By Alessandro Baricco, 52. In 2006, he wrote I Barbari (The Barbarians - not translated in English as far as I can tell), and he has now written a “sequel” to that series of essays for Wired Italia. (Original in Italian — translation below by Grey A. Drane, links added to translation)
Believe it or not, I wrote this article in 2026, sixteen years from now. Let’s just say I’ve gotten a bit ahead of myself. Something like that. Here is the article:
At times, we write books that are like duels: when the shootout is over, you see who’s left standing, and if it’s not you, you’ve lost. When I wrote I Barbari twenty years ago, I looked around, and everyone was still there, standing tall. It had all the appearances of a defeat, but it didn’t make any sense. So I sat down, and I waited. I just had to wait for them to fall, one by one, late but stone-cold dead nonetheless. It just took a bit of patience. Some suffered with great flair. Others fell to the ground in a heap. But I still wouldn’t call it a victory; they more likely died of natural causes, and not because of my own bullets. Even so, I can’t say my aim was bad, if that’s any consolation.
The last to fall, after swaying slowly back and forth and with great dignity, was a bit upsetting because I knew him well. I think I may even have worked for him in the past (with pistols loaded with words, as always). This last survivor was profundity – the concept of profundity, the practice of profundity, the passion for profundity. Some of you may remember these beasts when they still had form, in the time of the Barbarians (I Barbari). They were fed by the stubborn conviction that the meaning of things was to be found in a secret chamber, safe from more facile views, stored in the freezer of remote obscurity and accessible only through patience, hard work, and determined inquiry.
The things around us were the trees, and we sought out the roots. We went back in time, dug for meaning, and let the clues settle and sediment. Even in emotion, we aspired to the deepest of feelings, and we wanted beauty itself to be deep, in our books, our actions, our traumas, our memories and, at times, in our glances. It was a voyage, and our destination was profundity. Our reward was meaning – which, at times, we called “ultimate” meaning – and the satisfying roundness of a concept to which, years ago, I believe I had sacrificed all too much time and energy: the profound and ultimate meaning of things. I don’t know when exactly, but at a certain point this way of seeing the world began to feel inadequate. Not false exactly, just inadequate.
The fact is that meaning which came to us through profundity was too often sterile and, at times, even harmful. So, as if in a hesitant overture, we began doubting whether a “profound and ultimate meaning of things” truly existed at all. At first, we turned to milder definitions that seemed to better reflect the reality of things. That meaning was something which could never be pinned down in a single definition, for instance, felt like a good compromise. But today, I believe we can simply say that we weren’t daring enough and that the error in our ways was not so much in believing in ultimate meaning, but in placing that meaning in the profound. What we were looking for existed; it just wasn’t where we thought. It wasn’t there for the disconcerting reason that the changes of the last thirty years had thrown in our faces, giving us one of the most fascinating, most painful of findings: profundity is what doesn’t exist; it’s an optical illusion. It is the puerile translation of a legitimate desire into spatial and moral terms, placing that which is most precious to us (i.e. meaning) in a stable place, safe from circumstance, accessible only to a select few, attainable only at the end of an arduous journey.
This is how we had hidden the treasure. But in hiding it, we created an El Dorado of the spirit, of profundity, which in reality seems to have never existed and which, in time, will be remembered as one of the necessary lies that humanity told itself. Rather shocking, that’s for sure. Indeed, one of the traumas that this change caused was that we found ourselves living in a world that was lacking a dimension, that of depth, that we had grown accustomed to.
I remember that, at first, the keenest minds had interpreted this curious condition as a sign of decadence. They pointed, not incorrectly, to the sudden disappearance of as much as half of the world they once knew – and, to make matters worse, the part that truly mattered, the one that held the treasure. From this came the instinctive tendency to see events in apocalyptic terms – the invasion of a horde of barbarians who, having no concept of the profound, were reorganizing the world within the only remaining dimension they knew: superficiality. With the consequent, disastrous loss of meaning, of beauty… of life.
It wasn’t that it was stupid to see things in this way, but we now know, with a certain precision, that it was a nearsighted view. They confused the abolition of profundity with the abolition of meaning. But in actual fact what was happening, amongst the thousands of challenges and uncertainties, was that, once profundity had been abolished, meaning was shifting to inhabit the surface of things. It wasn’t disappearing; it was shifting.
This reinvention of superficiality as the place of meaning is one of the challenges we have overcome – a work of spiritual craftsmanship that will go down in history. On paper, the risks were huge, but we must remember that the surface is a place of stupidity only for those who believe that we only find meaning in the profound. Once the barbarians (and by that I mean us) had unmasked this belief, automatically equating superficiality with lack of meaning became a reflex that pointed to a certain degree of ignorance.
