A brief follow up on my post from earlier today responding to Tim Parks’s notion over at the New York Review of Books that literature is actually characterized by fear and withdrawal from life rather than engagement with us. Later in the day I read Salman Rushdie’s post at the New Yorker on Censorship, a redaction of his Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture delivered a few days ago. Rushdie brings out the idea that, indeed, writers can be afraid, but it is a fear born from the fact of their writing rather than their writing being a compensation for it. Censorship is a direct attack on the notion of the right to think and write and Rushdie brings out the idea that this can be paralyzing to the writers act.
The creative act requires not only freedom but also this assumption of freedom. If the creative artist worries if he will still be free tomorrow, then he will not be free today. If he is afraid of the consequences of his choice of subject or of his manner of treatment of it, then his choices will not be determined by his talent, but by fear. If we are not confident of our freedom, then we are not free.
Rushdie goes on to chronicle the martyrs of writing, who have had a great deal to be afraid of because of their writing (a point made in responses to Parks’s blog as well).
You will even find people who will give you the argument that censorship is good for artists because it challenges their imagination. This is like arguing that if you cut a man’s arms off you can praise him for learning to write with a pen held between his teeth. Censorship is not good for art, and it is even worse for artists themselves. The work of Ai Weiwei survives; the artist himself has an increasingly difficult life. The poet Ovid was banished to the Black Sea by a displeased Augustus Caesar, and spent the rest of his life in a little hellhole called Tomis, but the poetry of Ovid has outlived the Roman Empire. The poet Mandelstam died in one of Stalin’s labor camps, but the poetry of Mandelstam has outlived the Soviet Union. The poet Lorca was murdered in Spain, by Generalissimo Franco’s goons, but the poetry of Lorca has outlived the fascistic Falange. So perhaps we can argue that art is stronger than the censor, and perhaps it often is. Artists, however, are vulnerable.
This is powerful stuff, though I’ll admit I started feeling like there was an uncomfortable contradiction in Rushdie’s presentation. Although Rushdie’s ostensible thesis is that “censorship is not good for art,” he goes on after this turn to celebrate the dangerousness of writing. According to Rushdie, all great art challenges the status quo and unsettles convention:
Great art, or, let’s just say, more modestly, original art is never created in the safe middle ground, but always at the edge. Originality is dangerous. It challenges, questions, overturns assumptions, unsettles moral codes, disrespects sacred cows or other such entities. It can be shocking, or ugly, or, to use the catch-all term so beloved of the tabloid press, controversial. And if we believe in liberty, if we want the air we breathe to remain plentiful and breathable, this is the art whose right to exist we must not only defend, but celebrate. Art is not entertainment. At its very best, it’s a revolution.
It remains unclear to me how Rushdie can have it both ways. If Art is going to be revolutionary, it cannot possibly be safe and it cannot possibly but expect the efforts to censor. If there is no resistance to art, then there is no need for revolution, everything will be the safe middle ground, and there will be no possibility of great art.
I am not sure of which way Rushdie wants it, and I wonder what my readers think. Does great art exist apart from resistance and opposition? If it does not, does it make sense to long for a world in which such opposition does not exist? Does Rushdie want to be edgy and pushing boundaries, but to do so safely? Is this a contradictory and impossible desire?
You can also listen to Rushdie’s lecture below: