Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Kathleen Tarr: On Salman Rushdie and the Necessity of the Imaginative Dimension

This is the fourth and last post in the series from our September guest author. Thank you, Kathy Tarr!

Before Netflix and YouTube, and before I could choose from a thousand cable channels, there was public television. I tuned in to anything Bill Moyers did on PBS, and especially recall his acclaimed poetry series, and his program on “Faith and Reason when it aired in 2006, how enthralling it was to see and hear Salman Rushdie being interviewed.

By the time “Faith & Reason” was produced Rushdie’s life had “normalized”—the decade he spent in hiding had finally ended. In 1989, a fatwa calling for the writer’s execution had been issued by the Ayatolla Khomeini, Supreme Leader of Iran, over the publication of Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses. To Muslim extremists, in their extremely literal interpretation of the Koran, the novel was blasphemous to the prophet Muhammad. But as Rushdie would admit years later, hardly anyone in the Muslim world had actually read The Satanic Verses at the time it was first published as the book wasn’t widely available in the Middle East.

In 1989 after first hearing the news about the fatwa, I was probably like most Americans, naïve and in a definite intellectual quandary about why Muslims had reacted so violently to a work of fiction, and decades later why the controversies continued over a Danish cartoon, and a few years beyond that, to where we are today with groups of radical Muslims burning down the U.S. Embassy in Libya in reaction to a home-grown, pathetic film that hardly anyone had seen or would have known about before it ended up on YouTube.

In my life time, religion had spurred the Irish Republican Army to detonate bombs, it had caused conflicts in Bosnia, it had driven planes into the World Trade Center towers, and it had destroyed U.S. embassies. Growing up in a secular household without any formal religious background or education, the events of the day provoked me to read more religious history, something I had previously not taken much of an interest in. What was a fatwa?  What is Islam?  How could peaceful, religious people promote killing and acts of terror to protect honor?

Rushdie, who personally claims no religious faith or affiliation, spoke candidly to Moyers about the power of art and literature. We need to understand one another through the “imaginative dimension” the British Indian writer said in that welcome voice of erudition and reason.

“All writing began as religious writing and all art began as sacred,” he pointed out.  He was referring to gods, goddesses, the Old Testament, Greek sculpture, cave paintings, the master craftsman of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance painters, to name a few historical examples.

As the “Faith and Reason” conversation continued, Rushdie calmly stated: “Religion has been both poison in the blood and the muse of inspiration.” The quandary, exactly!

Rushdie’s newly-released memoir, Joseph Anton, has catapulted him into the world news again. (In the underground he assumed the alias of Joseph Anton, an appropriation of the first names of two of his favorite authors: Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov.) The memoir covers his years of forced exile and disguise, the danger and difficulties he endured.

A few weeks ago, Rushdie appeared on Bill Maher with a panel of distinguished journalists. (I know this because I found the clip on YouTube.) Maher and his guests talked about the tragedy in Benghazi and other events involving Muslim violence and extremism. A fearless Rushdie said he believes Islamic leaders try to politically manipulate their people through religion.

It’s “politically manufactured rage” to incite religious mobs, to distort facts and to inflame anti-Western sentiment. (News sources are now reporting that the Libyan attacks were pre-meditated acts of terrorism.)

As you would expect, Rushdie kept a journal during his years of living in the “strange dislocation of identity” when security guards had to protect him from very real death threats and life itself had become a script for a high-chase, thriller. It was important to correctly remember the details of what happened during the turmoil. In writing Joseph Anton, he wanted to write a nonfiction book in the vein of The Right Stuff or In Cold Blood, true stories told with a blend of in-depth reportage and with the storytelling techniques of a fiction writer.

I haven’t yet read Joseph Anton, by Sir Rushdie (yes, he was knighted for service to literature), but I plan to.  My “spiritual” reading path of-late has led me to an eclectic assortment of books and resources. Some of them I’ve turned to for spiritual sustenance, and some purely for information, background, and literary pleasure.

The list I’ve drawn together is in no way religiously preferential or definitive as a personal “top ten” or anything.  And it certainly doesn’t come from any expert. Due to space limitations, I left off many of my “old-time” favorites, i.e., Russian novels, Herman Hesse’s, Siddhartha which I first read at age 19, and some books mentioned in my previous posts. Others may be missing because they seemed too obvious to mention. 

In non-denominational, democratically open, religiously tolerant eyes, here are a few resources I wanted to share:

Best American Spiritual Writing* (annual series, edited by Philip Zaleski)

(*Note: The 2011 edition is introduced by Billy Collins. See the 2000 edition for a listing of the Top 100 Spiritual Books of the Twentieth Century chosen by a committee of experts. To name a few of their top ten: Black Elk Speaks; Martin Buber’s I and Thou; T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets; Abraham Joshua Heschel’s God in Search of Man; and Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.)

The History of World Religions (Huston Smith)
Dakota and Cloister Walk (Kathleen Norris)
The Orthodox Church (Timothy Ware)
The God Delusion (Richard Dawkins)
Life is a Miracle (Wendell Berry)
Waiting for God (Simone Weil)
Concerning the Spiritual in Art (Wassily Kandinsky)
For the Time Being (Annie Dillard)
Going on Faith: Writing as a Spiritual Act (edited by William Zinnser)
The Way of the Spirit  (Linda Hogan)
Essays by Brian Doyle (found in Portland and Orion Magazine)

The Soul is Here for Its Own Joy (edited by Robert Bly)

Mary Oliver New & Selected Poems
The Essential Rumi (Coleman Barks & John Moyne)
A Book of Luminous Things (Czeslaw Milosz)
Zen Poems (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poetry)
Anna Akhmatova (biography of the Russian poetess by Roberta Reeder)

Image Journal

Weavings Journal
Portland (as in U of Portland) Magazine
Notre Dame Magazine
Shambhala Sun 

Loyola Press

Paraclete Press
Pendle Hill Publications (Quaker)
HarperOne San Francisco
New Directions

Kathleen Tarr is a long-time Alaskan and was the first program coordinator of UAA’s new low-residency MFA Program from 2007-2011. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Alaska Airlines Magazine, Cirque, 49 Writers, TriQuarterly, and is forthcoming in The Sewanee Review. She is a founding member of 49 Writers and has taught creative writing at UAA. She earned her MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Pittsburgh.


Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

Kathy -- thanks for all of your posts and especially for this very helpful reading and resource list. I already own "Cloister Walk" -- on my TBR bookshelf, and you've reminded me that I really should read Rushdie's memoir. Thanks and good writing to you!

Anonymous said...

Great posts this month, thanks to Kathy for good thoughts and resources.

I have to add a few:
Meister Ekhart
Tao te Ching
Narrow Road to the Interior (Basho)
An Interrupted Life (Etty Hillesum)
Man's Search for Meaning (Victor Frankl)
Buddhism Without Beliefs ( and other by Stephen Batchelor)

Could go on and on....

Bill Sherwonit said...

For reasons I can't entirely explain, I lately find myself drawn to spiritual matters and writings (including the great poetry anthology THE RAG AND BONE SHOP OF THE HEART: POEMS FOR MEN, co-edited by Robert Bly, James Hillman and Michael Meade), so I add my thanks to Kathy for the reading/resources list and especially your thoughtful postings on spiritual writing and related topics.