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Philipp Blom

On 18 September 2020, writer Philipp Blom delivered the first State of European Literature. This year's theme was 'Literature, the Antidote'. You can read the full lecture below.

Here be Dragons, or:

How to Tell Stories in Societies That Have Lost the Plot

Speaking about the state of European literature is more than I feel competent to do, for I lack all formal expertise or systematic knowledge or theoretical armoury to do so.

I am, though, a storyteller myself, in works of fiction and nonfiction and so I would like to look at the state of European literature from the perspective of a storyteller fascinated by historical tipping points.

We are living at such a tipping point, I believe, at a moment of irrevocable change, of social breakdown, degenerating debates, economic downturn, global pandemics, threatened democracies, and, behind it all, a natural catastrophe of vast proportions.

This feeling of losing all control and direction is what I am interested in. What happens to our stories, if the world they are about is changing faster than they do? What happens to societies which no longer have a story to tell? What happens to us if we lose the plot?

Until just about a decade ago, the societies of the rich world definitely had a plot. It was egotistical, it excluded and exploited those who were far enough away, and it historically depended on a global system of exploitation and oppression, but it was also characterised by political battles to improve people’s lives, by a tenacious fight for justice, fairness, freedom, by scientific advances. This plot of progress and liberal politics was backed up by structures and institutions and funded by a vast economic expansion.

Buoyed by its own success, economic growth became the name of the game during the post-war era, and its future was one of limitless possibilities. For those lucky enough to be born in the right countries, you could see the changes, and they were amazing, from the first pair of jeans to the first university degree and a step on the social escalator taking you up and up, right into the swanky boutiques of todays global designer brands.

This plot has suffered shipwreck on the rocks of a changed reality, rocks that were simply not on the maps that were used by Cold Warriors, by liberal politicians and neo-liberal economists, by great bosses, and journalists, and little voters.

This blessed world of endless growth and endless progress, with its political parties and institutions, its balance of power, its youth rebellion, the bullish economies and the newly egalitarian and redistributive societies, a world bursting with future, with science fiction and real-world scientific discoveries, pop music and the moon landing, with plastic disposable everything, cars like castles, the atom bomb - this world of relentless progress and buying into a new and brighter future, is definitely gone. We are inhabiting its ruins.

So, what has changed?

The story of the past decades, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, has been the success of the global, neoliberal economy, of conspicuous consumption and new antidepressants.

The narratively most seductive expression of this period was Francis Fukuyama’s End of History, the ultimate anti-Marxism, which simply declared any kind of historical dialectics redundant. Once we have all reached the liberal Nirwana there will no longer be any goals, any unanswered questions.

None of this has come to pass. The basic mistake of the liberal worldview has alway been to believe that all people are potential liberals, that opinions and decisions are guided by enlightened self interest, that a rational approach to the world is enough to win every argument, that the gravitational force of the liberal model will prove irresistible to all.

But one does not have to go very far afield to understand how tribally people think and feel not just in the outer valleys of Afghanistan, but right in London and Amsterdam, how important fear and humiliation are as political motivations, how seductive it is to adopt opinions not because they correspond to reality, but because they feel good, they give you the dignity the world is refusing you.

Instead of a triumphant End of History (in Fukuyama’s original vision a rather sad idea) the world today has more history than it knows what to do with, rather like the Balkans, about which a diplomat once remarked that they produce more history than they can consume locally. There are corrupt and narcissistic politicians, decaying political systems, democratically elected out-and-out gangsters, and a variety of truly apocalyptic threats from climate catastrophe to rusting nukes and new pandemics, gene editing and the imponderables of artificial intelligence. History shows no sign of slowing down.

