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Ideas are imperishable

The Daily talks to Salman Rushdie about some of his major influences and political views

British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie spoke about the role of literature in the public and private sphere, and several other topics at a free event hosted by SSMU on Friday evening. Rushdie is the author of several novels which tackle themes from the partition of India to the immigrant experience in Britain. He won the Booker Prize in 1981 and was knighted for his literary achievements in 2008, but may be best known for receiving a fatwa ordering his death from Ayatollah Khomeinei of Iran in 1989 for his novel The Satanic Verses. The Daily was able to sit down with him for a few minutes after his talk.

McGill Daily: The Master and Margarita is said to have a large influence on you. One of the quotes associated with you from the novel is the idea that “manuscripts don’t burn.”

Salman Rushdie: It’s very strange, I think, in retrospect the way in which the story of Bulgakov’s novel has come to echo what happened to The Satanic Verses. That novel was also banned and ridiculed, and really didn’t even exist in a full Russian version until more or less the fall of communism. It’s really quite extraordinary that the books should have those parallel lives.

And then of course [The Master and Margarita] contains the question of destroying the text. In that case, of course, the text [in the book] is destroyed by the author, the Master himself. He doesn’t like his creation, and the Devil is the one who is shocked by the idea that he should try to destroy the book. It’s the Devil that says “Manuscripts don’t burn.” I’ve always thought it’s a very beautiful line, because what it means, of course, is that ideas are imperishable. There’s a line like it in a great play by Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt, a play called “The Physicist,” in which one of the characters says, “What has once been thought cannot be un-thought.” I think that’s true and I think Bulgakov knew that was true.

MD: Another Bulgakov quip associated with you is that “Books survive, writers don’t.” Clearly you’ve survived, but 38 people associated with The Satanic Verses did not, or received death threats.

SR: There were all kinds of people who were attacked. It was a terrible time and I think that the courage with which publishers and booksellers withstood these threats has never been given enough credit. Really, this was a battle fought by ordinary people. It was not fought by great public figures…. [There were] other attacks of bookstores around the world, and attacks on people connected with the publication – at least one of whom was sadly murdered, which was the book’s Japanese translator.

MD: A major theme in The Satanic Verses is a “critique of the closed, and absolute belief system.” In your 20 years since writing it, how have you seen “closed and absolute systems” change or evolve, either politically or religiously?
SR: Well, I think there is more now about than there was then. It’s easy to say that that’s something that’s been happening in the Islamic world, and it has. But it’s also been happening in the extremes of North American Christianity. And more depressing, I’ve just come back from India, and it’s quite clear there’s a growth of sectarian extremism in India. It’s not just in Islam but in Hinduism as well: a kind of intolerance and censoriousness which was never characteristic of Hinduism.

MD: Why do you think that is?
SR: Everybody wants to get in on the act. What happens is people see it working for one community and they think they want some of that too. I’ve always thought one of the things about extremism, of which the extreme form is terrorism, is that there is a kind of glamour about it. It makes otherwise unimportant lives feel momentarily important.

MD: In your talk, you discussed a tendency in Britain to “define yourself by your rage” in identity politics. Have you seen that to be true in North America or Canada?
SR: Well, I think it’s true worldwide, actually. People seem to be defining themselves by what they are against, whereas, I come from [another] generation. There is much to be said about the ’60s which is critical, because it was a kind of nonsensical time. But the one thing that was true about it is that people tended to define themselves by what they were for, and not what they were against. And that seems like a much more constructive way to lead a life. This kind of definition by negatives… damages the soul.

MD: You said the way we relate to narratives, or who has control of them determines the level of freedom in the world. Conversely, you talked about the disintegration of journalism. Do you see those things as related?
SR: Yes, absolutely. I think that what journalists do is one of the most valuable things in a free society. And it’s dangerous. If you look at the Iraq war, this is a war where more journalists have been killed than in any war ever before. It’s getting more dangerous to do this job properly…. And it will enormously diminish the quality of life in any society if that job can’t be done properly.

I think there is very good reason to think that’s going to happen. Because what happens in a moment of great change is that there are interregnums. I’m sure that at another point in the future there will be electronic news media that will be able to fulfill the role that the print media have done. The problem is what happens if there is twenty years in between.

MD: In 2006 you signed a manifesto with several other writers against religious extremism, and have spoken about the need to reform Islam. Can you discuss that?
SR: I think there’s no need to reform Islam itself as the need to reform Islamic society, because religion is religion. If religion is a private matter, then it’s nobody’s business but the person’s whose feelings are like that. It’s when religion becomes the basis for social and political organization, then that’s when you have to look at it. I think almost always, almost everywhere that that has happened, it has been, to put it mildly, a very conservative force, and often an oppressive force. It’s that aspect of it that needs reform.

I do think it’s very regrettable that within Muslim culture it is very difficult to historicize the study of Islam. I think a great deal would result from being able to look at the birth of this religion as an event inside history rather than some kind of supernatural event. I think it’s very important that attitudes towards women change; that attitudes towards sexual minorities change. I think it’s very important that people be allowed to speak more freely.

I think I’m right in saying that there is no Arabic speaking country now in which The Arabian Nights can be published in an un-explicated edition. The greatest, greatest work of fiction to be generated by the Arab world has to be censored to have all the naughty bits taken out. The Arabian Nights is an interesting book in that it’s really very low on religion and very high on sexual shenanigans, and that means that this great book is in very Bowdlerized editions. And that seems indicative of a problem.

– compiled by Erin Hale