The Written World: How Literature Shaped History, Martin Puchner’s book, is a declaration of love for literature. Shining on bookshelves as the newest gem to be desired – by us book lovers – the title needs no further explanation. Exclusively for FAUSTO, Martin Puchner talks about it with extreme affection and warmth. He is a literary critic and philosopher, and the Byron and Anita Wien Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard University. To read, to fall in love with and to look into literature’s story!
FAUSTO – Is your book more a declaration of love for literature than an ambition to “frame it”?
Martin Puchner: Yes, it is a declaration of love—and also a kind of defense. I felt that a lot of people around me were complaining that teenagers no longer read literature, that all they did was play video games (or watch other kids play video games on YouTube). So, I felt the need to show the power of literature. At first, I wondered whether I should write an actual defense of literature. But then I realized it would be more effective simply to show the power of literature in action. And because some of our anxiety about literature comes from the internet, I thought I would focus on earlier moments when new inventions changed literature.
There’s a beautiful phrase by Antonio Candido, an important sociologist and literary critic in Brazil, that says: “Literature is the waking dream of civilizations.” Do you agree with that?
I don’t know that phrase—but I love it. Yes, literature is the place where many cultures develop their imaginative lives, their dreams, hopes, and values. In many of the episodes I studied, it became clear to me just how transformative those waking dreams are. They have motivated armies, helped territorial states expand their reach, transformed societies, and toppled governments. So, yes, literature is the waking dream of civilizations, but literature also, at least under the right circumstances, makes those dreams come true.
How many years did it take you to complete this book? And how many countries have you visited?
I couldn’t have written this book without the ten years I spent editing a large anthology of world literature—six volumes, over six thousand pages, of literature from across the world. It was an eye-opening experience, which made me realize how provincial our literary education is. My motivation in writing this book was to communicate some of the exhilaration I felt when discovering all this literature I had never read before, which is why, in the book, I mix very well-known texts with lesser known ones. After editing the anthology, the research and writing for this book took me another three or four years. I do travel a lot and have been to about 40 countries. I never travel without a book.
Is the tradition of oral stories as powerful as the written ones? Can we consider Socrates and Jesus as the greatest examples?
Yes, to both. This was another surprise for me. I expected that the transition from oral storytelling to literature would be important for the first couple of chapters in the book, the earliest literatures. But then I realized that oral storytelling is always there and that it continues to shape written stories. This is why storytelling now plays a role throughout the book, including some of the last chapters, for example the one on oral storytelling in Western Africa or in a chapter on the Russian poet Akhmatova, who didn’t dare to publish her poems out of fear of being prosecuted by Stalin. But my favorite episode is the one you mention: the charismatic teachers of the ancient world who refused to write and instead preached and lived their ideas live, orally, in the company of their students and followers: Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, and Jesus. There was something about these teachers that only worked for live audiences. But then, of course, they also profited from the fact their students wrote down their words, which allowed them to circulate widely as hugely influential texts.
And what’s the role of fire in the history of literature? What does it mean, symbolically, to burn a book?
Yes, it is striking that the history of literature is also the history of loss. So many works were lost because of library fires, like burning of the Library of Alexandria, or deliberate book burning such as the ones initiated by Spanish Conquistadors in Mesoamerica, when they burned Maya books, or the burning of books by the Inquisition.
Are there any exceptions? Or miracles?
There are interesting exceptions: the epic of Gilgamesh not only survived a library fire but probably survived because of a fire: it was written on clay tablets that were burned by a fire, which hardened them, making them more durable.
What about the “meaning” of burning a book?
Burning a book is a despicable, destructive act. But it is also an acknowledgement of the power of literature. And interestingly enough, deliberate book burnings rarely accomplish their goal, especially since the advent of print: we can now print books more quickly than we can burn them, and the same goes for publication on the internet.
