Literature Can Close the Fear Gap
Salman Rushdie is the author of Satanic Verses and Fury, among other novels.
NPQ: You have referred to a "strange war" that has begun after the end of the Cold War. "Alienation has perhaps never been so widespread," you noted, "all the more reason for getting together and seeing what bridges can be built." Can you elaborate on this?
Salman Rushdie: After 9/11 the culture became very dark. I can understand why, especially now that I live in New York. This is where the catastrophe happened. We can see why it happened. Why America became afraid. Why it became so defensive. Why it began to put the shutters up and build the walls. It’s human nature: fear. This fear began with an act of terror, and it was cultivated by ignorance. It’s also cultivated by the fact that you don’t know who your enemy is, who is an enemy and who is not, so you are afraid of anyone.
But this fear is also tragic, particularly for a country which built itself on a philosophy of openness. One of the things I really loved about America was that openness. And I thought this is not the country that I fell in love with—this is another darker place.
Of course, there was racism in America before, but it was more aimed at the African-American community. Now nobody can distinguish between an Indian and an Arab, or who’s an Afghan and who’s a Pakistani, especially in New York. And so suddenly communities, which were never targeted by racism in this country, are being targeted now and it’s getting worse. So there is darkness and fear.
Literature can really help here because it can take away that part of the fear which is based on not knowing things. If you look at what’s been happening in terms of this country’s reading habits, it’s very interesting. In my local chain-bookstore, five or four years ago, if you went to the international section with books about the Middle East or the Arab world, Africa and so on, there may have been five books! Today there are hundreds of books, because there are people now who want that information.
NPQ: Do writers still have the power to be the "unacknowledged legislators" of the world in a time of speed and conflict?
Rushdie: (Percy) Shelley’s great line! We all hope so. We all think that’s a part of what literature can be. It’s not so much writers as literature, because, yes, I think, sometimes you have a writer who has a great stature, like Arthur Miller, and when he speaks presidents listen. Mostly that’s not true. But books themselves can do that. It’s one of the strange things in this world where electronic media, television and radio seem to be dominant; actually almost all the ideas of a culture come from the print media. Still!
If you look at the bedrock where the ideas of a culture are forged, it’s not on television. The ideas, of course, are afterward discussed and popularized and spread by television, but to this day still, without books, without print culture, society would not have any forum to discuss itself and to forge new things. That’s what literature can still do. It can still actually be the place from which new ideas and changing of ideas, subtlety and re-imagining of the world, derive.
NPQ: On a different subject, how do you think the new pope, Benedict XVI, will play on the world stage?
Rushdie: It will be hard for the new pope to top (John Paul II). Of course, it’s too soon to make any predictions. His approach, I think, will be different in many aspects—relations with Islam being one of them. It remains to be seen how this is going to affect the global balance.
NPQ: We have all been witnessing the resurrection of God in the third millennium. The myths of religion are still important. Do you agree?
Rushdie: I wish it wasn’t so, but it is. In fact, it’s not even "still," it’s "again," because actually when I was young, in the ’60s or the ’70s, religion had more or less retreated from politics. People still had their religious beliefs, but in terms of a political force, you didn’t think about it. During the Vietnam war, nobody talked about religion. In the last 25 years, it’s made a big comeback. It has much to do with the media. It’s the fact that all religions, Islam as well as the various American churches, learned how to use the information industry. They became very professionalized in the manner in which they spread the message, and as a result today they have become to behave like political bodies.
I think this gets in the way of what political conversation should really be about. I always worry when people endlessly insert what they suppose to be moral issues. To take, for example, this poor girl who was Terri Schiavo. This is a girl who really died 15 years ago, and her body was artificially kept alive by machines. That this should turn into a moral issue was quite wrong.
There was no moral issue because actually 20 years ago there would have been no machines that could have kept her alive. It was a technical matter; it was not a moral matter, but it was turned into a moral matter by the power of organized religion and its political allies. I regret that.
I also think the way in which religion has deformed the politics of the Muslim world is first of all bad for the Muslim world, then it’s bad for the relations with the rest of the world.
NPQ: What’s your relation with the Muslim world nowadays?
Rushdie: I don’t have a relationship with it. I have many Muslim readers, and I have many people who don’t like me. But I never had, let’s say, hate mail from Muslims. Actually I got the opposite. Even at the height of the trouble [the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini—ed.] I would get encouraging letters from Muslim readers, which would say things like, "Because the mullahs are making noise, don’t imagine that people are against you, because actually everyone is on your side." It was always a false portrait of a battle.
People tried to portray it as a battle between the Muslim world and me. If that was true I wouldn’t be talking to you right now! And now it’s just over. I learned this by living through it. The chapter ends, another begins. People turn the page, the attention goes somewhere else.
I am a person for whom religion has never been important in my life, and I am really scared of the power of religion now. I’m scared of it not for myself; I’m scared of it because I think it’s bad for society. In my view, religion is not really able to respond to the modern world.
