Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Hitchens and Chomsky on Rushdie

As we approach the twentieth anniversary of the Ayatollah's "valentine" to Salman Rushdie, I thought I'd note down two reflections on that affair that have given me pause.

The first is Noam Chomsky's very sharp comparison of the Rushdie affair to the trial of Ernst Zündel in Canada in 1988. He points out that while "everyone started screaming" when the fatwah was issued against Rushdie, no one said anything when a holocaust denier was sentenced to 15 months in prison by their own state for speaking his mind. (More precisely, Chomsky compares Zündel's sentence to the actions of that same state in holding The Satanic Verses back "for a couple of weeks" in customs.) Here's my favourite part of Chomsky's remarks on this:

You didn't have Susan Sontag getting up in public saying "I am Ernst Zundel," all this kind of thing. The point is, you defend freedom of speech when it's speech you like, and when you're sure there's a half-billion Western Europeans out there between you and the Ayatollah Khomeini so you can be courageous. (Understanding Power, p. 271-2)

The vaguely flarfy effort I posted on Sunday was of course inpired by this remark. It's important to notice that Chomsky is not in any way trivializing the fatwah itself or Rushdie's predicament. He's ridiculing a particular display of intellectual "courage".

And it is also the reaction of intellectuals that Christopher Hitchens, my second example, is interested in, this time the reaction on the other side of the affair. "Here was an open incitement to murder," writes Hitchens of the fatwah, "accompanied by the offer of a bounty and directed at a writer of fiction who wasn't even a citizen of the theocracy [that issued it]." But while Chomsky is a bit bemused about the eagerness of intellectuals to "courageously" rush to Rushdie's side, what struck Hitchens was the reticence of some intellectuals to defend Rushdie. Maybe, they argued, Rushdie really had done something to offend the Ayatollah? (I.e., maybe the Ayatollah had a point?)

In public debates with those who worried about the blashphemous or profane element in the novel, or who said that they did, I would always begin by saying, look, let's get one thing out of the way. May I assume that you are opposed without reservation to the suborning of the murder, for pay, of a literary figure? It was educational to see how often this assurance would be withheld, or offered in a qualified form. In those cases, I would refuse to debate any further. (Letters to a Young Contrarian, p. 48)

I generally like Hitchens on the issue of free speech, where he holds a position very much like Chomsky's. In fact, Hitchens defended David Irving when he found himself in almost precisely Ernst Zundel's position, and I think rightly so. It's a rightly principled stance. But I'm often less impressed with his debating posture, which often includes this sort of "refusal to debate any further" with people who won't denounce particular outrages worded in particular ways (by Hitchens himself of course. I mean "suborning of murder"? Really. I think I'd mutter something under my breath too before granting the obvious truth he is proposing.)

The thing that strikes me about Hitchens's remarks here is that he wants unqualified assent ("without reservations") to a position that is, if you look closely, already put in a strangely "qualified form". Does Hitchens really mean that "a literary figure" should be more free from threats of assassination than other people? In fact, notice that he qualified his description of the fatwah by pointing out that Rushdie "wasn't even a citizen of [Iran]." Are the fatwahs that are in fact carried out against Iranian apostates less problematic?

As far as I can tell, Rushdie's state protected him (as it would probably have protected any figure, literary or not, if a $6 million bounty had been publicly put on his or her head). I think the interesting issues here do not turn on the fatwah itself, but on the reactions of intellectuals, and the lack of reactions to comparable actions of their own states.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

I Am Ernst Zündel

(elaboration of a theme by Noam Chomsky)


Anything we love can be saved. Alice, so far as I can tell, I am Ernst Zündel. For the sake of argument, pretend I am Salman Rushdie. You may then ask, "Was he really Salman Rushdie? He did not appear to resemble him." He was indeed Salman Rushdie. He said, "Yes, I am Salman Rushdie. And this is what I offer you, hugging Fidel, becoming what we're called. It is the story of why I connect oppressions."

So then I got the notion of the "I Am Ernst Zündel" buttons. For a time, it was an omnipresent pin on the lapels of writers. It was akin to pondering the possibility that somewhere in Iowa, in the spirit of Cyrus the Great, Islam is a peaceful religion. It turned out that he had gotten his very own girls in pearls, a clear indication that he understood. But Salman Rushdie wearing his "I am Ernst Zündel" button: Holy Shit! What a remarkable and funny man. He invariably spoke in support of freedom of speech.

