On the shoulders of giants

In December 2001 Salman Rushdie visited Porto for one of the final lectures in a series of conferences about the “Future of the Future”.  In 2001 Porto was, with Rotterdam, European Culture Capital  and the discussion of a post future at the end of a year that forever changed the collective perception of our present seemed appropriate. “The Middle Ages trying to destroy the Third Millennium”, he said.

Three months after 9/11 and 12 years after the fatwa on him, Mr. Rushdie walked alone in Porto. No bodyguards. Carefree.

On the last week before Christmas shops in downtown Porto stay open at night for people like me who can’t plan their shopping in advance. As part of our mini-tradition, me and my best friend went out for some late night shopping that December of 2001. We stopped at a deserted Café Majestic for tea. In 2001 there were no lists of “the most beautiful coffee shops in the world”, there were no lines of tourists at the door, there was no Maître d’ trying to bring some kind of order to the process of sitting down. In 2001  you could actually go in and sit and be almost alone. It was late and the gentleman sitting at the far end table by the piano paid his check and got up to leave. As he made his way to the door, Mr. Rushdie walked past our table and looked at the incredulity on my face and winked and left. I was brought up in a house of books, my father is a Literature professor and  meeting or just seeing one of these “giants”in person, still makes me feel as over the moon as a teenage girl coming face to face with her favourite rock star would.

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In June 2010 Sir Salman Rushdie was the keynote speaker at a conference I was attending in Kansas City and spoke about freedom and the media and the power of Literature and novelists  “who are able to probe the truth without being beholden to facts.” After his plenary address, I and few hundred others waited in line to have our books signed. Holding my copy of The Ground Beneath Her Feet, I approached his table and didn’t ask him if he remembered that night in December 2001. That was the fantasy conversation going on in my mind.

These line focus on Salman Rushdie because of a cold night in December 2001. They could easily be about Borges, Coetzee, Murakami, Pessoa, Auster, Cortazar, Sontag or many others. These are my superheroes. The ones with no x-ray vision but that are able to pierce into your soul and help you discover yourself. The ones that can’t fly but still make your imagination soar and plant the seed of invincibility in your heart. The fearless ones that keep fighting for their truth in a world that so many times keeps telling us that intellectualism is frivolous as if, paraphrasing Orwell, the only goal was to keep ourselves alive when the ultimate objective should be to retain our humanity. Or as Flexner, ten year before 1984 was published, questioned whether “there would be sufficient opportunity for a full life if the world were emptied of some of the useless things that give it spiritual significance; in other words, whether our conception of what is useful may not have become too narrow to be adequate to the roaming and capricious possibilities of the human spirit.”

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And because I am not superhero myself, I will keep borrowing the words

The old idea of the intellectual as the one who speaks truth to power is still worth holding on to. Tyrants fear the truth of books because it’s a truth that’s in hock to nobody. It’s a single artist’s unfettered vision of the world. They fear it even more because it’s incomplete, because the act of reading completes it, so that the book’s truth is slightly different in each reader’s inner world. These are the true revolutions of literature, these invisible, intimate communions of strangers, these tiny revolutions inside each reader’s imagination. And the enemies of the imagination, all the different goon squads of gods and power, want to shut these revolutions down and can’t. Not even the author of a book can know exactly what effect his book will have. But good books do have effects and some of these effects are powerful and all of them, thank goodness, are impossible to predict in advance. Literature is a loose cannon. This is a very good thing.

Salman Rushdie, The Power of the Pen

Such is the power of Literature and the super power of writers. They may not be the kind of hero that braves  against the violence of the natural world but they are of the same kind of the ones that “do the useless, brave, noble, the divinely foolish and the very wisest things that are done by man. And what they prove to themselves and to others is that man is no mere creature of his habits, no mere automaton in his routine, no mere cog in the collective machine, but that in the dust of which he is made there is also fire, lighted now and then by great winds from the sky!

References

George Orwell, 1984

Abraham Flexner, The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

Salman Rushdie, The Power of the Pen

Walter Lippmann, Amelia Earhart – Herald Tribune – 7/8/37

 

Superhero

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