A would-be Singaporean novelist's blog

Annotations of “In Praise of Reading and Fiction”, a Nobel lecture by Mario Vargas Llosa

I caught this off Bibliophile Stalker just recently, and discovered the trove of speeches and lectures contained within. The whole thing is certainly worth a look, but before that, here’s the lecture I was reading from this year’s (2010) Literature winner.

In Praise of Reading and Fiction, by Mario Vargas Llosa.

In short, it’s about the role literature and reading has in society and its ability to transform and uplift the human condition. Amongst the reading:

Flaubert taught me that talent is unyielding discipline and long patience. Faulkner, that form – writing and structure – elevates or impoverishes subjects. Martorell, Cervantes, Dickens, Balzac, Tolstoy, Conrad, Thomas Mann, that scope and ambition are as important in a novel as stylistic dexterity and narrative strategy. Sartre, that words are acts, that a novel, a play, or an essay, engaged with the present moment and better options, can change the course of history. Camus and Orwell, that a literature stripped of morality is inhuman, and Malraux that heroism and the epic are as possible in the present as is the time of the Argonauts, the Odyssey, and the Iliad.

Of many great authors, past and fairly present, and perhaps a reminder that writing is not just a mastery of single processes, but a mastery of many things at once: the mastery of self, the mastery of craft and an all-encompassing vision that draws the world and its facets into a single, refined gem. It’s no small undertaking, and not to mention a great many books to be read.

Let those who doubt that literature not only submerges us in the dream of beauty and happiness but alerts us to every kind of oppression, ask themselves why all regimes determined to control the behavior of citizens from cradle to grave fear it so much they establish systems of censorship to repress it and keep so wary an eye on independent writers. They do this because they know the risk of allowing the imagination to wander free in books, know how seditious fictions become when the reader compares the freedom that makes them possible and is exercised in them with the obscurantism and fear lying in wait in the real world, …This fact, if it takes root in their sensibility and consciousness, makes citizens more difficult to manipulate, less willing to accept the lies of the interrogators and jailers who would like to make them believe that behind bars they lead more secure and better lives.

Okay, I didn’t quite get the second last sentence, but perhaps one could question the role of literature in say…propagating the ultimately disastrous socialist dream in the 19th to 20th century. In that case, the dreamed-of freedom of the proletariat from the tyranny of the upper classes soon becomes the new oppression, where all else is sacrificed, even the blood of millions, in pursuit of this “freedom” (see also: The Fallacies of Moralism and Moral Aestheticism). One only has to read Orwell’s Animal Farm for a sense of this irony.

In addition, one could look towards John Gardner’s argument for “moral” fiction (towards the end), moral insofar as the work acts as a fair arbiter in putting differing values to the test, and works out the truth as objective and fair-handed as possible (i.e. “the way they work is moral”, and not so much the form and content).

However, do not overly read this as disparaging socialism (its merits and shortcomings are another lengthy matter altogether), at least not in the catch-all mudball manner that Americans are apt to use in political smears. Fiction beguiles and puts on a play of truths, but to nail it for such a fault is to miss a larger point, that it provides a vision of what could be and lifts our gaze from the gutter to the stars, in the way Oscar Wilde would put it.

We should not confuse a blinkered nationalism and its rejection of the ‘other,’ always the seed of violence, with patriotism, a salutary, generous feeling of love for the land where we were born, where our ancestors lived, where our first dreams were forged, a familiar landscape of geographies, loved ones, and events that are transformed into signposts of memory and defenses against solitude. Homeland is not flags, anthems, or apodictic speeches about emblematic heroes, but a handful of places and people that populate our memories and tinge them with melancholy, the warm sensation that no matter where we are, there is a home for us to return to.

About time that someone said it. Patriotism has often been hijacked for nationalism’s ends, imploring a greater support for the military and its spending, for invasions and foreign wars, for laws that terrorize and divide, both at home and abroad. There’s no need to state examples when each day serves up a new flavour of extremism and paranoid nationalism from every continent.

And the thing is, the things of the heart in this statement are often used as a means to justify the former. One implores to our love for the homeland, and in the next turn, puts a metaphorical gun to it, saying that the gun in their hand is the gun that a foreigner, an external bogeyman would point at it. An old trick in the book of rhetorical flourishes, but people can be counted upon to defend their way of life until their dying breath.

To Singaporeans, this may be familiar in the recent army recruitment posters, which like the ones that have went before it, have been subject to the usual round of ridicule. I’d like to add in, especially on the way that the ads attempt to frame the matter.

The posters display, in national red and white, the words “My Brother, Our Army”, “My Son, Our Army” or even “My Boyfriend, Our Army”, all of them female loved ones beaming proudly at faceless men. Like the above, it is an appeal to the heart. Female citizens, who do not serve “national service” (i.e. conscription, to use the proper word), are called upon to support and have a sense of ownership in the nation’s citizen army, while justification is given for males to sign up for their land and country. It is significant, perhaps, that their faces are missing from the picture; the focus is on the army as a wholesome, family-friendly affair, and not one where bullet and steel rends through the flesh and bone of countrymen, enemies and innocents.

Literature is a false representation of life that nevertheless helps us to understand life better, to orient ourselves in the labyrinth where we are born, pass by, and die. It compensates for the reverses and frustrations real life inflicts on us, and because of it we can decipher, at least partially, the hieroglyphic that existence tends to be for the great majority of human beings, principally those of us who generate more doubts than certainties and confess our perplexity before subjects like transcendence, individual and collective destiny, the soul, the sense or senselessness of history, the to and fro of rational knowledge.

And of course, how could a lecture on the merits of literature not end on its ability to tell truths from lies? Perhaps this is the reason for literature’s regenerative ability in the social sphere; it can take expressions and ideas that have been trod into banality, twisted by the words of the self-serving (see: euphemisms, doublespeak) or decrepit with age and bring it back to the foreground, breaking through the parched and hardened ground of common thought like a seed that breaks the earth, and heralds spring once more.

And to end it off, a line from Wilfred Owen:

The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Source: “Mario Vargas Llosa – Nobel Lecture”. Nobelprize.org. 29 Dec 2010 http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2010/vargas_llosa-lecture_en.html

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