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Birnbaum v.

Alberto Manguel

Should “America” only include the United States? Does art criticism matter when it doesn’t account for emotions? A conversation with author Alberto Manguel about working with Borges and responding to paintings.

For me, words on a page give the world coherence…Words tell us what we, as a society, believe the world to be.
—Alberto Manguel

Somehow my interior-design sensibility, after a number of domestic upheavals, shifted (“matured” would not exactly do) from a improvised undergraduate style to a bourgeois modernity with black leather, glass, and steel, then finally to a mimicry of my favorite haunts—namely the ramshackle used/old-bookstore look, with bookshelves in every nook and cranny, overflowing with books both new and old. And it is because of this style, which favors the spirit and, perhaps, the patience of an archaeologist, that I lost and recently (and miraculously) found this November 2001 conversation with Alberto Manguel.

Alberto Manguel was born in Buenos Aires in 1948, was educated there, and was a friend of Jorge Luis Borges late in Borges’s life. He was raised in Israel where his father was the Argentine ambassador, and in 1984 he became a Canadian citizen. Manguel has a worldwide reputation as a gifted anthologist, translator, editor, and occasional novelist. It is instructive to review a partial list of his work: Other Fires: Short Fiction by Latin American Women (1986, anthology), News From a Foreign Country Came (1991, novel), The Gates of Paradise: The Anthology of Erotic Short Literature (1993, anthology), Meanwhile, In Another Part of the Forest: Gay Stories from Alice Munro to Yukio Mishima (1994, anthology), A History of Reading (1996, non-fiction), Bride of Frankenstein (1997, film criticism), Into the Looking Glass Wood (1998, essays), God’s Spies: Stories in Defiance of Oppression (1999, anthology), Reading Pictures: A History of Love and Hate (2000, art criticism), Kipling: A Brief Biography for Young Adults (2000, biography), Stevenson under the Palm Trees (2003, novel), A Reading Diary (2004, nonfiction), With Borges (2004, biography), The Penguin Book of Christmas Stories (2005, anthology) The Library at Night (2005, nonfiction).

In Reading Pictures, which is the pretext for our conversation, Manguel sets out to show how the common viewer, like himself, can be drawn into the world of paintings, buildings, sculptures, and photographs. A 2001 British review captures precisely the tone and scope of Manguel’s efforts:

This book is in a line of works of eccentric scholarship: Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (the founding work of the genre)…In this kind of work, wide and eclectic reading is put at the service of a large thesis, one which is not so rigorous as to exclude the entertaining anecdote or the curious fact…The book is thus midway between a treatise and a book of quotations. It is too personal, too idiosyncratic, to be either the one or the other.

Part of the pleasure to be taken in Manguel’s work (every one of his books, indeed) is in his retrieval of obscure aphorisms; the other part is his ability to give these aphorisms a context. So he quotes Beckett: “To restore silence is the role of objects,” which is a wonderfully taciturn statement in itself, and he uses it as the epigraph to his opening chapter, on the image as “absence.”

As one should expect, this chat with Manguel, given his unorthodox erudition, strayed from Reading Pictures. Also, as this conversation came on the heels of the dramatic events of that autumn of 2001, those, too, unavoidably entered our dialogue.

All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum

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RB: I am struck by your disclaimer to any rigorous formal education. Does that make you an autodidact?

AM: Yes, I suppose so. But just in the sense that I decided not to go to university. I had a very good high school. We were very, very lucky in Buenos Aires. I did my schooling in Buenos Aires—I landed in a high school where they were trying something out which worked very well for my generation, which was that the classes were not being taught by high school teachers but by university professors. And they gave them carte blanche, so what we had were people who were very enthusiastic about their field and who spent the whole year maybe teaching their one particular thing. But what you learn is that if you spend a whole year—instead of studying, say Spanish literature from the Middle Ages to Garcia Marquez—you only study, as we did, Don Quixote, for the whole year, the fact of reading one book in depth opens you up to everything else. So, not only Spanish literature but the literature of the rest of the world. What you learn is something more important than going by an official list of books. You learn how to read. And it was an extraordinary experience. The same was true of chemistry, whatever, mathematics.

