Volume VII, Issue 2 -- May, 2006
Reports from the PEN World Voices festival, 2006
From 25 to 30 April, 2006 PEN held their second PEN World Voices festival, on the theme of "Faith and Reason". I reported from 6 of the 54 scheduled programmes at the Literary Saloon, and these reports are now also collected here.
I was one of a team of festival-coverers, all expertly organized and coordinated by Bud Paar -- and the additional reports can be found at MetaxuCafé. In addition, PEN does an excellent job of archiving and making available audio of and pictures from many of the events, so you can hear what really was said -- check out their Audio and Photo Galleries.
Faith & Reason: Writers Speak
The 2006 PEN World Voices Festival offers over 50 programs, but Wednesday night's Faith & Reason: Writers Speak at Town Hall surely was the star-studded centerpiece. Only one of the Nobel laureates made it (the other, Nadine Gordimer, unfortunately had to cancel for personal reasons), but the company she (Toni Morrison) was in was still impressive: Chinua Achebe, Martin Amis, Gioconda Belli, Roberto Calasso, E. L. Doctorow, David Grossman, Elias Khoury, Yusef Komunyakaa, Zadie Smith, Duong Thu Huong, Ayu Utami, and Jeanette Winterson, with Salman Rushdie opening and closing the show.
Town Hall was packed -- at least at the beginning. Somewhat disappointingly, the crowd thinned as the night progressed, leaving the place at best two-thirds filled by the end. It was a fairly long affair -- over two hours -- but those who left during the lull of the middle-speakers missed out on some of the best performances.
The whole PEN festival centers around 'Faith and reason', and that was the highlighted common thread on this night. The focus was definitely more on faith, with reason as the afterthought or occasional counterweight. Most authors chose to read from previously published works -- some leaving it at that, others offering a bit more.
Salman Rushdie opened the program: thrown a bit off course by Gordimer's cancellation, he shared some of what she had planned to present (though declining to read the sections in which she praises him). He then went on to read from Shalimar the Clown -- the section in which Shalimar convinces the Iron Mullah that he's joining the ranks for the right reasons (i.e. has been won over by faith -- though, of course, he hasn't). Good stuff, and, as always, Rushdie does all this -- from semi-MCing to reading -- very well.
From there the authors appeared one after the other in alphabetical order, each alone on the stage (except for Vietnamese writer Duong Thu Huong briefly sharing it with her translator). The lack of interaction was a bit of a disappointment: it was emphatically individual viewpoints on offer, the only debate whatever each writer chose to put on the table (some challenging themselves, others allowing their work simply to speak for itself).
First up was Chinua Achebe, who followed-up a reading from Things Fall Apart by reading two letters he had recently received from readers asking and commenting upon that section of the book, sharing their reactions -- a useful juxtaposition (and a nice nod to the reader's role in completing any written work).
Martin Amis offered a few pieces on Islamism -- light (humorous) parts of serious pieces -- as well as a bit of relevant Joseph Conrad.
Gioconda Belli was among the few who wrote something especially for the evening, offering a Latin American perspective and discussing in particular how she had been hopeful before the events of September 2001 that the eyes of affluent society might, in the post-Cold War world, turn their attention to what Fanon called the wretched of the earth -- and her disappointed at the newly divided world that has come instead, the poor remaining suspect in a world where terror has become so central.
Roberto Calasso more directly addressed the question of 'faith and reason' -- two words that are subjected to abuse every day, as he noted. He cited Confucius, finding the 'rectification of names' as an essential step in righting society. In the contemporary world, he argued, there are few terms which are not in need of rectification -- 'faith' and 'reason' in particular.
E.L.Doctorow looked at the American situation -- a nation of infidels, as some would now have it, and yet so obviously one of the most faith-ful in the world. In his 'secular humanist canticle' Doctorow argued that it was precisely that separation church and state, making religion a matter of the private sphere, that allowed for the particular American situation.
David Grossman read from The Yellow Wind, and got some laughs for suggesting that that where he comes from they should charge royalties for every debate of faith and reason, colliding as they do constantly and more extremely than most everywhere else.
Elias Khoury read from the newly translated Gates of the Sun; he also explained why he would not be participating in 'A Dialogue on Literature and Peace', a dialogue with David Grossman, scheduled for Sunday (and now transformed into A Conversation with David Grossman). He had been unaware that the event was being co-sponsored by a local Consulate General until he saw the program, and explained that in order to maintain his integrity as a writer he could not participate in any government-sponsored events (regardless of the government).