Is it possible to measure, in isolation, the influence of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”? Without considering his speeches, his oratory…
For a brief time, about twenty years, Mein Kampf went through huge print runs because Nazi Germany sought to force it into as many households as possible. But there is very little evidence that it had any influence. I think of it as a book that many people possessed, but very few people read—one of the least-read books in history. Which is no surprise since it is so unreadable, a hateful rant stuffed full of cobbled together historical facts and inventions. And it is very long. Perhaps the conclusion one can draw from this episode is that you can’t actually force people to read something, and if you do, it is unlikely to have any effect… True, Hitler was much better as an orator than as a writer. Interestingly, there is now evidence that even Hitler’s oratory, his speeches, which seemed to captivate so many people, didn’t actually sway voters (these studies come from the early years, when democracy still existed, by comparing voting in districts where Hitler spoke versus ones where he didn’t). Perhaps this suggests that we must look for the causes of Nazism elsewhere.
In your research, did you find more cases like Hitler’s, someone so passionate about literature and so capable of burning books – and people? Has literature changed after the Holocaust?
The more I think about literature, the more I think of it as a tool, a very powerful one. And this means that people use it for good or ill, like any tool. This explains perhaps the observation behind your question: yes, there are many people who realize the power of literature, who want to wield it, and, at the same time, keep others from doing so. The best example is perhaps Stalin. It was precisely because he cared so much about poetry, because he really believed in poetry, that a poet like Akhmatova was under so much scrutiny. Sometimes, it is perhaps better to have rulers who don’t care as much about literature…
From this point of view, yes…
The Holocaust – and other extreme atrocities – have posed an enormous challenge to literature: how to represent the unimaginable. It is striking that at the same time, some of the people who went through the camps and survived felt compelled to write about it. Primo Levi is someone I am thinking of here. Before he was captured and interned at Auschwitz, he was not a writer; he was a Chemist. But after Auschwitz, he became a writer, he felt the need to become a writer. Perhaps this is how literature has changed since the Holocaust: it has shown us the necessity of literature, even and especially in relation to the unimaginable.
Uow, I cringed!
Is the proliferation of images on social networks irreversibly changing our ability to assimilate texts? Especially the good ones?
One conclusion I draw from the 4000 years of literature I studied is that new technologies, new writing technologies as well as new image technologies, change literature. The earliest writing technologies, Sumerian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics, but also Maya glyphs, were image-based and interacted with images and sculpture. Medieval manuscripts were full of illuminations. Print with movable type had its own ways of combining images and texts, but it tended to favor pure text because it was much easier to typeset a page using letters only. So, in a way, we’re moving back to those earlier moments when combining text and image was common. This history is also the reason why I don’t think that the circulating images on the internet are the death of literature. Just think of all the clever captions underneath shared images – they remind of the medieval practice of subscriptio, a word or phrase underneath an allegorical image. And then there are enormously popular Instagram poets such as Rupi Kaur. I am not saying that all this quite amounts to great literature yet, but we are only in the early stages and writers will adapt.
Was Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” the book that completely transformed your experience with literature?
Yes! How did you know? I had read some of Eco’s literary criticism and literary theory in college, and then I came across The Name of the Rose and some of his other novels. I was fascinated by the way in which he managed to transform his research into incredibly compelling historical novels. I was really inspired by that. I myself didn’t write a novel, but I tried to write in a narrative, scenic style. In a way, it seemed inevitable to me: here I was, talking about the power of storytelling. Shouldn’t I practice what I preached? The answer was clearly: yes. So, I gave it my best shot.
And it worked!
I think it makes sense then that last question: somehow, are we all Don Quixote?
Don Quixote is the ultimate modern novel. But why? I think in part because Don Quixote lives in a world that is rapidly changing, for example through new, huge powerful machines such as windmills. He feels overwhelmed, out of place, can’t keep up with modern times (this is the beginning of what historians call modernity) and reacts by pretending he still lives in the Middle Ages and by attacking windmills. Yes, he is crazy, he has read too many books and has read them the wrong way—again, the power of literature, for good or ill—but this basic experience of being unable to keep up with the times is something that I find I can quite easily share. Can’t we all?