It was a feast for the senses – ears, eyes and tongue alike – but a veritable banquet for the mind.
The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature hosted the UAE’s first ever “literary cruise” on Wednesday, March 9. Sailing the creek aboard the luxury of Bateaux Dubai, guests savoured fine food, live piano jazz and twinkly, twilight vistas of the emirate’s gravity defying skyline.
But the real pleasures were more cerebral than sensory – a talk from eminent British philosopher AC Grayling. As after dinner speakers go, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting balance of profundity, eloquence and accessibility. Oh, and he was funny, too.
“Somebody pointed out we’re going round in circles,” said Grayling of the cruise trajectory. “Rather apt for a professor of philosophy.”
The evening’s theme was What is Literature?. It was a question Grayling skirted around with flair and grace.
The power of literature, as an active rather than passive art, is its ability to plant ourselves inside the minds of lives we’ll never live. “To read thoughtfully and reflectively is to see across the great diversity of human experience,” said Grayling. “Literature expresses what it is to be human.”
As founder of London’s New College of the Humanities – and author of more than 30 books – this was an easy crowd for the 66-year-old professor. He told how the scribes of early Egypt used representative text for practical matters only, but it was the Ancient Greeks who first began to probe grand questions with epic poems and tragic dramas. “And once the genie came out of the bottle, there was no going back,” noted Grayling.
Plato, still perhaps the world’s most renowned philosopher, began writing dialogues not to educate and illuminate, but to entertain rulers at The Games (because of course in those days, writers would compete alongside runners and jumpers at what we today call the Olympics).
But while works of verse and stage were held dear throughout the ages, the novel was regarded with contempt – something “not very well brought up young ladies entertained their time with” – until 18th Century English authors Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott, said Grayling.
Today that snobbery still exists. There’s a huge chasm of perception separating the canon of classics from the airport romance or thriller. And it’s true, says Grayling – we should make the distinction. One should assume literature to hold a “quality of prose, depth of insight into the human mind and a philosophy of writing which distances itself from merely telling a story”.
As a former chair of the Man Booker prize judges – a role which required him to critically consume 154 books in nine months – Grayling knows well the value of prose both profound and pitiful. But reading anything is better than nothing, he says, because it will almost always lead to more worthy fare. The evening ended with en impassioned plea to lapsed readers.
“Literature is central to the very best of us in human life, because it is in itself a great conversation. To be a reader is first to be an auditor, and then eventually a participant in that great conversation,” closed Grayling.
“Imagine a society that never reads, that never tells itself another story, never reflects on what happens to who or why, what choices might be made in this very complex human universe of ours.
“So I end by saying, I do recommend literature to you – and more to the point, literature festivals.”
• The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature runs until Saturday, March 12.
• AC Grayling will discuss his new book in a talk titled Progress in Troubled Times: Learning from The Age of Genius, hosted at Novo Cinemas, Dubai Festival City, on Saturday March 12 at 10am (Dh70).
• Visit emirateslitfest.com for information and tickets