Reading many twitter and FB feeds from friends and acquaintances one gets the feeling that some people have never been alone with the alone. Having been a Solitaire most of my life in the Emerosonian sense I’ve never been lonely. As Montaigne in his essay On Solitude put it:
“From books all I seek is to give myself pleasure by an honourable pastime: or if I do study, I seek only that branch of learning which deals with knowing myself and which teaches me how to live and die well…”
When one is in the company of great minds one is never lonely. This social distancing has forced many people to confront themselves in the state of solitude. Many of us have for years interacted with the world through a screen, a medium that is for the most part a tool of image and language. The nuances of language and linguistic prowess, rhetoric and the subtle art of significance comes from that wider cultural frame of book culture where women and men have externalized their minds for millennia. Codifying their thought into various categories of cultural transmission we have all been the recipients of hundreds of years of this process of cultural formation. In our short age of digital externalization and AI we are drifting away from Book culture. As we do this I wonder what we are losing? And, what are we gaining? Book culture was always an elite affair which gathered the great minds into a nexus of influence.
Western Culture – as what I’ve been a part of not discounting or relegating other cultures to some backwater – has been a part of that central formation of intellectual life for at least two thousand years through scripted works. If we had not had such works what would our world look like now? If writing had been outlawed what would we be? For a generation or better the humanities and humanistic learning has been slowly critiqued, pulverized, immiserated, and castigated into oblivion for its human-centric vision and Christian heritage, etc. But without it and its learned practioners we would be lesser beings. For better or worse we are products of this heritage, and have in one generation begun undermining and castigating it to the outer regions of human thought and culture.
What is replacing it? Philosophers battle even now over terms from posthuman, inhuman, transhuman, etc. as if struggling to give birth to something beyond the human. Why are we so ashamed of ourselves that we want something else? When we look back on the great minds, musicians, artists, craftsmen, engineers, scientists, etc. Are we so willing to throw it all out? It’s all we have, it’s what we are… in an age of absolute nihilism when all thought has been put in abeyance where do we turn for wisdom and guidance if not this rejected past?
“In reality every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have perceived in himself. And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity, the contrary also being true, at least to a certain extent, for the difference between the two texts may sometimes be imputed less to the author than to the reader. Besides, the book may be too learned, too obscure for a simple reader, and may therefore present to him a clouded glass through which he cannot read.”
– Marcel Proust