Midweek Musings & Mentions
Salman Rushdie: If Peace was a Prize
Hello dear readers!
I’m back from a transformational trip to Peru and will share some of that goodness this Sunday… but in the meantime, my son made me aware of Salman Rushdie’s acceptance speech for the German Book Trade’s Peace Prize.
Givenexperience with publishing in Germany, I’m struck by the irony that any German group associated with books feels qualified to hand out peace awards, but Rushdie’s words are not to be missed. I don’t agree with all of his characterizations, either, but he speaks about art and freedom — two of my favorite topics — with eloquence and grace, and his stories evoke much deep reflection.
I’ve included the audio in case you prefer to listen.
See you Sunday.
Salman Rushdie: If Peace was a Prize
Thank you all for being here today – Lord Mayor Mike Josef (what wonderful introductory words), Robert Habeck and his colleagues from the government and the parliaments, and of course all of you who have come from near and far so I can stand here before you. I am immensely grateful for this great prize, which I have known of and respected for a long time without ever thinking it might come in my direction, and whose list of previous winners – some of whom are here today - is without compare. My deepest thanks to the members of the Peace Prize jury under the chairpersonship of Karin Schmidt-Friderichs. My thanks also to Daniel, Daniel Kehlmann, whom I admire so much as a writer. I’m so happy that he interrupted his own book publication schedule and made time to be here today to deliver his beautiful Laudation. I also want to pay my respects to the building in which we are gathered, which is a symbol of freedom. It’s a privilege to be asked to speak within these walls.
And now, to begin with, let me tell you a story. There were once two jackals, Karataka, whose name meant “Cautious,” and Damanaka, whose name meant “Daring,” They were in the second rank of the retinue of the lion king Pingalaka, but they were ambitious and cunning. One day the lion king was frightened by a roaring noise in the forest which the jackals knew was the voice of a runaway bull, nothing for a lion to be scared of. They visited the bull and persuaded him to come before the lion and declare his friendship. The bull was pretty scared of the lion, but he agreed, and so the lion king and the bull became friends, and the jackals were promoted to the first rank by the grateful monarch. Unfortunately, the lion and the bull began to spend so much time lost in conversation that the lion stopped hunting and so the animals in the retinue were starving. So the jackals persuaded the king that the bull was plotting against him, and they persuaded the bull that the lion was planning to kill him, and so the lion and the bull fought, and the bull was killed, and there was plenty of meat for everyone to eat, and the jackals rose even higher in the king’s regard because they had warned him of the plot, and they rose in the regard of everyone else in the forest, except, of course, for the poor bull, but he was dead, so it didn’t matter, and he was providing everyone with an excellent lunch.
This, very approximately, is the frame-story of the first and longest of the five parts of the book of animal fables known as the “Panchatantra,” titled “On Causing Dissension Among Friends.” The third part, “War and Peace,” a title later used by another well-known book, describes a conflict between the crows and the owls, in which a treacherous crow’s deceitfulness leads to the defeat and destruction of the owls. I used a version of this story in my novel “Victory City.”
What I have always found fascinating – or actually attractive – about the Panchatantra stories is that many of them do not moralize. They do not preach goodness or virtue or modesty or honesty or restraint. Cunning and strategy and amorality often overcome all opposition. The good guys don’t always win. (It’s not even always clear who the good guys are.) For this reason they seem, to the modern reader, uncannily contemporary, because we, the modern readers, live in a world of amorality and shamelessness and treachery and cunning, in which bad guys everywhere have often won.
“Where do stories come from?” the boy Haroun asks his storyteller father in my novel “Haroun and the Sea of Stories” and the most important part of the answer is, they come from other stories, from the ocean of stories upon which we are all sailing. That’s not the only point of origin, it should be said. There’s also, of course, the storyteller’s own experience and opinion of life, and there are also the times he lives in; but most stories have some sort of roots in other stories, maybe in many stories, which combine, conjoin, and change, and so become new stories. This is the process that we call imagination.
I have always been inspired by mythologies, folktales and fairytales, not because they contain miracles – talking animals, magic fishes – but because they encapsulate truth. For example, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, which was an important inspiration for my novel “The Ground beneath her Feet,” can be told in fewer than one hundred words, and yet it contains, in compressed form, mighty questions about the relationship between art, love, and death. It asks: can love, with the help of art, overcome death? But perhaps it answers: doesn’t death, in spite of art, overcome love? Or else it tells us that art takes on the subjects of love and death and transcends both by turning them into immortal stories. Those hundred words contain enough profundity to inspire a thousand novels.
