Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Salman Rushdie on Why We Write

I'm enjoying Stanford's hospitality as a Fulbright Scholar -- appreciative of the bright Californian sun, the time to write and read, and the opportunity to saunter around the campus in search of interesting lectures. People here seem to assume I'm a regular student - which suits me just fine. 

I wandered into Stanford's Kresge Auditorium on Monday night to hear Sir Salman Rushdie speak on the importance of literary engagement. His lecture was (unsurprisingly) superb (as is his Midnight's Children, which lies next to me on my desk) and contained all the right ingredients: humour, wit, sorrow, self-deprecation, and sense. Rushdie reflected on the role of fiction in fighting tyranny - religious, political or otherwise - his pen inflamed by some very real, and rather sobering, confrontations with tyranny (the most high-profile being the fatwa issued against him by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1998 for his Satanic Verses). His battle, and that of novelists worldwide, would forever remain that of eradicating oppression, a fight for 'negative freedoms' (to paraphrase Isaiah Berlin): freedoms from interference, fostering a free market of ideas that (as J.S. Mill speculated) would give rise to originality, genius, moral courage.

Rushdie then pointed out that literature had blossomed greatly under such tyrannical regimes as Stalin's and Chowchesku's. In fact, he argued that literature had suffered enormously in Russia and Easter Europe upon the collapse of the "iron curtain" - or upon the end of oppression and beginning of freedom.

The irony of fighting an enemy that happens to also provide vital nourishment for one's artistic development clearly escaped him. Imagine one were given an opportunity to trade all the literature written in response to oppression for the freedom from the oppression that made this literature possible - what would one do? 

(I did ask him this question. He, facing the auditorium, pronounced the question dead - as nonsensical - as not worthy of a response.)

I am reminded of a recent documentary hosted by Stephen Fry on the relation between depression and artistic expression. Had anti-depressants been available to Vincent Van Gogh, would he have taken them? Would we have wanted him to? What would have been the consequences for the quality and poignancy of his art? 

As Fry admitted, he himself has long suffered from depression but realizes too that this disease has infused his work in powerful ways. In concluding his documentary, Fry asked himself whether he'd rather not be depressed - whether he'd take the pill - even if it came at the expense of his qualities as a writer?

With a candour more refreshing than Rushdie's, Fry concluded he would not. That this would be too high a price to pay.


Alan Miller said...


I enjoyed reading your blogs.

Regarding your question to Rushdie..."Imagine one were given an opportunity to trade all the literature written in response to oppression for the freedom from the oppression that made this literature possible - what would one do?"

Oppression may foster CERATIN literature, particularly that which is supportive of the oppressors. However, it is generally accepted that oppression is antithetical to most forms of freedom of speech, including literature. Clearly, therefore, the answer must be to reject oppression (even that which has made a certain literature possible) in favor of freedom.



Jake said...

It might be argued that pain is the true impetus for art in both political oppression and Van Gogh's melancholy. It seems to me that this discussion essentially revolves around the nature of pain. Since our society is largely designed to protect us from pain (witness antidepressants), we seldom actually discuss it. There are two points here that stand out to me as notable. The first is that it would be incorrect to classify all pain as evil; clearly there is a distinction to be made between the pain caused by tyranny and the pain of depression. The second is to consider how the 'original' human experience is altered for those of us who never know true hunger, never experience war, never fear we will succumb to the coming winter, etc. I cannot help but feel disconnected from the billions of people that existed before chloroform. Despite our best efforts to escape it, pain is essential to human existence, from birth (ask any mother) to death. Surely Fry would not want to deprive himself of such a formative force in his life. That said, I'm writing with a bottle of Advil within reach, since I have a nasty flu and I'd rather not feel it anymore than I have to.
Jake Cornelius