Monday, October 15, 2007

Interview with Alberto Manguel

Mary Jo Anderson interviews Chilean autor Alberto Manguel.
Alberto Manguel is a master of words and he doesn’t mince any of them.

How fitting that language is the subject of his newest book, The City of Words (Anansi, $18.95), comprising the 2007 Massey Lectures which Manguel will be delivering across Canada over the next few weeks.

"We are being infantilized daily. I believe we come into the world as intelligent creatures and we have to be taught to be stupid."

But against the culturally induced stupor, Manguel posits that story and literature have the capacity to make us more human.

Manguel spoke on the telephone from Toronto as he prepared to travel to Halifax to deliver the first in this series of lectures. (He was scheduled to speak on Friday at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium.)

Begun in 1961 for the purpose of stimulating public discussion of important social issues, the Massey Lectures are co-sponsored by CBC Radio, House of Anansi Press, and Massey College at the University of Toronto. Every October the selected speaker/author/lecturer, travels to five Canadian cities to deliver one of the lectures. Every November, the CBC Radio program, Ideas, airs the lectures consecutively for one week. (For information visit

Alberto Manguel is erudite, cosmopolitan, and vastly well read. He is a translator, author, editor, and literary critic. His book The History of Reading (Random House, $24), is full of fascinating information and resonant with the passion for reading.

In The City of Words, Manguel examines the concept of nationalism and the idea of "personal and social" identity from the perspective of story and language. As countries fracture and hostilities increase, Manguel asks how — given that "language is our common denominator" — words and story can save us. He also asks whether words will divide and destroy us.

In our conversation (and in the lectures), Manguel asserts that much depends on how language is used. And equally, it is crucial whether questions are posed or answers expounded. For Manguel believes that answers breed dogma and intolerance while questions nurture openness and possibility.

"Answers close us in and literature opens doors and windows for us. It forces us to look further, not be content with what seems like an easy answer," Manguel said.

"It is, I think, exactly what opposes the arts to the kind of society that we are building — in which the notion of value is of financial value and is therefore a closed notion. A closed notion, like a closed book, offers no exploration, no ambiguity, and no spaciousness in which to connect with others. And connection is what language, literature, and stories offer us."

Manguel provides innumerable examples gleaned from many centuries to illuminate the process by which language and art allows us to understand and empathize with people from different cultures while also enabling us to unite as a society.

While discussing the film The Fast Runner by Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk, Manguel says, "Like other communal tasks, storytelling has the function of lending expression and context to private experiences, so that under recognition by the whole of society, individual perceptions . . . can acquire a common, shared meaning on which to build learning."

Imagination and its off-spring, literature, is a "survival mechanism developed to grant us experiences (that) serve to educate" us, Manguel writes in the lecture, The Bricks of Babel. So what is it that stands in the way of this shared perception, this tolerance of others? How can language be at the heart of the conflicts between religions, cultures, and societies?

The problems arise when the rich language of literature is stripped and co-opted for the purposes of politics and commerce.

In his illuminating lecture in Chapter Five, entitled The Screen of Hal (a reference to the computer in Kubrick’s film, 2001 A Space Odyssey), Manguel states, "Distortions are the essence of demagogical and of commercial language, intent on ‘selling’ an idea or product . . ."

Subtly and gradually, the language of literature, which is "complex (and) infinitely capable of enrichment" is replaced by the "short, categorical, imperious" language of advertising or the "static" language of politics. It is an example of the tail wagging the dog as language is transformed into mere slogans and propaganda.

Manguel cites philosopher and literary critic George Lukacs to explain this "colonization of the world of experience" into "one-dimensional generalizations . . . granting value and identity not through imaginative stories but merely according to what something is said to cost."

And in our conversation, Manguel asserts "there is a deliberate effort made to render us stupid so that we become the consumers that are needed for this society to function."

This "co-opted" language is the language of "statements that cannot be explored without destruction. You cannot open up "Drink Coca Cola" and try to reflect upon it," Manguel says.

"You have to use your mind and on the basis of these words (in a book) that are here offered to you, build a reasoning and an emotion of your own. It is your responsibility. It is your task."

Maybe if we build a city of words, a culture of tolerance, we will not suffer as those who built the Tower of Babel. Maybe we will understand — even as we speak different languages.
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