November 6, 2019 in newyorker.com
The following was adapted from a speech delivered at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October.
Frankfurt, the financial hub of Europe, is home to one of the biggest stock exchanges in the world, where everything is about quick deals and quick money. It is home, too, to a book fair, which also happens to be one of the biggest in the world, and where everything, likewise, is about buying and selling, though the trade is in books—albeit only the newest ones, which appear in their hundreds of thousands each year. On the occasion of the fair, it is worth thinking about one of literature’s most important characteristics: its slowness.
I’m not thinking of how long it takes to read a book but of how long its effects can be felt, and of the strange phenomenon that even literature written in other times, on the basis of assumptions radically different to our own and, occasionally, hugely alien to us, can continue to speak to us—and, not only that, but can tell us something about who we are, something that we would not have seen otherwise, or would have seen differently.
Some sixty years before the birth of Christ, Lucretius wrote his only known work, “On the Nature of Things,” a didactic poem about how the world is made of atoms. The atomic reality that Lucretius describes is not an isolated phenomenon—it is not a separate realm of electrons and nuclei, electromagnetic fields, particles and waves. In Lucretius’ poem, the atomic dimension exists side by side with the world as we see it every day, with its grassy plains and rivers, its bridges and buildings, its cows and goats, its birds and its sky. Lucretius knew that the two domains are sides of the same coin, that the one does not exist without the other. There is little doubt in my mind that the world today would look different if the progress of science had been anchored in our human reality instead of losing sight of it, for in that recognition lies an obligation and an unceasing correction: we are no greater than the forest—we are no greater even than the tree. And we are made of the same constituents.
Lucretius’ poem was long forgotten. But when, eventually, it was rediscovered, in the early fifteenth century, it marked a significant prelude to the dawning Renaissance, and, not only may it still be read today—it continues to speak to us, telling us things we have forgotten, or things we perhaps never truly understood.
Literature works slowly not just in history but also in the individual reader. I remember the first time I read the Danish poet Inger Christensen and, in particular, her long poem “alphabet.” This was in the mid-nineties, some twenty-five years ago now. “alphabet” is a list of things occurring in the world; in Susanna Nied’s English translation, it begins like this:
apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist
bracken exists; and blackberries, blackberries;
bromine exists; and hydrogen, hydrogen
cicadas exist; chicory, chromium,
citrus trees; cicadas exist;
cicadas, cedars, cypresses, the cerebellum
doves exist, dreamers, and dolls;
killers exist, and doves, and doves;
haze, dioxin, and days; days
exist, days and death; and poems
exist; poems, days, death
At the time, twenty-five years ago, I found this poem beautiful—there came from it a very special kind of existential glow. But it did no more than flame up for me in the moment. Then, a few years ago, it resurfaced in my mind. I don’t know why. But I read it again, and it had taken on new meaning. Firstly, I sensed a grief in its evocation of objects, animals and plants, as if somehow a shadow were now hanging over them. It could have been the knowledge that at some point we are to die and leave them behind, but it could also have been the knowledge that they might die and leave us behind. There are many animal species we no longer can take for granted.
Secondly, I was now aware of how the poem formally intertwines culture and nature. The entities listed in the poem do not occur randomly but are structured, in two ways—alphabetically, and according to the principles of the so-called Fibonacci sequence in mathematics, whereby each number is the sum of the two preceding ones: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, and so on. This pattern occurs throughout the natural world, in the genealogy of bees, in the branching of trees and flowers, in petal numbers, pine cones, pineapples, and sunflowers. This underlying structure, to which nature itself is at once oblivious and obedient, belongs quite as much to mysticism as to mathematics. In the words that the poem isolates, calling forth their singular entities and phenomena, the world becomes at once familiar and alien to us, at once sensuous and abstract, comprehensible and incomprehensible at the same time.
Christensen is clearly related to Lucretius. The word that Lucretius used for “atom” is the same word he used for “letter of the alphabet.” This was also true of the first of the Greeks to write of the atom: they, too, employed the term for “letter of the alphabet.” Lucretius repeatedly compares atoms with letters; just as the same few letters may be combined in endless ways to express everything between heaven and earth, the same few atoms may be combined to create heaven and earth and everything in between.
Science and literature alike are readers of the world. And, sooner or later, both lead us to the unreadable, the boundary at which the unintelligible begins. In one of her essays, Inger Christensen writes that that boundary, between intelligible and unintelligible, exists within us; science, she writes, conducts the conversation between readability and unreadability using terms such as chaos theory, fractals, and superstrings only because to use the word “God” would seem overbearing.
Everything exists side by side. Atoms, letters of the alphabet, literature, science, the world. And insight and destruction.
The world in whose midst we now stand, with its skyscrapers and cars, its airports and its banks, also emerged slowly, and, if we were to pinpoint its beginnings, the great upheavals that occurred in Europe around the time of the rediscovery of Lucretius’ book would be key. The Italian scholar and humanist Poggio Bracciolini unearthed “On the Nature of Things” in January, 1417. He most likely found the book, perhaps the only copy then in existence, in the German monastery of Fulda, no more than a hundred kilometres from Frankfurt. Some thirty years later, around 1450, Gutenberg developed the printing press. That, too, happened in this region, in Mainz, only forty kilometres from here. Also around this time, the legend of Faust, the learned vagabond who sold his soul to the Devil, took shape in Germany. The roots of the Frankfurt Book Fair go back to that same period—the first one took place in 1454.
