Thursday, June 21, 2007

Summer is the time for vacations. I took an impromptu one for the first half of this week. Apologies if I left you hanging.

What's new, pussycat? Mostly, I've been amazed by the stupidity of the furor over Salman Rushdie's knighthood.

For me, it's heartbreaking to read Step Across This Line, Rushdie's collection of essays from 2002. The book in part documents Rushdie's efforts to promote secularism in the middle east--because of his belief that free Muslim societies can only exist if church and state are wholly separate. As Rushdie puts it: "...secularists know that a modern nation-state cannot be built out of ideas that emerged in the Arabian desert over thirteen hundred years ago."

Heartbreaking, I say, because the thread ends with September 11th, and with a war led by a U. S. administration that, as former attorney general John Ashcroft famously put it, believes it has "no king but Jesus"--a statement that Christopher Hitchens describes as "exactly two words too long."

Rushdie, an Indian born ex-Muslim, is ultimately agitating for art and literature as the only truly sacred space--a little room that "claims no rights except the right to be the stage upon which the great debates of society can be conducted," as he described it in 1990, in the Herbert Read Memorial Lecture:

Between religion and literature, as between politics and literature, there is a linguistically based dispute. But it is not a dispute of simple opposites. Because whereas religion seeks to privilege one language above all others, the novel has always been about the way in which different languages, values and narratives quarrel, and about the shifting relations between them, which are relations of power. The novel does not seek to establish a privileged language, but it insists upon the freedom to portray and analyse the struggle between the different contestants for such privileges.

I've always thought that art is the place where a society learns about itself. In the case of really resonant, powerful art, something that we didn't fully understand about the present moment and its relation to history is suddenly made clear.

The result is not universal truth. But it is perspective. Everything changes because of it. I count on art to do this for me--to challenge me, change my mind about cherished assumptions, cause me to do a little mental somersault. Free expression, intellectual curiosity, empathy, doubt: Those are pretty much the only things I hold sacred. Rushdie helps me to understand why.

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