Alberto Manguel


During the Argentine military dictatorship of the seventies, faced with atrocities that had seemed inconceivable until a decade earlier, a number of writers attempted to analyze and denounce the events they were witnessing. Theirs were not only punctual denunciations but well-thought-out reflections on the nature of state-sanctioned violence and the moral corruption underlying the official discourse. On March 24, 1977, Rodolfo Walsh, fiction writer and investigative journalist, published an open letter to the military Junta blaming them for “the fifteen thousand disappeared, the ten thousand unjustly imprisoned, the four thousand dead, the tens of thousands forced into exile.” Walsh’s letter ended with these words: “These are the thoughts that on the first anniversary of your unhappy government I’ve wished to address to the members of this Junta, without hope of being heard, certain of being persecuted, but faithful to the engagement I assumed long ago of bearing witness in troubled times.”

aus: Alice hinter den Spiegeln


That was forty years ago, and the “troubled times” have changed protagonists and plots, but not come to an end. Every day the news reports countless atrocious events and, in a number of countries (Russia, Syria, Turkey, Venezuela, China) journalists and writers are being jailed, tortured and sometimes killed for making these events public. But in many other countries, especially in those where the government disguises its atrocities under the guise of seemingly democratic procedures, occasional reporting and snippets of political speeches are not enough. Where, in our so-called democracies, are the clear, coherent, irrefutably critical voices of our age, not merely denouncing but reasoning in depths the causes of these atrocities? Paul Nizan, in the 1932 essay Les chiens de guard denounced the silence of many of the thinkers of his time. “L’écart entre leur pensée et l’univers en proie aux catastrophes grandit chaque semaine, chaque jour, et ils ne sont pas alertés.” And he added: “Tous ceux qui avaient la simplicité d’attendre leurs paroles commencent à se révolter, ou à rire.”

Since at least the days of ancient Athens, to bear witness in troubled times is considered a citizen’s duty, part of a civic responsibility in maintaining a more-or-less well-balanced society. To the laws and regulations of officialdom, the individual must constantly oppose questions: it is in the tension (or dialogue) between what is ordered from the throne and what is objected to from the street that a society must exist. This civilian activity, which Marx, in his 1845 Theses on Feuerbach, called a “practical-critical” activity, is what Walsh saw as the defining role of the intellectual.

Since antiquity then, the intellectual has assumed such a role in every society we have established. Whether claiming a professional fee, like the Sophists, for entering “the public market of ideas,” or merely for love of truth and justice like Socrates; whether against the strictures of the Church or the abuses of the State; whether honoured by one’s fellow citizens or vilified and persecuted for one’s public statements, the intellectual has at almost all times taken on the function of society’s critical voice. Certain historians have noted that the modern persona of the intellectual was born during the protests of the mid nineteenth-century in Tsarist Russia, as a member of the intelligentsiya; others have found its roots in the Dreyfusards led by Emile Zola in nineteenth-century France; yet others find the origins of the public intellectual in the writers of the Enlightenment, such as Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau Diderot.

This role, however, is not the exclusive prerogative of recognized writers such Zola and Locke: every individual human being must be capable of thinking universally. Sometimes, the notable intellectual is Everyman who does not possess what we could call a professional voice. These men and women might be (usually are) unconscious of the assumed role, ordinary people speaking from an ethical core, naturally critical witnesses of their time. Here Gramsci’s observation is useful: “Thee is no human activity,” he wrote in his Cuaderno 12, “from which any intellectual intervention might be excluded: you cannot separate the homo faer from the homo sapiens.” Every homo sapiens can, at certain moments, stand up and speak for all those condemned to remain anonymous. Shortly before the events of May 68, Edward Said defined the intellectual in these clear terms: “The intellectual, as I understand it, is not a peacemaker nor a builder of consensus, but someone who engages and risks his entire being based on a constantly critical sense, someone who refuses at whatever cost simple formulas, ready-made ideas, complacent confirmations of the statements and actions of those in power and other conventional minds.”

What we need right now is engaged intellectuals speaking loud and clear about our present suicidal situation. We need to be reminded, day after day and night after night, that the essence of Utopia is its inexistence, and that the responsibility of intellectuals is not to dream up plans for a Utopian society that will never come about but to speak up in order to improve the society we have now, shakily rooted on this earth. This can be achieved, at least in part, by holding up the mirror of the world to all of us who inhabit it and shaming us into action. The New York Times journalist Charles Blow asked his fellow-Americans in a recent editorial: “Where were you when the bodies floated in the Rio Grande? What did you say when this president bragged about assaulting women and defended men accused of doing the same? What was your reaction when he saw very good people among the Nazis? Where was your outrage when thousands died in Puerto Rico? What did you do? What did you say? And for others in my profession, what did you write?”

Perhaps they are here, but we do not yet hear their voices clearly nor see their real stature. Perhaps, being their contemporaries, we are too close to them, and it requires the distance of a century or two to identify the Voltaires and Socrates of today. Added to this disadvantage of proximity, we suffer today from another, more grievous one that dims these voices, wherever, as we trust, they exist.

The twenty-first century is the age of disbelief in the word. Almost for the first time in history, the instrument of language is not generally considered as an instrument of reason that allows us to assess and transmit experience in as precise a way as possible. Ambiguity, uncertainty, approximation have always been features of our language, but in spite of these frailties (which poets convert in strengths) we have been able to come up with crutches to uphold sense and meaning, such as tone and grammar and countless rhetorical devices, and these have worked more or less effectively up to now. But today, public discourse seems to rely almost exclusively on the conveyance of emotion, and incoherence is seen not as weakness of thought but as proof of authenticity, of something that comes not from the cold workings of a rational mind but something sincere, gushing forth “from the gut”. A tweet or a commercial slogan carry today more weight than a carefully-pondered essay. In this climate of unreason, the intellectual act loses its ancestral prestige and, as we know all too well, fake news and public lies are allowed to prevail. Intellectuals are depicted by those in power as “enemies of the people” set against the ordinary citizen whom they are accused of despising. It is therefore more urgent and more important that, amidst these accusations of negligence and superciliousness, reasonable voices, voices like that of Rodolfo Walsh in the past, steadfastly bear witness. There are no excuses for intellectual indecision.

Before the Gates of Hell, Dante sees the swarm of the Undecided whom Hell rejects and Paradise does not want, rushing around in circles, pursued by gadflies and wasps. “Questo misero modo,” Virgil tells him, “tegnon l’anime triste di coloro/ che visser sanza ‘nfamia e sanza lodo.”[INFERNO III:34-36] We must choose, and the choice to which every intellectual is confronted is whether or not to be a critical witness of our cruel times: to look and see the fate of the weak, the powerless, those who have been denied a voice, those banished into oblivion washed up on the coast of Lampedusa or the banks of the Rio Grande. But also, to engage in reasoned argument with those in whose hands lies the strategic decisions that decide the fate of those bereft of a rightful voice. In short, the undeniable choice is whether or not to speak.