About Liturgies and Duties

Blanca Riestra. Professor. IE School of Arts & Humanities

7 January 2010

It is inevitable, recommended even, that we ponder what makes something an example of art or literature, because we all have ideas about the world we live in and we tend to reinterpret our ideas over time.

I am writing this while Waya is having a discussion with two med students, Macarena is answering some emails and the October sun is coming up outside. I am rereading your article, Julian, and it’s making me feel dizzy. Why? Because I don’t know where you are going with it.

I assume that what you are trying to say is simply that Art is all that which we call “Art” and Literature is all that which we call “Literature”: it’s useless to discuss their specific qualities, since it’s not qualities that give a rose its name, but rather the name itself that makes a rose what it is. To drive my point home, let me remind you what Cela said in one of those blunt statements that are so typical of him: “A novel is everything on display under the sign novel”.

Maybe the discussion, if it actually exists, isn’t focused correctly. Maybe the key point is not whether or not Millenium can be considered literature. Obviously, we are dealing with a written text here (one definition of the word literature), it’s sold in book stores (although so are mechanical pencils and scratch pads, maps and spiral notebooks), and it is in fact launched by a publisher (although so are cook books and self-help books). But fine, let’s assume that Millenium is in fact literature, at least in the broad sense of the word.

At any rate, it’s clear that Millenium is at least a book. Well, three. Nevertheless, the world of thought is full of the relationship between a word and its meaning. It’s a relationship that’s variable, fleeting, arbitrary. Books could be called jims or knives without causing a major catastrophe, and the world would keep turning.

Maybe, we are actually discussing something else altogether. Every linguist knows that the meaning of a word is not static. Rather, just like its outer shell transforms through use and through contact with other languages and cultures, its meaning also fluctuates, broadening or narrowing through the beautiful phenomena of synecdoche and metonymy, of symbiosis and contrast.

In my last post, I clumsily tried to define ad contrarium what literature is “for me”. It’s impossible to ask me not to have a concept of literature, given that it is my field of reflection par excellence. And even if it wasn’t, it might still be inevitable and even recommendable for us ordinary folk to update the concepts among which we live. We all have ideas about what surrounds us, and we update that which surrounds us by challenging its face value. We reinterpret. To live is to reinterpret.

Regarding the concept of literature, I update it constantly because it is my “dévoir quotidien” to do just that: ask what it is, what is it for, what a writer should write these days, what anyone should write at this moment or actually at any moment.
My idea of literature has a lot to do with that which Macarena has about art. It’s not by accident that both of these disciplines where originally closely linked to religious rituals. Macarena cites Altamira, and I think of tribal chants, or of the ancient epics…Octavio Paz, deplored by my dear die-hard realists but nonetheless a genius, said that poetry, while intimately related to music, has a foremost rhythmic character. Rhythm is sacred because it rules the world, because humans are rhythmic, because nature is rhythmic: harvest, tides, combination of day and night, the course of the seasons, the ages…

So they are disciplines that are tied to the religious sense, and therefore to the sacred and to the forbidden. They produce awe, they terrify, they amaze. Art and literature aren’t and shouldn’t be pedagogic, although, as Macarena rightfully says, they are useful in teaching. They show us completely gratuitously to “see”, which is the most effective form of teaching: to “show”, neither to explain nor to spell out, nor advise, but only to make “visible”.

Art and literature, like the arts in general, don’t have beauty for their object, they aren’t ornamental, nor entertaining, but simply reflect the world in which we live in a more exact way than any scientific or historical essay. They reflect the world with its light and dark, absurd and inexplicable aspects. They transmit a knowledge governed by intuitive laws that are difficult to categorize, because they are based on the irrational, on the animal and god-like parts that man still carries inside. They manifest a kind of “ritual” and “tragedy”, and are partakers of a certain kind of liturgy. They are sumptuary, useless, pure waste, but they are completely and at the same time necessary.

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