“Now open in my eyes a thousand eyes of curiosity.”
Virginia Woolf, The Waves
ALBERTO MANGUEL (BORN 1948)
Alberto Manguel is a proliferate writer and reader. His world travels both in and out of books converge in everything he writes. His writings explore an intimate love of reading that is arguably unparalleled by anyone alive. His 2015 work, Curiosity, penetrates the heart of the reader, reminding them the journey of reading is peppered with unanswered questions and propels us toward a kind of connectedness in our communities that thinkers like Virginia Woolf and David Foster Wallace recognized as crucial to survival.
“We all read ourselves and the world around us in order to glimpse what and where we are. We read to understand, or to begin to understand. We cannot do but read. Reading, almost as much as breathing, is our essential function.”
Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading
CURIOSITY IS ABOUT COMMUNITY
We often associate curiosity with isolated inquiries, yet Alberto Manguel maintains a startling emphasis on community that is hidden in curiosity, “As any inquisitor knows, affirmations tend to isolate; questions bind.” Through asking questions and seeking answers, we learn not just how to live – but how to live together:
“Curiosity is a means of declaring our allegiance to the human fold.”
The chapters in this book are not declarations intent on exhausting each subject. Instead, Manguel posits a central question in each chapter that invites the reader to practice they very concept of curiosity discussed. Naturally, these questions never lead to certitude, but provoke vertiginous possibilities uniquely illustrated by Jorge Luis Borges’s garden of forking paths. They are questions that prompt what William Covino describes as “the tangle of associational thinking that is the root of community” in The Art of Wondering.
THE PHILOSOPHY OF IMAGINATION
Throughout the pages of Curiosity, Alberto Manguel practices the kind of associational thinking known as the philosophy of imagination. This is a kind of rhetorical approach that perpetuates ambiguity and celebrates reading with wonder. William Covino warns:
“Civilization stops when we trade philosophical imagination for intellectual purity, when we trade the unstable world of human affairs for the deep solitude of certainty.”
Manguel’s answers come from a wide array of literary taste grown in every corner of the world. From prose to poetry, tragedy to comedy, ancient philosophers to contemporary theologians and even politicians, Manguel examines a fractured literary world that leads the reader to one fragmented answer after another.
He practices something Giambatista Vico calls the philosophy of the imagination – the kind of associational thinking that is crucial to Greg Ulmer’s notion of electracy.
Few readers know how Alberto Manguel sat at the feet of the blind Jorge Luis Borges reading aloud and witnessing the philosophy of imagination that Giambattista Vico writes about. In this context, Borges was the very teacher that Manguel describes,
“A teacher can help students discover unknown territories, provide them with specialized information, help create for themselves an intellectual discipline, but, above all, he or she must establish for them a space of mental freedom in which they can exercise their imagination and their curiosity, a place in which they can learn to think.”
No doubt this was a role played by Jorge Luis Borges in real life and countless others on the pages of the books Manguel read. It was Borges who taught Manguel that reading is cumulative. When you read with a philosophy of imagination, or a posture of wonder, “each new reading builds upon whatever the reader has read before.” Each new reading propels new lines of inquiry, and prompts us to renew our questions of existence and our search for meaning.
CAN WE SEE WHAT WE THINK?
Some questions are more difficult than others. When he asks, “How can we see what we think,” it is an attempt to identify the process that culminates in the image of thought. Like other thinkers before him, Alberto Manguel is entering into the age old conversation: what is the relationship between seeing and knowing? How does thought turn to flesh?
“Every form of writing is, in a sense, a translation of the words thought or spoken into a visible, concrete representation. Penning my first words in English with their rounded ns and ms, or in German, with thier Ns and Ms sharp-tipped as waves, I became conscious that a text not only changed from one vocabulary to another, but from one materialization to a different one.”
