25 October 2012

Selected quotes from Salman Rushdie's autobiography

… called… Joseph Anton: A Memoir (recommending it), covering the twelve years he lived under police protection.

Photo credit (I find this photo mesmerising): (c) Randall Slavin

On freedom of expression

Voltaire had once said that it was a good idea for a writer to live near an international frontier so that, if he angered powerful men, he could skip across the border and be safe.

Man was the storytelling animal, the only creature on earth that told itself stories to understand what kind of creature it was. The story was his birthright, and nobody could take it away.

The writers of the French Enlightenment had deliberately used blasphemy as a weapon, refusing to accept the power of the church to set limiting points on thought.

The trials of Socrates, Jesus Christ and Galileo had all been blasphemy trials and yet the history of philosophy, Christianity and science owed them a mighty debt.

Bigotry, prejudice and violence or the threat of violence are not human “values.” They are proof of the absence of such values.

Free society was not placid but turbulent. The bazaar of conflicting views was the place where freedom rang.

A religion was not a race. It was an idea, and ideas stood (or fell) because they were strong enough (or too weak) to withstand criticism, not because they were shielded from it. Strong ideas welcomed dissent. “He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves and sharpens our skill,” wrote Edmund Burke. “Our antagonist is our helper.” Only the weak and the authoritarian turned away from their opponents and called them names and sometimes wished to do them harm. 

We should all be free to take the grand narratives to task, to argue with them, satirize them, and insist that they change to reflect the changing times. We should speak of them reverently, irreverently, passionately, caustically, or however we chose. That was our right as members of an open society. In fact, one could say that our ability to re-tell and re-make the story of our culture was the best proof that our societies were indeed free. In a free society the argument over the grand narratives never ceased. It was the argument itself that mattered. The argument was freedom. But in a closed society those who possessed political or ideological power invariably tried to shut down these debates.

We must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love. These will be our weapons. Not by making war, but by the unafraid way we choose to live shall we defeat them. How to defeat terrorism? Don’t be terrorized. Don’t let fear rule your life. Even if you are scared.

On writing and reading

Throughout the writing of the book he had kept a note to himself pinned to the wall above his desk. “To write a book is to make a Faustian contract in reverse,” it said. “To gain immortality, or at least posterity, you lose, or at least ruin, your actual daily life.”

The freedom to write is closely related to the freedom to read, and not have your reading selected, vetted and censored for you by any priesthood or Outraged Community.

Great literature went to the edges of the known and pushed against the boundaries of language, form, and possibility, to make the world feel larger, wider, than before. Yet this was an age in which men and women were being pushed toward ever-narrower definitions of themselves, encouraged to call themselves just one thing, Serb or Croat or Israeli or Palestinian or Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Baha’i or Jew, and the narrower their identities became, the greater was the likelihood of conflict between them. Literature’s view of human nature encouraged understanding, sympathy, and identification with people not like oneself, but the world was pushing everyone in the opposite direction, toward narrowness, bigotry, tribalism, cultism and war. There were plenty of people who didn’t want the universe opened, who would, in fact, prefer it to be shut down quite a bit, and so when artists went to the frontier and pushed they often found powerful forces pushing back. And yet they did what they had to do, even at the price of their own ease, and, sometimes, of their lives.

On negotiation

“The trouble with negotiating such a deal,” Picco said, “is that you spend a lot of time waiting for the train to arrive at the station, but you don’t know at which station it will arrive. The art of the negotiation is to be standing at as many stations as possible, so that when the train arrives, you are there.”

On family and friends

Friends were the family one chose. Goethe used the scientific term elective affinities to propose that the connections of love, marriage and friendship between human beings were similar to chemical reactions.

People also suffered from a form of chosen blindness. People pretended that there was such a thing as ordinary, such a thing as normal, and that was the public fantasy, far more escapist than the most escapist fiction, inside which they cocooned themselves. People retreated behind their front doors into the hidden zone of their private, family worlds and when outsiders asked how things were they answered, Oh, everything’s going along just fine, not much to report, situation normal. But everyone secretly knew that behind that door things were rarely humdrum. More typically, all hell was breaking loose, as people dealt with their angry fathers, drunken mothers, resentful siblings, mad aunts, lecherous uncles and crumbling grandparents. The family was not the firm foundation upon which society rested, but stood at the dark chaotic heart of everything that ailed us. It was not normal, but surreal; not humdrum, but filled with event; not ordinary, but bizarre.

Edmund Leach, the great anthropologist and interpreter of Claude Lévi-Strauss (...): “Far from being the basis of the good society,” Leach had said, “the family, with its narrow privacy and tawdry secrets, is the source of all our discontents.”

The trap of wanting to be loved

He needed to understand that there were people who would never love him. No matter how carefully he explained his work or clarified his intentions in creating it, they would not love him. The unreasoning mind, driven by the doubt-free absolutes of faith, could not be convinced by reason. Those who had demonized him would never say, “Oh, look, he’s not a demon after all.” He needed to understand that this was all right. He didn’t like those people either. As long as he was clear about what he had written and said, as long as he felt good about his own work and public positions, he could stand being disliked.

See a previous post on the topic of freedom of expression.