Yusef Komunyakaa read two poems, Toni Morrison read from Paradise, offering two views of faith, and Zadie Smith -- who offered a disclaimer, noting that she is unqualified to hold forth on any abstract nouns -- read from On Beauty.
Duong Thu Huong was for the most part represented by her translator, but did recite the Vietnamese version of one poem. Indonesian author Ayu Utami offered a clever faith-variation with her story Smell.
Utami had raised the energy level again (yes, things did sag a bit in the middle), and then Jeanette Winterson took center-stage -- literally, not taking a stand behind one of the two lecterns on either side of the stage that the other readers (save wheelchair-bound Achebe) had used. No notes, no reading, just a few relevant stories from her life -- an expert performance, and captivating (and relevant) stuff. She told of being adopted into a strict religious household, where there were only 6 books (the Bible and five books on the Bible) and where, when her mother read her Jane Eyre, it came to quite a different ending. Her mother was a smart woman, she acknowledged, and among the basic truths she taught her was: the trouble with books is you never know what's in them until it's too late. And that and other experiences taught Winterson that the one way no one can take a text away from you is by memorizing it
Rushdie finished off things with a clever bit from The Satanic Verses.
All in all, quite a success. Many of the other festival programs involve panels and debate, so the one-by-one, no-questions-asked approach on this evening is only a somewhat lost opportunity. There was an interesting variety, mostly fairly on point -- and a couple of the performers stood out (Rushdie and Winterson, in particular -- but there were also pleasant surprises such as Ayu Utami).
PEN seems to have taped and covered the event well, so it looks like you'll be able to see and/or hear it in its entirety on their site soon -- worth checking out.
(See now also Maud Newton's for the most part even more comprehensive report on the event.)
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Salvayre and Moody
On Wednesday afternoon the PEN World Voices festival offered a Conversation: Lydie Salvayre & Rick Moody.
In writing about the PEN festival (and international literary festivals in general) Dalkey Archive Press' Chad Post noted that the goal is to get people to attend, and that: "the trick is to pair a very recognizable and loved author (e.g., Margaret Atwood) with a lessor known foreign author". Possibly that was the formula here as well -- I understand Moody is a 'name' in the US -- but the heavily Francophile audience (which, alas, probably amounted to less than three dozen) seemed largely drawn by Salvayre. (While I'd heard of Moody before coming across Salvayre, I've since read three of her books and still none of his, and she was definitely what brought me there too.)
Each author claimed not to understand the language of the other, so a translator mediated -- though the language-barrier proved fairly flexible (and probably ultimately made it a bit difficult going if you didn't understand French). (See also Chad Post's new post mentioning his take on the event -- and the language-issues.)
The format was to have each author read something from their work, then Moody ask Salvayre some questions, and then to get some audience questions -- though it only roughly worked out that way.
Moody read first -- Grocery List, a story recently published in Salmagundi (Issue 148/9) --, then Salvayre read from her newly-translated The Company of Ghosts (she read in French, and then someone read the English translation). Moody is a big fan, recommending that anyone who hasn't gotten their hands on it buy it immediately (as they could, since well-organized Dalkey Archive Press had set up shop by the door, offering books for purchase at the event). He was certain we'd find it to be one of the best books we'd read all year, calling it awesome.
The conversation that followed did not start too smoothly. Moody was well-prepared with questions that appeared to be meant to help introduce the French author to an American audience, but Salvayre had ideas of her own and it was slightly rough going until the two got on the same page, i.e. just let an exchange more naturally develop.
Moody's first question was about the influence of Salvayre's parents and background (they were political refugees from Spain who came to France in 1939). Salvayre eventually came round to that, but in a very roundabout way, first speaking about what the two authors had in common, including that they had both slipped 'disasters' into titles of their books -- an observation that did not translate well and left Moody befuddled, since he was apparently not aware that the French edition of his collection, The Ring of Brightest Angels around Heaven, was titled L'Etrange Horloge du désastre.
She clearly finds (literary) appeal in disastrousness -- revealing also that the title she had originally selected for The Company of Ghosts was 'Inventory of Disaster' (which, come to think of it, is both more appropriate and clever -- but her editor wouldn't have it). She finds in Moody's writing a focus on the small, internal disasters, of family in particular. In her own work, she said, she is trying to some extent to counteract the world of disaster: a world where disaster is so regularly exhibited and transformed into a spectacle, making for a substitute for actual understanding.
