Writers long for safe, quiet spaces.
Rare as it is to find one these days, we invent it. Build it from the wisp and crumb of clues and inklings, its overtures evermore made of the stuff of dreams and lore. We tell stories because somehow these fictional worlds allow us to grasp the darkness of our reality from a safe distance.
The recent assault on author Salman Rushdie changed all that. These monsters have hijacked and intruded into our world and made it their bloody playground.
As writers, we have been taught, nearly at every turn, that the worlds we create offer sanctuary to the weary and the weak. It proffers a means of escape, a gateway if you will for that chance to recuperate, and if we’re lucky, perhaps even find ourselves.
As for us writers, these ‘imaginary homelands’ serve as our guidepost, a kind of cartography whereby we can understand, and thereafter articulate reality during those rare waking hours.
Inside these worlds, often misshapen by human imperfection, leisure is sometimes tolerated, languor even permissible to some extent, like a tender bid to unshackle ourselves from the workaday existence. Here we can spend a summer by the lake, book in hand, or a stroll across greener knolls without spending a dime — to think, ruminate, perhaps even play a childish game of hide and seek with the shadows of our own making.
The tensions that appear, the struggles and battles that surface in these fictional tales, like mirror images of our reality, are often but mere reflections, like light bouncing off a distant moon, nevermore life-threatening. But they are nevertheless real, solid, well-nigh tangible from the perspective of fantasy. Like pain, they show us what needs to be mended.
No narrowing of margins are possible in the worlds writers create, in so doing allowing us to stretch the frontiers of whatever it is that is possible.
As Susan Sontag once said, “What writers do should free us up, shake us up. Open avenues of compassion and new interests. Remind us that we might, just might, aspire to become different, and better, than we are. Remind us that we can change.”
People who choose rather to live regimented lives, lives furthermore bound by rules — moralistic or otherwise — find these fictional worlds an affront to restrictions imposed on them. Thus, they reduce these worlds to mere myths, rumors of questionable origins and morals. And to them, since these stories are mere lies, a figment of unregulated thought, they think of it as sins worthy of violent, unimaginable reprisal.
They easily, if not conveniently, forget that such myths and legends are vital to life, even faith, evermore serving to understand the spaces between us, and how such gaping wounds can be healed.
I’m not talking only of religion. Secular cults thrive in our midst in more ways than people will admit. The confusion, the aggression, and the restlessness make it possible for courage to crumble, the provenance of imagination to lose its footing. Where in one geographical area a certain belief bourgeons as the ruler of worlds, in another it is widely persecuted, bludgeoned to an inch of its life.
Why? Because in the end, in the overall scheme of things, violence, once unleashed, is no respecter of ideology or religion or, let me hazard to say, even humanity. It knocks on everyone’s door, the powerful and the wealthy included, if it doesn’t break the door down.
It is, however, a trite analysis to blame orthodoxy, political or otherwise, as the cradle of human aggression. Hardly the case in my humble opinion. We cannot simply disarticulate what moves human nature to do what it does with impunity: the twisted pleasure of wielding power over another.
The tragedies that marked human history are mere facsimiles of the smell of rotting corpses in our midst today. Time has neither the power nor the predilection to turn tragedy into fiction. What was real remains real. Violence seems to be the most effortless of all human challenges. All one has to do is turn a blind eye and all is well in Hell. The Nazis, and all shapes and forms of fascism all across the centuries, even today, were, and are still, masters of the unspeakable.
The more disturbing aspect of violence and aggression is their ability to slip through the cracks of all that we hold good and sacrosanct — faith and literature, included — as though one’s life’s work long deemed borderless and free to navigate the unnamed universes must now be hemmed in by an unquestioned canon.
The imagination deserves more than to be treated with condescension, however badly it may be presented in its final form sometimes.
It goes without saying that the attack on Salman Rushdie is an attack not only on writers and freedom of expression, but on the very crux of what makes literature inviolable: it is a product of human ingenuity, of passion and curiosity, of a host of human experiences, frequently broken and sad, that can hardly be dismissed without injury. Of an imperfection crying out for perfection.
In a world too harsh and jarring for its own good, with the grating sounds of poverty of spirit and desperation drowning our melodies, literature offers the world’s curious thinkers a voice, and their readers a chance to hear them from the abyss.
It is in this manner that literature serves as humanity’s lifeline. What can never be told in exacting, open journalism, what with libel and obscenity laws getting in the way, literature provides a medium for articulation through poetic metaphor or fantastical fiction.
The philosopher Theodor Adorno was right all along: Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream.
The thing with power in extremis is that it fears the appearance of all manner of lifeforms growing out of the soil of literature — the exposition of their crimes, the call for dissent, the gnawing, ugly creatures of which they are the most appropriate caricature.
They fear exposure and criticism largely because they are, by nature and thought, inarticulate to begin with, leaning only to the voices of aggression as a quick fix.
Muscling their way across a world they believe is theirs by manifest destiny, they shackle, beat, and thrash anything in their path, ban or burn books, anything that even remotely suggests dissent, leaving a debris of lives less likely to heal again.
Those who live to tell the tale of aggression are forced to go mute, the dead never able to tell what had happened to them. Death becomes an end in itself, the final solution to rid the world of the errant, the sinful, and the wicked.
Salman Rushdie has made it his life’s work to expose the tragedy that imposes its rules and imperatives against humanity’s right to interrogate the first principle of any belief system. This, above all, makes his assault an act of intrusion against discovery, a violent encroachment into the sovereignty of our safe spaces, rudimentary and quite impaired these spaces may be.
As he once wrote in his book, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981–1991: “But human beings do not perceive things whole; we are not gods but wounded creatures, cracked lenses, capable only of fractured perceptions. Partial beings, in all the senses of that phrase. Meaning is a shaky edifice we build out of scraps, dogmas, childhood injuries, newspaper articles, chance remarks, old films, small victories, people hated, people loved; perhaps it is because our sense of what is the case is constructed from such inadequate materials that we defend it so fiercely, even to the death.”