RB: So is that a brief and condensed education?

AM: I am not the right person to be speaking about education. I distrust enormously the organizational aspect of education. I distrust the official curriculum, all the bureaucracy that surrounds university teaching. I’m never comfortable among university professors who have to publish certain things every year, who need to have a track record, and so it seems false somehow. That’s not where the learning comes from. Many of them are excellent, of course, but when I tried it, it didn’t work for me. I tried for one year and I said, “No, this is boring and I will just try and study on my own.”

RB: Does that high school still exist?

AM: Yeah, it’s called the Collegio de Buenos Aires.

RB: Same approach to teaching?

AM: No, it changed because everything changed in the ‘70s. The military dictatorship killed off everything—when things started again they started hesitantly and in the economic climate of today.

RB: Hesitantly, meaning…?

ManguelAM: Timidly and even where the impulse was there, the funds weren’t there. So everything has been very difficult. When I go back to Argentina now—first of all I don’t really feel I am an Argentine except in some bureaucratic sense. I am Canadian—that’s the nationality I adopted. But when I go back, I go back to a city of ghosts. I go back to a place where everybody I knew is dead.

RB: [long pause] Would you consider yourself an American?

AM: No, very clearly no.

RB: Do you know the Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar?

AM: I don’t know him.

RB: Jaar wants to apply the word “American” to everyone in this hemisphere.

AM: Yeah, that is another problem. “American,” of course, had been co-opted by the United States when Monroe declared the doctrine of America for the Americans. What he really meant was America for the people of the United States. And that has in a sense affected the relationship for the United States with the rest of the countries of the continent(s). So I would call myself—no, I wouldn’t even call myself an American in the continental sense, because I feel I owe allegiance to Canada because it has been a choice, not an arranged marriage [laughs]. But I fell in love.

RB: You have lived in Italy, England, and Tahiti—

AM: France, I live part of the year in France now. But I never felt that I had an active part as a citizen in any of these countries. When I arrived in Canada, for the first time I felt I was living in a place where I could participate actively as a writer in the running of the state and that somehow the definition of what was Canadian incorporated who I am as well as my experience. But, no, I wouldn’t call myself American in the continental sense, because then why stop at America? I call myself a citizen of the world in that case.

RB: Tell me about the impulse to write these—I was going to say peculiar books—

AM: Hodge-podge. [both laugh]

RB: I wouldn’t say that, but “peculiar” may sound like a diminishment of your efforts.

AM: No, I understand what you mean. I agree. They are peculiar. They are peculiar because they don’t come from the impulse to write. I wouldn’t define myself as a writer. I would define myself as a reader. And then as a reader, if you extend the activity of reading, the things I have done, I worked as publisher, I worked as a bookseller. I put together many anthologies. I have translated, all these things—

RB: And written a novel.

AM: Yes, but that is a footnote. What I would say is that most of the things I have written, with the exception of the novel—my second novel is going to come out—I am not a writer in that the impulse come from reading. I wrote a History of Reading because I wanted to know what it was I did. I wrote Reading Pictures because I wanted to extend that field. I have written a book of essays, Into the Looking Glass Wood, which was all about relationships between readers and writer’s work, their books. So they are peculiar in that sense: They are simply explorations of an activity that very many people share. Being a writer is something different. You allow yourself to be a sort of lightning rod that conducts the electricity and you filter an inspiration that isn’t entirely yours—it belongs somehow to the place you are in, the time you are in, and so on. And I don’t know if I do that. I don’t know if I have that kind of imagination. When I wrote the novel News from a Foreign Country, it came because I was trying to find an answer to a question, or rather, I was looking for a way of framing a question and I didn’t know any other way to do it except to try and tell it as a story. And the new novel I have written, which will come out next year, is very short, 150 pages. And it’s about the death of [Robert Louis] Stevenson. And that comes, again out of the impulse of a reader. Stevenson is one of my favorite authors. I feel he is like a friend. [laughs] And this was a way of talking about the death of a friend.

