Rough Notes on Salman Rushdie's First Lecture "Proteus"
When he speaks, Rushdie shows the same fondness for digression that he shows in his novels. For someone with Rushdie's wit, though, these digressions are mostly a good thing. Even Rushdie occasionally seems in love with his own cleverness, though, as I was reminded when he stated the pedestrian and trite fact that "Play it again, Sam" is never said in Casablanca.
I mention the digressions because he opened with about 25 minutes of digressions. The body of his lecture, though, was on the Protean phenomenon of change as it applies to human beings. These changes create a self that has little or no constancy, so the idea of a self is itself problematic. Rushdie is not breaking new ground here, but his delivery of this idea and the accompanying illustrations were interesting.
According to Rushdie, the self's changes occur because life isn't "realistic" inasmuch as one's life is jarred by implausible surprises. Rushdie defended the surreal and magical touches in his novels by stating his need to incorporate these strange, surreal, uncomfortable shocks that shatter (and perhaps deconstruct) one's reality. and thus change one's mental self.
He didn't specifically state that the ordinary lives of most characters in "ordinary" novels were unrealistic, but he may have been trying to make that case. Certainly, the ordinary unmagical lives of, say, Isabel Archer or Catherine Sloper aren't subject to earthquakes in the way Rushdie's characters in The Ground Beneath Her Feet are. But by the end of Portrait of a Lady and Washington Square there has been an unmistakable and irreversible shift of tectonic plates that neither Isabel nor Catherine could have foreseen.
The problem that novelists face is that it's hard to be both bold and subtle in the same novel, but life is at once bold and subtle. Rushdie opts for more boldness whereas Austen adopts subtlety, evincing that both styles can lead to rich novels. Certainly both styles can also be adopted by poor writers and overextended in a manner that turns boldness into hysteria and subtlety into inertia. (Tangentially, why can't James Wood cultivate an appreciation for boldness?)
Anyhow a challenge, if some current novelist is looking for one, is to marry both styles. Any takers?
A Political Footnote
Rushdie slid in a clever pun on the word "bushes," which went over swimmingly with the audience. But this is the same Rushdie who wrote a poem and novel prior to the 2000 election claiming that George W. Bush and Al Gore were the same. Now I realize this was a common opinion then but there was plenty of evidence pre-election that they weren't the same -- see Bush's record as governor or the Texas Republican party platform -- so I think the uninformed and irresponsible but oh-so-clever editorializing of Rushdie (among others) is partly to blame for unenthusiastic support for Gore. Not everyone learns from history, though, and this election has seen innumerable people complain that both George W. Bush and John Kerry were children of privilege who went to Yale, so they must be just a dime of difference between them. Thus a lazy, conventional stereotype is applied to all privileged Yale graduates by the same people who would balk at a wide stereotyping of, say, graduates of an inner-city school.
Rushdie's lectures will be published by Harvard UP.