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OPINION
Text in which the author defends ideas and reaches conclusions based on his / her interpretation of facts and data

Everyman’s day

Cultural fast food joints, the Kentucky Fried Chicken of the human spirit, have banished any foolish optimism about enlightenment

Enrique Vila-Matas

On the morning of Book Day I woke up with a certain energy and gave the mirror a furtive glance. Once again I saw a face like that of the ancestral caveman, but with a considerable admixture of modern neurosis. Since at noon I was due to be signing books alongside TV's snake wrangler, Frank de la Jungla, I felt I could be confident of not striking the wrong note.

In the street there was an anxiety apparent, an eager expectation that the day might be a different one. On the radio I was asked to give names of younger writers I had read recently; I mentioned three books that had interested me: La propagacion del silencio (The propagation of silence) by Sònia Hernández; Las ilusiones (Illusions) by Jonás Trueba; and Intento de escapada (Escape attempt) by Miguel Ángel Hernández. And a book by someone older, they asked next. A moment of stupor. Finally I came up with La barbarie de l'ignorance (The barbarity of ignorance), a dialogue between George Steiner and Antoine Spire translated into Spanish by Mario Muchnik as La barbarie de la ignorancia.

Later, on my way out, I remembered Arthur Koestler, for whom the human brain consisted of a little shop counter, ethical and rational (still very small), and a huge cerebral backroom, bestial, animal, territorial, charged with fears, irrationalities and murderous instincts. Millions of years would be needed, he said, for moral evolution to clear this brutal backroom.

The day lasted as long as a day in the jungle. I withdrew to my grass hut at a prudent hour, lamenting as usual the triumph of a superficial bestseller and other colossal foolishness. But then I realized that, as a Barcelona bookseller had said on television, on Book Day "everybody buys books."

This was better than nothing. Everybody. Indeed these massive sales confirm what George Steiner was saying in La barbarie de l'ignorance: on our planet 99 percent of human beings prefer (and have every right to do so) idiotic television, barking soccer voices, Jackie Collins, banal theater, the latest pointless American film or the bingo hall, to Aeschylus or Plato. That's just the way it is.

Koestler said that millions of years would be needed for moral evolution to clear this brutal backroom

Everywhere we have these fast food joints, the Kentucky Fried Chicken of the human spirit, which beat culture a million to one. You cannot ask people to like what to them is tiring and useless. The human animal, says Steiner, is very lazy, probably of primitive tastes, while culture is demanding, cruel in its demands in terms of work and spiritual strain.

A certain optimism in the days of Diderot and the Enlightenment led us to believe that culture would bring us out of the brutal backroom, and we even came to believe, for a while, in moral evolution and in just societies, where education and culture would be particularly effective. But it didn't happen that way. It is enough to look at the human crowd on any Book Day to see that the brutal backroom is the big seller, the bestseller.

There was a time when the stubborn efforts of a few led us to believe that things might improve, but now, after all, it is apparent that culture is not a panacea. Consider the relations of culture with the Third Reich, and ask how one of the world's most cultured countries could engender that orgy of death. And how do we explain the fact that so many figures from the world of culture were rooting for Hitler?

Yet there are good days now and then when, in spite of the climate of discouragement, one even comes to see moral and ethical evolution as a thing that is possible, and even to trust that there will someday be some diminution of the huge backroom of bestial, animal instinct, with its amazing propensity to stupidity. Of course, one remembers immediately, a few million years are going to be necessary first.

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