RB: An homage?

AM: Yeah, but not an homage from down below, looking at the guy on the pedestal. No this homage, if that is the right word, is to someone with whom I would have liked to sit down and have a glass of wine.

RB: Of the two books that I am familiar with, what strikes me—and I sense this is an ongoing thing with you—is that they are purposefully incomplete.

AM: Oh, yeah.

RB: Which is a wonderful way of presenting subjects, which are impossible—

AM: Well, Walter Benjamin said the genre, the style that corresponded to the end of the 19th century, the 20th century he was taking about, is the fragment. That we can no longer aspire to be complete. We couldn’t be like someone even in the Renaissance—who could say, “I have read all the books. I know everything.” That is naturally impossible, and so we have transformed that into the idea of a specialist, which is another horrible notion—the person who knows everything about this one particular tiny point and therefore sees nothing because he is completely isolated. Instead, the fragment allows you to explore, to partake of a variety of experiences without having to catalogue them. Without having to say, “I am going to put this in this box and that in that box.” You just allow the experiences to interact, to produce new ones, and you don’t feel the need to have to complete them if an interesting idea comes to you about the formation of clouds or a poem you liked or a relationship you have experienced—you don’t feel the need to explore that to the bitter end. And say, “OK, no, I have said everything that can possibly be said about the formation of clouds.” I like that. Also, I am very scattered, disorganized. [laughs] I could very easily be distracted.

RB: Organizing the body of information you delve into would require the mind of an encyclopediast.

When I arrived in Canada, for the first time I felt I was living in a place where I could participate actively as a writer in the running of the state. AM: Yeah.

RB: An archivist. Not to mention that in this book you forgo an intention or interest in creating a theory. The first thing you “confess” to is not intending to forward a theory. It reminds me of—was it Montaigne who had an immense library and just spent endless hours browsing the volumes and shelves?

AM: Probably that is what most sane readers do, you know? We are presented with this notion of the library as something we go through very systematically, reading from A to Zed. Or the beginning of literature to now. No one reads like that. You would be crazy to read like that. You pick and choose. You drop a book, take another that you associate with something else, and so on. And that is what creates the culture of a society—

RB: You call that a scattered approach.

AM: Yeah, but “scattered” as a term of praise. [laughs]

RB: Is the term “hypertextual” still being used?

AM: Umm, no. [laughs] I think it’s funny—

RB: It did have its moment when everyone was talking about the hypertextual this and hypertextual that as if it were something new. I just saw it as the way things were, layered, connected.

AM: But of course, of course. And we put these big words onto things that are obvious. It’s the way every child learns to read: discover a story through the layers of telling. Someone who has read it to you, watch it on television, read it in a book, and you form your own reading that way. I think it is a very useful thing to remember, especially at a time like this where, especially in the United States you are flooded by propaganda where the information that comes across is encrusted with simplifying terms that don’t allow you to think. It’s not that the reality of those facts is not there. It’s not that the Talibans are obviously a fascistic movement, that the Afghan society is atrocious, that what happened in New York is an unspeakable tragedy. All these things are absolutely true, but we have to be allowed to think about them. Not just to be smacked in the face again and again with—

RB: I woke up this morning and saw an American senator saying on television, “We are good, they are bad.”

AM: That is the rallying cry of the Crusades. Which was in the Song of Roland, “We are right and they are wrong.” There is not possible, not even dialogue there, is no possible understanding of what you are saying from that position. Chesterton used to say, “My country, good or evil, is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’” [laughs] It means nothing, obviously.

RB: One reason I brought up the question of American identity is that almost all the American television news programs have a banner, “War on America.” I’m thinking, Buenos Aires wasn’t attacked, Montreal wasn’t bombed. Mexico City wasn’t attacked.

