Alberto Manguel’s Massey Lectures: The City of Words

Here is my running commentary on Alberto Manguel’s City of Words lectures. I’d love to hear comments from anyone who is listening along.


In the first lecture I was struck by the tension between the blessing and the curse of language as described by Manguel. The blessing is the ability to name and even create reality with words and stories, and how we need words and stories (and someone to tell them to) to see and know ourselves. The curse is the curse of Cassandra, which is to have your word-creations ignored and denigrated. No one likes bad news, whether it’s about the fall of Troy or the greenhouse effect, and so we invent more comfortable stories to drown out the dire prophecies of the Cassandras.

The Epic of Gilgamesh featured prominently in the second lecture, which developed the theme of the Other as one who both helps us know ourselves and transforms us. I still haven’t managed to read my copy of Gilgamesh, but Manguel provided a summary and reading of it that was fascinating. The tyrannical King Gilgamesh meets his mirror image, the wild Enkidu, and it is only when they embrace as friends that both Gilgamesh and his city, Uruk, are made just and whole. Manguel also made reference to two other literary examples of this dynamic: The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, in which the two estranged personalities also come together in a healed whole, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which the protagonist cannot accept the otherness in himself (i.e. age and loss of beauty) and spirals into paranoia and murder.

Manguel then turned to the modern fear of being transformed “beyond recognition” by the Others within our countries, particularly in England and France. These two countries have started passing laws to bolster established cultural norms, and Canada’s hamlet of Hérouxville is now notorious worldwide for similar efforts. I think Manguel fears that refusing to come to terms with the Other, and not letting “us” be reflected and transformed by “them,” will have dreadful consequences. For him, the solution to conflicts like these is not assimilation, but synthesis.

In his third lecture, Manguel draws heavily on the famous Canadian Inuit film, Atanarjuat (“The Fast Runner”) to show how stories may help us bridge the misunderstandings that the multiplicity of languages, the “curse of Babel,” causes. His choice is a little unfortunate because, as it turns out, the film is not faithful to the original Inuit legend. As the director euphemistically put it, “The only thing that we changed was the ending.” In the original story, murder is repaid with vengeance, as required by custom, but in the film, the evildoers are shamanically healed of their destructive ambition and forgiven, though they are also banished. The director has conceded that this change was probably due to the influence of Christianity, and that the elders, who are Christian, were reluctant to expose the more unsavoury aspects of their ancestors’ culture to public view.

Luckily, Manguel doesn’t make too much of the ending, but dwells quite a bit on the difference between Western and Inuit notions of time, space, and story. For us, time moves, we move through space, and stories (and all art) are fixed in time. He tells a joke of a famous painter chastised for touching up his own work in a gallery. For the Inuit, time and space are featureless, and stories only exist at the moment they are being told and are owned, for the moment, by the teller. With no past or future, memory is not separate from present experience, and the dead and the living can interact, as they do in Atanarjuat (and its sequel, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen). Manguel uses Atanarjuat as an example of how stories can draw us into a completely different worldview, teach us its language, and thus perhaps bridge the gaps between individuals and communities.

Manguel’s fourth lecture was about stories that are concocted for political ends, and those that “ring true” and contribute to a society’s true identity. An example of the first is Virgil’s Aeneid, which created a prehistory of Rome as the new Troy, and justified Rome’s military expansion and rule through fictional prophecy. Another example is the Lead Books of Sacromonte, which described, in Arabic, an Arab Christian presence in Spain going back to apostolic times, with attendant miracles. These inscriptions were “discovered” during a time of suspicion and persecution of Christians of Arab descent in Spain, and appears to have been created to secure the Moorish community more standing in Christian Spain.

What connects these forgeries, and all false stories, in Manguel’s view, is that they are stories of exclusion. They deny the presence of the Other. He contrasts them with Don Quixote, in which Cervantes goes to great lengths to acknowledge the presence and contribution of Arab peoples and culture in a Spain that was longing for Christian purity. The book itself is supposed to be a translation of a book written in Arabic and translated by one of the many speakers of Arabic that were not supposed to exist in Christian Spain any more. Manguel points out that Spain’s greatest literary masterpiece holds at its center the exotic self that Spain despised and eventually expulsed. For Manguel, the kind of acknowledgement of historical reality that is in Don Quixote is what makes a story “ring true.”

The final lecture in this series wove together two of Manguel’s concerns, exclusionary systems and the manipulation of language that sustains them. The systems Manguel is talking about are those that are designed to create the perfect society by eliminating the “barbarian” at any cost, even if it means the destruction of the system’s creators. The title of the lecture, “The Screen of Hal,” of course refers to 2001: A Space Odyssey in which the ship’s computer, programmed to complete the mission at all costs, decides that the imperfect human astronauts are a liability and must be eliminated. Manguel sees multinational corporations as another “perfect” system, supposedly designed to improve human welfare by generating wealth, but like Hal, the industrial system has no safeguard against the destruction of its creators. Human welfare and environmental health become liabilities, barriers to maximum profit, just more “barbarians” that must be eliminated.

These systems rely on stories, but not literary stories with complex language and multiple possible readings. The industrial system, like exclusionary political and religious systems, relies on stories made of simplified language that can be controlled and manipulated to stifle questions, discourage reflection, and get across an unequivocal message. They are really just summaries of stories, whose endings are “the gratification of our most selfish desires.” Manguel joins these themes in his criticism of the publishing world, in which the industrial profit motive has led to verbally and thematically simplistic, highly edited books that are designed only to entertain and create the notion of reading as nothing more than a pleasant pastime. The reader is led to believe that serious literature is beyond them, and so they happily continue to consume their romances, thrillers, mysteries, and the like.