The subject did bring her back to Moody's original question, as she noted that her parents arrived into a disaster, a France under Pétain where they, like so many others, were immediately and always suspect. It is also this, to some extent, that is the 'secret heart' of The Company of Ghosts (with the true secret heart being the Holocaust, but that being something she left entirely secret, believing that to make it visible would have been obscene). The book gives witness to a doubled-disaster: she did not want to write a historical novel, but presenting it in this way -- the mother haunted by that past -- she also was bringing the issue (specifically of collaboration) into the present -- and asking whether any or all of this was still possible now. (It seems to me the book makes her position pretty clear: damn right it could -- and is.)
She emphasized what she believes to be the important questions (and the ones raised by her books): Have we thought that period of history through enough ? Do we have to rethink it ?
Moody then had another go at a question, asking this time whether she thought the French student movement and, in particular, the recent riots were disasters that contemporary French writers would address in the same way as she had dealt with disaster in The Company of Ghosts. Salvayre asked: Are French authors interested in reality ? -- clearly believing they're not. She finds that currently French authors are suspicious of political engagement in literature -- the opposite of (and presumably a reaction to) the time of Sartre's influence, when you had to be engaged.
Moody moved on to the World Voices festival theme, 'Faith and reason' -- finding, interestingly, too much focus on reason and not enough on faith, and revealing that the "mystery and assault on empiricism implicit in faith" seems important to him. (Empiricism, he also said, seems to be so good at telling its side of the story that it has won the war, but he's not sure he likes living in that world.)
Salvayre tackled this issue to some extent in her recent novel -- not yet available in English --, La Méthode Mila, and it would likely have made for an interesting example. (As Warren Motte notes in his recent review, it is: "Cast as an unrelenting indictment of Cartesian philosophy".) Salvayre did bring it up and discussed it -- particularly what she sees as an obsession with meaning -- but only went so far.
At least the discussion got Moody to express more of his own opinions, rather than merely trying to serve up questions for Salvayre: he sees, for example, American literature (and culture) marked by a capitalism run amok and dependent on materialism and rationalism -- and naturalism and realism as a PR wing for materialism. He also tossed out that he thinks that over the past 50 years American fiction has relied on the idea of the epiphany: it's hard to find an American story whose last three paragraphs don't offer one (which, obviously, is a limited and limiting approach which authors might want to think beyond).
Salvayre's work as psychiatrist in an immigrant-dominated suburb was also touched upon.
Interesting stuff, but between the language-confusion and the lack of direction actual constructive discussion rarely emerged. A firm-handed middleman might have been able to direct the event, as Moody was put in a difficult position (and proved far more interesting when he got to debate the issues, rather than just try to elicit information and opinion from Salvayre). As it turned out, the audience seemed fairly Salvayre-savvy anyway, so the 'introducing the author'-aspect probably wasn't even that necessary.
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Thursday afternoon and evening there were two translation panels at the PEN World Voices festival, one on Translation and Globalization and then Mixed Media: Writers on Their Languages -- with a few of the panelists (Boris Akunin, Raymond Federman) doing double-duty.
The Translation and Globalization panel was moderated by former Los Angeles Times Book Review-editor Steve Wasserman, and consisted of Boris Akunin, Roberto Calasso, Raymond Federman, Amanda Hopkinson, Richard Howard, and Elizabeth Peellaert.
Their translation credentials are formidable: Howard has done some 150 from the French; Akunin -- before achieving such great success as a mystery writer -- was a translator from the Japanese; Calasso, as founder and head of the great Italian publishing house Adelphi (check out their list ! -- from year to year 50 to 70 per cent translated works, he said !), brought the publishing perspective to the table; Elizabeth Peellaert is a translator (principally into French); and Amanda Hopkinson is director of the British Centre for Literary Translation.
Without too clear direction, the first round of responses ranged from the panelists describing their early embrace of literature and language (Howard describing learning French on the long vacation car-trips to Florida, for example, or Peellaert, from a family of Moroccan Jews who emigrated to France, describing the languages in her childhood household), to some reaching considerably farther. Calasso, in particular, moved more towards what was surely meant to be the topic of the day, assessing the current situation, including the very flat picture of culture that results from the limited availability of classical and foreign literature, specifically in the US.
