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A Many-Voiced Encounter

By Paul Elie

February 26, 2024

In Response to Why the Georgetown Global Dialogues?

One of the most promising aspects of the Georgetown Global Dialogues is one of the most obvious: the program draws on a ubiquitous form of intellectual and cultural exchange—face-to-face personal encounters and the conversations they call forth.

I've been the beneficiary of such an encounter with Pankaj Mishra. While an editor with Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG), I took a role in the publication of several of Pankaj's books: An End to Suffering (2004), Temptations of the West (2006), and The Ruins of Empire (2012). In 1999, my work with FSG led me to London to attend a memorial service for the poet Ted Hughes at Westminster Abbey; the extraordinary gathering of poets, prose writers, and publishers in London in that moment was made bittersweet by the recognition that we were facing backward—that the death of one had brought all the others together.

In London again a few years later, I paid a visit to Pankaj at his workspace in Hackney. As we talked, out of one eye I surveyed his personal library, shelved on the walls and alongside a ladderish flight of stairs going up to a small loft. I ran my eyes across the spines of the books, as writers do. Something like half the books were ones I recognized: books by Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf, Edward Said and Arundhati Roy, et al. Many of those were books that could be found, often in the same editions, on the shelves in my apartment in New York (of these, a row of books by the great literary critic Alfred Kazin stood out). But the other half, all mingled in together, were books I hardly knew or didn't know at all: novels from India and China, social science, political philosophy, Buddhism, and on and on. The range was vast, but I'd guess that the bulk of them had to do with the Global South in one way or another.

Seeing Pankaj's library, I was reminded that our work together and the informal canon that was our common point of reference served to conceal shoals of literary and cultural experience specific to each of us. Had Pankaj visited my apartment, he likely would have seen plenty of books unknown to him: out-of-print chronicles of the mid-century Catholic Renascence, a scholarly unpacking of the Baroque notion of inventio as seen and heard in the music of Bach, and so on. And I think it is fair to say, of the two of us, that our running conversation across 20 years now has been sustained and energized by the fact that each of us brings to it points of reference scarcely known to the other.

The participants in the dialogues are each in conversation with a broad range of interlocutors—through reading, writing, scholarship, and activism. Most of them are in dialogue with Pankaj Mishra. Through the events at Georgetown, those exchanges will become a direct, personal, many-voiced encounter, one faced outward to the public and forward to the future that is going to be the true subject of our conversations.

Paul Elie is a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and director of the American Pilgrimage Project at Georgetown University.