The Price of Growth

But it is not just the narrative of the post-war world that is faltering. As a real-world consequence of the narrative of limitless economic growth and exploitation, natural systems are collapsing or being modified in critical ways. Amid the disastrous loss of biodiversity with 60 to 70 per cent of land vertebrates and invertebrates dying off, and the accelerating structural ruin of natural systems from rain forests to ice shields and maritime life, it becomes obvious that humanity’s ambition to control nature of nature has become mired in a myriad of unintended, potentially fatal consequences.

Without even beginning to look at the moral implications of this realisation, it becomes clear that there is no way forward that involves chasing more growth by using more resources, slashing more rain forest, creating ever greater amplitudes of uncertainty and potential devastation.

This is a fascinating point, precisely because the model of mastery and expansion, of growth and domination has been so vastly successful for those on the right side of the fence. Liberal democracies in which human rights are respected at least nominally, and which offer a thick system of support for those in need of it, are not the logical result of historical virtues and they are not a natural outcome of a providential development that leads from the dark ages to the period of Enlightenment. It is also the result of having the funds to make it happen, and therefore, of colonialism, fossil fuel use and industrial exploitation of resources, including people. To put it bluntly: post-war liberal democracies have been contingent on the oil boom.

This is a point worth emphasising especially in the current discussions about alternatives to growth-based capitalism. We can all agree that continuous economic growth can no longer be a goal in itself, but it is also true that liberal democracies are expensive to run and their existence has so far been contingent on high economic growth and on the massive use of fossil fuels and we have no way of knowing what will become of them once economies are decoupled from the imperative of growth.

Can democratic institutions survive an end to growth in increasingly diverse societies which are increasingly divided not so much ethnically or religiously, but tribally, through economic inequality, social media, and access to social goods. How can a commitment to human rights and in science survive in societies in which there is less and less agreement on basic facts, on standards of truth, on where to place one’s trust and whom to believe?

This is a high stakes game, and the choice is by no means just between an evil, globalised hyper-capitalism and a world of humanity, peace and decency. It is a path full of dangers and beset by unforeseen consequences and complications, demanding constant compromises and radical changes, alternating progress and collapse.

Subjugate the Earth

To some degree this faltering civilisation is a victim of its own, incredibly rapid success, and it is worth asking a little further, because the inspiration of this historical success provides the central plot along which this story unfolded: the story of growth, of progress, of domination.

The all-conquering neoliberal market, is only the most recent incarnation of this basic plot. Before that it appeared in different guises: as colonialist assumption of superiority; as Enlightened mastery over the mysteries of nature; as Christian or Hegelian salvation through there self-realising world spirit. And at the beginning of all of these lies a single, simple sentence: Subjugate the earth. This is God’s command to Adam in Genesis 1:28. The rest, as they say, is history.

These few words mark a spiritual, religious and philosophical revolution. The bible describes the earth not as animated an in a lively exchange with humans, but as a mute territory, to be measured, sold, settled, dough up, plowed, a plot to be exploited by Adam and his descendants, whose mission it is to subjugate, to conquer, to rule, to extract, to exploit, to exterminate.

If you have grown up in a western society you have imbibed this sentence with your mother’s milk, so completely that this Bronze-age ambition at the heart of our narrative no longer even seems strange - neither the fact that a Bronze-age society with little understanding of natural laws and primitive tools really thought they could triumph over nature, nor that this archaic ambition has been preached up to this day, despite the fact that it has become clear that this plot line leads straight over the cliff. “We do not have enough earth for so much progress,” as Bruno Latour dryly remarks.

The Gold-embossed Truth

This is an interesting moment for storytelling - not the cliff, I mean, but telling stories in times of change. Telling stories when the paradigm has cracked and is shifting under your feet, and with it the very ground we have to communicate with one another, the framework for our stories.

Two approaches seem possible to this fracturing landscape. One emphasises stability, the strength of the system in dealing with all challenges, the other adopts a more risky opposite approach.

During the last few weeks I have moved house - not something one undertakes lightly if one has far too many books. While packing I happened upon my huge and heavy edition of Meyer’s Conversationslexikon in twenty-eight volumes, published in Germany in 1908, a massive wall of gold-embossed leather bindings containing all relevant facts about the world.

