Thursday, December 6, 2012

Literature is about the past

Here's the money shot from an interesting article by a fellow named Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It appears in full on Salon which is dreadfully cluttered with advertisements. Go there at your own aesthetic peril.

Outside of the niche and isolated genre of science fiction, literature is about the past. We do not learn physics or biology from medieval textbooks, but we still read Homer, Plato, or the very modern Shakespeare. We cannot talk about sculpture without knowledge of the works of Phidias, Michelangelo, or the great Canova. These are in the past, not in the future. Just by setting foot into a museum, the aesthetically-minded person is connecting with the elders. Whether overtly or not, he will tend to acquire and respect historical knowledge, even if it is to reject it. And the past — properly handled — is a much better teacher about the properties of the future than the present. To understand the future, you do not need techno-autistic jargon, obsession with “killer apps,” these sort of things. You just need the following: some respect for the past, some curiosity about the historical record, a hunger for the wisdom of the elders, and a grasp of the notion of “heuristics,” these often unwritten rules of thumb that are so determining of survival. In other words, you will be forced to give weight to things that have been around, things that have survived.

Since our friend NNT is pretty good at discussing the importance of unlikely outcomes, I wonder what specifically he would say about our American poverty of poetry.

NNT does give us (in Antifragile) about the best definition of mythology there is:

Mythology is "the expression of historical intelligence through potent metaphors."

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