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Rushdie Talk Recasts Role of Public and Private in Politics and Literature

February 17, 2010

On a grey drizzly, just-above-freezing February day, which, had it occurred in a soul, surely would have been enough to send Ishmael back to sea, hundreds of Brunonians and Providence locals stood outside waiting for close to an hour to get in to Solomon, Brown’s largest auditorium. The reason for this willingly freezing conglomeration was simple: Sir Salman Rushdie. The knighted novelist, public intellectual, and cause célèbre in his own right was giving a talk entitled Public Events, Private Lives: Literature, and Politics in the Modern World.
This talk, like most of what Rushdie writes, was many things at once. Firstly and perhaps foremost it was a revelation of his development as an artist. Secondly, as the title suggests it was a discussion of how the traditional space between the public and private is rapidly diminishing and how literature and international relations reflect this. Finally, Rushdie expounded on the principles and importance of “absolutely” free speech. Of course throughout he kept a focus on South Asia, particularly India and Pakistan, saying he was “glad to be participating in Brown University’s Year of India,” because it “gave him a chance to talk about India, while usually in America you have to talk about America.”
He related, in often-humorous detail, how he came to write in such a looping, interweaving fashion through an exposition of his childhood and experiences as a young Indian writer, providing a brief glimpse “of the world he grew up in.” According to Rushdie his childhood world was a tumultuous one in which he saw the collapse of the distinction between public and private from an early age.
He recounted one incident involving the renowned Marxist poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz as a particularly emblematic example of this collapse and its influence on his own writing. The poet was “like an uncle” to young Rushdie, spending many hours with the Rushdie family. One of the many times he was “wanted for his extremist political views” he actually went to Rushdie’s house. When a band of Islamists that were attempting to arrest him came to the house Rushdie’s mother hid the poet under the floorboards of the living room, covered it with a carpet and invited the Islamists to search the house. They of course did not find Faiz.
This event, along with Rushdie’s long relationship with the poet whom he claimed as a “major influence,” was translated directly into an awareness on Rushdie’s part that he “needed to take on the issues of his day.” The question that naturally arose from this awareness was then how to do so as a writer.
Rushdie found part of the answer to this question in the oral traditions of South Asian village raconteurs. He noticed as a young man that orally transmitted stories that were tremendously popular with the Indian public tended to violate what he called, in a semi-joking reference to Alice in Wonderland “the caterpillar’s rule.” They “combined everything: politics, musical, personal, farcical, tragic…” and they definitely didn’t, as the caterpillar said to do when telling a story, “start at the beginning go onto the end and then stop.”
The oral form of story telling, to Rushdie, seemed to provide a deeper relation to life and it’s complexities. It also providing a natural frame for his “source material.” This material, his life, was naturally the same kind of blend of the personal, public, farcical, tragic and political.
Rushdie believes that this type of life, one deeply interconnected with events in the world that it cannot directly influence, is a specific condition of modernity. Though of course he admits people have always been affected in some degree by what they can’t influence, he claims today the level of individuals’ connectedness with the world at large is such that their lives cannot be meaningfully described apart from society and history at large. To illustrate what he meant he turned to Jane Austin, (whom along with Charles dickens, because of their immediate social relevance, he has co-opted as “Indian writers”).
Jane Austin wrote during the Napoleonic Wars, but never once mentions a battle or the war at large. The only concern anyone in her novel really seems to have with anything even related to the war is that of young girls fretting over whether or not cute soldiers will make good husbands. Yet, Austin, a novelist of indisputably high caliber was able to “explain [her character’s] lives quite completely.” In Austin’s time the arc of a persons life was mostly determined by “character” which was “destiny” that they in some sense could control.
Rushdie then pointed to 9/11 as a paradigmatic case of how people are no longer in control the immense impact global public events now have for the personal. The thousands that died that day had no control and no reason to suspect the events that befell them. According to Rushdie, to tell the story of a worker in the World Trade centers or a passenger on flight 93 is to tell the story of 9/11.
The novel Midnight’s Children,according to Rushdie was an attempt to deal with one of the most immediate questions that arises from this decreased space between public and private: “do we make our own history or does our history make us?” The response plays out in the novel through a double telling.
