Irene Vallejo: “Any new creation owes a debt to those who came before us and who we do not usually acknowledge”
Irene Vallejo, winner of the 2020 National Essay Award, reaffirms what we owe to the classics in a colloquium with students from the University of Navarra
“The classics can amaze us with an attitude or striking analysis that has ongoing relevance in the contemporary world, addressing situations and dilemmas that remain unresolved. That is why I argue that we should let their voices be heard and dialog with them,” said Irene Vallejo, winner of the 2020 National Essay Prize for her book, El infinito en un junco.
The writer took part in a roundtable discussion with students of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, as part of the celebrations in honor of the Patron Saint of the School. She also held a colloquium with students from the Degrees in Literature and Creative Writing (LEC), Spanish Philology and the Diploma in Archaeology.
“The references in cinema, videogames and literature point to their origins in classical antiquity but we do not speak of these sources because we are used to forgetting the beginning of our history, texts and cultural artefacts. The classics are everywhere, but we sometimes fail to appreciate this”, she explained. In this regard, the writer notes of her latest book, a bestseller during the national lockdown: “it was written to express a gratitude we often fail to articulate, which may sometimes lead us to wrong decisions”.
Asked about the debate in recent years concerning the moral thinking of those who came before us and the value judgments to which some of the most prestigious works of the past have been subjected, Vallejo appealed to our capacity for critical thinking and disagreed with the idea of cancelling or censoring those that might hurt present-day sensitivities: “The classics have long been read with excessive reverence. They had their biases, because they belonged to their time, but we have to find a balance between respect for the original work, in its context, and our ability to read it critically, appreciating the valuable messages of the past.”
Changing or embellishing history doesn't teach us about the mistakes of the past
According to the speaker only in that way can we learn from past mistakes. “If we read Mark Twain but remove the racist aspects of his literature, we falsify the past and certain attitudes that we disagree with but need to know to avoid repeating them again. If we change the sources, which are the ultimate proof that such a reality existed, and change history or embellish it, we stop teaching or learning for ourselves, calling our own ideas into question, remind ourselves who we were and where we have come from.”
Vallejo also highlighted the key role of books in transmitting knowledge, enabling us to engage with those who preceded us, “with the best minds of every age”: “This is a wonderful phenomenon that is only available to human beings. Reading allows this connection between generations, makes it easy for us to continue weaving a wonderful cultural history, to speak and to listen to the voices of the dead. I believe that this privilege must be exercised, not only to learn lessons, but because it is a pleasure," she concluded.
The roundtable discussion also included Javier Andreu, Vice Dean of Students at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences and Director of the Diploma in Architecture, and Rosalia Baena, Professor of English Philology. At the end of the event, presided over by Julia Pavón, Dean of the School, the following students were given awards for academic excellence in their Degree: Jerónimo Ayesta (Philosophy), Blanca Bistué (Humanities), María Jaurrieta (History), and Mikel Ortiz de Zárate (Philology).