Monday, March 9, 2009

'Open up the Universe': Sir Salman Rushdie in Brooklyn Heights - On Barking Dogs & Cat Stevens Viewed from the Edge








The above photographs are by Ken Brown, courtesy of St. Francis College, Brooklyn, NY.

I had the pleasure of attending a lunchtime lecture by Sir Salman Rushdie at St. Francis College today, as part of its Thomas J. Volpe Lecture Series on Global Business & Finance. Sir Salman spoke for about one hour and then took audience questions. As expected, he was an entertaining, thought-provoking and engaging speaker, and extremely gracious in responding to audience questions.

He noted that he had been in Brooklyn and passed St. Francis College many times but had never been inside. This is a long post, but I took a lot of notes and wanted to share a great lecture.

His topics included:

A favorite thought-game, which he termed extremely addictive, thinking of titles of books that would never have made it: "The Big Gatsby", "Two Days in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," "The Old Man and the Lake."


About the Ayatollah and the fatwa, he noted "One of us is dead." Therefore, "Don't mess with novelists." Ostensibly the fatwa was lifted, although I believe I have read that this is in dispute. According to SSR, via wikipedia, he receives a "Valentine Day Card" of sorts, every February 14, the date of the fatwa, telling him that it is still in force. There appeared to be substantial non-uniformed security at the event. Nevertheless, Sir Salman is an amusing, brilliant, and relaxed speaker.

He explored what it means for the novel, and to the role of the novelist, when the world has become fictitious, strange, non-realistic; when the incredible rush of extreme events and occurrences in society and the world today, take 9/11 as an example, are difficult to render in a naturalistic literary style. "The gulf between public and private has shrunk." Sir Salman mentioned Heraclitus's remark that "Character is fate - destiny--" may no longer be the case in the current world, since so many issues that occur, violence, social and economic dislocations, etc., are not necessarily the individual's fault. "Today, character is not necessarily destiny. How do you write about the meaning of life when character is not destiny?"

Humans are storytellers. "We are storytelling animals" he observed. When people say "How is the family?" "Oh, the family is fine" he laughed and remarked, " Is it really? Not really. It is hell in there."

We tell stories to understand ourselves, our families,our society and our world. Not just fictional stories, as I understood him to say, but also humans tend to use a storytelling form when giving explanations. "Since the world is so complex, and we are inundated with media and information, so much of which is without real meaning and does not promote understanding," then "Using stories to understand ourselves is the way human beings try to understand their world. Therefore, the storytelling act is incredibly important" to helping us understand ourselves and our world. But there are forces ---political, religious, personal-- that wish to preserve a social order and clamp down on storytelling which is a mechanism for understanding and conveying the truth about human experience.

Therefore, once the "Simple act of remembering becomes a political act" storytelling becomes dangerous. Rushdie passionately observed that "preventing people from telling stories is a crime against humanity--an existential crime. We live inside stories."

Rushdie also observed how many people who protested against the book The Satanic Verses had never read it or any of his other work. That is why it is so important to maintain and protect the open society. People who find stories troubling should just learn to "deal with it."

Rushdie commented about a section of Saul Bellow's The Dean's December that describes a dog that would not stop barking. To Saul Bellow, a scene like that is imbued with deep meaning. Rushdie said that the dog's barking was a "protest against limits of his experience as a dog"--therefore, the dog's barking is a plea or demand to "open the universe a little more. And that is as good a description of what great art can accomplish: To open up the universe a little more."

The risk to artists especially writers is that when you seek to push boundaries outward, "you can't do it from the middle of the room; you need to go to the edge." However, in doing so, there is always the risk that you will "fall off the edge, or that someone will push back," which can be very dangerous.

Sir Salman also noted in response to a question that he owned many Cat Stevens albums while at university, but despite Yuseff Stevens claims to the contrary now, "Cat Stevens did agree with the fatwa and call for my death."

Finally, in reply to a question, he advised the writers (especially the young ones) in the audience that "there are more than enough books, stories and works of art in the world." If no more were created, there would be more than enough to keep anyone interested busy for the foreseeable future. As a result, "the only reason to write is because you have to, you are compelled to, you must do it. Do it for this but no other reason."

Sir Salman Rushdie's most recent book is The Enchantress of Florence, about the Renaissance Medicis and the Moghul Empire. He said that Midnight's Children, which was recently named the most accomplished of all of the works to receive the British Booker Prize, also made it onto a list of the Top 50 or so books that people claim to have read but haven't. He was in good company, he said, since #1 was Orwell's 1984 and #4 was the Bible.

Overall, a thought-provoking, humorous, at times dry and droll, but highly entertaining presentation by one of foremost living English-language authors. Thank you, Saint Francis College and the Thomas J. Volpe Lecture Series.

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