Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa said reading and literature fostered a critical attitude that could be a potent weapon for social transformation.
“Dictators have a reason to fear literature because it provides a seminal point of subversion,” he said in a formal lecture at University of Santo Tomas.
He was conferred the honorary professorship Nov. 7 by UST vice rector Fr. Richard G. Ong, O.P., before Spanish Ambassador Luis Calvo and leading members of the Spanish-Filipino community at the ballroom of the UST Beato Buenaventura Garcia Paredes, O.P., Building.
Previous recipients of the honorary professorship from UST, the oldest university in Asia, include Mahathir Mohammed of Malaysia and Lech Walesa of Poland.
Vargas Llosa started his lecture by declaring, of all things, how hard it was for him to talk about literature.
“It is really very difficult to speak about literature for a writer, someone who’s devoted his entire life to it, who has found in the exercise of writing as the greatest pleasure ever imagined,” he said in Spanish. (Simultaneous translation in English was provided by UST.)
He expounded on literature’s role in the progress of civilization beginning as early as the Stone Age, when our “predecessors” told stories around a bonfire about their fears, “the danger of lightning, their insecurities of what could come tomorrow.”
“Those predecessors of ours must have had an incredible blessing or fortune on those evenings when they would forget reality and they would turn into protagonists of the stories they would invent,” he said.
“It was then when the magic of storytelling to live outside oneself and become protagonists of adventure took place. That is where civilization starts.”
“Because when one leaves oneself and becomes protagonist of fantasy, fiction, dreams, it is to see the world in a different way. [It is to] discover one’s weaknesses, limitations,” he added.
Vargas Llosa emphasized the role of the imagination. “How humble and mediocre one is compared to the world one could imagine, and create and invent with our fantasy and our dreams.”
He said that was how literature enriched lives, creating and recreating by virtue of fables and legends, “a parallel life that would accompany real life but richer, clearer and more transparent in its motivations.”
In an earlier encounter with the local press and some members of the academe at Instituto Cervantes de Manila in Makati City, Vargas Llosa declined to answer questions on the political situation in the Philippines.
But he indicated literature fostered a critical attitude.
“When one reads, it gives a critical attitude to bring [reality] closer to the world of the books. Literature awakens a desire to change against manipulation, which attempts to control us from cradle to grave,” he said.
At the UST lecture, Vargas Llosa said when one read a good book, it was not only to enjoy it but to transform oneself to the characters of—citing examples —Shakespeare, Cervantes, Tolstoy, Dostoevesky.
“It is a way of preparing oneself to oppose what is wrong in the world we live in, to be equipped in the arsenal of conviction. To be able to behave in a way that we can change the world and bring it closer to the world of fantasy that we have created despite our weaknesses and limitations.”
But Vargas Llosa criticized propaganda as “the worst kind of literature.”
“Literature must be well done, not only to express conviction and ideas but also feelings and passion.”
Life devoted to literature
Growing up in the 1950s, he said some aspiring writers he knew regarded literature as something they would do only on Sundays or holidays. He said he knew from the start that if he were to write, “I need full dedication, full passion.”
Ending his UST lecture, he said he believed that “for us who devoted our time and talent to invent stories, write poetry, present a [stage] play, we have contributed our grains of sand in the path to civilization and progress.”