Can literature save the world

by Andres Ehin

Andres  Ehin
Can literature save the world?

Can literature save the world? Yes, it is busy with saving-work. It does the work together with allies – other fine arts are the nearest among them. Also sciences, philosophy and religions – if they are not too fanatical – are among these allies.
Literature has managed well with the task until now. And I hope it will manage in future too. But not alone. It is possible only with allies.

Can it save the entire world, or does it denote some special saving? Of course it is not busy with saving the whole physical world: with saving hot gases and lava in the epicenter of the Earth, with saving viruses and seabeds and the stratosphere and cockroaches.
No, literature is concentrated on saving our world, the world of civilized human beings. Mostly it constructs mental or virtual saving models. Fairy-tales do it in the clearest and simplest way. Good and evil fight dramatically with each other there, and  good always wins.
The beaten evil manifests attempts to destroy our world.
The victory of good manifests the saving of our world.
Detective stories are the fairy-tales of the modern world. The same fight of good against evil is going on there. The evil murderer or diamond-stealer is always detected and punished. Good wins and readers like it. The civilized world is saved once again.
Psychological novels save our world in other ways. The battlefield of  good and evil is situated in the souls of characters. The victory of good is not obligatory. Here and there the destroying powers win and a character attempts suicide or collapses in other ways. But the principle of good is, however, highly valued and evil is condemned. Novels of this kind are like a warning. We have to know dangerous things – then we are able to fight more actively for good in our souls and save the world of the human psyche.
Sometimes there appears a good and highly spiritual person in a psychological novel, who seems half-witted and ridiculous at first. But very soon readers find out that he is a real saviour of souls, saviour of the world of human essence, a new appearance of Jesus Christ for example.
The novels of Fyodor Dostoyevski are valuable and expressive examples of good-contra-evil battles in the human soul.
In tragedies good is beaten physically, but mentally and morally good celebrates its victory. The world of soul is saved once again. Catharsis is also one of the world saviours.
Evil is a very active, cunning, tricky, acute and serpentine force in fairy-tales, in detective novels and in most psychological novels, dramas and tragedies. It is a master of intrigues. It is like the devil of the prophet Mani, the creator of Manicheism, a religion that competed a long time successfully with Christianity and Islam in the Middle East. The devil of the prophet Mani is the most active and tricky among all the devils world religions know. To save our world from this kind of devil is a very tricky thing also. But when he is beaten, he is beaten totally. The happy end of  the novel is full victory. The saviours of our world are really triumphant there.
But there is also another devil, another deconstructer of our world we can meet in literature. It is a passive and leveling force. The force exists absolutely everywhere. Theologians name it the devil of Saint Augustine, specialists of cybernetics name it entropy. The first author of this comparison is Norbert Wiener. 
There are novels in the world literature where the main hero runs with his head against the wall. He or she meets everywhere a massive and passive force and the hero is not able to save his world from it.  The force is impersonal, it can be a totalitarian state system, too huge to be characterized exactly, but even more often it is a nameless leveling force of cosmos or nature, it is boredom – physical and psychic boredom, it destroys all the diversity, everybody and everything loses his, her or its face after the omnipresent devil influences him, her or it. The devil of Saint Augustine is a losing of freshness, it is oldness, it is a becoming duller and duller.
It is impossible to get total victory over this kind of devil. The victory can be only temporary and partial. We can meet this kind of devil, this kind of omnipresent entropy in novels of Kafka and Camus, for example “Process” and “La Peste”. The huge mechanism of the faceless state in the novel of Kafka kills  the bank-officer K., the plague of Camus disappears by itself. Human beings are not the winners. But they are not the losers – they managed to preserve their human values, their self-esteem. They have saved their world until the next epidemic of the plague. They have saved the most important attribute of humankind – production of negentropy.
