public opinion that believes this or that claim is true, this or that fact was truly identified. All of this alerts us that there is an ever-growing distortion of reality, to the extent that in 2016 the Oxford dictionary, which chooses a word to define the moment each year, chose the word “post-truth” to indicate that 2016 had been a year in which information had been manipulated. The concept of post-truth is not completely assimilable to the concept of lying, because the concept of post-truth is a distortion of reality with ulterior motives. It’s a deliberate manipulation of the truth, often with political ends. In this sense, it is indeed a lie, but with an ideological intention. This is why the concept has taken on such weight, despite the prior existence of a word like “lying.” In a moment when reality is being distorted in this way, and the most influential Twitter-user on the planet is Donald Trump, who has said things about my country that clearly demand an opposing discourse, spaces are needed in which truth can gain another possibility of being applied. And this is where I believe the chronicle becomes particularly important today. I believe we are in a moment in which the use of truth has been so thoroughly distorted that we need to return to discourses and narratives that come closer to a more accurate relationship with reality. It appears, if we look at the atmosphere of social media, that the world of facts has begun to vanish, bit by bit, and that it is increasingly difficult to reach this world, because we have to pass through many filters to get there. Faced with the addictive phenomenon of social media and the exaggerated circulation of news that is not necessarily true on such networks, one wonders: where did reality go? Perhaps it disappeared? And this is where I believe it is ever more urgent to reclaim reality through writing.
This is no easy task, because one of the secondary effects of the Internet has been the end of the music industry. Record labels no longer make sense commercially, and the Internet is currently ending journalism as a model for independent businesses as well. It is practically impossible for a newspaper to survive solely on its own profit. This is a very serious situation for the subsistence of newspapers today, since advertisers no longer turn to print pages as much owing to the free access to news on the Internet. In this context, a newspaper can only move forward if it forms part of a commercial conglomerate, that is, if it has other economic interests to back it up. The Spanish journalist and novelist Manuel Vásquez Montalbán used to say, “the first lesson a journalist must learn is who owns his newspaper,” because that’s the source of the interests that must be defended and that’s where the limits of his freedom of expression lie. All freedom is relative, all freedom is fenced-in, and the freedom of the journalist is related, of course, to the space in which he practices his trade. At any rate, the majority of newspapers today—those that can still survive—require parallel businesses in order to do so. This makes it substantially more difficult for them to behave completely independently, because there are vested interests and a necessary traffic of influences in order to ensure that all these businesses can survive. It’s a complex situation because, if we want truly independent news coverage, we’re not necessarily going to get it from a medium that has interests other than the search for truth. That’s why I believe there is a social urgency to find accredited sources that search for truth and defend it, just as there is a social need to turn to discourses of intimacy that can be guaranteed by literature. This tension in which we are living today seems to me, on the one hand, fascinating, and on the other, terribly worrying. We might say there’s a deficit of the individual and a deficit of the true in our society. I believe journalism and literature are ways to defend the individual and the true in the present day.
I’d like to pause for a moment to speak about a genre that I believe is particularly important: the chronicle. A genre that, as I said a few moments ago, takes advantage of testimonial resources, but also of eminently literary resources. A good chronicle may have been written a long time ago, and we don’t necessarily read it to find out about the news; we can read it across time to know how something happened in the moment and how it affected certain people. From a cultural point of view, I think the chronicle is the genre that best connects the public to the private. Sometimes we read a piece of news and it impacts us statistically; we learn two hundred people died in a tsunami, but it doesn’t impact us emotionally because we don’t know much about how it happened. The fact is powerful, but in order to truly understand what happened, we need a story that connects the individual lives of these people to the public event about which we are reading. I believe this link between the public and the private can be formed exceptionally well through the genre of the chronicle, which seeks to transmit to us the private life of facts; and this is very important, the private life of information, which is not merely a statistic. There are remarkable examples of how we can be affected by something individual, lived in the intimate key that belongs to a collective event. For example, I believe a very important narrative model is represented in the museum in Hiroshima dedicated to the atomic bomb. In this museum, we see objects that were destroyed by the blast, and every object has a little placard that tells a private story: who was the owner of this wristwatch, who was the little boy who rode on this tricycle, who was the woman who wore this kimono. In this way, the objects we see as mere facts, burnt to a crisp by the atomic fires, take on a unique biography, and this becomes important because we can feel empathy, we can identify with the events. I believe one of the most important resources of the chronicle is precisely the ability to generate empathy with the reader, making some distant event, some random piece of news, transform into something that can touch the reader emotionally; and I think that’s where the chronicle plays its ethical cards, in the sense that when we identify with a reality, as different or distant as it may be, we feel it’s necessary that this should happen in another way, or that it should not be repeated: that is, there is a necessary empathy. You’ve probably seen the film Spotlight, which is about an investigation into sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests in Boston, undertaken by the Boston Globe. The film’s final scene shows the reaction of readers at the moment when this information was published. The information is so convincing that, at this moment, the coordinator of the reports is alone in the newsroom, and he suddenly hears the telephones start ringing with calls from readers who identify with the report and want to make their own accusations. So identifying with and understanding reality, making it one’s own, making a pact of empathy is essential for the testimony to have an ethical repercussion. This is one of the things it can achieve. In a world that suffers from a deficit in the use of truth, it’s very important to seek out real facts, but, at the same time, to create narratives that make them not only realistic or interesting for the reader, but also able to touch readers emotionally. This is where the chronicle requires certain literary resources in order to enter into the individual lives of the witnesses, to communicate their emotions, their feelings, and to relate them with the reader in an empathetic way.
