Bright spots in dark times: My photographer friend Zygmunt Malinowski dropped a note to say he enjoyed the Tom Lehrer video in my post a few days ago, about First Amendment freedoms and Iranian crazies raising the bounty on Salman Rushdie‘s head. Then he asked me if I’d see the New York Times‘ Q&A with Rushdie, who has just published a book, Joseph Anton, describing his time in hiding after the 1989 Valentine’s Day fatwa.
Rushdie’s response to the news of $3.3 million for his death: “I’m not inclined to magnify this ugly bit of headline grabbing by paying it much attention.” In his interview with Charles McGrath, he recalled the imposition of the fatwa, and the day “my picture of the world got broken”:
“We all have that — we all have a picture of the world we live in and we think we know what shape it has and where we are in it. Another word for that would be sanity. And then suddenly it was very difficult to know what shape the world was and where I stood in it and how to act. All these decisions we make and suddenly I didn’t know anything. Another name for that is insanity. I do think there was a period there when my sanity was under intense pressure and I didn’t know what to say or do or how to act. I was literally living from day to day.”
Rushdie unevenly occupies the momentous role that has been given him. He has always struck a disheartening pose, seesawing between cerebral heroism and the uncharitable dig at an ex-wife, between high-mindedness and silliest self-serving vanity – he’s too small for the historic chair he sits in. So let’s pick out the best. Here are a couple highlights from the interview (you can read the whole thing here):
Q. … the book also has a bigger agenda. It’s meant to document something important?
A. I found myself caught up in what you could call a world historical event. You could say it’s a great political and intellectual event of our time, even a moral event. Not the fatwa, but the battle against radical Islam, of which this was one skirmish. There have been arguments made even by liberal-minded people, which seem to me very dangerous, which are basically cultural relativist arguments: We’ve got to let them do this because it’s their culture. My view is no. … Killing people because you don’t like their ideas — it’s a bad thing. We have to be able to have a sense of right and wrong which is not diluted by this kind of relativistic argument. And if we don’t we really have stopped living in a moral universe.
Q. What advice do you have for someone who might find himself under a similar threat?
A. Two bits of advice, really. One has to do with the head and the other is practical. The thing in the head is: Don’t compromise. It’s a question of self-knowledge, knowing who you are And why you did what you did. Stand up for it. The other thing is that if I were to do it again, I would refuse the hiding. I’d say: “I’ve got a house, I’m going home. Protect me.”