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.