AM: [As I said,] America has become the word for the United States. That is another point. We also deal in symbols, and of course it is redundant to say what has been attacked is a symbol as well a terrible loss of lives. It’s working against the symbol. The drama is itself, unfortunately, not unique. Entire societies have been living with that—my friends in Madrid, I was in France during the bombing of the cafes, and so on. In London, [during the IRA bombings] in the ‘80s. It just goes on and on and on. Think about Israel. But this was huge because of the symbol. What I wish is that we could develop vocabularies, or rescue vocabularies, with which we can speak about what happened.

RB: That would be a note that reoccurs in Reading Pictures. Talking about art, you were hoping that we could revive or rescue mythological and religious vocabularies. I wonder if they are not destined to become artifacts for people who are devoted to obscure and arcane, isolated studies. And that they just become ivory-tower kinds of enterprises and Americans and mass culture will just be a string of brand names.

AM: Well, that is the reality.

RB: And you hope to reverse that.

AM: It may come out of a need to survive. Essentially, we are reading animals. We are creatures who are born with the impulse to decipher the signs around us. We want to know. We want to know the meaning of the world, who we are. These are questions we can bury under tons of inane images and literature, but at the same time the questions remain. That’s what it’s all about. Out of that need may come the possibility of rescuing some of these more ancient vocabularies.

RB: Listen to the way you say this, “The possibility may come…” How far removed are you from the probable?

Longs for death? The notion is so absolute there is no answer. If what you are putting on the table is “I am going to die,” this is going to be the end of everything.AM: I am not terribly optimistic. The reason why I am essentially not optimistic is that I think that for the first time in our long and savage histories, the impulse that drives our society is entirely reduced to greed. That never was before, even when you had the great conquests of the Middle Ages and conquistadores of the Renaissance and so on. There was always something else mixed with it: religion, or a sense of history. And there certainly were identities. There were certain people who moved in that way. Now we seem to have constructed a society of anonymous multinationals whose drive is purely to make more money—not for any reason.

RB: Managed by vulgarians.

AM: Yeah. Well, who also disappear. Who become anonymous. The heads of these corporations keep changing and it doesn’t matter. The thing works on its own. We are constructing the equivalent of the robot in 2001; that is to say, something with a drive that will end up killing us. What happened—I don’t know if you saw it. To me it was unbelievable: a Phillip Morris ad of a body in the morgue. It was incredible. Phillip Morris conducted some research in Czechoslovakia on the death rate of people smoking in a society that makes no effort to control smoking, and they published an ad that showed a body in a morgue and a tag attached to the toe that said something like $12,426, and this is what the government of Czechoslovakia saves on each citizen who smokes because they die at the age of 45 or whatever. And if we don’t make an effort to prevent people from smoking and pour all this money into anti-tobacco propaganda, we will save lots of money. They had to pull the ad.

RB: What about the burdens on the society of afflicted smokers?

AM: They had to pull the ad, of course. They were saying, “Don’t try to stop people from smoking, they will die, and we will save money.”

RB: They don’t just die.

AM: Right. Under those circumstances, it argues that it’s more important to save money. You have on the one hand a society that is saying that money is more important than lives, and that on the other hand the Taliban and Bin Laden’s spokesperson saying, “We are going to win because our youth longs for death.” Longs for death? The notion is so absolute there is no answer. If what you are putting on the table is “I am going to die,” this is going to be the end of everything.

RB: And we are going to speak for these immature, ill-formed minds and say they are prepared based on their vast experience, to die.

AM: During the Spanish Civil War, the great Basque philosopher Unamuno was teaching at Salamanca and he refused to take a political stand in spite of what Franco was doing. Bu then one day, outside the window of his class, he heard the Francoist army shouting, “Viva la Muerte [Long live Death].” And he stopped the class and he said, “I have heard a cry that is against everything that is possibly human, and now I have to stop.” And that is when he stood up. That is what we are hearing [today]. And we are hearing it from both sides. That’s the terrible thing.

RB: More noise in an already noisy world. By its sheer magnitude and volume penetrates, like the song of the harpies, even if you stop up your ears. Let’s talk more about the book.

