PHILLIPP BLOM at De Balie in Amsterdam

Dragons, Cartography and the state of European Literature

Last night, in the sparsely filled space of the Old Lutheran church in the heart of Amsterdam, we listened to the first State of European Literature lecture given by journalist, novelist and historian, Philipp Blom. Part of the Forum on European Culture, organised by De Balie, it is the first of what is hoped will be an annual lecture on the significance of literature in Europe. It comes at a time when Literature and the Arts in general are in a state of crisis thanks to both the social and the economic pressures of  corona.

Describing himself as ‘a storyteller fascinated by historical tipping points’, Blom is pessimistic about the current state of society. The problem as he sees it, is that modern society has both literally and figuratively, ‘lost the plot’. Until a decade ago, Blom argues, the societies of wealthy nations had a very powerful and apparently fail-proof plot on which they had relied for decades. This was the plot of progress, especially the progress of liberal values and economic growth. ‘Boyed up by its own success economic growth became the name of the game’. But this plot has recently ‘suffered shipwreck on the rocks of reality’ Blom maintains. He mentions Fukuyama’s popular ‘End of History’ essay, citing it as an example of just how deluded we had all become. ‘Instead of the triumphant end of history, we have more history than we know what to do with’.

‘We simply do not have enough earth for  so much progress’ – Philipp Blom

For Blom, this world of ‘endless growth and progress, has definitely gone’. Continuous economic growth cannot continue. He acknowledges however, that ‘liberal democracies are expensive’ and questions whether democratic institutions can survive an end to growth. Or  if human rights and science can survive in societies in which truth is increasingly difficult to identify. Our ‘faltering civilization’ is a victim of its own, incredibly rapid success. The problem, for Blom, is the all-conquering narrative of man over nature, over mother earth. The neoliberal market is only the latest of a long line of ‘heroes’ in this narrative. Colonialism donned the role of hero before that. ‘We simply do not have enough earth for  so much progress’.

But it is in just these times, when old paradigms are cracking and long-cherished narratives are losing their gloss, that storytellers have an important role to play. Blom turns to another metaphor, that of the cartographers of old, to explain. Drawing inspiration from the maritime maps of the 16th and 17th centuries, the historian points out that there were large gaps in knowledge of the oceans and these blank areas on the map were embellished by map-makers of old with all manner of mythic creatures including dragons, sea serpents and monsters. As cartographers grappled with the ill-defined boundaries between the known and the unknown worlds, so storytellers must grapple with the ‘monsters of our imagination’. ‘Maps work precisely because they do not show the world exactly as it is!’  

‘This is no beauty contest, it is an all out battle for hearts and minds’- Philipp Blom

Maps also require updating. As knowledge changes and expands, new maps of the world are  drawn and re-drawn. They also, Blom rightly points out, require a clear idea of what it is one wants to find. A map of the future can only be drawn up once one knows what it is one is hoping to locate in that future. The novelist mentions contemporary figures like Margaret Atwood, Greta Thunberg and Richard Powers as modern day navigators to whom we should pay attention. He also mentions the importance of pluralism in the creation of a wider variety of mental maps from which we can learn. In short, Blom hails the search for a new meta-narrative for our world. One that is more inclusive, more respectful of mother earth and far less greedy. ‘As one fiction is breaking down and others compete for survival, telling stories has never been more important’.    Souwie Buis    20th September 2020