He ends with a sketch of the modern global identity crisis. Mass migration and mobility, whether due to strife, disaster, collapse of empires, or choice, is straining notions of identity. One symptom of this is the rise of ethnic and religious nationalisms, and the extremes of violence that flow from them. He does not go so far as to suggest that stories can prevent these tragedies, but they can at least warn us about the flaws in our perfect, exclusionary systems. They can tell us that when we try to eliminate the barbarian, we may find ourselves on the hit list as well.

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11 comments on “Alberto Manguel’s Massey Lectures: The City of Words

  1. Di says:

    Just ran across your blog and was delighted to see the link to the Great Books. My husband's father was a salesman for Britannica back in the 60's and 70's and traveled the world selling the Great Books. We have a full set from back then…with only slight smoke damage from when my husband (then 5) set his house on fire.

  2. Stefanie says:

    I downloaded the podcast for the first lecture Monday and my husband and I will be listening to it Thursday night. You are making me very excited about it and the other lectures too!

  3. wil says:

    I grabbed the podcast as well, but it might be a while before I get around to listening to it.

  4. Sylvia says:

    Hi Di! That's a nice connection to the Great Books collection. Thanks for visiting!
    Stefanie: That's the idea! You'll be surprised how fast his lectures go by. They are very dense and move fast.

  5. Stefanie says:

    Enjoyed lecture one. I felt the curse belonged more to the makers because the readers are responsible for reading deeply, though so often we do not hold up our side of the bargain. The story about the woman in the concentration camp and how she used her memory of books she'd read to help herself and her friend make it through brought tears to my eyes. Can hardly wait for the second lecture. Have you picked up a copy of the book yet? It won't be out here until the end of the month.

  6. Sylvia says:

    I will probably get the book from the library, though it's not a priority for me right now. I'm glad you enjoyed the first lecture. As you listen to the rest, keep an eye on the theme of the “Other” in society. That is the thread running through the series (and presumably the book).

  7. Stefanie says:

    Thanks for the tip! I will keep my ears open 🙂

  8. steve says:

    I happen to catch the second part of this lecture the other night. Though I was quite fascinated by his interpretation of Gilgamesh, I think he placed a little too much emphasis on the doppelgänger theme. Manguel seemed to gloss over the character of Shamhat, and the various interpretations of the meaning of her encounter with Enkidu. Nonetheless, Manguel's reading is a compelling way to view Gilgamesh, which is certainly one of the master narratives of our civilization.
    BTW. I just found your site, and highly enjoy it. Thanks

  9. Sylvia says:

    Hi Steve, thanks for visiting! After listening to all the lectures it seems Manguel had a specific thesis and was drawing the elements out of literature to illustrate it.

  10. V. Crawford says:

    Re 'City of Words' & its comments on the inclusion of 'the Other', I'm afraid I can't share everyone's apparently uncritical enthusiasm. For me, the expedition of Gilgamesh & Enkidu against Humbaba is a story of men proving their identity, & bonding with one another, through their attack on Nature.Humbaba is not merely “a monster”, he is the Guardian of the Forest, sacred to the Goddess. After murdering Humbaba, the heroes' next action is to start chopping down the cedar trees. If this story is taken to be the foundation of our civilisation, what does that tell you?
    And with regard to the inclusion of 'the Other', Manguel is Eurocentric to an impossible degree. Supposing the 'wildman' doesn't want to be included in the city? Supposing the wildman has his own agenda, & isn't merely the passive recipient of our 'civilising' attentions?
    Finally, thinking specifically of Islam, to which Manguel refers, I have to say that as a woman, aware that people like me only yesterday got the boot of the Church off our necks, I'm not inclined to invite or include an even more repressive patriarchal ideology, expressed as it all too often is through domestic violence, forced marriage, so-called honour killings etc., & even when less physically aggressive, still teaches that adult women are dishonoured by being seen in public, or claiming any right to public space.
    If the cost of Manguel's inclusiveness & postmodern sense that every idea is as good as every other is a tolerance of this sort of mindbinding, then his liberal self-congratulation is cheaply bought, for himself & his admirers, at great cost to others. It functions as yet another front for the oppression of women. Of course not every Muslim is the same, but a blanket tolerance of Islamic ideology does not allow us even to begin to differentiate between people. Have we really become so sloppy in our thinking that we are unable to say clearly that totalitarianism & democracy are incompatible, & can't exist together in some mythical woolly comfort blanket?
    There is much in Manguel's writing that is celebratory, and he's certainly worth reading. But please, keep your thinking caps on while you do so, & address the implications of his charming sentences.

  11. Sylvia says:

    Thank you, V., you make a lot of good points. Indeed something does have to give way in the process of civilization, though it's not something we should romanticize any more than we should demonize it. “Wild” cultures are not necessarily any less oppressive and violent than “civilized” ones. I've only read Gilgamesh once and found it perplexing; I will have to try again and I'll keep your thoughts in mind.
    I don't know what Manguel has said about Islam (I don't think it was mentioned in the lectures but perhaps it is in the book) but I would agree that many aspects of it are incompatible with democracy, freedom, women's rights, and minority rights. Some Westernized Muslims seem to be able to selectively reject the more domineering aspects of their faith; whether they can all do so remains to be seen.

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