The story of history is told in and through the story of the characters that comprise the novel while the story of their character is told through history. Thus the novel doesn’t seem to pose a categorical answer. However, the protagonist can be seen to be asserting his control and ability to form history in almost inverse proportion to the extent to which he actually does have control over or the ability to form history. This relation suggests that today we have less control than ever before.
Yet, at the same time, the novel makes it clear that, as Rushdie himself stated, character in dialectic with history plays a fundamental role in determining the state of the world. According to Rushdie, the fact that out of a whole village, or even country of deprived frustrated people only a small minority resorts to violence cannot be explained simply sociologically. The reason that coming from the same circumstances some people are willing to engage in violence and some are not is because people simply have different characters. Character can thus drive what become the uncontrollable events that are today so effectively blurring the boundaries between public and private, political and cultural, tragic and farcical.
This interplay was further elucidated through a brief recounting of the circumstances surrounding the publication of his novel Shame, which brought unfortunate immediacy to the brief Milan Kundera quote, “the struggle of a man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Rushdie’s book described semi-fictitiously the wild abuses of power such as forced sterilization and the violent suppression of political dissenters, by the Indian government under Indira Gandhi. As the Indian government had at the time of publication not officially recognized these abuses, the British publishers, afraid of being sued, were of course weary of publishing the book. So they made Rushdie document every accusation the book could be construed as making. He almost did so. There was one line in the book that repeated an old Indian rumor that Indira Gandhi’s son didn’t like his mother because he suspected her of causing the death of his father. As this was a rumor there was no substantiation to be found.
Focusing on this line of the text Indira Gandhi attempted to sue Rushdie and his publishers for libel. Due to strict libel laws Rushdie had little legal recourse, but to strike the sentence from his book, or demonstrate to an English judge that the prime minister of India was a person of bad character. This story demonstrates the extent to which memory is dangerous to those in power and how far they powerful will attempt to reach just to keep certain histories from of a nation’s memory.
It also does however serve to illustrate Rushdie’s commitment to the freedom of speech and expression. He was willing to challenge the prime minister of India over a sentence in British law courts. Unfortunately, this story does not end on a happy note. Before the case was decided Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated and the lawsuit was dropped.
The Satanic Verses, as presented by Rushdie, was the convergence of all his previous concerns and a springboard for his continued struggle for freedom of speech. He said it was a novel about “revealed truth as opposed to those who are a little skeptical,” which though almost commonplace in the west is “explosive in the context of Islam.” According to Rushdie, fundamentalist Islamists are engaged in a revolt against history, against contextual interpretation and have a deep longing for a “return to the [mythical] pure.” Their goal says Rushdie, is to “control the narrative” of their culture and religion. The Satanic Verses caused so much controversy precisely because it questioned the traditional narrative.
The responses to this questioning, says Rushdie, are indicative of a deeply un-free society, as “the mark of a free society is the ability to discuss and change their narrative.”
This professed commitment to freedom of expression was put to an unpleasant test shortly after he wrote his “blasphemous” novel. There was a movie made about Rushdie, which depicted him as trying to corrupt the whole of Pakistan by spreading secularism. In the movie he is eventually killed directly by God. The movie producers applied for a permit to release the film in Brittan. The British Government refused because they were afraid that Rushdie might sue. As Rushdie put it, he “found [him]self defending an act of free expression [his own work] through an act of censorship.”
After a short deliberation he wrote the council in charge of film distribution rights in England notifying them in writing that he would not sue. The movie was released and according to Rushdie “in the most Muslim neighborhood in England no one went to see it, because it was a bad movie.” This experience motivated in him a belief that “when everything is out in the open, fundamentally, you can trust most people to distinguish good from bad.”
Rushdie further asserted that it is in fact only when things are out in the open can bad ideas and theories be abolished. He said they “are like the undead, exposed to the light of the sun they disintegrate.” You can argue against them and demonstrate their ridiculousness in a wide variety of ways. However when you attempt to suppress discourse, it festers and spreads more rapidly than it other wise would. Thus he concluded we “need to let anyone speak” and literature is one very effective way to get us talking.

The lecture was sponsored by the Year of India, Cogut Center for the Humanities, and Watson Institute.
By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Joseph Bendaña ‘11