When a student asks “is there is a text in this class?” on the first day of the semester, Stanley Fish takes the opportunity to explain what constitutes a text, pointing to the complex relationship of how meaning is made. Rather than point to a single source, Alberto Manguel casts a wider net in an attempt to locate the meaning in the complex relationship between the medium and the message:
“Not text is ever exclusively virtual, independent of its material context: every text, even an electronic one, is defined by both its words and the space in which those words exist.”
The relationship between the medium and the message increases in complexity when the reader is added in the mix. Is language the house of being or is being the house of language?
“Language, we know, is our most effective tool for communicating but, at the same time, an impediment to our full understanding. Nevertheless, as Dante learns, it is necessary to go through language in order to reach that which cannot be put into words.”
Staring into the abyss, the chasm that we cannot put into words, requires courage. Curiosity requires courage.
“Visions of the blessed souls are not enough to foretaste the final revelation: the souls must themselves become language before Dante can be awakened to the meaning beyond it.”
Another poignant reminder that the medium is not the message, we are.
A SEARCH FOR SELF
Curiosity for Alberto Manguel is an intimate search for self. Just like Alice in Wonderland, we continually ask, “Who in the world am I?” This is an inquiry he explores through Jacques Lacan’s mirror stage and C.G. Jung’s unconscious. Likening our exploration into the unconscious to Saint Augustine reading the Psalms, Manguel explores how this journey into the self unites the future and the past by extending memory. Manguel comments on the depth of the unconscious:
“Unlike the psalm, however, the fathoming of the unconscious is never exhausted.”
If Lacan is right, and the unconscious is structured like language, neither the psalm nor the self will ever reach completion. Jung calls the process of understanding these unconscious fragments “individuation.” This is an attempt to create a whole out of fragmentary parts which is the same yearning that drives readers to explore the depths of the human condition in literature, knowing all the while that we’ll have to read just one more page to find an answer, to create a whole, to establish totality:
“Our readings are never absolutes: literature disallows dogmatic tendencies.”
Our curiosity is a perpetual awakening from what Immanuel Kant deems dogmatic slumber. Manguel reminds the reader that this is a vulnerable process:
“To admire, as did Freud, the early scenes of Goethe’s Faust, or to be drawn to the inconclusiveness of Faust’s ending, as was Jung, to prefer Conrad to Jane Austen, as did Borges, or to choose Ismail Kadare over Haruki Murakami, as did Doris Lessing, is not necessarily to take a critical position in literary theory but more likely to respond to a question of reflective sympathy, of empathy, of recognition.”
The vehicle of curiosity is imagination, a creative practice that relies not on successes but failures:
“The histories of art and literature, like those of philosophy and science, are histories of such enlightened failures.”
As Manguel suggests, here, failure is fuel and it is up to us to follow Albert Camus’s lead and try to imagine Sisyphus happy.
CURIOSITY AND FAILURE
Despite the optimistic ring to a perpetual pursuit of curiosity, Manguel is sympathetic to Jesper Juuls triumphant failures, and reminds his readers the creative activity of imagination is accompanied by just that: failure.
When we emphasize truth as certitudo instead of aletheia, we will forever fail to communicate truth. Embracing a dynamic epistemology will change the world. It is our fear of failure that fuels the cultural emphasis on material efficiency, financial profit, and productivity. The tragedy of this turn turn toward efficiency is that we no longer think for the sake of thinking.
Alberto Manguel concludes his journey into curiosity by pointing to the very inadequacies of language to communicate truth:
“We all know that the events we experience, in their fullest, deepest sense, escape the boundaries of language. That no account of even the smallest occurrence in our life can truly do justice to what has taken place, and that no memory, however intense, can be identical to the thing remembered. We try to relate what happened but our words always fall short, and we learn, after many failures, that the closest approximation to a truthful version of reality can be found only in the stories we make up. In our most powerful fictions, under the web of the narrative the complexity of reality can be discerned, like a face behind a mask. Our best way of telling the truth is to lie.”
I would only counter with one small thought: our best way of telling the truth is to wonder.