Stanislaw Lem’s bitic literature in ‘The Illogic of Kessel’

Enrique Vila-Matas


I carried on walking, at first with no particular destination in mind. It may be true, I mused, that there are few young people today who draw inspiration for their lives from what contemporary poets are saying, while in the seventies an interesting minority took poetry as the most dependable guide to life. It may also be true that at the end of the eighties something very serious happened, which resulted in the arts, especially poetry, losing its leading role. That might all be correct, but if there was something I had long detested, it was those fatalistic voices gathering to project their own personal catastrophes upon the world. I prefer to enter Tino Sehgal’s dark room to see how some people are rescuing art from such a lamentably sure collapse.

Very soon afterward, I decided to head for that dark room, which was my sinister lighthouse in the night. That morning I began to see it as a place that could also be stimulating by day. And making my way toward it, I started to wonder whether our fatalists’ lucid impression that we’re experiencing a dead time in art meant one had to live through it alarmed, scandalized, distressed, and without humor.

I was reminded of Stanislaw Lem and of his History of Bitic Literature, published in Paris in five volumes. In his book about the future (in this case, now our past), Stanislaw Lem said that from the end of the 1980s, from the “fifteenth bynasty” of “talking computers” onward, it was shown to be a technical necessity to give the machines periods of rest during which, free from “programming instructions,” they could fall to “babbling” and “random shuffling,” and, thanks to this erratic activity, regenerate their capacity.

As if Lem’s prediction had come true, it couldn’t be clearer that in the eighties, creators of all sorts were freed from “programming instructions” and entered into paused, dead time. In fact, I’d heard it said to students of “bitic literature” that relaxation was as indispensable for talking machines as an awareness of the danger of losing the power of speech was for the literature of the future.

I was walking down the last stretch of corridor to the garden of the Hessenland annex when I asked myself if it might be the case that, in the creative field, we had found ourselves in a period of repose born out of technical necessity, a period from which—talking machines as we undeniably were—we would all emerge more than revived. So why so much ominous chatter? Was it so infuriating to live in a time of “babble”? Perhaps we were in a moment in which we were recovering speech. Was it really so painful to be “randomly shuffling”?

I seemed to see that underneath it all, this dead time was still a more than positive place, a laboratory in a state of ferment, a perfect space in which to greet the returning poets who had perhaps already started to transform our life. Didn’t we sense them already among us? Hadn’t I detected them on my first visit to that room of Sehgal’s that I was now preparing to visit again? And if they hadn’t come back, that didn’t mean we had to despair. By bringing us such interesting relaxation, this period of repose that was technically necessary might even do us some good.


SOURCE: Vila-Matas, Enrique. The Illogic of Kessel, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean & Anna Milsom (New York: New Directions, 2015), pp. 73-74.


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