"Ovid died in exile, yet his poetry has outlived Rome," said Sir Salman Rushdie in describing the power of literature to an audience of 750 people on Oct. 4 in the Francis E. Geissler Gymnasium. Rushdie's lecture was the first in this year's Arts and Lecture Series. "We are the only creature on Earth that tells stories to understand each other."
During his 75-minute talk, Rushdie explored the role that fiction and poetry play in revealing the impact of external forces on individual character and the human condition, what he called "the collision of public and private lives" and the struggle between individual freedom and power. "Our lives are full of grand narratives," he explained -- politics, religion, family traditions.
"Literature's role is to help us understand, to help us belong, to educate and entertain." In fact, Rushdie said, literature's examination of uncomfortable truths -- "The insanity of the real" -- is fundamental to a free society. "When power is not scrutinized, it misbehaves," he noted.
Rushdie said that art, like no other part of our lives, has the ability to "go to the frontier and push out." One of his favorite lines, he said, came from the Saul Bellow book, "The Dean's December," in which a dog in Romania is imagined to be thinking, "For God's sake, open the universe a little more."
Rushdie said that literature historically has played a powerful role in exposing political and social truths. He recalled the impact that Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" had in the 1850s, and Abraham Lincoln's famous remark, "So you are the little woman who started this great war." Today, with the globalization of culture and the impact of mass communications on the world stage, "politics is total and impacts all of us. We (writers) are no longer able to separate the public and private lives of our characters."
Rushdie also talked about the years he spent in hiding after the "fatwa" was announced by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini following the publication of Rushdie's most controversial work, "The Satanic Verses" in 1988. He said he believed he had probably lost the opportunity to write two novels during that time, but said he was more concerned about the dangers the fatwa imposed on the people around him. One person was murdered and at least two attacked due to the persecution.
He lamented today's world, where people's lives are forever changed by forces beyond their control. "It was Heraclitus who said a man's character was his fate. The people who died on September 11, 2001, did not die because of their character, because they were lazy, mean-spirited, or possessed some other character flaw. Today, our lives are controlled by things that do not happen in our own houses."
Rushdie has written 10 novels, including "Grimus," "Midnight's Children" (which was awarded the Booker Prize in 1981), "The Satanic Verses," and "The Ground Beneath Her Feet," as well as a book of stories and three works of non-fiction. He has received literary awards and honors from England, Germany, the United States and many other nations, and is an honorary faculty member of six major universities.