“You sent for me, master?” the young lord asked, a little breathlessly. He’d come as quickly as he could, but recently his illness had flared up again, and he became winded even from walking the short distance from the library to the gardens.
“Chandra, you are here, good!” exclaimed the old sage Gitarga. “Come sit next to me, boy.”
“Yes, master.” Chandra hobbled over to his master’s side and seated himself on one of the cushions that lay strewn about the place, laying his walking stick on the ground next to him. He kept his features still, as befitted a young lord and heir, but inwardly he was beaming with pride.
Gitarga took from one of his pockets a creased and folded rectangle of parchment. He unfolded it, and showed it to Chandra. It was a handbill, as long as Chandra’s arm and half as wide. It was an advertisement for a performance of the Fantastic Theatre Company. The poster was titled ‘The Fantastic Theatre Company, the greatest show in all Sorona, featuring Fio, the Greatest Singer of our time!’ with gaudy illustrations of costumed singers and players. The boy looked at the crinkled parchment, puzzled. It was a perfectly ordinary handbill, he’d seen dozens like it in the city. He couldn’t fathom what the great thinker wanted with it. He certainly didn’t think that Gitarga had any interest in Fantastic Theatre; it was seen as somewhat lowbrow, appealing to the common people who paid in coppers to stand in the arena, as much as to the aristocracy in their shaded boxes. Chandra imagined that if the old sage took any interest in music at all, it would be for classical music, not for common singers and players.
“These things are everywhere in the city,” the old sage said heavily. “I passed six this morning as I walked down the Street of the Lanterns. All exactly the same.”
Then Gitarga chuckled, much to Chandra’s bafflement.
“You, boy, are looking at me as if to say, ‘Yes, they are all the same, how should it me otherwise?'” the sage said, between rumbles of laughter. “Ah, but the world is changing very fast, Chandra. The world I lived in when I was your age no longer exists. It worries me. When the world changes so fast, what can the old hope to teach the young?”
Chandra wanted to reassure the old man that he had much to teach, but recognized that the question was probably rhetorical, and held his tongue.
“You know, when I was a boy, we didn’t have these things,” Gitarga shook the handbill again. “In those days, Haratrian printing press was used for printing books. My grandmother remembered a time when, if you wanted a copy of Anar’s ‘Poetics’, or ‘the Sagas of the High Kingdom’, you didn’t simply go to the Street of Bookbinders and ask for it. No, you begged leave of the book’s owner to send a scribe to copy it. In those days a book had only one owner, or one true owner, the owner of the original, because you wanted to send your scribe to copy the original. It was no good making copies of copies of copies, because new errors crept in with each copying.”
“The scribes made mistakes?” Chandra asked, surprised. All his life he had been given to understand that the youth of his generation had everything extraordinarily easy, and were coddled and sloppy in comparison to generations past.
“It was inevitable, in the copying of a work of any length,” Gitarga replied. “Of course when the errors were found, the scribes were punished, but it’s human nature to make mistakes, and you can’t change human nature.”
Chandra shifted on his cushions. He thought of his writing instructor, who smacked him across the back of his hands with a stick of bamboo every time he drew a character poorly. He tried to imagine what would happen if he had told her “it’s human nature to make mistakes, and you can’t change human nature,” and decided it would probably be better to leave that particular experiment untried.
“The printing press,” Gitarga went on, “was a miracle. In the space of a few years, my grandmother’s library grew from eighteen treasures, great classics, most of them, handed down through generations, to over a hundred. She had to have new shelves built to hold them all. I can still remember the joy and wonder in her voice when she told me this – that she had so many books, she ran out of places to put them. A hundred years ago, it was only queens and kings, and perhaps some very high lords, who had so many. And now – why now, merchants and artisans and even publicans read the sagas, and quote the great poets of the classical age!
“When I was young, it seemed that a great new era was dawning. There was an explosion in thinking, in philosophy, in natural sciences. The great works of literature were read and discussed in drinking houses, in salons, in public squares. Knowledge was being democratized. We thought the printing press of Harator would bring a new era of enlightenment.”
“It did though,” Chandra said hesitantly, “didn’t it?”
“Oh, to an extent,” the old sage replied. He once again shook the parchment in his hand, so that Chandra feared the flimsy thing would fall apart. “Six of these, this morning, stuck up on the Street of the Lanterns. All exactly the same. Tell me, Chandra, what does this thing have to do with free thought, or with enlightenment, or with the democratization of knowledge? What is the use of it?”
“It tells you about the show,” Chandra said, with a shrug.
“Does it?” the old sage asked. He ran his finger along a line of characters. “It says here that Fio of the Fantastic Company is the greatest singer of our time. But is she really?”
Chandra knew the answer to this one: “That’s subjective. One person might find her voice sweeter than all others, another person might not.”
“Yes, it’s subjective,” Gitarga agreed, “many things are. But this…” the old sage left his sentence to trail off. A moment later he picked up his stream of thoughts again at a different point.
“The great classical poet Anar wrote that her lover Ainsel was the most beautiful youth in all Sorona. I have no idea if Ainsel truly was the most lovely young man of his generation. He is long dead, and we have no busts or portraits of him, none at least from the time when he still lived. I cannot look on his face, or on its likeness, and judge for myself whether he truly was as comely as Anar wrote. And yet I believe that she found him so. I have read her beautiful, passionate verses, and I am convinced that, in her eyes at least, Ainsel was a beauty without compare.”
“But this,” he shook the handbill once again, “Did those who designed this poster truly believe that Fio is the greatest singer of our time? The only thing this tells me, is that they believed that if they said she was, they would sell more tickets. If a thing is true, you don’t have to write it on dozens of bills and paste it on every wall. The only reason to do that is to convince people of something they did not previously believe. So you see something repeated seven or eight times, and it starts to sound true to you, simply because it was repeated. I suppose that, now that paper is so cheap, the less true something is, the more times it has to be repeated. If ever a baker should find that the public have little appetite for her wares, instead of changing the recipe, she can simply have pieces of paper printed and distributed saying her cakes are the most delicious in all Sorona, and keep posting them around the city until everyone believes it. It’s dangerous, Chandra. Reality should shape the written word, not the other way around.”
“A printed bill cannot change reality,” Chandra said.
“Can’t it? It can change people’s perceptions. You don’t believe me?”
“If a cake tastes bad to me, seeing a printed poster won’t make it taste any better.”
“I am not so sure,” the old sage replied. “These posters must change people’s perceptions somewhat. If they did not, why did the Fantastic Company go to the trouble and expense of printing them? And why fill the poster with gaudy boasts, instead of just informing people of the location and time of the show?”
Chandra scowled. “I do not believe that a poster could make cake taste better, or a song sound sweeter,” he said. “And even it did, what does it matter? Only two weeks past, you said that there is no one truth, there are only people’s perceptions.”
“I did,” the old sage agreed.
“But then -” Chandra crinkled his forehead with the effort of forming his thoughts into words. “If it’s all just perceptions anyway, then – well perhaps a poster can change a person’s perceptions. But if there’s no such thing as Truth, if it’s all just perceptions anyway, what does it matter?”
“Now that,” Gitarga said, “is a very interesting question. I will have to ponder it.”
The sage said no more, and two sat in silence together for some time.