Noam Chomsky on Writing

James Garside

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

I got an email from Noam Chomsky once — it felt like getting a post-it note from God.

It was just a short note, to say he’d had to cancel his speaking engagements, but it still made my life.

I have nothing but the deepest respect for Noam Chomsky.

Chomsky once said: “It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies.”

I can’t think of an intellectual heavyweight who has been a better living-embodiment of this than Chomsky himself.

As a writer, I’ve often wondered whether there’s room for fiction in this — can fiction speak the truth and expose lies?

George Orwell comes to mind.

This is the one question I’d most love to ask Noam Chomsky — the one subject I’d most love to discuss with him at length.

How can writers of fiction fight the good fight?

Is fiction important in this regard at all?

I like to think so… I have to!

In lieu of an answer, here’s a selection (by no means exhaustive) of quotes from Chomsky on writing, reading and literature:

“It is not unlikely that literature will forever give far deeper insight into what is sometimes called ‘the full human person’ than any modes of scientific inquiry may hope to do.”
“Literature can heighten your imagination and insight and understanding, but it surely doesn’t provide the evidence that you need to draw conclusions and substantiate conclusions.”
“Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation.”
“Plainly, such an approach does not exclude other ways of trying to comprehend the world. Someone committed to it (as I am) can consistently believe (as I do) that we learn much more of human interest about how people think and feel and act by reading novels or studying history than from all of naturalistic psychology, and perhaps always will; similarly, the arts may offer appreciation of the heavens to which astrophysics cannot aspire.”
“…reading a book doesn’t mean just turning the pages. It means thinking about it, identifying parts that you want to go back to, asking how to place it in a broader context, pursuing the ideas. There’s no point in reading a book if you let it pass before your eyes and then forget about it ten minutes later. Reading a book is an intellectual exercise, which stimulates thought, questions, imagination.”
“Sometimes when I’m having a boring interview on the telephone, and I’m trying to think about something else because the questions are too boring, and I start looking around the room where I work, you know, full of books piled up to the sky, all different kinds of topics. I start calculating how many centuries would I have to live reading twenty-four hours a day every day of the week to make a dent in what I’d like to learn about things, it’s pretty depressing.[…] You know, we have little bits of understanding, glimpses, a little bit of light here and there, but there’s a tremendous amount of darkness, which is a challenge. I think life would be pretty boring if we understood everything. It’s better if we don’t understand anything… and know that we don’t, that’s the important part.”
“The responsibility of the writer as a moral agent is to try to bring the truth about matters of human significance to an audience that can do something about them.”

Comments / 0

Published by

NCTJ-qualified British independent journalist, author, and travel writer.


More from James Garside

Comments / 0