Meyers Conversationslexikon shows of world of splendid solidity, described in formal texts and embellished with engravings and lithographs classifying everything into a neat, Linnaean order and with a scientific authority that allowed no debate. On a map of Europe, it shows where the most “valuable” blond Europeans are concentrated and where the “inferior” darker-skinned southern or eastern types. It proclaims its knowledge not as a hypothesis, but as an established fact, canonised by its inclusion in the dictionary.

This bible-like authority is particularly ironic because the very existence of this dictionary is based on new and cheaper, electric printing presses and reproduction technologies, new methods of producing paper and mechanised book binding, efficient railroad transport and a network of paid expertise subtly intertwined with propaganda - all the elements that made world burst its banks in a flood of modernity, a rapid current of change: the Gothic letters on smooth pages, the gilt lettering on the leather spines; all carrying the seed of their obsolescence and worse still: of the revolution that would sweep them away.

This is the dilemma of this first approach, especially in times of change. It is the literary and philosophical expression of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: The more precisely you want to define and chronicle a world, the more you yourself became an agent of change. What is expressed is untrue because it is already obsolete, its world-mastering expectation always the agent of its own downfall.

Here be dragons

The second approach to storytelling in times of change is inspired by maritime maps from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a time that also knew a great deal about changing paradigms and instabile facts.

These maps show the world as it was known and knowable to each individual cartographer, who worked by consulting other maps as well as navigation data, travel accounts, new publications. Each map revealed a little more about the world, and hypothesised about the rest.

There was quite simply far too little known for certain about faraway lands and perhaps the empty patches offended the printmakers’ professional honour, and so the cartographers embellished the deserts, the unexplored areas on the map and the vast expanses of ocean with all sorts of imaginary monsters, from whales with furious faces to gryphons and unicorns and gigantic sea snakes. Sometimes, however, the graphical inventiveness takes a more serious turn an some corners of the world carry a simple warning: hic sunt dragones -  or, as an English map has it, “here be dragons”.

This inscription marks the limes between knowing and believing. It reminds the user of the map that this is not a true, faithful depiction of the world as it really is, but a projection, a hypothesis trying to make sense of all the similar but conflicting accounts, measurements and reports the cartographer could lay his hands on. “Here be dragons” also meant: do not believe this map. It may lead you to the edge of the known world but the world, but what it tries to describe could be quite different, swathes of it may still be undiscovered or undescribed, the dragons of the imagination are lurking at the periphery.

This crack between projection and reality is a territory in which fiction thrives. It probes into the fissures of self perception, explores the lies told to keep up appearances and the consequences of these lies, records the choices made under false pretences, based on mistaken assumptions, chronicles the unfolding disaster of illusions shattered or gone blind, like old mirrors that have lost their ability to reflect - but it can also sketch different realities, worlds inhabitable in the imagination, moments of healing, and hope, and transformation.

That, to me, is a role I find interesting as a narrator, as a giver-of-accounts, as a serial seducer of minds, whether this narration takes the form of nonfiction or fiction, of radio or book or lecture: to engage with the ill-defined edges or our knowledge, with the fears that find form in human beliefs and actions, with the shifting sands of social attitudes, with the monsters of the imagination: to go and seek the dragons.

The London Tube

Maps only work precisely because do not show the world as it really is, as Jorge Luis Borges imagines in one of his short stories in which a map of a faraway empire is produced on a scale of 1:1, but has long been disused because it was found to be unusable.

Maps work because they symbolise, simplify, leave out, distort. The most frequently consulted map in the world is probably the iconic London Tube map, designed with true modernist flair by the twenty-nine year-old Harry Beck, in 1931. The London Tube map reorganised the apparent chaos of underground lines and stations into a neat network of straight or diagonal lines. It is indispensable for navigating the tube, but actually counterproductive above ground, showing wrong distances and rearranged locations, forcing unruly reality into the corset of ordered engineering.