If you are Salman Rushdie, don't think I will ask you how to become a published author. I have turned my back on the sport of wearing a giant badge with the words "I Am Susan Sontag" emblazoned across it. Soon every right thinking, or indeed left thinking, citizen in America will be thinking "I am Ernst Zündel".

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

"Dear Jack,"

wrote Norman Mailer in his open letter to JFK.

"Obviously, I hoped you would get in..."

Let us leave the rest of that letter until the celebrations are over. I, too, am celebrating. For what it's worth.

Friday, January 16, 2009

New Wave Redux

At the end of 2005 (was it really so long ago?) there was a bit of flameup about whether certain people (one of them was me) were qualified to have an opinion about Flarf. At around this post (sadly, Gary was forced to delete the post I linked to, for now hazy reasons), doubts were raised about "I Am Not the Pilot" qua Flarf. I.e., it was suggested that it was not, finally, very flarfy at all.

It was a very complicated discussion, which hooked into the old Punk vs. New Wave conflict, and it seemed to me at the time to be easiest just to grant that Tony's poem isn't "flarfy". What's wrong with New Wave anyway, right? But I just read Sharon Mesmer's "I Am Apparently Unable to Subscribe" (Annoying Diabetic Bitch, p. 56). Certifiable flarf, yes? But, if anything, it seems derivative of Tony's poem. The last line even involves a kind of "epiphany", which (if I recall) was Gary's main objection.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

"Rock and Roll...

...never dies but sometimes kills," I blurted out at the coffee maker just now. "Hey!" said I. "That sounds like an original bit of epigram." "Yes, but 'sometimes'? Isn't it rather often?" asked a colleague. Then it hit me. Rock and Roll always kills. It's a tautology. If it didn't kill you it wasn't rock and roll. It rules too.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Meditationes de Prima Philosophia

"But first we must learn to understand what it is that opposes such an examination of details in philosophy." (Wittgenstein, PI§52)

Monday, January 05, 2009

Composure Begins

Tomorrow morning I will begin work on a short book to be called Composure. I've talked about this project before, but I have now decided to give myself three hours a week (one hour every other morning) to actually make some progress. The basic idea is that composure is the resolution of crisis, and that crisis is a discord of belief and desire, a schism of knowledge and power.

Composure is found in the homologies of grammar, both philosophical and poetic. Remarks and strophes are arranged to tune our intuitions to our institutions, the immediacies of our seeing and our doing. That's a pretty obscure way of putting it. In the book I hope to be able to make this clearer.

Friday, January 02, 2009

"The Mechanism Which Allows You to Feel Is Broken"

"Clearly I'm interrupting; I feel badly. Let me ... what are you drinking? I'll buy y..."
"Bad."
"Bad? Sorry, I feel...?"
"You feel bad. Badly is an adverb, so to say you feel badly is to say that the mechanism which allows you to feel is broken."

(From the movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang)

I'm grateful to Thomas Presskorn for bringing this scene to my attention (more here). My view is that poetry should make us feel better. I.e., better able to feel, not full of better feelings. A specific poem should make us more capable of feeling specific emotions; it should not fill us with warmer feelings about particular subjects.

This goes even for love poetry with a direct addressee. The poet is not hoping to introduce a loving feeling into the heart of the object of his or her desire. Rather, the poet is implicitly saying, "The mechanism that would otherwise allow you to feel love for me appears to be broken. Here are some exercises that might fix it." This is why a good love poem has a utility beyond what Ezra Pound called the "one obvious remedy" for the poet's unhappiness.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Pulsanda Tellus

Message from Ezra Pound:

The author's conviction on this day of New Year is that music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance; that poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music; but this must not be taken as implying that all good music is dance music or all poetry lyric. Bach and Mozart are never too far from physical movement.

Nunc est bibendum
Nunc pede libero
Pulsanda tellus. (ABC, p. 14)

Here at the Pangrammaticon we will be spending the day listening to the Brandenburg Concertos, pounding the ground with our free feet.