The storehouse of myth is rich indeed. The Greeks, of course, but also the Norse Prose and Poetic Edda. Aesop, Homer, the “Ring of the Nibelungs,” the Celtic legends, and the three great Matters of Europe: the Matter of France, the body of stories around the figure of Charlemagne, the Matter of Rome, regarding that empire, and the Matter of Britain, the legends surrounding the figure of King Arthur. Here in Germany you have the folktales collected by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm. However in India, before I heard those stories, I grew up with the “Panchatantra,” and when I find myself, as I do at this moment, in between writing projects, it is to these crafty, devious jackals and crows and their like that I return, to ask them what story I should tell next. So far, they have never let me down. Everything I need to know about goodness and its opposite, and about liberty and captivity, and about conflict, can be found in these stories. For love, I have to say, it is necessary to look elsewhere.
And here I stand today to receive a peace prize and so I ask myself, what does the world of fable have to tell us about peace?
The news is not very good. Homer tells us that peace comes after a decade of war when everyone we care about is dead and Troy has been destroyed. The Norse myths tell us that peace comes after the “Ragnarøk,” the Twilight of the Gods, when the gods destroy their traditional foes but are also destroyed by them. The German word for this event, “Götterdämmerung,” is much more exact than the English “Twilight.” The Mahabharata and Ramayana, too, tell us that peace comes at a bloody price. And the Panchatantra tells us that peace – the death of the owls and the victory of the crows – is only achieved through an act of treachery. And to abandon the legends of the past for a moment to look at this summer’s twin legends – I’m referring of course to the movie double-header known as “Barbenheimer” – the film “Oppenheimer” reminds us that peace only came after two atom bombs, Little Boy and Fat Man, were dropped on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; while the box-office monster called “Barbie” makes clear that unbroken peace and undiluted happiness, in a world where every day is perfect and every night is girls’ night, only exist in pink plastic.
And here we are gathered to speak of peace when war is raging not very far away, a war born of one man’s tyranny and greed for power and conquest, a sad narrative that will not be unfamiliar to a German audience; and another bitter conflict has exploded in Israel and the Gaza Strip. Peace, right now, feels like a fantasy born of a narcotic smoked in a pipe. Even the meaning of the word is a thing on which the combatants cannot agree. Peace, for Ukraine, means more than a cessation of hostilities. It means, as it must mean, a restoration of seized territory and a guarantee of its sovereignty. Peace, for Ukraine’s enemy, means a Ukrainian surrender, and a recognition that territories lost are lost. The same word, with two incompatible definitions. Peace, for Israel and the Palestinians, feels even further away.
Peace is a hard thing to make, and a hard thing to find.
And yet we yearn for it, do we not, not only the great peace that comes at the end of war, but also the little peace of our private lives, to feel ourselves at peace with our lives, and with the little world around us. Walt Whitman thought of peace as the sun that shines down upon us all every day:
O sun of real peace! O hastening light!
O free and extatic! O what I here, preparing, warble for!
O the sun of the world will ascend, dazzling, and take his height –
and you too, O my Ideal, will surely ascend!
Whitman’s “ideal” was peace. So let us agree with him, gathered here in this beautiful place, that hard as it is to find, impossible as it may feel to sustain, this thing which is so hard to define is, in spite of everything, one of our great values, a thing ardently to pursue.
My parents thought so when they named me “Salman,” a name whose root is the noun “salamat,” meaning peace. So “Salman” is “peaceful.” And as a matter of fact, I was an extremely quiet, well-behaved, studious boy, peaceful by name, peaceful by nature. The trouble began later. But I’ve always thought of myself in that way. Even if my adult life has had other ideas.
If my work has been influenced by fables, there is also something decidedly fabulist about a peace prize. I like the idea that peace itself might in fact be the prize, that this jury has something magical, even fantastical, about it – a jury of wise benefactors so infinitely powerful that, once a year and no more, they are able to bestow upon a single individual, and no more, one year’s award of peace. Peace itself, true, blessed, perfect peace, not trivial contentment, not paix ordinaire but a fine vintage of Pax Frankfurtiana, a whole year’s supply of it, delivered to your door, elegantly bottled. That’s an award I’d be very happy to receive. I am even thinking of writing a story about it, “The Man Who Received Peace as a Prize.”
I imagine it taking place in a small country town, at the village fair, maybe. There are the usual competitions, for the best pies and cakes, the best watermelons, the best vegetables; for guessing the weight of the farmer’s pig; for beauty, for song, and for dancing. A pedlar in a threadbare frock-coat arrives in a gaily painted horse-drawn wagon, looking a little like the itinerant confidence trickster Professor Marvel in “The Wizard of Oz,” and says that if he is allowed to judge the contests he will hand out the best rewards anyone has ever seen. “Best prizes!” he cries. “Roll up! Roll up!” And so they do roll up, the simple country folk, and the pedlar hands out small bottles to the various prizewinners, bottles labeled “Truth,” “Beauty,” “Freedom,” “Goodness,” and “Peace.” The villagers are disappointed. They would have preferred cash. And in the year following the fair, there are strange occurrences. After drinking the liquid in his bottle, the winner of the Truth prize begins to annoy and alienate his fellow villagers by telling them exactly what he really thinks of them. The Beauty, after drinking her award, becomes more beautiful, at least in her own opinion, but also insufferably vain. Freedom’s licentious behavior shocks many of her fellow villagers, who conclude that her bottle must have contained some powerful intoxicant. Goodness declares himself to be a saint and of course after that everyone finds him unbearable. And Peace just sits under a tree and smiles. As the village is so full of troubles, this smile is extremely irritating, as well. A year later when the fair is held again, the pedlar returns, but is driven out of town. “Go away,” the villagers cry. “We don’t want those sorts of prizes. A rosette, a cheese, a piece of ham, a red ribbon with a shiny medal hanging from it – these are normal prizes. We want those instead.”
