Salman Rushdie came to New Orleans last night to speak to a large assembly at Tulane’s Dixon Hall. If you don’t know already, Rushdie is a novelist known for Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses. He was placed on the Ayatollah Komeini’s “to kill list” because it was thought Satanic Verses defamed Islam. The fatwa against his life has been subsequently lifted, but it has not lifted the chatter that has circulated around the author and his controversial persona.
At the event, Rushdie spoke about how people condemned his novel without even having read it, going so far as to recount the story of a man who had publicly protested his book, but later on, read the novel, and exclaimed, “What was the big deal?” “Asshole,” Rushdie said. “Why do people who condemn books never read them?” The people who want to get rid of books are the same people who say, “I am not a book person”! That is the ludicrousness of the world, writ large. Rushdie also told a story about how Stephen King called up his publisher after having read Satanic Verses and realizing it was a great novel, told the publishers if they refused to put Rushdie’s book on the shelf then he was going to demand they remove all of his book from publication and call ten other best selling authors and demand that they do the same! Rushdie laughed when he told this story saying, “And now, my book has outsold theirs! There is no justice!”
He spoke frankly about politicians and how they do not tell the truth. He said the novelist tells the truth because he is not ashamed to say in the beginning that his story is fiction! He spoke about the uselessness of fiction. He said he was tired of the Utilitarian argument that novels have to be useful if they are to be read. Whatever happened to unadulterated pleasure? Alice in Wonderland, he said, is not a useful book. Its sole purpose is to create pleasure. God forbid, anyone have a little pleasure!
Perhaps, people are threatened by pleasure. Are we really like the Puritan who thinks in his heart and is distraught that somewhere, somebody is having fun?
Perhaps the role of literature is to open up the world just a little bit and to expand the cosmos.
Rushdie was witty last night. He made us laugh. He jabbed Bush. And he made the conservatives in the house queasy. I saw a politician in the audience, but I cannot remember who it was (maybe it was Melinda Schwegmann): We don’t have many Salman Rushdie’s in our culture today, though. Gone are the days of the public satirists. Perhaps, you can still find them on Youtube in the likes of Chris Crocker or on television with the Daily Show but the likes of Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Twain are few and far between. It is like when they asked Dorothy Parker to speak about Horticulture. “You can lead a horticulture but you cannot make her think!” (You have to say that joke out loud to get it!).
I thought it was interesting that Rusdie was in New Orleans. I think this was his first visit and I am glad I decided to attend. It invigorated me to hear a public intellectual speak who did not mouth the same tired babble over and over again. I actually, got up and asked him a question. I had read an essay he had written on Heraclitus in Granta and he said his favorite quote from Heraclitus was “A man’s daimon (his character) is his ethos (or his fate). So, I asked him, “What is Salman Rushdie’s daimon?” He answered with another anecdote about he and his sister which I really do not recall the details because I was so nervous standing up there at the dais. It’s kind of nerve-wracking to ask a public intellectual a public question!