This inquiry into intimate life seems to me absolutely central to the chronicle, and it also represents a social value in a world where the sphere of the individual, the sphere of the intimate is losing weight. Literature is, after all, a reserve of individual situations, but I also believe we should see in it an act of resistance regarding the use of time. Today we live in the present, in immediacy, in this present that escapes us, in which we don’t really know where reality went. Literature proposes a different administration of time, since, in its very structure, it relies on temporal processes. Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is, of course, the recovery of a wide-ranging past, something that’s difficult for us to achieve today. If we understand that the human being operates using basic concepts of space and time, we can understand that, somehow, space is more meaningful than time today, since we can enter a web page, enter Google, enter a space in which all moments form a single present. Therefore, if we want the news of any era, and this news takes on presence at this very instant, we want to make a transfer, and the transfer is instantaneous. We live in a present, and our relationship with cultural processes has more to do with a place than with an elaborate process of time. Even of forms of communication like WhatsApp or email are so fast that I think they belong less to communication and more to neurology. As soon as you consider sending something, you’ve already sent it; it’s instantaneous. Think about letters, written letters. Often it took a while to receive a reply, people often treasured their letters, they slept with them under their pillow, they reread them many times before writing back. This process of time in writing is something that doesn’t exist on social networks, in the digital universe; its great reserve, I believe, exists in literature itself; the literature that still requires the uses of time.
Now, will literature be able to survive in a world of velocities, of intensities, etc.? I believe so, I believe the act we have here is an act of presence, and I believe all acts of presence today are acts of resistance. The fact of being in direct communication, the tertulia, the conversation, the theatre, are almost ritual forms of consecrating presence; in this sense, I believe the academy still has a great deal to say regarding the act of presence. And I also believe that books we can pass from hand to hand, books on paper, have a very important cultural function of resistance. The defense of the individual sphere also takes place through books, and especially through books on paper. I believe the best part of books on paper are the hands that pass them, and that create brotherhoods of readers. A book like One Hundred Years of Solitude has in its very name the idea of a boundless, wide-ranging use of time. I believe literature requires that, necessarily. And I will conclude with the following: defending individuality and defending the use of time, which are essential processes for the chronicle as much as for fiction, also represents something absolutely decisive, in my opinion: the defense of memory.
Neurologists have predicted that the human beings of the future will be different, with ever thinner fingers, probably in order to manipulate new types of platforms, very sharp eyes, sophisticated brains, but also a loss of memory. A loss of memory because we have ever more prostheses to supplant our memory. So literature is also a reserve of memory, not only because of what is written in it, but also because the very act of reading activates the memory. Anyone who reads a 400-page novel needs to remember a lot to be able to carry on. We can’t read a novel by Dostoyevsky is we don’t learn the names and nicknames of the characters. So, memory is put into effect in the very process of reading. And what to say about poetry? Poetry is an instrument of memorization. Meter and rhyme are processes that allow us to learn things by memory. The simple fact of knowing things by memory seems to me a poetic act in itself. The Mexican writer Gonzalo Celorio claimed that saying “six times three is eighteen,” or Latin declensions, rosa-rosae, rosa-rosa, or praying “Hail Mary, full of grace…” are poetic acts in and of themselves. Like reciting the words of Ramón López Velarde: “yo tuve en tierra adentro una novia muy pobre. / Ojos inusitados de sulfato de cobre.” Poetry exercises the memory and forces the reader to put it into effect, just as literature, with its own dynamic, asks us to make an exercise of memory.
Thank you very much.
Transcribed by Guillermo Romero
Translated by Arthur Dixon
Juan Villoro (Mexico City, 1956) is a writer and journalist. His journalistic and literary work has been recognized with international prizes including the Herralde Novel Prize, the Xavier Villarrutia Prize, the King of Spain Prize, the City of Barcelona Prize, the Vázquez Montalbán Prize for Sports Journalism, and the Antonin Artaud Prize. Juan Villoro is also the director of the Gabriel García Márquez Foundation for New Ibero-American Journalism, and he was a member of the governing council of the Gabriel García Márquez Prize for Journalism, awarded annually in Medellín, Colombia. He has worked as a professor of literature at UNAM, Yale, and the Universidad Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. He is a columnist in the publications Reforma and El Periódico de Catalunya. He lives between Mexico and Spain.
Arthur Malcolm Dixon is co-founder, lead translator, and Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today. He has translated the novels Immigration: The Contest by Carlos Gámez Pérez and There Are Not So Many Stars by Isaí Moreno (Katakana Editores), as well as the verse collection Intensive Care by Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza (Alliteratïon). He also works as a community interpreter in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a 2020-2021 Tulsa Artist Fellow.
In our tenth issue, we question the values of literature and journalism in the post-truth age through the words of Mexican writer Juan Villoro and we explore new territories of digital literature in a dossier curated by Scott Weintraub. We also feature memories of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre told through graphic narrative, new perspectives on the translation of Shakespeare into Spanish with an essay from Braulio Fernández Biggs, and Wayuu literature from the Venezuelan side of the border than runs through their ancestral lands.