RE: Professor Avenarius and Stoopid Google

I don’t have a copy of Immortality handy, but that post on quirks has me thinking about this novel again. It’s very good, very much on the level of Book of Laughter and Forgetting and Unbearable Lightness of Being, and this Avenarius character is very odd.

The professor is a fictional character – arguably the hero – of Milan Kundera’s 1991 novel Immortality. He is a friend of the narrator and wages a one-man guerrilla campaign in Paris against motor vehicles. His principal strategy is to go out late at night and slash the tyres of cars and motorbikes, which he tells us “have made the former beauty of cities invisible – I protest that cars have led to the eclipse of cathedrals”. ~ Henry McDonald in the Observer

He may be a fictional character, but he’s based on a real person; specifically, a 19th century Swiss German philosopher:

Richard Avenarius, the historical figure, is the founder of empiriocriticism, a school of philosophy which encourages thinkers to strip away their assumptions and preconceived notions in order to experience knowledge. His axioms assert that all knowledge stems from an individual’s confrontation with his environment.

The Avenarius of the novel, like the philosopher, is occupied with food, sex and the least possible expenditure of energy. The fictional Avenarius points out the same fallacies as his historical predecessor, but ironically. He is a well read professor, possibly even of literature, but he no longer seems to read. He doesn’t bother to separate Bertrand Betrand from Bernard Bertrand; they are both merely examples of “diabolum.” He is conspicuously inconsistent with empiriocriticism and his own principles: he hates the automobile, but drives a luxurious and flashy Mercedes. He embodies everything a reader brings into a text-prejudice, laziness and inconsistency. He is also oddly irresistible. It is likely that most readers will identity with his humour, and with the “diabolum” he brings into the text. His inconsistency (hypocrisy) not only embodies all the fun of a pulp biography or a tabliod headline, he is the force of humour and charm that cannot help but sway ones opinions. ~ David Lightfoot, Perceiving the fictional world of Nesmrtelnost through Kundera’s “I”

One sentence in particular is worth noting again, as it takes us back to that Atlantic article and Rufus’ question about whether Google is making us stoopid: He is a well read professor, possibly even of literature, but he no longer seems to read. Well, it’s part of Avenarius’ charm, I suppose, but that Google article is scary. I hope it isn’t true. I’d like to think that “deep reading” (or whatever it was called) is similar to the invention of the wheel. We may not use wheels hewn from limestone as much as we used to, but we have more wheels than ever these days, and I can only see the number of wheels in everyday use increasing. And I know I’m reading about as many books as I ever have, although I’ve already admitted (in a previous post) to making a concerted effort.

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