Sunday, December 11, 2011

Do We Need A SETI For the Human Mind?

The Swedish author Henning Mankell has written a reflection on the nearly forgotten art of listening, which is published in today's New York Times. His piece comes only a couple of days after Maureen Dowd's column Silence is Golden, which discusses Michel Hazanavicius' new movie The Artist, and laments "'the loss of silence,' once as natural as the sky and air." Mankell suggests that African storytelling is less linear than the European, and stands ready

"to burst onto the world scene — much as South American literature did some years ago when Gabriel García Márquez and others led a tumultuous and highly emotional revolt against ingrained truth. Soon an African literary outpouring will offer a new perspective on the human condition. The Mozambican author Mia Couto has, for example, created an African magic realism that mixes written language with the great oral traditions of Africa." 
Mankell contrasts that with our mostly linear Western literature.
"That’s not the case in Africa. Here, instead of linear narrative, there is unrestrained and exuberant storytelling that skips back and forth in time and blends together past and present. Someone who may have died long ago can intervene without any fuss in a conversation between two people who are very much alive. Just as an example."   
This reminds me of a review I read in 1986 of Timothy Mo's novel An Insular Possession, where the reviewer claimed that Chinese literature was like a lake, while Western literature was like a river. It was a beautiful allegory, but I suspect that it had something to do with the fact that I never read the book. Like so many other books I have bought over the years, it just stands there squeezed in between strangers on a shelf, sometimes making me feel guilty, often reminding me of how short life is.

But back to listening. Maybe we need a SETI for the human mind in this age of mostly mindless chatter and widespread sharing of the inconsequential and mundane.

Sometimes, when something big and sad happens, we gather for a moment of silence. But there is no silence. You can always hear the (lack of) silence. The noise is always there and technology has made us humans capable to produce more noise than ever. If the superstring theory is right - and the world consists of vibrations of tiny supersymmetric strings - then it might end (somehow) not with a bang, but with an overload of microwave emissions that causes the music of existence to stop.

Hans Sandberg


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