Alberto Manguel, The Massey Lectures (I)

On Friday night I attended the first in the series of 5 Massey Lectures being given this year by Alberto Manguel. It was an erudite and occasionally eloquent performance, but by the end I was feeling distinctly underwhelmed. For one thing, for all the wide-ranging literary allusions and anecdotes, his points were wholly predictable, even banal, and certainly preaching to the choir on occasions such as this: books nourish our humanity, fictions of all kind offer us stories about how we do or could or should live our lives, language shapes as well as reflects our experience, and so forth. Perhaps he considered it necessary for the occasion and for his intended audience to speak in extreme generalizations, especially as this was the first in his series, but strip away the allusions to Plato and Doblin and I think there’s a pretty fine line between much of his talk and platitudes. Further, though, and more problematic (there’s nothing wrong, after all, with asserting general claims for the beauty and value of literature from time to time in prominent venues), I became troubled by two aspects of his characterization of literature.

First, he repeatedly invoked the difference between political language and literary language, without, I thought, sufficiently acknowledging the highly political dimension of much literature (or literary language). I don’t think he meant to imply that literature operates in an apolitical realm (indeed, his talk about the role of literature in imagining society and shaping identity, including national identity, at least implicitly pointed towards its political dimensions, which can of course be reflected in its form and language as well as in its content). But he did persistently point to political discourse as the opposite of literary.

Second, he repeatedly described literature as posing, rather than answering, questions, as allowing for ambiguity, confusion, and profundity rather than insisting on clarity, definition, or systems. I have found that people working on the relationship between literature and moral philosophy (such as Martha Nussbaum, Cora Diamond, or Jane Adamson) also typically characterize literature in this way, thus opposing it to what they consider the reductive tendencies of analytic philosophy. But as Adamson’s essay “Against Tidiness” clearly shows (but does not seem self-conscious about itself), this is not a universal or historically constant view of literature, and applying its standards strictly could mean ruling out some pretty important writers (such as Alexander Pope, say, or George Eliot) as not truly literary precisely because they do offer some strong prescriptions. As I have written about elsewhere, I think this is why Nussbaum starts off her theory of literature as moral philosophy with Henry James, explicitly setting George Eliot aside. (Actually, as I discuss in that article, she really works in the other direction, starting from her favourite novel, James’s The Golden Bowl, and looking for a way to find or explain its philosophical significance.) Although typically these people (including Manguel) mean to be boosting literature by emphasizing its difference from dogma, by insisting on its irrational or unphilosophical or subjective or mystifying aspects, they risk limiting its relevance (or its perceived value) in today’s world in just the ways their supposed opponents (Plato, utilitarians, scientists, politicians, analytic philosophers, etc.) do. Though I’m sure most readers share George Eliot’s view that it is not desirably for fiction to lapse “from picture to diagram,” it does seem important that we not restrict our thinking about the role of literature in society (or philosophy) according to an essentially Romantic notion of it.

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