8 December 08 | Chad W. Post

Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio’s Nobel Prize lecture, In the Forest of Paradoxes, (also available as a pdf file) was released last night.

It takes its title and starting point from a provocative passage from Stig Dagerman’s Essaer och texter:

How is it possible on the one hand, for example, to behave as if nothing on earth were more important than literature, and on the other fail to see that wherever one looks, people are struggling against hunger and will necessarily consider that the most important thing is what they earn at the end of the month? Because this is where he (the writer) is confronted with a new paradox: while all he wanted was to write for those who are hungry, he now discovers that it is only those who have plenty to eat who have the leisure to take notice of his existence.

It’s an age old issue—as an example, Le Clezio uses a story about Francois Rabelais taunting the scholars at the Sorbonne with “words plucked from the common tongue”—which is nevertheless, pretty interesting in our current context. Rather than “reveling in negativity” though, he goes on to praise literature as something that is necessary:

Literature—and this is what I have been driving at—is not some archaic relic that ought, logically, to be replaced by the audiovisual arts, the cinema in particular. Literature is a complex, difficult path, but I hold it to be even more vital today than in the time of Byron or Victor Hugo.

His first reason fro why literature is necessary is because it is made up of language:

The writer, the poet, the novelists, are all creatos. This does not mean that they invent language, it means that they use language to create beauty, ideas, images. [. . .] Without language there would be no science, no technology, no law, no art, no love.

The second reason is much more interesting to me, and is the section a number of papers (notably, the AP story and the one in The Guardian) have been focusing on:

There is a great deal of talk about globalization these days. People forget that in fact the phenomenon began in Europe during the Renaissance, with the beginnings of the colonial era. Globalization is not a bad thing in and of itself. Communication has accelerated progress in medicine and in science. Perhaps the generalization of information will help to forestall conflicts. Who knows, if the Internet had existed at the time, perhaps Hitler’s criminal plot would not have succeeded—ridicule might have prevented it from ever seeing the light of day.

We live in the era of the Internet and virtual communication. This is a good thing, but what would these astonishing inventions be worth, were it not for the teachings of written language and books? To provide nearly everyone on the planet with a liquid crystal display is utopian. Are we not, therefore, in the process of creating a new elite, of drawing a new line to divide the world between those who have access to communication and knowledge, and those who are left out? [. . .]

And now, in this era following decolonization, literature has become a way for the men and women in our time to express their identity, to claim their right to speak, and to be heard in all their diversity. Without their voices, their call, we would live in a world of silence.

Culture on a global scale concerns us all. But it is above all the responsibility of readers—of publishers, in other words. True, it is unjust that an Indian from the far north of Canada, if he wishes to be heard, must write in the language of the conquerors—in French, or in English. True, it is an illusion to expect that the Creole language of Mauritius or the West Indies might be heard as easily around the world as the five or six languages that reign today as absolute monarchs over the media. But if, through translation, their voices can be heard, then something new is happening, a cause for optimism. Culture, as I have said, belongs to us all, to all humankind. But in order for this to be true, everyone must be given equal access to culture. The book, however old-fashioned it may be, is the ideal tool. It is practical, easy to handle, economical.

His final recommendations are pretty encouraging as well:

Joint publication with the developing countries, the establishment of funds for lending libraries and bookmobiles, and, overall, greater attention to requests from and works in so-called minority languages—which are often clearly in the majority—would enable literature to continue to be this wonderful tool for self-knowledge, for the discovery of others, and for listening to the concert of humankind, in all the rich variety of its themes and modulations.

Any speech calling for more literature in translation is a good speech in my opinion . . .

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