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Princess of Asturias Award for Literature 2019
Your Royal Highnesses,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
As a child, I was subject to moments of awe about ordinary things. A fork on the table or a flower in a vase would suddenly acquire the alien quality of metaphysical mystery. The sight of my sister licking an ice cream cone would get me thinking about human tongues with their bumps and center crease and how utterly strange they were. And what about the feelings I had that came and went over the course of a single day—the shivers and the sweats, the sweet tastes and the bitter ones, the pangs when the children at school taunted me and the pleasure of my mother’s kisses and hugs? And then there were the rules of life, so many rules. Why could boys jump up and down after they won spelling contests, but girls weren’t even supposed to smile, much less pump their arms in the air? What if the rules were different?
When my daughter, Sophie, was three, she asked me, “Mom, when I grow up will I still be Sophie?” I told her yes, even though I knew she had posed an ancient philosophical question, to which there is no satisfactory answer, a question of the self and continuity over time. What changes and what remains the same? Do we believe Heraclitus or Plato? How do we connect embryo, infant, and teenager to the old woman lying on her deathbed? How do we think about inner life and outer life? How do we draw the lines between them? How do we know what we are so convinced we know?
All children are curious. Think of the baby fascinated by the sight and sound of the shining keys her father is jangling over her head. She reaches for them. If she can, she puts them in her mouth. But the infant is not an isolated creature who slowly accumulates knowledge on her own. She lives in a loop with others. Her curiosity is doubled—it is a need to touch and be touched, to taste and to be kissed and tasted back, to smell and be smelled, to hear and be heard, to see and be seen, really seen. And at some point, the little girl begins to wonder about change, begins to imagine becoming big and strong and grownup or old or even dead. I used to look at the blue-haired old ladies in my town with their canes and shawls and trembling voices and think: That’s what I will be when I’m old, before I die.
There were libraries in my town with books in them, and in those books, there were stories about people I had never met who lived in countries I had never visited. They had adventures and suffered injustices. I read stories about kings and queens and magic, but also about slavery, racism, fear of strangers, and girls who were punished because they did not want to be polite and keep quiet. And I thought, Why is it like this? Maybe it could be different. Books become flesh. The words knit themselves into our brains and guts, our gestures and feelings. They change us. Books and ideas can be dangerous, can make us sick or crazy, and they can provide forms of salvation, a way out of pain. But we must be wary of cheap thrills and easy answers and pat formulas that come in shiny packages labeled “truth.”
I am not as old as the ladies with blue hair yet, but I am getting there, and I have been reading at a hefty clip for half a century. I am fat with the voices inside me, and they do not agree with one another. I have read literature and philosophy and history and lots of science—neurology, psychiatry, neuroscience, genetics, embryology—but I have also read anthropology and sociology, and the more I know, the more I wonder: Why? How do we know what we know? Think again. What if it were different?
We live in a world where people know more and more about less and less. This has its advantages. Specialized knowledge has resulted in technical breakthroughs, potent medicines, sophisticated theories about language and culture, and impressive works of art. It has also created dead ends in various disciplines and fantasies that an idea is new when it’s really old. After a lecture I gave to neurologists at a hospital in Boston, a scientist asked me why he, a man who spent his days studying brain scans of Alzheimer’s patients should read literature, philosophy, and history. I told him it would help him in his own work. He would see what he is blind to now, identify weaknesses in his models that had never occurred to him before.
I know because I have witnessed the problems caused by a too narrow focus over and over again. This is as true for the scholar in the humanities who has never bothered to think of muscle and bone and tissue and cell as it is of the scientist who thinks only of neurons. Both of them fail to question how they know what they think they know. Questions that should be asked can’t be asked because they lie outside the frame of reference. When I write, I try to ask the next best question, not founded on one discipline, but on many. And I ask those questions in novels, essays, and academic papers because they are all forms for increasing human knowledge. I have learned that one genre or discipline is not superior to any other. We must be wary of our biases. Science is not high, intellectual, and masculine and the arts and humanities low, emotional, and feminine. We must learn that authority and wisdom come in many forms, sexes, colors, shapes, and sizes. We must learn from one another and think again.
Is the child who stared at a fork and the woman who gave the lecture the same person? Time is ineffable, but ideas and the rules that go with them can last—sometimes for hundreds of years. The adult-me can easily imagine a world of freely moving ideas among disciplines that have no prejudicial hierarchy, a world where girls can boast as much as boys, and boys won’t be afraid of them, a world where the old boundaries have loosened. This award comes from a girl, a princess. I want it to be for all the girls who read lots of books on many subjects, who think, question, doubt, imagine, and refuse to be quiet.
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