Sunday, March 30, 2008

recent reading: Alberto Manguel’s The City of Words

Despite being the only item on my Christmas wish list, only a few days ago did I finally pick up a copy of Alberto Manguel’s The City of Words (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2007), produced as the 2007 Massey Lecture on CBC Radio and across Canada, including Halifax, Victoria, Edmonton, Montreal and Toronto (and not, apparently, Ottawa, where I was attending the writers festival, missing the Edmonton version). Manguel’s lecture is a conversation of the divisions between people and cultures and some of the reasons for such, telling stories of the other, stories of brothers and many others to weave his narrative of the creative power of words themselves, to build whole cultures and even tear others down.

Language lends voice to the storytellers who try to tell us who we are; language builds out of words our reality and those who inhabit it, within and without the walls; language offers stories that lie and stories that tell the truth. Language changes with us, grows stronger or weaker with us, survives or dies with us. The economic machineries we have built require language to appeal to its consumers, but only on a dogmatic, practical level, deliberately avoiding literature’s constant probing and interrogation. The endless sequence of readings of Gilgamesh or Don Quixote opens realms of meaning on countless subjects – personal identity, relationship to power, social duties and responsibilities, the balance of action – all of which may at some point entail a questioning of power and call for the resolution of injustice. To sustain the run of the machineries, those in office will often attempt to curb and control this multiplicity of readings in many ways: by simply prohibiting the book or, more subtly, by imposing a restricted or distorted vocabulary, by “blunting the language,” as Günter Grass once called it. This censorship (because of course, it is censorship) takes place in many ways, from the most dramatic to the most covert. It may ban a language entirely, it may subvert certain vocabularies, it may distort or empty of meaning certain of words, it may channel language into limp literary productions or limit it to dogmatic use in the realms of politics, commerce, fashion, and, of course, religion. In every case, its aim is to prevent the telling and reading of true stories.
What amazes me about Manguel is the range of references he can pull out to further and continue his argument, from reading Don Quixote, Cassandra and Gilgamesh into recent reactions to the Iraq War, and Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey, bringing them together in such capable and moving insight as to be impossible to imagine in any other way.

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