Rushdie explains why defying the gods makes us human

Granting reason the rank of goddess and worshiping her, as the Jacobins did after the proclamation of the First French Republic, was perhaps not the best way to vindicate common sense about divine power.

18 August 2022 Thursday 21:44
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Rushdie explains why defying the gods makes us human

Granting reason the rank of goddess and worshiping her, as the Jacobins did after the proclamation of the First French Republic, was perhaps not the best way to vindicate common sense about divine power. Nor did Nietzsche's proclamation of the death of God a century later and the accompanying moral relativism help precisely to replace religious sentiment with a new secular morality.

The duality between reason and faith, man and god, has accompanied human beings throughout their history and their civilizations, despite the fact that in some societies and some religions –or religious tendencies– it continues to be a taboo subject and simply bringing it up can pose a risk to life.

This is what the writer of Indian origin Salman Rushdie suffered after publishing The Satanic Verses in 1988, a work of fiction considered by many Muslims as a mockery of Islam, the Koran and its prophet. The United Kingdom, where the writer was based, was the focus of protests led by a large part of the Muslim community, which spread to other countries and included burnings of books and bookshops and attacks with explosives. The work is still banned more than three decades later in various countries, including constitutionally secular India.

After the condemnation of various Muslim religious leaders, from Shiism, a fatwa by Ayatollah Ruholá Khomeini pronounced in February 1989 urged any Muslim to execute Rushdie or any other person involved in the publication and dissemination of the work. The author's death still has a reward estimated at around three million dollars.

The religious condemnation has already claimed the life of the Japanese translator of the work, and the Norwegian, Italian and Turkish translators, as well as a publisher, have also suffered assassination attempts. The protests in Bombay ended with ten fatalities and the fire aimed at killing the Turkish translator in Sivas in 1993 ended with 37 fatalities that had nothing to do with the work. Likewise, two religious leaders of the Muslim community who did not condemn the work were also assassinated in Brussels.

A trail of death and barbarism that Rushdie tried to stop in vain asking for forgiveness. He didn't do it anymore. Although he refused to delve into the controversy, he has been defending since then and until the attack that was about to end his life in New York on August 12 the legitimacy –and duty– to criticize any religion and established power based on the without reason.

He did so in the speech he gave during the graduation ceremony at Bard College in New York in 1996. A widely known and commented text in Anglo-Saxon academic circles in which Rushdie claims a humanism that must be above any blind submission to power of institutions or gods. He does so by appealing to the clashes between humans and gods from Greek and Roman mythology, so as not to add fuel to the fire. It is the speech that we offer in its entirety.

“Class of 1996 Alumni: I see in the paper that the University of Southampton on Long Island got Kermit the Frog to give this year's commencement address. Unfortunately, they have to settle for me. The only Muppet connection I can boast of is that my former editor at Alfred Knopf was also the editor of that important self-help text, Miss Piggy's Guide to Life.

"Once I asked him what it was like to work with such a big star and he reverently replied: 'Salman, the little pig was divine.' In England, where I went to university, we don't do things this way on graduation day, so I've been doing some research on the graduation ceremony and its traditions.

“The first American friend I asked told me that in her graduating year, not at this university, she and her classmates were so outraged by the choice of speaker, who I guess I shouldn't name…Okay, it was Jeane Kirkpatrick , which they boycotted with a sit-in. It is a considerable relief, therefore, to see that all of you are here.

“As for me, I graduated from Cambridge University in 1968, the great year of the student protest, and I must confess that I almost didn't make it. It is a story that has nothing to do with politics or demonstrations. It is, rather, a bizarre story with a moral about a thick sauce with onions.

”It begins a few nights before my graduation day, when some anonymous genius decided to redecorate my room, in my absence, throwing a bucket full of the sauce with onions that I told them about on walls and furniture, not to mention my record player and my clothes .

”In that age-old tradition of fairness and justice that Cambridge colleges pride themselves on, my college instantly held me solely responsible for the mess, ignored all my disclaimers, and informed me that unless I paid for damages before the ceremony I would not be allowed to graduate. It was the first, but sadly not the last time I was wrongfully accused of spreading shit.

”I paid and was therefore declared fit to receive my title. In a defiant spirit, possibly influenced by my recent experience with salsa, I went to the ceremony wearing brown shoes and was quickly pulled away from the parade of my duly black-shod companions and ordered to return to my room to change.

”I am not sure why people in brown shoes were considered to be improperly dressed, but once again I was facing a sentence that could not be appealed against. Once again I relented, ran to change my shoes, got back to the parade just in time and finally, after these vicissitudes, when it was my turn, I was asked to hold a university official by the little finger and follow him slowly to where the Vice Chancellor sat on a regal throne.

“As he directed, I knelt at his feet, raised my hands, palms together, in a gesture of supplication, and begged him in Latin to give me the title, for which, I could not help thinking, I had worked so hard. for three years, supported by my family and at considerable cost.

“I remember being advised to keep my hands high above my head, in case the old vice-chancellor, leaning forward to grab them, should fall from his big chair on top of me. I did what I was advised. The old man did not fall and, also in Latin, he finally gave me a Bachelor of Arts degree.

”Looking back I am a little horrified by my passivity, although it is difficult to see what else I could have done. I could not have paid, not changed my shoes, not been on my knees begging for my degree. But I preferred to give up and get the title.