Cybernetics manifests entropy as the main trend of the universum. There are very few places where negentropy temporarily dominates. Our Earth seems to be one of them.
Literature and religion are more optimistic. Mostly good defeats evil, mostly our world is saved on the pages of the literary opus.
All literature is not struggle. Poetry does not struggle very often. There are great poets of revolutionary periods who fight for new ideas and save their world with their proclamatory poetry but in other, more peaceful, times classical poetry has praised beauty, the thousands and thousands of expressions and faces of beauty. Beauty of nature, beauty of the opposite sex, beauty of very different manifestations of life inspire poets.
And on the other hand – the beauty of poems enables readers to find more and more subtle beauty in nature, in other people. The remarkable diversity of beauty is one of the best possibilities to overcome dullness, leveling, entropy, the devil of Saint Augustine. This is how poetry takes part in saving the world.
Modern poetry is different from classical poetry, it works often with dissonances – the dissonances of beauty and ugliness. Beauty is a divine attribute, an attribute of saving our world. Ugliness is an attribute of the devil, an attribute of destroying our world.
Poetry and other fine arts build up images representing the way of human cognition from sensory perception to emotions and intellectual ideas. The way of cognition and manifestation of the vivid and moving entity of sensory perception, emotions and intellect is to me more important than conceptions. It makes us more and more alive, it keeps us fresh and young in spirit. It is the best way to resist entropy, the devil of  Saint Augustine.
Thinking in images is valuable as a natural and very personal process born in the depths of authors’ sensory perception. It saves our world.
Illustrative images are mostly not valuable. They illustrate ideas of other persons, not authors. They hold very often the sign of triviality. Triviality is a kind of leveling, it leads back to  entropy, to the devil of Saint Augustine.
Commercial trends and fashions are trivial. We very rarely meet witty and fresh entertainment. But I do not believe that the real literature will drown in the tidal waves of  kitch.
Poverty and illiteracy have barred the consuming of culture and literature in the past. For the first time in history billions of people are literate now and have begun to consume culture. It is quite understandable that low- rank products, even examples of pseudo-culture are demanded at the beginning. 
We have forgotten that adventure books and sentimental Volksbücher were much more popular than high quality literature even in the 19th  century. Vulpius, the author of “Rinaldo Rinaldini” and husband of Goethe’s sister, was much more beloved among the Germans of the first half of the nineteenth century than Goethe himself.
Solid, seventy-year-old ladies and gentlemen of Europe have forgotten what their favourite reading was in their schoolyears – “Tarzan” by Burroughs and detective stories by Edgar Wallace. Popular entertainment culture flourished in these times also.
Marginalization of valuable literature is fact, but the intelligent fan clubs continue to read and admire it. Literature will be marginalizised for some times, but it does not disappear.
A lot of values of literature, particularly of poetry, will continue their existence in multimedia CD-ROMs.
The saving of our world by means of fine arts, of thinking in images will continue.
But British Professor Hawking, author of  A Short History of Time suggests that we, organic human beings, will probably lose the leading role in our world. In future our world will be saved, and our culture, literature included, will be preserved and developed by artificial intellects, by electronic brains. Artificial intellects progress several times more quickly than our natural intellects. But the wise apparata will be wise enough to save even humanism. It will be humanism without humans.
The only possibility of keeping the superiority of biological organisms over electronic intellects is to find effective ways for genetic prefabricating of human beings. Ladies and gentlemen, after us our literary output will be analyzed or even enjoyed by electronic brains or genetic mutants. But our world will be saved by our assistance. Even the dead writers will assist until their works are read.       
Literature with its allies can save our world.
But probably it will not be able to save us, human beings.
Probably literature will exist even after humankind.

At the present moment let us imagine what our world will be like without fine arts.
Degeneration will be quick.

The speech was held at the international writers’ meeting in Vilencia, Slovenia. Participants included writers from all over the world. Estonia was represented by Tiia Toomet, Jaan Kaplinski and Andres Ehin.