Blog post

Selections from The Notebook, April 20: José Saramago on shame and the universal spectacle

Morgan Buck20 April 2011

It is quite unusual, even in this era of ubiquitous schizophrenic digitalism, to imagine an acclaimed novelist of 83 choosing to engage with the world through a blog. Yet for a brief year, the last of his life, the globally celebrated José Saramago did just that, imparting his wisdom and poetic insight in the form of bite-sized observations on everything from pop culture to global politics.

First published in April 2010, The Notebook is the only English translation of the collected entries of Saramago's blog. In commemoration of his passing on June 18, 2010 and in celebration of the new paperback edition of The Notebook (forthcoming June 2011), Verso is pleased to present selections from the book, to be re-blogged between April and June 18th.

The first of Saramago's posts to be featured is at first a reflection on the concurrent decline of language and values, quickly evolving into a perceptive critique of contemporary exhibitionist culture. Far from moral pontification, Saramago's lament addresses the truly political danger that lies in the shameless mass consumption of the over-exposed:

April 20: Showing Off

Words such as discretion, reserve, restraint, modesty, and decency can always be found in the dictionary. I am afraid, however, that some of them will come, sooner or later, to meet the sad fate of words such as esgártulo1 removed, as so many have been, from the lexicon of the National Academy because of a clear and persistent lack of usage that rendered them a dead weight upon its erudite columns. Esgártulo is not a word I can recall ever having mentioned, still less written. By contrast, the word reserved, although it follows the pattern and fi ts the list above in slowly losing currency when applied to a person, will yet be granted a long and useful life as a word used by booking agencies and box offices, a word without which such basic services as airlines would be unable to function. This without our even needing to have recourse to that special variety of reserve, the mental discipline invented by the Jesuits as a conclusive justification for preaching one thing before doing just the opposite, an exercise that spread and flourished until it was diffused throughout human society, to the point where it became a condition for survival.

Far be it from me to moralize, for were I to do so, I would only waste time-mine and, I suspect, that of some of my readers. We know full well that the flesh is weak: how much more so, then, is the spirit, however much one boasts of all its supposed strengths, since the human being is the terrain par excellence where all possible and pleasant temptations meet, those that men's flesh is naturally heir to and those he has been inventing and refining across centuries and millennia. Make the most of it. Let he who has resisted all temptation cast the first stone. The whole thing began with the shedding of garments, in favor of ever lighter and briefer ones, made of fabrics of increasing transparency, at each stage revealing more square centimeters of skin before finally giving way to bare nakedness, the total nudity openly displayed on certain designated beaches. Nothing to worry about in that. At its heart, as I have written elsewhere, there is actually something rather innocent about this. Adam and Eve also went about naked and, contrary to what the Bible tells us, were well aware of the fact.

In order for this dominant universal spectacle to have its effect in both focusing and distracting the world's attention, we apparently didn't foresee that we would give birth to a society of exhibitionists. The division between actors and spectators is over: the spectator attends not only to hear and see, but also to be seen and heard. The power of television, to give but one example, is in large part fed by this unsavory symbiosis via its so-called reality shows, on which the guests, and this is what I am obliged to pay for, discourse at length on the miseries of their lives, describing the betrayals and evils they have suffered, their own and others' scurrilous behavior, including, should it be deemed necessary to the spectacle, that of their nearest and dearest. Without holding anything back-without reserve, without shame, decency, or modesty. There will be no lack of viewers who thank God for it, saying that it is high time to abandon that old-fashioned vocabulary, to open doors and pry inside private homes, however malodorous. Some people, let there be no doubt about it, go to the extent of insisting that this is one of the key benefits of living in a democracy. It is permitted to say everything, on condition that what really matters remains hidden. Shamelessly so.

Watch the Verso blog for more excerpts from The Notebook leading up to June 18.