Where many saw a simple surrendering to superficiality, many others sensed a very different phenomenon: the treasure of meaning, which had been relegated to a secret crypt accessible only to a select few, was now distributed throughout the surfaces of the world, where the ability to reconstruct it no longer meant an ascetic descent into the depths of the earth, attainable by an elite few, and was now a collective ability to recognize patterns in the fabric of reality. And that doesn’t sound too bad. In fact, it sounds more suited to our natural abilities and our desires. For people unable to stand still and concentrate on one thing, but who do move quickly and are able connect fragments with great speed, the open field of surfaces seemed the ideal place on which to play the game of life. Why on earth would we want to play it, and lose, in the corridors of the underworld that they insisted on teaching us in school?
So we don’t feel like we’ve had to give up on a noble meaning of things; we’ve just begun to pursue it by different means, by moving along the surface of things with a speed and skill that mankind has never before known. We have turned to forming objects of meaning as constellations of points in the reality through which we now travel, doing so with unprecedented agility and ease. The image of the world that the media provides, the geography of ideals that politics proposes, and the idea of knowledge that the digital world gives us lack the slightest shadow of depth. They are a collection of thin, fragile facts that we organize into objects of a certain strength. We use them to understand the world. We lose our ability to focus; we’re unable to do just one thing at a time, and we always prefer speed over depth of understanding.
The combination of these defects results in a technique of seeing the world that systematically seeks out a simultaneous overlap of stimuli – what we call experiencing. In books, in music, in all we call beautiful in what we see and what we hear, we increasingly appreciate the ability to express the emotion of the world simply by shining light on it, not by bringing it out into the light. We cultivate esthetics, where any and all boundaries between “high” art and “low” art disappear, as there is no longer any high or low, but only light or dark, vision or blindness. We move quickly and stop rarely. We hear pieces, never the whole. We write on our phones. We marry and then divorce. We watch movies without ever entering a theater. We listen to readings instead of reading books. We stand in slow lines to eat fast food. And nonetheless, all of this moving about without roots and without burden results in a life that we must find to be extremely meaningful and beautiful for us to worry with such urgency and passion – more so than any generation ever in the history of mankind – about saving the planet, about cultivating peace and protecting monuments, conserving memories and prolonging life, protecting the weak and defending Lardo di Colonnata.
In times that we like to imagine as being simpler, they burned libraries and witches; they used the Parthenon as a weapons depot; they squashed out lives like flies in the folly of war, and they wiped out entire populations just to have a bit more space. And these were people who absolutely adored profundity. The surface is everything, and in it is meaning. Or better, in it we are able to trace out a meaning. And since we have acquired this ability, we are almost embarrassed by the inevitable tremors of the myth of profundity.
Beyond all reason, we suffer the ideologies, the fundamentalism, any art that is too lofty or serious, any brazen statement of absolute truth. We are likely even wrong in this, but these are the things that we remember as being founded on the profundity of reasoning and indisputable dogma that we now know are based on nothing, and we are still offended – or perhaps afraid. This is why any false profundity now seems tasteless and why any concession of nostalgia seems somehow cheap. Profundity appears to have become a throwback for the elderly, the short-sighted, and the poor.
Twenty years ago, I would have been afraid to write anything like this. It was perfectly clear to me that we were playing with fire. I knew that the risks were enormous and that, faced with such a change, we were playing with an immense heritage. I was writing I Barbari, but I knew that the unmasking of profundity could have given rise to the domain of the insignificant. And I knew that the reinvention of superficiality often led to the undesired effect of validating pure stupidity or the farcical simulation of deep thought, all for a misunderstanding. But in the end, what happened was only the result of our own decisions and our talent and of the rapidity of our intelligence.
The change led to specific behavior, crystallized perspectives, and redistributed privileges. Now I know that, in all of this, the promise of meaning has survived and that it was the myth of profundity which has, in its own way, given this to us. Of course, among those who were the quickest to understand and manage this change there are many who do not know of this promise, are not able to even imagine it, and have no interest in passing it on. And from them we are receiving a bright new world without a future. But as has always happened, the culture of that promise was equally full of determination and talent, able to pry from the masses the scattering of hope, of confidence, and of ambition.
I don’t believe that it is foolish optimism to say that today, in 2026, such a culture exists, appears more solid that ever, and is often at the helm guiding change. These barbarians are giving us a view of the world that is suited to the eyes we have been given, a mental design that is appropriate for the brain we have, and a hopeful plot deserving of our hearts, so to speak. They move in swarms, guided by a revolutionary instinct for collective, suprapersonal creativity, and in this they remind me of the great many unnamed copyists of the Middle Ages.
In their own strange way, they are copying the Great Library into our own language. It’s a delicate task and is certain to contain errors. But it is the only way we know not only to hand down our legacy to the generations to come, but to give them a future as well.