Earlier this week, famous author Salman Rushdie spoke at Page Auditorium. The writer, who has published over a dozen books, won the 1981 Booker Prize and was accepted into the exclusive American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2008. He is perhaps most widely recognized, however, for the controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses. Published in 1988, the novel earned him not only a profusion of protests from the Muslim community, but a price on his head to boot.
Rushdie, who was invited to speak as this year’s John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute’s Distinguished Lecture, gave a speech entitled “Public Events, Private Lives: Literature and Politics in the Modern World.” The speech, which dealt with the way literature works in the contemporary political climate, denounced not only totalitarian regimes and brutalizing governments, but modern media as well.
“We have a situation where opinion polls tell us the most trusted news network in this country is Fox News,” Rushdie said. “This makes one feel worried about the American people … if they actually want the news or prefer the precarious fiction that appears on the Fox News program.” He went on to explain that literature is a superior source of news, because “it is the place where you find truth.”
Rushdie’s philosophy seems to stem from a belief that literature and tyranny are diametrically opposed, if not altogether contradictory. “Prose,” he explains, “has been historically and still is at the forefront of opposition of tyranny. No one owns the novelist’s vision except for the novelist.” It’s certainly a nice image, and one that does its part to inspire hope, especially in a time of quelled uprisings and brooding civil wars.
But what about when literature doesn’t oppose tyranny? What about all of the times in the past when literature laid down and carried on with something less important while tyranny ran rampant through the streets? And, most disturbingly, what about the times when tyranny and literature worked together, went hand in hand with one another en route to some perverse and twisted end?
Far from being enemies, literature and tyranny have been friends before. This is a theme taken up by Roberto Bolaño in a number of his novels—“By Night in Chile” and “Nazi Literature in the Americas” among them—and one that exists as a practical concern within the world of propaganda. And it’s not always easy to see, either. It’s not always as easy as pointing to “Mein Kampf” or “The Prince,” and dismissing them as the exceptions. Sometimes it’s the fact that authors don’t speak out, stop writing entirely to avoid any form of reprimand. Sometimes they write about other things. And sometimes the link between literature and tyranny is so much less even than that, so subtle and tucked away in topics and structure and word choice that neither we nor the writers themselves can see it. No one can see the ways in which tyranny has taken control of literature and bent it to despotism’s own evil ends.
And, lest we forget, isn’t the writer a tyrant as well? Doesn’t the writer decide for himself that which he will, and will not include and the light in which he’ll show those things? And, in doing so, doesn’t the writer decide for everyone else the ways in which they will take those things to be, at least so long as they are reading? Yes, in that way, Rushdie is right. The novelist owns his own vision, indeed.
Although it is a sad and unfortunate truth that we cannot always agree with Rushdie on this, he is not entirely incorrect. In fact, he is not really incorrect at all—he is merely being a bit incomplete. And, like Rushdie’s claim, the notion that one novel can, on its own, impart truth is, too, incomplete. To find truth in literature, we must read not one novel, and not only a few. We must read endlessly and exhaustively, and put together the bits and pieces of the truths that we find as we move from work to work. Only then can we begin to find the truth without the tyrant.
Chris Bassil is a Trinity junior. His column runs every Friday.