Sunday, May 30, 2010

From ‘Imaginary Homelands’ by Salman Rushdie

It may be argued that the past is a country from which we all have emigrated, that its loss is part of our common humanity

Midnight’s Children enters it’s subject from the point of view of a secular man. I am a member of that generation of Indians who were sold the secular ideal. One of the things I liked, and still like, about India is that it is based on a non-sectarian philosophy. I was not raised in a narrowly Muslim environment; I do not consider Hindu culture to be either alien from me or more important than the Islamic heritage. I believe this has something to do with the nature of Bombay, a metropolis in which the multiplicity of commingled faiths and cultures curiously creates a remarkably secular ambience

…… of the more pleasant freedoms of the literary migrant to be able to choose his parents. My own – selected half consciously, half not – include Gogol, Cervantes, Kafka, Melville, Machado de Assis; a polygot family tree, against which I measure myself, and to which I would be honoured to belong.

There’s a beautiful image in Saul Bellow’s latest novel, The Dean’s December. The central character, the Dean, Corde, hears a dog barking wildly somewhere. He imagines that the barking is the dog’s protest against the limit of dog experience. ‘For God’s sake,’ the dog is saying, ‘open the universe a little more!’ And because Bellow is, of course, not really talking about dogs, or not only about dogs, I have the feeling that the dog’s rage, and it’s desire, is also mine, ours, everyone’s. ‘For God’s sake, open the universe a little more!’

But India regularly confounds its critics by its resilience, its survival in spite of everything. I don’t believe in the Balkanization of India…….It’s my guess that the old functioning anarchy will, somehow or other, keep on functioning, for another forty years, and no doubt another forty after that. But don’t ask me how.

Kipling’s racial bigotry is often excused on the grounds that he merely reflected in his writing the attitudes of his age. It’s hard for members of the allegedly inferior race to accept such an excuse. Ought we to exculpate anti-Semites in Nazi Germany on the same grounds? If Kipling had maintained any sort of distance between himself and the attitudes he recorded, it would be a different matter

………it used to be said that one read in order to learn something, and nobody can teach you British India better than Rudyard Kipling

He ascribes to Miller the gift of opening up a new world ‘not by revealing what is strange, but by revealing what is familiar.’

That immensity is Gordimer’s chosen subject, and she has grown to match it. The writers she quotes and draws strength from – Brecht, Mann, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Achebe – have taught her that the only important thing for a writer is ‘to go on writing the truth as he sees it’. Such an effort inevitably brings the artist into the arena of public affairs, and not only in totalitarian states; nor does such a fierce engagement with life necessarily involve creative compromise. Gordimer (who is good at quoting) quotes Turgenev: ‘Without freedom in the widest sense of the word – in relation to oneself… indeed, to one’s people and one’s history – a true artist is unthinkable; without that air it is impossible to breathe.’

And she adds her own, indisputable last word: ‘In that air alone, commitment and creative freedom become one.’

Journalists in general appear to be the only human beings for whom Graham Greene has little time or respect. ‘A petty reason perhaps why novelists more and more try to keep a distance from journalists is that novelists are trying to write the truth and journalists are trying to write fiction,’……..

The most appealing account of the Big Bang I’ve ever read was written by Italo Calvino in his marvelous Cosmicomics. In the beginning, we’re told by Calvino’s narrator, the proto-being Qfwfq, ‘Every point of each of us coincided with every point of each of the others in a single point, which was where we all were…it wasn’t the sort of situation that encourages sociability.’ Then a certain Mrs. Ph(i)Nkₒ cried out, ‘Oh, if only I had some room, how I’d like to make some noodles for you boys!’ And at once – bam! – there it was: spacetime, the cosmos. Room.

To burn a book is not to destroy it. One minute of darkness will not make us blind.

.......And then there is the matter of disappointment. Any good advertising man will tell you that a product or service must never be oversold, because to claim too much for it increases the likelihood of consumer disappointment, of what they call a ‘cognitive dissonance’ between what you say and how the product performs. Consumer disappointment greatly reduces the likelihood of brand loyalty. In this respect religions have the great advantage of not having their most important promise tested until after the consumer is dead; whereas the promises of politicians, of political parties and movements and theorists, go wrong while we, in growing disillusion watch. Even those ideas which have been, for a time, the most uplifting and galvanizing, end by inducing cognitive dissonances and damaging brand loyalty. It is a disillusioned age. So it is not surprising that some of us turn back towards belief-systems which at least have never made the mistake of promising us an earthly paradise.

………….the language of politics has become more materialistic. Both on the right and the left, politicians have learned to speak in the newspeak of economics. If an airport is to be built in the midst of sleepy villages, the distress of the locals is calculated, astoundingly, in cash terms, and then balanced against other figures. The increasing mechanization of society has created a mechanical politics; one which no longer asks ‘why’ or ‘whither’ questions, but only ‘how’. As a result, the world of politics no longer encompasses much of what real human beings actually care about. It does not ask what kind of world we wish to live in; it does not analyse the consequences of the choices that are made for us; nor, but perhaps it never did, does it address itself to the grievances and achings of the soul……..