It remains unclear quite how the legend of Faust emerged, but history does make mention of a real Johann Faust, who matches the description, and who is said to have been born twenty-six years after that first book fair, in 1480, at a place called Knittlingen, not a hundred and fifty kilometres from Frankfurt. He is described as “a learned charlatan purporting to be skilled in magic,” and he appears to have wandered the region with sojourns at its various universities. We know he was in Würzburg in 1506, a hundred and ten kilometres from Frankfurt, and in Kreuznach in 1507, a hundred and thirty kilometres from here. And we know, too, that in 1509 he was awarded a degree from the University of Heidelberg, only ninety kilometres from here. So we can by no means rule out that Faust, too, attended the book fair at Frankfurt.
Another historical candidate is a certain Johann Fust, who lived from 1400 until 1466. Fust was a goldsmith and a business partner of Gutenberg’s, in Mainz, forty kilometres from Frankfurt.
But what about the Devil? Where was he?
If nothing else, we know that he was once in Wartburg, two hundred kilometres from here. In the early fifteen-twenties, the Devil was seen there by a monk who, late one night, sat immersed in his work, translating the Bible into German. The monk called himself Junker Jörg, though his real name was Martin Luther, and he was so enraged at the Devil for interrupting him in his labors that he hurled an ink pot at him.
Here then, in this strangely hybrid world of superstition and rational thought, magic and science, witch burnings and book printing, the reality we now inhabit was founded. The invention of the printing press made it possible to accumulate and disseminate knowledge on a scale hitherto unseen. Here began the slow separation of science from religion which so radically altered our view of the world and ourselves that today we can scarcely believe that anything was ever any different.
So what was the Devil doing there, in the foundation of what was to become the world as we know it?
It can be held, of course, that the Faust legend is a Protestant formation narrative: the tale emerged at the time of the Reformation, and Faust’s sin is not necessarily that he seeks knowledge but that he does so while removing himself from God. And, to Goethe, who also hailed from Frankfurt, Faust’s sin was secular: he sought knowledge without knowing love.
But it’s hard to ignore the thought that where man strives for knowledge, the Devil will never be far away. It was the Devil, in the shape of a serpent, who enticed Eve to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge, leading to man being banished from Paradise, and it was the Devil whom Faust evoked in his efforts to penetrate the secrets of nature.
With all our technological advances, from the printing press to the airplane and the nuclear-power station, there seems to follow a shadow, unseen and yet perceptible, for the consequences of these advances manifest themselves before our eyes. Karl Benz, who, in 1885, built the first motorcar in a workshop in Mannheim, only eighty kilometres from Frankfurt, could hardly have realized that, in the future, his machine—which would join places and people together, opening cultures to each other and increasing the radius of human life so considerably—would claim the lives of one and a quarter million people each year, in car crashes. Nor could he have known that carbon-dioxide emissions from cars would be a cause of global warming, rising sea levels, burning forests, growing desert areas, and the extinction of animal species.
This phenomenon, whereby the well-intended action of the one spirals into uncontrollable evil when the one becomes the many, is referred to by French philosopher Michel Serres as “the original sin.” Diabolically, although each of us may wish only good, by our collective deeds we end up committing evil.
The Devil is associated with transgression; he is its very figure. And, since the endeavor to wrestle from nature its innermost secrets is a transgression, Faust must accordingly seek the Devil’s help.
The Devil exists to us because transgression puts us at peril. The insight is as old as culture itself. And Faust was as relevant in the fifteen-hundreds as he was in the eighteen-hundreds, when Goethe wrote about him, and in the nineteen-forties, when Thomas Mann wrote about him in his novel “Doctor Faustus.” “Doctor Faustus” begins with a scene which, when I read it for the first time, at the age of nineteen, etched itself into my memory. Two young lads, with the oddly sounding names Serenus Zeitblom and Adrian Leverkühn, grow up together in the depths of Germany at the end of the nineteenth century, and, at the beginning of the novel, Adrian’s father performs for them some scientific demonstrations. These concern how dead, inanimate matter may behave as if it were alive. Adrian, who will later sell his soul to the Devil, is amused by his father’s reverence of the mysteries of nature and shakes with laughter, whereas Serenus is aghast.
I don’t know why that scene etched itself into my memory at the time, when I was nineteen, but I do know why I keep coming back to it: there, in that room, the living and the dead, the authentic and the inauthentic, alchemy and science, the Devil and modernity, all came together. And none of the elements present in that room has become any less significant to us since Mann brought them together, in the nineteen-forties; rather, they have become consolidated, for, since then, the atom has been split, and we have isolated and analyzed DNA, and now ventured into genetic engineering. The scientific opportunities this presents are huge—plants may be improved, food production increased, organs may be grown, even new life created. Man, we could say, has at last become like God. But, in one ancient text, nearly three thousand years old, we can read about what happened to someone else who wanted to become like God:
For thou hast said in thine heart
I will ascend into heaven,
I will exalt my throne above the stars of God:
I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north:
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will be like the most High.
Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell,
to the sides of the pit.
Or, to use the words of perhaps the greatest German poet of them all, Friedrich Hölderlin, born a hundred and sixty kilometres from Frankfurt: “Nothing makes with greater certainty the earth into a hell, than man’s wanting to make it his heaven.” Yet the mutual proximity of insight and destruction tells us nothing of the sequence of these things, and the same Hölderlin wrote something else, which is equally true, in one of his unworldly and exquisite poems: “But where the danger is, also grows the saving power.”