“I have become more stubborn since then. I have come to the conclusion, which I now confess to you, that I was wrong to commit myself, to make a bad deal with injustice, no matter how persuasive the reasons. Injustice, today, still evokes in my mind the memory of salsa. Injustice, to me, is a brownish, lumpy liquid, and it smells acrid, of tears and onions.

”Injustice is the feeling of running back to your room, full speed, at the last minute, to change your outlaw brown shoes. It is being forced to beg, on your knees, in a dead language, for what is rightfully yours. That is what I learned the day of my graduation, that is the message that I have extracted from the parables of the unknown sauce delivery man, the banned shoes and the unstable vice chancellor on his throne and that I transmit to you today.

“First, if, as you go through life, someone accuses you of what might be called aggravated salsa abuse – and they will, I'm sure they will – and you're innocent, don't accept the blame. Second: those who reject you because they are wearing the wrong shoes are not worthy of acceptance. And third: kneel, before anyone. They must defend their rights. I like to think of that University of Cambridge where I was so happy for three wonderful years and from which I took such positive things and I hope that your years at Bard have been so happy.

”Students of the class of 1996: we are here to celebrate with you one of the great days of your lives. We participate today in the rite of passage that will free you from this life of preparation to send you to that new life for which you are now more prepared than anyone else. Before you open the door to the future, I would like to share with you some information about the extraordinary institution you are leaving, which will explain why it is such a special pleasure for me to be with you today.

”In 1989, a few weeks after the Iranian mullahs threatened me, the rector of Bard, through my literary agent, approached me and asked if I would consider accepting a place at this university. More than a job, they assured me that I could find, here in Annandale, among the Bard community, many friends and a safe haven where I could live and work.

”Sadly, I was unable, in those difficult days, to accept that brave offer, but I have never forgotten that at a time when red alert signs were flashing all over the world and all manner of people and institutions were running scared, Bard College made the opposite: he came to me, in intellectual solidarity and human concern, and made no lofty speeches, but a concrete offer of help.

“I hope everyone is proud that Bard quietly, without fanfare, made a principled gesture at such a time. I am certainly extremely proud to be awarded the honorary title of Bard and to have had the rare privilege of addressing you today.

”Arrogance, according to the Greeks, was the sin of defying the gods. And she could, if you were very unlucky, unleash against you the terrifying and vengeful figure of the goddess Nemesis, who carried in one hand an apple branch and, in the other, the Wheel of Fortune, which would one day turn until the end. inevitable moment of revenge.

Since I have been, in my time, accused not only of abuse of salsa and wearing brown shoes, but also of arrogance, and since I have come to believe that such defiance is an inevitable and essential aspect of what we call freedom, I believe entitled to offer advice. For in the years to come they will find themselves facing gods of all kinds, gods great and small, gods corporate and disembodied, all demanding to be worshiped and obeyed: the myriad deities of money and power, of convention and custom, who they will seek to limit and control your thoughts and lives.

”Challenge them. That's my advice. Because, as the myths tell us, it is by challenging the gods that the human being has best expressed his humanity. The Greeks tell many stories of fights between us and the gods. Arachne, the great artist of the loom, contrasted her weaving and embroidery skills with those of the goddess of wisdom herself, Minerva or Pallas Athena, and brazenly chose to weave versions of only those scenes that revealed the errors and weaknesses of the gods, such as the rape of Europe, Leda and the swan. Therefore, due to her irreverence, due to what we would now call art and impudence, the goddess transformed her into a spider.

"Queen Niobe of Thebes told her people not to worship Latona, the mother of Diana and Apollo, saying: 'What madness is this! Prefer beings that you never saw to those that are before your eyes!’. Because of this feeling, which today we would call humanism, the gods murdered her children and her husband and she metamorphosed into a rock, petrified with pain, from which an endless river of tears flows.

”Prometheus the titan stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind. For this reason, due to what we would now call the desire for progress, for improving scientific and technological capabilities, he remains tied to a rock while a great bird eternally gnaws at his liver, which regenerates as it is consumed.

”The interesting thing is that the gods do not come out well from these stories. If Arachne is too proud when she seeks to compete with a goddess, she is only an artist's pride, coupled with the bravery of youth; while Minerva, who could afford to be nice, is simply vindictive. The story increases Arachne's shadow, as they say, and decreases Minerva's. It is Arachne who gains, from history, a measure of immortality.

And the cruelty of the gods to Niobe's family proves his point. Who could prefer the rule of such cruel gods to self-government, the rule of men and women, flawed as it may be? Once again, the gods are weakened by their show of strength, while the humans are made stronger, even if they are destroyed. And tormented Prometheus, of course. Prometheus, with his gift of fire, is the greatest hero of all.

“It is men and women who have made the world, and they have made it in spite of their gods. The message of the myths is not the one that the gods want us to learn, that we should behave and know our place, but exactly the opposite. It is that we must be guided by our nature. Our worst nature can, it is true, make us arrogant, venal, corrupt or selfish; but at our best, we, meaning you, can and will be playful, adventurous, cheeky, creative, curious, demanding, competitive, loving, and challenging.

"Don't bow your head. Challenge the gods. You will be amazed at how many of them turn out to have feet of clay. Let yourself be guided, if possible, by its best natural conditions. Good luck and congratulations to all. ”



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