AM: Yeah. [laughs] Oh, the book, yes.

RB: Even with your disclaimer about your methodology and intent, I would question these choices, these images and artists.

AM: That was chance in a sense. There were images that I found powerful. Not entirely chance because what I wanted was to look at images that would allow me to talk about different ways of reading them. I wanted to start with an image that would not allow itself to be read, one that said, “There is nothing to read. I’m refusing to put out something to be read.” So I chose Joan Mitchell.

RB: I love that anecdote about who was it, that was caught, trapped spinning in a revolving door?

AM: Beckett. [laughs]

RB: With Giacometti just sitting watching.

AM: Yes, Beckett was completely drunk. Yeah, a whole moment between the wars and we may come to the same thing—where the artist feels that there is nothing, he can say, “The absurdity of how that has happened and the tragedy and the utter meaninglessness of it all makes it impossible for me to say anything.” And even then I find that you can read that image. Because what it says is that we cannot say anything.

RB: The Beckett-Giacommetti anecdote signals more than just an amusing story. That, methodologically, anyone’s expectation of your intent, maybe occasionally you toss in this cultural gossip, but mainly you seem to want to bring a more human anecdotal approach to the whole conversation about art and artists.

AM: One thing I find very worrisome in the theoretical and critical movement in the 21st century in art is that it deliberately does not acknowledge feeling—the emotional response to art.

RB: Why not?

AM: I have had art critics say to me, “What you are talking about is what we feel when we look at a painting.” I don’t know where the dialogue goes from there. If we leave that aside, for me there is absolutely nothing left. I am not interested in what I can elaborate afterwards, if the first impulse is not one that is emotional. It’s impossible. So, yes, I’m very uninterested in looking at that. As a way, also, of saying this belongs to us all. This is how we used to look at art and this is how we have the right to look at art again—I like it, I don’t like. That’s where we start.

RB: In fiction, many writers will attest to the reader being the one who completes the work.

AM: Oh, yeah.

RB: And there is a way of broadening that to include all works of creation. What is a work of art without the viewer?

AM: It doesn’t exist. If I told you that I have written a novel or painted a picture and destroyed it afterwards or locked it up, I may tell you it’s the greatest thing since the Bible, but it doesn’t exist. It has no value. It has no presence; it simply doesn’t exist.

RB: It seems there is some attempt to mystify our aesthetic experiences by making them so private with—

AM: In the criticism?

RB: That is to say that, we can’t really talk about the feeling because we can’t share that, whereas theory is objective and public.

AM: That may be part of it. At the root lies the fact that the creation of a work of art is a magical act and people don’t like to think in those terms. Because they want to know. “Well, yes, but how is it done?” And so they take the thing apart and try to look at the clockwork. And none of that will explain it. I think that’s reason that we also want to see what the artist looks like. We want to look at the place where the artist works. There is an anecdote I like of the French surrealist poet Phillipe Soupault. He used to work in a café—go down every morning to write. And there was always a guy watching him from the other table. And finally one day Soupault asks, “Why are you staring at me all the time?” The man says, “I want to see how it’s done.” [laughs]

RB: We do have this fascination with what you are talking about. Do we apply this to a way of reading everything?

AM: Of course I can. If you are watching Julia Child prepare a chicken, there is something, then, that you can reproduce—whether it will turn out as a good as hers, I don’t know. But the construction of a poem or a piece of music or a film are creations that are more of a translation than a pure putting-together. What you are translating you don’t know. And what would be read you don’t know, but in that process something happens—

RB: If you were to start to write this book today, would it be the same book?

AM: No, definitely not. [laughs] That’s why I don’t even like—I don’t translate my own books. It would drive me crazy. I would find it boring, in a sense. Because I don’t know where it’s going, I started Reading Pictures thinking maybe I can come up with some scheme or even an idea of how that reading happens, and all I can come up with are different ways in which we read but really no answer to the question. So it would be different. It probably would be much more stilted, as well. If there is any liveliness in it, it comes from the fact that I am looking left and right because I don’t know where I’m going.