Human beings understand themselves and shape their futures by arguing and challenging and questioning and saying the unsayable; not by bowing the knee, whether to gods or to men.

How is freedom gained? It is taken: never given. To be free, you must first assume your right to freedom. In writing The Satanic Verses, I wrote from the assumption that I was, and am, a free man.

What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist. Without the freedom to challenge, even to satirize all orthodoxies, including religious orthodoxies, it ceases to exist. Language and the imagination cannot be imprisoned, or art will die, and with it, a little of what makes us human.

A book is a version of the world. If you do not like it, ignore it; or offer your own version in return.

And I would like to say this: life without God seems to believers to be an idiocy, pointless, beneath contempt. It does not seem so to non-believers. To accept that the world, here, is all there is; to go through it, towards and into death, without the consolations of religion seems, well, at least as courageous and rigorous to us as the espousal of faith seems to you. Secularism and its work deserve your respect, not your contempt.

A great wave of freedom has been washing over the world. Those who resist – in China, in Romania – find themselves bathed in blood. I should like to ask Muslims – that great mass of ordinary, decent, fair-minded Muslims to whom I have imagined myself to be speaking for most of this piece – to choose to ride the wave; to renounce blood; not to let Muslim leaders make Muslims seem less tolerant than they are. The Satanic Verses is a serious work, written from a non-believer’s point of view. Let believers accept that, and let it be.

In the meantime, I am asked, how do I feel? I feel grateful to the British government for defending me. I hope that such a defence would be made available to any citizen so threatened, but that doesn’t lessen my gratitude. I needed it, and it was provided. (I’m still no Tory, but that’s democracy)

……………Do I feel regret? Of course I do: regret that such offence has been taken against my work when it was not intended……….

Love can lead to devotion, but the devotion of the lover is unlike that of the True Believer in that it is not militant. I may be surprised – even shocked – to find that you do not feel as I do about a given book or work of art or even person; I may very well attempt to change your mind; but I will finally accept that your tastes, your loves, are your business and not mine. The True Believer knows no such restraints. The True Believer knows that he is simply right, and you are wrong. He will seek to convert you, even by force, and if he cannot he will, at the very least, despise you for your unbelief.

………….White cricket balls for night cricket? Female priests? A Japanese takeover of Rolls-Royce cars? Is nothing sacred?

Until recently, however, it was a question to which I thought I knew the answer. The answer was No.

No, nothing is sacred in and of itself, I would have said. Ideas, texts, even people can be made sacred – the word is from the Latin sacrare, ‘to set apart as holy’ – but even though such entities, once their sacredness is established, seek to proclaim and to preserve their own absoluteness, their inviolability, the act of making sacred is in truth an event in history. It is the product of the many and complex pressures of the time in which the act occurs. And events in history must always be subject to questioning, deconstruction, even to be declarations of their obsolescence. To respect the sacred is to be paralysed by it. The idea of the sacred is quite simply one of the most conservative notions in any culture, because it seeks to turn other ideas – Uncertainty, Progress, Change – into crimes.

Sometimes I think that, one day, Muslims will be ashamed of what Muslims did in these times, will find that the ‘Rushdie affair’ as improbable as the West now finds martyr-burning. One day they may agree that – as the European Enlightenment demonstrated – freedom of thought is precisely freedom from religious control, freedom from accusations of blasphemy. Maybe they’ll agree, too, that the row over The Satanic Verses was at bottom an argument about who should have power over the grand narrative, the Story of Islam, and that that power must belong equally to everyone. That even if my novel were incompetent, its attempt to retell the Story would still be important. That if I’ve failed, others must succeed, because those who do not have the power over the story that dominates their lives, power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.
One day. Maybe. But not today.

……..I recalled my near-namesake, the twelfth-century philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroës) who argued that (to quote the great Arab historian Albert Hourani), ‘not all the words of the Qu’ran should be taken literally. When the literal meaning of Qu’ranic verses appeared to contradict the truths to which philosophers arrived by exercise of reason, those verses needed to be interpreted metaphorically.’ But Ibn Rashid was a snob. Having propounded an idea far in advance of its time he qualified it by saying that such sophistication was only suitable for the élite; literalism would do for the masses.

……….Actually Existing Islam has failed to create a free society anywhere on Earth

……..... Actually Existing Islam , which has all but deified its Prophet, a man who always fought passionately against such deification; which has supplanted a priest-free religion by a priest-ridden one; which makes literalism a weapon and redescriptions a crime, will never let the likes of me in.

Ibn Rushd’s ideas were silenced in their time. And throughout the Muslim world today, progressive ideas are in retreat.

‘Free speech is a non-starter,’ says one of my Islamic extremist opponents. No sir, it is not. Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself.

No comments: