Editorial: Rushdie’s Comments Highlight Potential of Literary Thinking

The Editorial Board

“How do you write about a world that makes no sense?” Sir Salman Rushdie’s question nearly faded into the fabric of his convocation speech — partly an account of literature’s functions through history, partly a commentary on modern politics and media from an internationally meta-renowned storyteller (excuse the cheesy literary joke: one of his novels, Midnight’s Children, won the Booker of Bookers). His is a question constantly faced by journalists, but also by all literate people in this sprawling, multifaceted, globalizing society of ours.

Yes, Rushdie deserves his reputation as a great figure of our times, but for anyone who has read or heard him, it’s clear that this isn’t a function of his fame but rather the way he presents and provokes thoughts about our times. Using no statistics or terms borrowed from social sciences, no mention of “class warfare” or partisan affiliations, his speech broke down the issues currently filling the pages of newspapers in a style usually relegated to analytical English papers. Our conflicts are a competition of narratives, he suggested, between the members of a species that has storytelling as its defining trait. Our protests are an expression of the desire we feel to take on (or let’s say “#occupy”) roles as authors of our own lives, in a world where fates are largely written by the invisible hands of systems designed to consolidate profit and power for a select few.

And isn’t it something literary that is happening? What more evocative image could summarize the current situation in the U.S. than groups of grungy people choosing to pare their lives down to the basics, to create communities made only of cardboard mattresses and each other, against the classical columns of the New York Stock Exchange and the gray concrete of cityscapes all over the nation? As much as the movement is about feeling angry at the state of the Western world and its dehumanizing economics, it is about what it really is to be a human person, with a person’s physical and emotional needs. It is about the multiplicity of meanings and motivations and moral impulses experienced by humans. It is about the absurdity of contemporary society and the conscious choice to imagine another way of being.

This year’s convocation series has gone all out — with Ira Glass, the visit by Sir Rushdie, and the upcoming appearance of Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat this spring — to make a case for humanistic thinking about the complexities of our modern moment. A (good) newspaper aims to report the facts, but we journalists would be remiss to not disclose our own biases. As particularly careful observers of this confusing world, we’re happy that there’s space left for someone to come in and do a little interpreting. We want to hear ideas of what might really be going on in this story, how it connects to broader narratives, and why the way we talk about it matters for finding solutions — or at least laughter — in the face of these problems that exceed any of our individual abilities to fix.

Let it never be said that Oberlin doesn’t virtually overflow with appreciation for the literary. Ours is a campus of book geeks. Yet when it comes time to put our language to use, we tend to try for the “legitimacy” of appeals to logic and bold statements — saying that such-and-such misery is clearly the result of so-and-so mistaken policy; this fits a Marxian paradigm and here’s why; because it’s political, this must be protest rather than expression — instead of seeking the resonant persuasiveness of feeling. Why be unassailable? In a violent and morally ambiguous society, it’s an understandable urge. But another approach is to engage with the world through a form that embraces ambiguity, one that comprehends many meanings at once, one that invites imagination about the alternatives to our current state of affairs and not just how to manipulate the systems we’ve inherited for a vaguely more acceptable future.