Benjamin Labatut: building on chaos, odd realities, and that “natural distrust of architects”

The Chilean writer, author of one of the most discussed books of recent years, in a conversation ranging from Lovecraft’s weird scenarios to experimental urban utopias as Soleri’s Arcosanti. 

Benjamin Labatut’s first book, La Antártica empieza aquí, is a collection of short stories published in 2012. Four years later it was followed by Después de la luz, a series of philosophical reflections, scientific and historical notes about the idea of the void, which the Chilean writer gathered to build “a system of apparent links” – as noticed by journalist and novelist Matías Celedón. But it was his third book, Un verdor terrible (When we cease to understand the world), that gained the author global attention, a success among readers and critics crowned by the recent nomination for the 2021 International Booker Prize. It’s not a novel neither is it a work of non-fiction in the strict sense but, as pointed out by Italian author Gianluca Didino, the four separate texts presented in the book approach in different ways the relationship between reality and fiction, and each one constitutes a starting point for a possible discussion about the limits and boundaries of a contemporary narration.  It’s a book about the complicated links between scientific and mathematical discovery, madness and destruction, and “the limits of human knowledge, and the not-so-very-pleasant premises on which physical reality seems to be built”, Simon Ings writes on The Spectator. It features as protagonists some of the most important scientists and mathematicians of the 20th century: Fritz Haber, father of the chemical warfare but also inventor of a fertilizing system half the world’s population still depends on, mathematician Alexander Grothendieck, who lived in seclusion the last 15 years of his life; Werner Heisenberg, awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1932 “for the creation of quantum mechanics” and Erwin Schroedinger, awarded the Nobel Prize one year later, and widely famous for the thought experiment that carries his name – yes, the one of the cat.

In March, Benjamin Labatut contributed to Milan Digital Week with an unpublished text. The protagonists are two American writers, one famous for his weird horror stories, the other for his paradoxical SF tales, and a German mathematician, one of the most influential in the contemporary history of the discipline. 

P.H. Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick, and David Hilbert are the main characters of your lecture for Milan Digital Week. Do you think that our present can’t be understood without passing it through the lens of the past century? 
The lens of the past can be as distorting as the one through which we look at the present, but I don’t think that you can aspire to seeing the world in any other way, except through a glass darkly. It is like looking at old photos of ourselves: we can see just how stupid, how ill-dressed, how ignorant and naive we were back then, and yet it is a shock to discover that what was true then, is also true now. Even in the 21st century, we live – as Lovecraft wrote – in a placid island of ignorance amidst black seas of infinity. In that sense, the past is no guide, especially when we are moving towards a strange future that is rushing madly towards us. So where can we turn to, and who has the answers? Nowhere, and no one. This is the difficulty of the human condition: our only wisdom is tragic, known too late, and only to the lost, as Guy Davenport said. The good news, the sole consolation for our sorry state of affairs, is that understanding is not really a necessity: we can live without it. In fact, we normally do. The world turns without understanding, dogs bark without comprehension, our hearts beat, our lungs fill up with air, we eat, we sleep, we dream and fuck bereft of anything resembling true comprehension. If we stay alive at all it is because there is a wisdom of the body, a knowledge that lives through us, and that does not require our rational control. And for that we should be grateful.

Science was the great narrative of the 20th century. And what about today, is it technology? 
We shouldn’t bury science just yet, or dance on its grave. It is still –and will remain- one of our most treasured enterprises, one that we cannot do without. Technology cannot be divorced from science either, as there are completely intertwined. But science is just one of the modes of thought that we have, one of many ways in which we make sense of the world. Art, religion, spirituality, literature, politics, sports; our narratives –both personal and societal– arise from a hotchpotch of all these things. Human beings are very complex: we carry around both ancient and novel ways of looking at the world, much in the way that our brains and bodies preserve structures and organs that harken back to more basic forms of life. The tiny bones in our ears evolved from the tooth of an antediluvian reptile, which migrated all the way to the back of our ears; in almost the same way, we still answer to the great narratives of our past, both modern and ancient, and our minds and worldviews are built as much on Greek, Judean and Roman myths as they are on Facebook and Instagram stories. And while it is true that our most important narratives seem to be crumbling all around us, it is also very likely that new ones are slowly taking shape, though we will only become aware of them when they explode into the larger world.

In an alternate universe, where the protagonists never existed, your book When we cease to understand the worldcould be a great fiction by Roberto Bolaño or another great postmodern writer. What’s the limit between fiction and reality for you?
I believe that it is the role of artists in general, and of writers in particular, to push past borders, to expand our notion of what is real, to enrich the drab facts of reality with that unique faculty –fiction– that endows the facts of the world with that one thing which we treasure the most:  meaning. In my writing I am searching for what is true, not necessarily what is real. I am also fascinated by those historical facts which are so incredible as to seem unbelievable, and the ecstatic truths which only our inner vision, the demon eye of fiction, can see.

