In contrast, Jean-Claude Carriere is an eminent cinephile, a former head of the French film school and a frequent script collaborator with movie and stage directors, having worked with Luis Bunuel on “Belle de Jour” and Peter Brook on “The Mahabharata.” He, too, collects very old books and shares with Eco an interest in works about mankind’s follies, delusions and superstitions.
From the beginning of the discussion, and periodically throughout, Eco insists that “the book is like the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be bettered.” No Luddite, however, he confesses that if his house were on fire, he’d save his computer’s hard drive before any of his books because it holds all his writing of the past 30 years. Nonetheless, he insists that we cannot spend all our time reading on a screen — our eyes just won’t take it. I’m not so sure of that, but Eco certainly seems right in noting that the digital revolution has led to more widespread literacy: Just when we thought, in the wake of Marshall McLuhan, that we were becoming “a purely visual civilisation,” the computer returned us “to Gutenberg’s galaxy; from now on, everyone has to read.”
As the conversation ranges on, both men worry about the unreliability of online data: “What the Internet provides,” notes Carriere, “is gross information, with almost no sense of order or hierarchy, and with the sources unchecked. So each of us needs not only to check facts, but also to create meaning.” Eco stresses that we have to learn how “to handle information whose authenticity we can no longer trust.” For Carriere “this tool — which is supposed to be comforting in its delivery of everything and anything — actually plunges us into great confusion.” Moreover, adds Eco, “discussions between people can only take place on the basis of a shared encyclopedia. . . . We expected globalisation to make everyone start thinking alike. What has actually happened is precisely the opposite: globalisation has led to the parcelling up of common experience into different camps.” The scholar-novelist further emphasizes the ephemeral, transient quality of online reading: “As soon as you click onto the next page you forget what you’ve just read, the very thing that has brought you to the page now on your screen.”
Even though these conversations are more than three years old, Carriere does seem to have foreseen the rise of widespread tweeting: “One day soon we will all be informants. Willing informants of a more or less qualified, more or less biased nature, who will also, by the same process, have become inventors, creators of news, every day imagining the world anew. It may come to that: describing the world according to our desires, which we will by then take for reality.”
While Eco usually makes the more profound remarks, Carriere likes to provoke with odd factoids and assertions: “Every great French author from Rabelais to Apollinaire has written at least one pornographic text.” “During the 120 or 130 years between Racine’s Phedre and the Romantics, not a single poem was written in France. Versifiers did of course churn out and publish thousands, if not millions, of lines of verse, but you won’t find a French person today who can quote a single one.” Why was this? Because the 18th century was a neoclassical age: “When you do nothing but apply a set of rules, the elements of surprise, brilliance and inspiration all evaporate.”