Throughout the afternoon, Calasso repeatedly brought up the role of the book business, and how publishers fail in their duty -- as particularly in the US there is changed idea of what a publishing company should be: he sees a policy of one-shots, the very opposite of how publishing should be done. A publishing house, he suggested, is like a book made of many books, which must fit together. He mentioned several unlikely success stories -- how when he first published Karl Kraus someone told him he'd sell 20 copies, and that while sales began slow he's now gone through 15 printings. Similarly, Joseph Roth was (so he believes) a totally forgotten writer even in Germany and his native Austria 30 years ago, and Adelphi now boasts of sales of half a million of his works. (As it happens, I picked up my first Roths almost exactly 30 years ago, and don't recall him being particularly out of favor or fashion .....)
Amanda Hopkinson brought up the interesting point that there is a 'high' literature which does get translated, the major writers, generally writing in widely-spoken languages, but that while some 300 languages are now spoken in British schools it is these, and their literatures, that go almost entirely overlooked and to which there is almost no (translated) access. Raymond Federman, too, complained about the difficulty of getting access to books (speaking also from the experience of being an often out of print author).
Much of the focus of discussion was on a subject that had apparently come up at lunch, as they wondered what could explain the current vogue of new translations of previously translated works (since there have been several high profile re-translations of classic works in recent years, from several Tolstoys to Don Quixote and Thomas Mann). (Peellaert noted that it's also in vogue in France.) Wasserman offered the obvious explanation: because these are already established names there's reader recognition (so the publishers' hope, no doubt), and they'll get reviewed (it certainly seems to improve the odds at The New York Times Book Review ...).
Richard Howard didn't think highly of the trend, not sensing any sigh of relief from readers whenever a great new translation appeared. Amanda Hopkinson added some interesting points about re-translation, noting that one of the problems with it is that the original does not change, and so there's the question of to what extent new translations are of use to readers. She focused on the Constance Garnett problem: the famous translator did all the great Russians -- and so they all sound like Constance Garnett. But how much is gained in retranslation ? She also didn't sound convinced that it was that valuable.
(The re-translation issue is an interesting one, but seemed sort of off-point. One of the panelists noted that it was a bit odd that it was this subject that took up most of their time, too .....)
The panel began punctually at 4:00 (praise be ! all the others I've been at started nowhere near the scheduled time, to my considerable annoyance), but was only scheduled through 5:30, and Wasserman emphasized the time-limitations several times, making for a somewhat hurried atmosphere that probably wasn't that conducive to allowing discussion to unfold. Anticipating audience questions, he moved things on to the Q & A portion -- allowing for some interesting points to be raised, but not helping keep things anywhere near, for example, the globalization aspect.
As part of the Q & A Akunin described the changing Russian situation. He noted that Russians have always loved translated fiction, and that especially perestroika was a euphoric period. Working as an editor at the Soviet journal Foreign Literature, he noted at that time they were constantly discovering new authors, and every issue was a sensation (after years when only carefully selected authors were permissible). He also mentioned that in 1989 all twelve issues of the journal were devoted to the first Russian translation of Ulysses -- though he also joked that they lost half their readers that year (surely a telling outcome worthy of more discussion).
Among the more interesting points that came up was Calasso noting that if the originals are not available -- the work of Thomas Bernhard was the example he used -- then the local market will instead be forced to fall back on the imitations -- American authors doing their best to imitate Bernhard, for example, with predictable results.
Wasserman also shared the story of what happened when he put an Octavio Paz review of a translation of the works of Sor Juana de la Cruz on the front page of the LATBR -- incomprehension from his bosses, tons of mail from grateful readers. And there was some mention of all that we're still missing in English translation -- most of the works of Quevedo, for example.
In summary: some interesting ideas and opinions, some good anecdotes -- and far too little about globalization. Yes, some of the panelists tried to slip it in every now and then, but it never seemed to take hold.
(See now also Chad Post's take in his day three post.)
The second panel was: Mixed Media: Writers on Their Languages. David Damrosch moderated, and Boris Akunin, Bernardo Atxaga, Raymond Federman, Yiyun Li, Agi Mishol, Hwang Sok-Yong, and Dubravka Ugresic were the panelists.
