Friday, February 29, 2008

We went and saw Salman Rushdie speak last night at the Maryville University Speaker Series. As you might expect, he was worth the price of admission.

Let’s see if I can paraphrase his main point: the world is under threat from what is generally perceived (though not accurately) as a war of cultures; when what is needed is a war of culture (the best in all of them) against willful and often religiously mandated ignorance. The Renaissance would not have been possible without a dialogue between East and West, with many ideas that are core to Western values developing out of that cultural conversation. In the renewal of that dialogue is the key to our best way forward.

Rushdie warned that the intellectual danger from the political left in the West currently arises from a potential fall into relativism where one ends up condoning things like female circumcision on the grounds of cultural difference, rather than abhorring this practice on the grounds of common humanity.

He suggested that the danger on the political right seems to be succumbing to fear such that you become/cause the very thing that you wish to prevent. He observed that Osama had hoped that the Sept. 11th attacks would cause the Muslim world to rise up against the West. That didn’t happen. It wasn’t until Bush invaded Iraq that the Muslim world did as Osama had wanted. Obama made this point the other day – that there was no Al Qaeda in Iraq until the invasion. Rushdie made allusions to the situation in South Africa where whites oppressing blacks became far more inhumane than the inhumanity they feared. Obviously there are infinite parallels: the most often discussed being the final fall of Rome, where the Romans had become the barbarians that they feared.

Rushdie borrowed the Dorothy Parker line on horticulture expertly, “you can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think”. He also discussed the origins of writers going on speaking tours ala Charles Dickens (warning that his last tour of America contributed to Dickens’ death). He talked about his own career, moving from advertising into literature, and on the value of multiculturalism globally.

He also talked at length about the failure of the narrative – naturalist/realist – voice to capture the surreal nature of modern experience. He discussed fiction as a collection of untruths that point at the truth – very Chuang Tzu (fingers pointing at the moon). He was kind to the label Magical Realism, though indicating that the same technique goes by many names from the surrealism of Kafka to the magic carpets in the Arabian Nights. He said that the work, the purpose of novelists, should be to oppose the forces that seek to limit, lock down, define or restrict the range of human experiences and instead should seek to open up the world to new experience, new knowledge, new possibility and understanding.

It was a wide ranging and insightful talk that has me anxious to read his forthcoming book.


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