I may or may not write that story. At the very least it may serve lightheartedly to illustrate a serious point, which is that concepts which we think we can all agree to be virtues can come across as vices, depending on your point of view, and on their effects in the real world. In Italo Calvino’s book “The Cloven Viscount,” Il Visconte Dimezzato, the hero, is vertically bisected by a cannon ball during a battle. Both halves survive, their wounds sewn together by an expert doctor, and after that it turns out that the cloven viscount, has been bisected morally as well as physically; one of the two halves is now impossibly good, while the other has become impossibly evil. However, it turns out that both halves do an equal amount of damage in the world, and are equally dreadful to deal with, until they are sewn back together by the same expert doctor, and become, once again, physically singular but morally plural, which is to say, human.
My fate, over the past many years, has been to drink from the bottle marked Freedom, and therefore to write without any restraint those books which came to my mind to write, and now, as I am on the verge of publishing my twenty-second volume, I have to say that on twenty-one of those twenty-two occasions the elixir has been well worth drinking, and it has given me a good life doing the only work I ever wanted to do. On the remaining occasion, namely the publication of my fourth novel, I learned – many of us learned – that freedom can create an equal and opposite reaction from the forces of unfreedom, and I learned, too, how to face the consequences of that reaction, and to continue, as best I could, to be the unfettered artist I had always wanted to be. I learned, too, that many other writers and artists, exercising their freedom, also faced the forces of unfreedom, and that, in short, freedom can be a dangerous wine to drink. But that made it more necessary, more essential, more important to defend, and I have done my best, along with a host of others, to defend it. I confess there have been times when I’d rather have drunk the Peace elixir and spent my life sitting under a tree wearing a blissful smile, but that was not the bottle the pedlar handed me.
We live in a time I did not think I would see in my lifetime, a time when freedom – and in particular, freedom of expression, without which the world of books would not exist – is everywhere under attack from reactionary, authoritarian, populist, demagogic, half-educated, narcissistic, careless voices; when places of education and libraries are subject to hostility and censorship; and when extremist religion and bigoted ideologies have begun to intrude in areas of life in which they do not belong. And there are also progressive voices being raised in favor of a new kind of bien-pensant censorship, one which appears virtuous, and which many people, especially young people, have begun to see as a virtue. So freedom is under pressure from the left as well as the right, the young as well as the old. This is something new, and made more complicated by our new tools of communication, the internet, on which well-designed pages of malevolent lies sit side by side with the truth and it is difficult for many people to tell which is which; and our social media, where the idea of freedom is every day abused to permit, very often, a kind of online mob rule, which the billionaire owners of these platforms seem increasingly willing to encourage, and to profit by.
What do we do about free speech when it is so widely abused? The answer is that we should still do, with renewed vigor, what we have always needed to do: to answer bad speech with better speech, to counter false narratives with better narratives, to answer hate with love, and to believe that the truth can still succeed even in an age of lies. We must defend it fiercely, and define it as broadly as possible, so yes, we should of course defend speech which offends us, otherwise we are not defending free expression at all. Publishers are amongst the most important guardians of freedom. Thank you for doing your job, and please do it even better and more bravely, and let a thousand and one voices speak in a thousand and one different ways.
To quote the poet Cavafy, “the barbarians are coming today,” and what I do know is that the answer to philistinism is art, the answer to barbarianism is civilization, and in a culture war – such as we are in – it may be that artists of all sorts – filmmakers, actors, singers, yes, and practitioners of the art the world’s book people gather in Frankfurt each year to promote and to celebrate, the ancient art of the book – can still, together, turn the barbarians away from the gates.
Before I conclude these remarks, I would like to thank all those in Germany and beyond who raised their voices in solidarity and friendship after the attack on me some fourteen months ago. That support meant a great deal to me personally, and to my family, and it showed us how passionate and how widespread the belief in free speech still is, all over the world. The outrage that was expressed after the August 12th attack was in sympathy with me, but it was also, more importantly, born of people’s horror – your horror - that the core value of a free society had been so viciously and ignorantly assaulted. I am most grateful for the flood of friendship that came my way, and will do my best to continue to fight for what you all rose up to defend.
However, as I’m going home with this peace prize, I will also take the time to drink the elixir, and sit peacefully under a tree wearing a blissful, beatific smile. Thank you all.
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