RB: I like the notion you introduce of missing pages.

AM: [laughs] Well, missing pages is, unfortunately, the way in which we have to work. I don’t know if you can tackle these subjects and feel, in any way, that it’s complete. So there is always another book that could be parallel to this one, with other images and going other places. One of the things that I feel is missing in the book, but I felt that I had already said enough [about], was looking at film, for instance, looking at video, looking at the moving image. Which is another problem in itself. But I wrote a little book on the Bride of Frankenstein [chuckles] for the British Film Board and I had spoken about film in that, so. I certainly enjoyed looking at the pictures when I was writing this book, trying to see which ones I would write about.

The creation of a work of art is a magical act and people don’t like to think in those terms. Because they want to know. “Well, yes, but how is it done?”RB: One of your books is a Dictionary of Imaginary Places. When you talk about resurrecting, or introducing or salvaging or somehow bringing certain vocabularies back, that is the theme that runs through much of your work?

AM: Yeah, that’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of them like that. But you are quite right. In a way, it is rescuing vocabularies. Once again, it’s something that most readers do, that the reading act is private. You, as child or an adult, you do your thing, you choose the books that you like, but then there comes a point when you want to share that. You want to tell others what are the stories, the words that you found, and you want that to become someone else’s vocabulary, and so, yeah, maybe what I do is compile dictionaries. I wouldn’t mind being seen as that.

RB: How much does Borges have to do with your thinking?

AM: [laughs] Everything. Everything. Borges is such a gigantic figure that he infects everything that came before and came after. Simply because he places himself, as a writer, less as the creator of certain books than as a form of looking at the world. And so it’s very difficult for me to read something without hearing the echo of how Borges would have read it or what he would have seen in it. Having met him at a very early age and worked for him, what he had taught about the generosity of the act of reading, about how powerful it is. How our reading changes the text. How we create the books we are reading, and so on—all those are things that stay with you. So, when you find these ideas that weren’t original ideas, but he’s the one who grounded them—when you find them come up again and again in books that you read written after Borges or before, it’s his voice that is there. And it’s very difficult not to simply repeat or disguise that you are repeating certain ideas that you came across in his writing. It’s hard because they are so perfect, so powerful.

RB: I saw him at the University of Chicago somewhere between 1969 and 1972. And I think he declaimed Leaves of Grass from memory.

AM: He had an incredible memory.

RB: I can’t remember what language he recited it in—

AM: Probably English. He knew both and translated Whitman himself, not all—

RB: It’s an odd trick of memory that I can remember so many of the details of that evening but not the language or even the sound of his voice.

AM: He could have done it in English, I imagine, because—

RB:—of the audience?

AM: Yeah, it’s true when you heard him speak and he would quote in several languages that he knew it was his voice that you heard. You could very easily forget in what language.

RB: He said Leaves of Grass was one of the first things he read in Geneva in the ‘30s.

AM: It wouldn’t have been one of the first English things he read because as a child he was very familiar with the literature in English. His grandmother was English, and so he read Don Quixote in English before he read it in Spanish. He may have said he memorized it because he read Whitman for the first time in Switzerland, and was the first to translate Whitman into Spanish. Whitman was an enormous influence for him. He tried writing like Whitman in the beginning, and so on. And he wrote some brilliant things about Whitman. He had a fascination with a lot of American literature. The great writers were for him Whitman and Emerson and Hawthorne—many of the New England writers.

RB: Melville?

AM: Melville, of course. Yes, yes. Bartelby was his favorite story.

RB: So, looking beyond the novel you have slated for next year, what else are you thinking about?

AM: What I am trying to write now, I don’t know if in the end that it will be a book. It’s a kind of reading diary. I am reading certain books, rereading them over a year, and making notes on thoughts and what is happening as well. So it will be a sort of diary. I don’t know if it will turn out to be a publishable book.