To navigate a world coping with catastrophe, a world in which economics, politics and social ideals will have to adapt to natural transformations, good maps will be of the essence. The old maps no longer depict a world we recognise, they do not show newly-formed cliffs, they cannot lead to the goals societies will have to define and find for themselves.

You need to know what you want to find before you can use a map. The London Tube Map may be a work of genius, but it is useless if you want to prospect for oil, to investigate the distribution of songbirds, if you are looking for restaurants, trying to park your car, or interested in historical buildings. You can only find on a map what the draftsman thought to put in it, what he or she thought important and worth documenting.

A map for the future, can only be drawn up once it is decided what goal is worth looking for, worth reaching, and it seems to me that here storytellers have an important role to play - independently of whether they are actual writers or not, whether they are called Greta Thunberg, Margaret Atwood, Richard Powers, or Bruno Latour.

In recent years, these voices have been fruitful for learning to think about tomorrows goals and the ways of getting there. Nobody’s presence in the news has begun more new and frequently difficult conversations than Greta Thunberg, nobody has done more to focus the imagination on nearby dystopia than Margaret Atwood. In his masterful novel Overstory Richard Powers writes about the many and subtle relationship between people and trees, and Bruno Latour has added philosophical tools for thinking about a future in which homo sapiens is not above nature, but deep inside it, not living on earth, but inside the critical zone.

These voices can create dialogues, disputes, and even a shift in attitudes. They can begin to tell new stories and help define goals for societies which are interested in their own future.

This is where the wisdom of the old maps becomes a necessity. The better the map gets, the more necessary it becomes to remember that it is just a map, that it must distort and edit crucial information, possible goals, particular ways of getting there. Hic sunt dragones, the old maps warn, this is not an objective picture of reality, it is not, in capitals, The Truth about the world, though it can help you navigate it, up to a point. There still are white bits on this map, inhabited by the monsters of our imagination.

This is what you might call the temptation of the map: that you are content with the map you have, and that you learn only to see and seek in the world what happens to be on the map. This makes for a boring life if the map is accurate, but it may just lead you over a cliff when it is not.

That incidentally is why pluralism and cultural diversity are key evolutionary assets: more mental maps showing different perspectives on the same ever-changing and unknowable whole. More chances of finding a perspective revealing something we need to know, more possibilities of cross fertilization, of maps evolving their perspectives and projections dynamically to keep up with the continental drift, the new islands and undulating coastlines of reality.

With the slow, tottering and obscene collapse of the story of domination, of progress and eternal growth, we are left groping for explanations, for plot lines to hang on to. Unsurprisingly, other, competing stories come flooding into the void, competing for space to sink in roots, for air, for the life-giving light of attention.

These are fascinating and dangerous times, because as we are learning every day, collective stories have real-world consequences and some of these stories are really capable of killing millions. It does matter which story a society tells itself about itself, about climate change, about masculinity, about race, about God, about desire, and the winner in this contest will not be decided by how progressive, how humanist and how sustainable this plot is, but by how many minds it can set alight, how effectively it seduces and speaks to the darkest fears, what feelings it stirs in millions of breasts. This is no beauty contest. This is an all-out battle for hearts and minds.

Losing the plot is a corrosive and dangerous process for a society, but it is necessary in order to break free from a plot whose real-world consequences have become lethal. This opens up the stage for all kinds of stories and their tellers, from conspiracy theories to populist narratives and environmental angst, tales of technological optimism, dystopian despair and religious salvation.

Here be dragons! exclaim the seafarer’s maps, to remind us that we will never understand and subjugate the world, and that whatever map we hold in our hands is still just a map. And yet it matters which maps we use, which stories we tell about the world, it matters because it shapes the world. As one fiction is breaking down and others compete for survival, telling stories has never been more important.