Monday, April 25, 2005
Does writing change anything?
asks Salman Rushdie. The answer is yes:
When a reader falls in love with a book, it leaves its essence inside him, like radioactive fallout in an arable field, and after that there are certain crops that will no longer grow in him, while other, stranger, more fantastic growths may occasionally be produced. We love relatively few books in our lives, and those books become parts of the way we see our lives; we read our lives through them, and their descriptions of the inner and outer worlds become mixed up with ours — they become ours.
[Last week we honored] the memory of Susan Sontag and Arthur Miller, great writers, intellectuals and truth-tellers. The old idea of the intellectual as the one who speaks truth to power is still an idea worth holding on to. Tyrants fear the truth of books because it’s a truth that’s in hock to nobody; it’s a single artist’s unfettered vision of the world. They fear it even more because it’s incomplete, because the act of reading completes it, so that the book’s truth is slightly different in each reader’s different inner world, and these are the true revolutions of literature, these invisible, intimate communions of strangers, these tiny revolutions inside each reader’s imagination; and the enemies of the imagination, politburos, ayatollahs, all the different goon squads of gods and power, want to shut these revolutions down, and can’t. Not even the author of a book can know exactly what effect his book will have, but good books do have effects, and some of these effects are powerful, and all of them, thank goodness, are impossible to predict in advance.
Literature is a loose cannon. This is a very good thing.
(Link from Third Wave Agenda).
In his Herbert Read Memorial Lecture (Feb. 6, 1990), Rushdie said,
Literature is the one place in any society where, within the secrecy of our own heads, we can hear voices talking about everything in every possible way. The reason for ensuring that that privileged arena is preserved is not that writers want the absolute freedom to say and do whatever they please. It is that we, all of us, readers and writers and citizens and generals and goodmen, need that little, unimportant-looking room. We do not need to call it sacred, but we do need to remember that it is necessary.
Rushdie is one writer who reconciles the political v. aesthetic schism. Or, at least, he sketches out a common vocabulary for us to talk about it.
[cross-posted to my blog].
Someone should grab Rushdie by the lapelle, and remind him not to be too self-congratulatory. Then I would smile, and politely agree with everything he’s trying to say here.
Did anyone out there go to any of the sessions of the PEN World Voices Forum? This speech from the LA Times was actually his keynote at this year’s gathering, I think. Rushdie is the president of PEN; as I understand it, this is the first PEN World Voices Forum since 1986, when Norman Mailer was president.
Given how ubiquitous he’s become in the NYC arts and literature calendar, I think Rushdie is making a play to be the Norman Mailer of the ‘00s. I’m still trying to decide whether I think that’s a good thing or not.
Crap, that’s what you get for commenting pre-coffee. What I meant was, “I want to grab Rushdie by the lapelle...”
A kinder, gentler Mailer, I hope.
Yes. Hopefully Rushdie will avoid stabbing any of his wives, past, present, or future. It would also be good if Rushdie continued to refrain from writing novels about how killing one’s wife is existentially liberating.
So far, no signs of stabbing—in fiction or reality—so we seem to be off to a good start.
Yes, Amardeep, I’m in agreement: Rushdie’s ego is bloated, his power considerable, but using it in this way (as part of PEN) seems good, promising, interesting. I wish I could have gone to more of the PEN events; Rushdie is the president and the program was overwhelmingly impressive. I haven’t heard as much about reactions to it--in person or online--as I’d expected.
The only event I got to was a lunch with <a href="http://fernham.blogspot.com/2005/04/tsitsi-dangarembga_20.html">Dangarembga and Dangor (link is to my account of it), a small affair. I heard from folks there that the big, nightime events were overlong--a peril when you have seven, eight, nine readers. The thing I went to was terrific.
Still, a white woman asked Achmat Dangor if he didn’t feel “fed” by his work for UN AIDS. I found the question weirdly, typically pious--almost offensively so--but Dangor, who seemed a real gentleman in the best sense of that word (gracious, intelligent, slow to take offense) answered that it was indeed important to him to feel that he was making a difference. He did not answer in a way that would permit any one-to-one correspondences between art and life and that seems very much in the spirit of Rushdie’s remarks. In fact, he seemed to be separating art from activism. Similarly, when he spoke of South Africa during apartheid, he spoke of politics as a necessary evil--a thing one had to be involved in in order to get back to the work of writing. He presented himself as a man who first wanted to write.
Anne, Thanks for the link to the post on the African writers lunch. I agree with you on Dangarembga—it’s one of the few sub-saharan African novels in English that seems to work with my students every time.
I haven’t had as much success with the Nigerians—Achebe, Soyinka, or Emecheta. Maybe Nervous Conditions has more emphasis on psychological realism?
If you’ve got the time & the patience, Okri’s The Famished Road has worked really well. Aidoo’s Changes, too. (Very different books, obviously.) For Okri, the child protagonist and the Rushdian panache dazzles. For Aidoo, having a protagonist whose a modern professional African woman is good. I think she works better than Emecheta.
I’ve been scared to try The Famished Road—too esoteric! Not to mention long…
And I’ve never even read Changes.
of course Rushdie is egotistical would you be if you were him? but at least he’s trying, you know?
thanks for the Rushdie quote, useful to add to my list for my thesis. Appreciated.