RB: Oh sure. That’s a book.

AM: I hope so.

RB: Have you not reached the point in your life that when you start something you feel confident that—do you start many things that you don’t finish?

AM: Oh, yeah. Yeah, I work on 20 things at the same time and make notes and sometimes you think, “This is something I should work on.” You write a few pages and it doesn’t go anywhere for a very long time—

RB: Do you save it if it doesn’t pan out?

AM: Yeah, I save most stuff. You never know. I hoard stuff. I have a very large library and I’m always afraid to throw stuff away. I think I may need it.

RB: Have any sense of how you are received in the art historical/critical community?

AM: Interesting. The book appeared in Canada, where it wasn’t well received. What I call the North American art criticism movement is very much done by conceptual art and the creation of a certain limiting vocabulary. They didn’t like the idea that I considered emotion part of a way of looking at pictures. On the other hand, in France and Germany and Scandinavian countries, that has worked very well. And Latin America, they have liked that way of looking. In Germany I had a great review and the title of the review was “Theory, Shut Your Face!” [laughs]

RB: You write in English?

AM: Always. It’s been my first language despite my accent.

RB: And when a book is published in Spanish-speaking countries you will not translate it?

AM: Oh, no, no. What happened was, even if I was born in Argentina I didn’t learn Spanish until I was seven. And so, there are nuances that have to do less with language than the relation of your first experiences put into words—that are in English that I have to translate into Spanish and [that] I have had to translate into Spanish if I wanted to use them. And so it feels a bit artificial. I can do it, but my Spanish is far from perfect.

RB: Wouldn’t anyone say that about their own use of their natural language?

AM: Of course. No question about it. What I mean is that one establishes a very early relationship with language in which you don’t know that you are speaking a language, in which experience and language is the same thing. And so that happened to me with English, and a little with German. Those were my first two. I didn’t speak much German after my childhood. I wouldn’t say it’s even a good English that I speak. It’s an English contaminated by German and with certain Spanish inflections.

RB: What pure languages are there? They all seem to be contaminated and cross-fertilized.

AM: Yeah. There never have been.

RB: There is that old saw about British and American English—two great cultures separated by a common language. Do you know that odd statue of Domingo Sarmiento overt on Commonwealth Ave [in Boston’s Back Bay]. Isn’t it an odd thing?

AM: Yeah, it’s a very odd thing, but on the other hand, this is where he came to look for inspiration for education in Argentina. In a sense, if I have to thank Boston for anything it’s the beginnings of my education.

RB: What’s odd is not only that there is a statue [by Yvette Compagnion, 1973] of a former president of Argentina on this esplanade that has a host of statues from Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Elliot Morrison and Leif Eriksson, but that it has caricature qualities and looks to be made of poured concrete [though it is bronze], and it has a weird tilt to it.

AM: Well, it’s not a very good statue. [both laugh] But also apparently it was promised by Argentina to Boston at the beginning of the 20th century, and it wasn’t until something like 60 years later that they suddenly remembered, “Oh God, we didn’t send the statue, we better get one made and sent.” But Boston was very much for Sarmiento the [Horace Mann] model for public education.

RB: It amuses me to ask other Bostonians if they know of it and who it is.

AM: No, of course.

RB: Is Stendahl’s syndrome an authentic medical condition?

AM: Yeah, yeah I didn’t make it up.

RB: Is it in the book of medical diagnoses?

AM: If you go to the main hospital in Florence, there is a wing dedicated to looking after people who suffer from that syndrome. And it sounds entertaining and funny and so on, but it causes great depression in certain people. You can understand that. That even if you have been brought up with whatever education, you are aware of the paintings and so on, but the first time you see certain things, the first time you see a Botticelli, something happened and when you have to put your life in the constant context of that, then it’s hard. Rilke said that there was only one thing that you could do, which was change your life. Well, thanks. [laughs]

RB: That’s all?

AM: [laughs] That’s all.

RB: Well. Thank you very much.

AM: Thank you very much. That was good.


Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum