Last night PEN American Center closed its annual World Voices Festival — a week of performances, readings and conversations — with its Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture, which was delivered by legendary writer Salman Rushdie. Held in the historic Grand Hall of Cooper Union, the event welcomed the author of numerous novels, including Midnight’s Children, The Moor’s Last Sigh and the controversial The Satanic Verses, to discuss the topic of censorship. The lecture was quickly followed by a Q&A lead by fellow literary superstar Gary Shteyngart.
Rushdie began the evening by applauding PEN, which is the world’s oldest international literary and human rights organization. Founded in 1921 and in response to the ethnic and national divisions that contributed to the First World War, PEN’s mission, Rushdie highlighted, believes in bringing together diverse voices from around the world to ask fundamental questions about humanity, freedom and the role of writers. The novelist was an appropriate choice for the topic of censorship, as the death threats issued against him in the late 1980s for The Satanic Verses have left a lasting mark on the discussion of writers being free to write what they want and need to.
Rushdie’s website has a summary of the controversy:
“On 14 February 1989, Valentine’s Day, Salman Rushdie was telephoned by a BBC journalist and told that he had been ’sentenced to death’ by the [Iranian leader] Ayatollah Khomeini. For the first time he heard the word fatwa. His crime? To have written a novel called The Satanic Verses, which was accused of being ‘against Islam, the Prophet and the Quran.’”
His current popularity and the respect for him as a writer and speaker were evident by the capacity crowd that had gathered to hear him speak — there was a line around the corner to enter and hardly an open seat inside. He came onstage and immediately went to the heart of the conversation: the many faces of censorship in contemporary society and the role of the author within a climate of forced silence and intolerance.
His talk was eloquent, and he made many important points, including that “free expression is a component of every healthy society” and going further to say, “No writer ever really likes to talk about censorship. Writers want to talk about creation. Censorship is the anti-creation.” Perhaps the most resounding quote of the evening however, was his assertion that, “The creative act requires not only freedom of expression, but the assumption we will be free tomorrow.”
“Great art, original art, is never created in a safe middle ground. Originality is dangerous, as it is at the edge,” Rushdie proclaimed at one point. Upon hearing this, a composition by Olivier Messiaen came to my mind. In 1940 Messiaen was interned in a German prison camp, where he discovered among his fellow prisoners a clarinetist, a violinist and a violoncellist. He decided to write for them, adding a piano to the ensemble, and created the “Quartet for the End of Time.” Messiaen and his friends first performed it for 5,000 fellow prisoners on January 15, 1941. To this day it is a powerful piece of music, rich with this history of the conditions Messiaen was living in when he wrote it. The piece was created on unsafe ground where freedom was beyond a lost word.
Sometimes artists are either shoved to the edge, and sometimes they seek it out. It is a space of unsettled morals, questioning and often controversy. Author Kurt Vonnegut spoke of seeking cliffs, saying, “I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” It is artists’ role to pace this periphery, by force or by choice. Rushdie commented on this role we play in society, stating how obvious it is that powerful forces in society don’t want us at the edge. Censorship is a clear blockade to the fertile and necessary soil of creation that exists there.
Censorship exists to change the subject. When it is introduced in the realm of art, it becomes the subject; the attack onto the work becomes the work. As Rushdie said, “Assumptions of guilt replace assumptions of innocence.” The question redirects to, why are artists so troublesome? A work that is censored is portrayed as deserving it. Censorship exists as a political distraction, like many of the headlines we read everyday in politics. They are emotional buttons that keep us from focusing on what’s actually happening: wars and war crimes, unethical economics, a battering of civil liberties and extreme irresponsibility toward the environment, just to name a few.
Censorship comes from many directions, as we live in a world where ideologies tie people together just as tightly as physical borders. Religious zealots constantly try to censor: Some extremists have tried to ban J.K. Rowling (sorcery! witchery!), and supporters of creationism constantly try to censor Darwin from public access and education. What’s more, the commodification of our education system in the last few decades has largely left the power of books and ideas in classrooms and libraries in the hands of parents or companies paying exorbitant tuitions or financially supporting an institution. Censorship can come from political, social, economic or religious bullies, and its followers easily pick up a crier’s incantations under the guise of protection, morality and often goodness.
Rushdie brought up the end of the Vietnam War as an important historical moment. It was immense for people to know their voices had power. He said he experienced a similar feeling in the US on the eve of Obama’s election. He also mentioned artists such as Ai Weiwei, living in China, where one can be in a society of exuberant economic growth and prosperity without any real freedom. He added that Castro, for example, was relatively popular among his people, but the Cubans settled for being provided for without total freedom of expression. This comfort can make one stop asking questions, which is always the writer’s role. What is the sacrifice? What is missing?
I have a strange feeling whenever I find myself in a sprawling American suburb or shopping mall. Under the guises of comfort and perceived choice, I think I have liberty. But the powerful economic and cultural voices telling us what we ought to have are only really offering an idea of freedom — a bag of gold, a defined way of living based on an economic drive and a limited set of choices. “Art is not entertainment, at its best it’s a revolution,” Rushdie reminded us during the event.
Thoreau called the voice of culture “The Enchanter.” He wrote that going off the grid to the edge is the only way you can hear your own voice, outside of all the ones shouting at you everyday, telling you how much is enough and what you want. The limitations on freedom in China are blatant. The limitations on freedom in other countries are subtler, like a parent who puts food on the table and a roof over your head but never allows you outside. You can see the sun, but you can’t ever feel it.
Shteyngart opened his questions to Rushdie last night by asking, with humor, “An Indian and a Russian walk into a bar. Which one of them is more intrinsically free?” The audience laughed, and so did Rushdie, who quickly answered, “Where’s the bar?”
Another question we can ask on the topic of authors and censorship: are words still a powerful weapon? I adamantly think they are. Rushdie offered examples of books transcending censorship: “Great works often defy a censor, are often incensorable,” he said, noting works such as Ulysses, Lolita and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Russian author Solzhenitsyn once wrote: “For a country to have a great writer is like having another government.” I have always placed Mark Twain incredibly high on my list of great American writers, not just for his original voice and tremendous storytelling ability but also because Huck Finn was a monumental book that planted seeds of change in people’s minds about the problems of slavery and racism.
Roman poet Ovid, author of major collections of erotic poetry, wrote work that has transcended time even though he himself was censored and banished to the Black Sea, where he died in exile. While Rome itself perished, Ovid’s poetry has survived. Words are columns, creation, building.
Towards the end of the event, Rushdie commented that judging on the number of book blogs he follows, he can see that people are still reading today, despite all of the other choices for entertainment. Shteyngart then asked Rushie about Twitter:
“Is tweeting good for censorship? And freedom? Bad for it?” (He also went on to joke, “Is tweeting good for Jews?”)
Rushdie responded that he really didn’t know, but said he thought one of the best things about tweeting is that it’s an incredibly rapid way to transmit information. Both authors were given a long applause at the end of the night. As I left and descended the stairs to the subway, my thoughts swirling from the discussion, I remembered a quote by author Maya Angelou: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Salman Rushdie delivered his first Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture at Cooper Union’s Great Hall (7 East 7th Street, East Village, Manhattan) on Sunday, May 6 at The talk was followed by a Q&A lead by wrtier Gary Shteyngart.
Subscribe to the Hyperallergic email newsletter!