Monday, November 26, 2012
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature,
history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
THE BOOK, NOT THE BANNING
I went on far too long this week in considering Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton, so my homily for the week will be very short.
My reflection is simply this – that an author or thinker is persecuted or harassed does not automatically put that author or thinker above criticism.
Salman Rushdie spent a decade dodging the fatwa that was meant to kill him. For that he has (I hope) our profoundest sympathy. But this does not mean that we switch off our critical faculties when we sit down to read a Salman Rushdie novel. I think of my own mixed reactions to the man’s work. Midnight’s Children? Pure delight. The Moor’s Last Sigh? I didn’t engage with it. Fury? Yawn. Joseph Anton? Needed a damned good edit. If I wished to, I could defend each of these reactions at length. They are not born of hostility to Rushdie personally or a lack of feeling for his difficulties. They are reactions to his books. The life is not the same as the work and feeling about the one has to be separated from reaction to the other.
The critic Walter Benjamin was Jewish and was driven to suicide as the Nazis closed in on him. Sympathy for his tragedy and personal circumstances? Of course. Agreement with his critical theories? Not always. He could be pompous and could obfuscate and he never really did work out a proper response to the delight factor in great literature. Sorry to say this, but even being persecuted by the Nazis does not automatically transform one into a saint or infallible sage. Refer last sentence previous paragraph.
So I could fill up pages with further examples.
Of course this is just a variation on my earlier posting “The Song Not the Singer” [see index at right]. How nice or nasty the author of a book is should have nothing to do with our critical response to the book itself.
But there is a particular inflection here. We all feel morally inferior to those who have suffered. We know we should defer to them and treat them with respect. Therefore, we might be inclined to listen to dodgy ideas they express, because their suffering was undeserved.
In his recanting book Radical [see index at right] the former Islamicist extremist Maajid Nawaz praises Amnesty International, which supported him when he was imprisoned. But he notes that – along with many genuinely admirable people, of course - AI’s “prisoners of conscience” also include a number of fanatics who preach destructive creeds. The criterion for being a “prisoner of conscience” is simply that one has not committed violence in furthering a cause. The quality of the cause itself is not questioned.
Result? After release, former AI “prisoners of conscience” are accorded great respect for their sufferings, and this is falsely taken as an endorsement of whatever they are selling. The fanatical ones therefore face less forthright criticism as they go about preaching hatred and so forth.
Their ideologies should no more be judged on the basis of our feelings about their lives than the work of novelists should be.