In my writing I am searching for what is true, not necessarily what is real

Nowadays, reality seems to be more fictional than fiction. And anyone can be a narrator on social media.
Reality has lost part of its charm, that is true, but I believe this is because humankind has always yearned to live inside its own imagination. We have built a world that is, in a very large part, “fictional”, because we have this strange double nationality: we are undoubtedly part of the physical world, and yet, at the same time, we seem to inhabit this entirely different terrain, made up of our thoughts, our ideas, our dreams, nightmares and fantasies. It is to this second world that we truly belong, because we have made it in our image. In that sense, the role not just of literature, but of all creative endeavors, is still completely fundamental because we can only ever inhabit a future that we have already imagined. In that, literature is essential: books must not just reflect things back to us, but dream an entire universe into being, much like the gods did in the stories of old times.

Can machines help to fill in the gaps within reality and to make sure that it’s not fake or simulated? I think for example of the blockchain, an informatic system that somehow validates reality, something that Wittgenstein would go crazy for...
Oh yes, Wittgenstein is probably screaming at us from his grave (and is probably frothing at the mouth and berating me for writing all these silly, meaningless things). And yet, I don’t think we really care about whether something is fake or simulated, as long as whatever we are experiencing has the richness, the depth and the beauty of so-called “objective reality”. Dreams and nightmares can feel as vivid as any of our waking experiences. Small children are aware of this. Films and books can be truer to life than any atlas or compendium of isolated facts. It speaks very highly of us as a species that we have created a world that is so bizarre, so complex and so fast-paced that we seem to be losing our grip on reality. But we cannot leave any important decision in the hands of an unthinking (and, more importantly an unfeeling) system or machine. We have to make our own way back into reality. Just think about the stories science tells: they are based on facts, they are beautiful, coherent, solid and powerful. And yet they still cannot fully compete against the parables that a carpenter told two thousand years ago. 

Arcosanti is an experimental town in Arizona founded from scratch in 1970 by Italian architect Paolo Soleri. It’s just one among many radical experiences of people trying click on the restart button. Like the SF cliché of the Ark.Could this be the right model to reshape reality?
Absolutely not. If there is one thing that history has shown us is that we cannot merely think our way out of problems, or reason our way towards happiness and prosperity. Towns are a great example of this, because they are living, breathing organisms. Real towns grow much in the way the natural world does, with no central, organizing principle, with no real architect directing everything. The best towns, the most beautiful places in this world, are things that are not so much built, but which “grow”, organically, through trial and error, through myriad of choices which can (and often do) result in bad solutions, or ugly buildings. They arise and take shape, little by little. We shouldn’t be so eager to wipe the slate clean. Nor should we believe that we can design our way out of everything. 

Arcosanti, Paolo Soleri, Arizona, United States, 1970. Image originally published on Domus 569

Italian architect and theorist Alessandro Melis is studying the implications of an architecture based on the biological concept of exaptation. Is it somehow connected to what you say about science, that it’s not only a method, but also “the idea that our world is in order”?
I have a natural distrust of architects. Perhaps because they share many of the same characteristics of authors; they both build worlds, rather egomaniacally, but the worlds of literature almost never take shape, they exist only in people’s minds, and so they are, in almost every respect, stripped of any real power. Architecture, on the other hand, is almost scary in terms of the influence and might that it wields. But there is really no simple antidote for that, because architecture mostly deals with the concrete. An architect, unlike an author, has to face the harshest facts of biological existence: that we need shelter to survive, that we live together in towns and cities, or that we all have to take a shit after we eat. But it is in the will of the architect that the greatest danger lies. The will, the power of each individual to impose his or her vision on the world. In that sense, exaptation seems like a pretty good solution, as it is a way to let other, external, natural or social influences participate in shaping the process. Then again, I would love to hear that particular conversation between an architect and a client: What is this structure supposed to be used for? I don’t really know, I mean, right now, it’s a toilet, but it is pregnant with possibilities! Perhaps tomorrow it could be used as an indoor pool, or a tiny skatepark… Best we leave it open-ended, it will surely acquire new functions from use! That is a tough sell… but then again, what do I know about architecture?

 “We want to build something new but all we have is broken pieces”, you say. If we ceased to understand the world, do you think we would build on chaos? Like a superstructure resting on the lie we understand what’s going on?
We can –and we do– build on chaos. Chaos can, if seen from a certain perspective, offer ground for us to flourish. It is not just disorder, it is more akin to unpredictability. Chaotic systems are hard to control but they can be a wonderful source of inspiration, because chaos is not like everyone thinks: it’s not a case of “anything goes”. There are definite shapes to chaos. There are certain things that serve as attractors, powerful forces we gravitate towards, trajectories that can be traced out in time. If chaos is good for something, it is to teach us the limits of control, and the boundaries of rationality. We need to embrace chaos to reach a deeper understanding. Also, we mustn’t forget that we are, above all other things, biological organisms: that means that we have a certain “sense” for chaos. We have an animal awareness of its strange influence. And that helps us navigate a world that can never be fully constrained by any order, however perfectly balanced. 

Opening picture: Benjamin Labatut portrayed by Juana Gomez

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