Will virtual reality spell the end of the literary imagination? George Steiner argues that new technologies will destroy the point of the novel-its permanence. This is no tragedy. Talent has already been draining away into other media or into science. Genres rise and genres fallby George Steiner / May 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
I imagine many of you will already have seen it, so I apologise. The current issue of that key journal of comparative papyrology of the Romanian Academy has an enormously interesting fragment, recently deciphered. It appears to be a conversation from 5th century BC Corinth about the first public readings of the Iliad and the Odyssey. It is quite clear from the conversation that these are judged to have no future whatsoever. The issue is whether to waste expensive sheep skin-and a great many sheep-on transcription when the story is so manifestly too long, too repetitive, full of endless formulas, with that rosy fingered dawn every ten lines, so full of dull patches and with such a messy ending. Is Odysseus going to stay at home, or is he leaving? No one can really make it out. It was a very brave effort, but destined for oblivion.
The point is obvious. When did literature have a future? Probably never. What we know as literature has had a very, very short run. Scholars say we can start with St Augustine’s famous observation of his master and teacher, St Ambrose, in the courtyard in Milan. Augustine says: “This is the first man in the west who could read without moving his lips.” A man reading in silence, having a relationship to a text which is more or less that of a modern act of reading. This sense of a private and personal relationship to the text, of remembrance and return, and of text engendering text, breaks down around 1914-the beginning of the catastrophe of our culture in the west.
Today, we need to address these themes again for two reasons: technology and talent. Gutenberg was not a fundamental revolution. It extended the life of the written word. In the 80 years following Gutenberg, there were more illuminated manuscripts produced and commissioned than in the previous century. It was not a revolution of the kind we may now be experiencing. What will virtual reality mean for the imagination, for the habits of narrative and imagining of its practitioners? It is not only virtual reality. My colleagues in the Cambridge engineering department tell me that they are very close to a “small-scale, portable, total display” computer-meaning that you will carry with you or have on your desk or by your bed, for bedtime reading, this small and versatile screen. It will be on-line to…