Colin and I attended two literary events at UVic last weekend that couldn’t have been more different.
One was a CBC Massey Lecture given by someone I never heard of: Alberto Manguel. According to the official bumf, he’s a renowned anthologist, translator, essayist and novelist and has written A Dictionary of Imaginary Places and A History of Reading. “I’m surprised you never heard of him,” said a friend who went with us. I wasn't surprised. My ignorance is boundless. I also wasn’t all that familiar with the lecture series, itself, but I am now. It’s named after former Governor General Vincent Massey and has been going on since 1961. Previous lecturers included Northrup Frye, John Kenneth Galbraith, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jane Jacobs, Willy Brandt, Doris Lessing, Noam Chomsky, John Ralston Saul, Robert Fulford, Michael Ignatieff, Steven Lewis and a bunch of others I never heard of.
In the impressive 800-seat Farquhar Auditorium, Manguel read the second of his five lectures. Folks in
I enjoyed his Argentina-born-Canadian-citizen-now-living-in-France accent and I think he made some good points, although I was hard pressed to remember them a few days later. I was more lulled than alert in the ponderous, reverent atmosphere. The only interactive part was Q and A period, but Manguel seemed reluctant to engage fully in the questions audience members raised. His answers were curt and superficial. Maybe the Haligonians had worn him out or he was anxious to make his way to the lobby and get the book signing over with. The event lasted an hour and a half. I didn’t wait to have my book signed.
And then there was Derrick Jensen, an American writer and activist I knew of only peripherally through Colin’s interest in his environmental works. Educated in mineral engineering before getting an MFA, he has authored at least a dozen books. A smaller auditorium — one holding maybe three hundred and designed for classroom lectures — filled up with people of various stripes, including some local anarchists I recognized. It was a noisy, restless crowd that settled down when Jensen appeared in a flowing white shirt, looking a bit like Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones in sneakers. Manguel had worn a suit.
Jensen sat on a chair at the front and assaulted us for over three hours with his view of the world. He was often funny, sometimes profane and, underneath it all, uncompromising in his message that it’s too late to save our civilization. What we should be doing, he says, is getting ready to help others when it comes down or even helping to bring it down. He’s not an Al Gore or a David Suzuki, offering reassurance that recycling and the like can save our way of life. One of his books is As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial.
I won’t say more about his message, just that his delivery of it was compelling enough to keep us there past the point of tiredness. He was impassioned and open and definitely interactive. And something happened near the end of the evening that touched me. After he said “fuck ‘em” about government and corporate interests who might want to suppress his voice, a young man in the audience raised his hand and asked if he could come closer because he had forgotten his glasses and wanted to see Jensen’s face. Jensen said okay and the man came forward and knelt at Jensen’s side, so close I got concerned.
The man said, “I am sad when you talk about other people and say, ‘fuck ‘em’.” He sounded as though he might cry. Looking right at him, Jensen softened his voice and restated his earlier comment in less inflammatory tones, summarizing with, “I’m not going to allow them to predetermine my actions.” The nearsighted man smiled and said, “I want to sing a song, can I sing a song?” and the audience groaned — it was already 10 p.m. — so Jensen gently told him no. I’m a new Derrick Jensen fan.
Photos: Alberto Manguel, top left, and Derrick Jensen, lower right.