Literature makes the world feel wider and larger

Salman Rusdie’s engaging and fascinating memoir Joseph Anton, which deals for the most part with the fatwa that was issued against him as a result of the publication of his fourth novel The Satanic Verses, was one of the great books I have had the pleasure of reading this year. To gain a greater understanding of what actually happened both before and after The Satanic Verses was written and published helped me gain a greater appreciation of Rusdie’s fourth novel and what it stands for: ‘He [Rusdie] was fighting against the view that people could be killed for their ideas, and against the ability of any religion to place a limiting point on thought. But he needed, now, to be clear of what he was fighting for. Freedom of speech, freedom of the imagination, freedom from fear, and the beautiful, ancient art of which he was privileged to be a practitioner. Also scepticism, irreverence, doubt, satire, comedy and unholy glee. He would never again flinch from the defence of these things.’

The freedom to write and read (and think and express) what you want is often taken for granted in western societies. ‘He [Rushie] had always written presuming that he had the right to write as he chose, and presuming that it would at the very least be treated as serious work; and knowing, too, that countries who’s writers could not make such presumptions inevitably slid towards, or had already arrived at, authoritarianism and tyranny.’

Being confronted by different viewpoints and stories, with which we might not always agree initially, enlarges our world, enlarges our sense of empathy and appreciation for the people around us. ‘Man was the storytelling animal, the only creature on earth that told itself stories to understand what kind of creature it was’ Rusdie stated in his memoir. By reading stories we learn of our own heterogeneous nature.

Rushie, in Joseph Anton, describes this beautifully:

In the pages of a novel it was clear that the human self was heterogeneous not homogeneous, not one thing but many, multiple, fractured and contradictory. The person you were for your parents was not the person you were with your children, your working self was other than your self as a lover, and depending on the time of day and your mood you might think of yourself as tall or skinny or unwel or a sports fan or conservative or fearful or hot. All writers and readers knew that human beings had broad identities, not narrow ones, and it was the breadth of human nature that allowed readers to find common ground and points of identification with Madame Bovary, Leopold Bloom, Colonel Aureliano Buendia, Raskolnikov, Gandalf the Grey, Oskar Marzerah, the Makioka Sisters, the Continental Op, the Earl of Emsworth, Miss Marple, the Baron in the Trees, and Salo the mechanical messenger from the planet Tralfamadore in Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan. Readers and writers could take that knowledge of broad-based identity out into the world beyond the pages of books, and use the knowledge to find common ground with their fellow human beings. You could support different football teams but vote the same way. You could vote for different parties but agree about the best way to bring up children. You could disagree about child rearing but share a fear of the dark. You could be affraid of different things but love the same music. You could detest each other’s musical taste but worship the same God. You could differ strongly on the question of religion but support the same football team.

This was what literature knew, had always known. Literature tried to open the universe, to increase, even if only slightly, the sum total of what it was possible for human beings to perceive, understand, and so, finally, to be. Great literature went to the edges of the known and pushed against the boundaries of language, form and possibility, to make the world feel larger, wider, than before. Yet this was an age in which men and women were being pushed towards ever narrower definitions of themselves, encouraged to call themselves just one thing, Serb or Croat or Israeli or Palestinian or Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Baha’i or Jew, and the narrower their identities became, the greater was the likelihood of conflict between them. Literature’s view of human nature encouraged understanding, sympathy and identification with people not like oneself, but the world was pushing everyone in the opposite direction, toward narrowness, bigotry, tribalism, cultism and war. There were plenty of people who didn’t want the universe opened, who would, in fact, prefer it to be shut down quite a bit, and so when artists went to the frontier and pushed they often found powerful forces pushing back. And yet they did what they had to do, even at the price of their own ease, and, sometimes, of their lives.

Great books have opened and enlarged my world throughout my life, and they continue to do so. In a world that seems to lean more and more toward narrowness instead of becoming wider, literature that helps you realize we are ‘not one thing but many, multiple, fractured and contradictory’ seems to me invaluable.

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