We need to have subtle and quick and flexible responses to this world, which changes so fast—a world that has never changed so fast as it’s changing now. Religion, of course, claims to be an internal thing. It’s quite wrong. To have the rigidity to say this is how it is and always was like this and always will be like this; that is not the way to look at the world today. We have to be rapid in our response, and I think religion gets in the way. I have no problem with religion as something that people need for themselves, for the sustenance and strength and courage that faith can give. But I would like to see it taken out of public life.
NPQ: While America was preparing to invade Iraq, you were one of the very few literati who did not fully oppose the war. At the time you said, "I’m somewhere in between the American and the European perspective, if we’re talking about Iraq." Do you still maintain this position?
Rushdie: The European left made a mistake by not understanding the horror of Saddam Hussein, by playing it down because they had an opposition to how America was going about things. And I think the American administration made a mistake by insisting on a very unilateral the-hell-with-you approach.
My view is that with a different approach it would have been possible to make an international alliance, to go into Iraq to depose Hussein not because of his nonexistent weapons but because Saddam Hussein was one of the most evil people in the world. Millions and millions of people died by his hand. If the left is not about deposing tyrants, what the hell is it about? I always said that America should not act unilaterally; I didn’t like the damage done to the United Nations. I still don’t.
NPQ: In " Fury," the first novel you wrote in the United States, you depicted New York City as a new Rome. I remember vividly that part of the book where New York was placed under the shade of Rome, which, as you state in a passage, did not fall because its army was weakened but because "the Romans forgot what it meant to be Roman." Then, a few days later the Twin Towers went down. The book seemed shockingly prophetic.
Rushdie: I know, I know! I was very scared myself. My books have this habit of coming true and I wish they could stop. This forecast was alarming to me. The book is about this golden age in this city at the moment of great, incredible confidence and wealth and success. Then the book says, "You know this is very fragile and tomorrow it’s going to end." Of course, I didn’t foresee how automatically it was going to end.
But what I felt is that you look at the idea of the golden age, wherever it is, whether it’s Rome, or Paris, they never last long. These moments seem like forever, but actually they are very brief. That’s true throughout history of every city about which you could say this, or every culture.
This was true of New York in the Clintonian 1990s, but also during the Jazz Age, which was the earlier golden age of the city. The Jazz Age crashed. There was a catastrophe—economic catastrophe, everybody went broke. The same people who were the captains of the city were dropping out of the windows to their deaths. So, the instinct I had was not prophetic. It’s in a way historical rather than prophetic. It has to do with an analysis of history. To my horror that happened rather spectacularly.
NPQ: Speaking of history and death, there is a lot of talk lately about the death of the genre of the novel. Do you agree?
Rushdie: No, that’s rubbish. The novel was never a kind of mass form. Even at the height of the genre, perhaps 200,000 or 300,000 people would read the novels of Charles Dickens. That is a huge number of people, but it’s not like people watching an episode of Friends. In that sense, it’s never been a mass form. It’s a form which can reach a very wide readership and can survive without it. It’s a low-technology form with low economic risks involved in comparison to the movies or television. Anything with small risk is much more likely to survive.
NPQ: Perhaps you will not accept The Da Vinci Code and other best-sellers of its kind as literature, but still they are spreading the popularity of the novel as a mass form.
Rushdie: The Da Vinci Code is crap. I’ll tell you something, it’s interesting what happened in the Soviet Union. Until the day that the Soviet Union fell, great literature was incredibly popular there. The day after the Soviet Union ended nobody wanted to read those authors anymore. They all wanted to read John Grisham! The desire for Solzhenitsyn ended. Literature in Russia died on the same day as communism.
NPQ: Gore Vidal once said that above all the benefits the world would enjoy from the end of communism was that no one would want to read Solzhenitsyn anymore.
Rushdie: That’s true! And they immediately did stop reading him. I think literature has this kind of role as a kind of national conscience. When there’s tyranny, literature seems important. The rest of the time is just people reading books.
NPQ: You have said, "It’s shocking how fast the future has arrived." Are you an optimist?
Rushdie: No. I am an optimist by nature, but I’m not an optimist as a writer. I think it’s very hard to live in this moment of the history of the world and not to have a tragic sense of life. As a writer I look at the world and I see that my tragic sense responds to it. But I also know that life is never one thing. There’s always both things at once. For me, I’ve always had an instinct as a writer to write against the grain of the event, to talk about terrible things as comedy and to find the melancholy in what is funny.
NPQ: A reversal of tragedy and comedy in a postmodern way?
Rushdie: Yes. Somehow if you do it properly you don’t lose the tragedy, you just add another dimension to it. I think that human life is always this great mixture of tragedy and comedy. (New York) is still a great city. You walk around New York and it’s a wonderful place, and yet it’s a city with this great scar in it. You can’t look at one thing without looking at the other.