Two of the writers are bi-lingual writers (i.e. actually write in two languages), Atxaga (Basque and Spanish) and Federman (French and English), offering a particularly interesting perspective. Federman noted that he is also a self-translator (like Beckett, whom he admires greatly) -- and noted that an author translating his own work can take more liberties with the text, since it belongs to him. He also spoke of some of how his bilingualism affects his writing -- and offered an enjoyable little tour-de-force with a reading of a brief passage demonstrating something he dreams of doing: writing a book in both languages, the two merging into one as he switches back and forth within even the sentences.
Dubravka Ugresic spoke of writing in a language that's like a marginal, small currency, subject to heavy inflation: Serbo-Croatian (or Croato-Serbian), which is now (artificially) divided into Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian -- with Montenegrin likely soon to follow. She mentioned -- more in resignation than anger -- the ridiculous war criminals in the Hague who demand their statements be translated into Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian -- and (more angrily) the criminally-minded linguists who argue these are three distinct languages. She read a bit from her recently translated novel, The Ministry of Pain, noting that while she originally thought it was about exile and love she now finds it really is about language and the trauma of language.
Hwang Sok-Yong related some personal experiences of the misunderstandings he has faced, beginning with an American soldier he met in during the Viet Nam war who was stunned to see him writing, not aware that there was writing in Korea. He also spoke of the North-South divide in Korea, which also affects language, and some of the efforts being made in that regard (they're working on a unified dictionary, for example). He noted that his book, The Guest, contains a great deal of vernacular and is based on a shamanistic exorcism ritual, and he read such a piece in the original Korean.
Poet Agi Mishol focused on the particulars of Hebrew, suggesting what a writer could do with them (and what they couldn't). She also read a poem in Hebrew.
Yiyun Li described her switch of languages, from her native Chinese to English, which occurred when she discovered she wanted to write (she was originally a scientist). She maintained that she keeps the languages separate, and never writes in Chinese -- and wouldn't even translate her own work into Chinese.
Akunin spoke of the two tiers of literature in Russia, and how he had moved from one -- being a serious writer, of essays and the like -- to the other -- being a belletrist, a writer of entertainments. So serious is the divide that he adopted the pen-name 'Boris Akunin' to hide behind -- and even now he gets grief about not devoting himself to serious literature from his mother.
The panel at least lived up to its title, with a variety of fairly interesting takes on the question. It was also a nice mix of writers, offering takes on smaller languages (Basque, Serbo-Croatian, Hebrew) and a widely-spoken language like Korean that isn't that well-known in the US, as well as interesting personal approaches to language (including Federman's all-pervading bilingualism versus Yiyun Li's narrow focus on her adopted writing language).
Curiously -- perhaps because it was also not a debating panel -- the audience seemed oddly deflated by the end, unable to come up with a single question to pose (something I've never seen happen at any literary gathering of this sort).
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The Radical Loser
One of the Friday evening events at the PEN World Voices festival was The Radical Loser: A Public Interview with Hans Magnus Enzensberger, which drew a good crowd at the Goethe Institut (a full house, albeit in a too-small room). The event pitted Philip Gourevitch against German writer (and leading public intellectual) Hans Magnus Enzensberger in a discussion about an essay Enzensberger first published in Der Spiegel in the fall of 2005 which is now also available in English translation -- as The Radical Loser -- at the excellent signandsight.com-site. (Enzensberger has since apparently expanded his work into a small book, but the evening focused on the original essay.)
The Goethe-Institut helpfully had copies of the essay available; to my considerable regret the printed PEN program-guide had not made clear that the interview would be based on this piece -- and that the essay was available on the Internet -- and so, not having read it beforehand, I felt unprepared. Nevertheless, the basic thesis is a fairly simple one, and Gourevitch and Enzensberger managed to convey the gist of the argument well enough so that familiarity with the text wasn't a necessity.
Gourevitch noted that the evening was billed as a conversation, but he hoped it would be more a "dynamic discussion" of Enzensberger's text and thesis, and it certainly proved to be fairly lively -- indeed almost testy. I said above the evening pitted Gourevitch against Enzensberger, and that's what it seemed like at times, since Gourevitch sounded far from convinced -- and took exception to quite a few of Enzensberger's statements in the text.
The discussion began with Gourevitch asking what Enzensberger meant with the concept of the 'radical loser'. Enzensberger explained that the world is filled with losers, but only some are radicalized. What makes a loser radical ? Well, he's not only a loser (as so many people are) but also one that accepts the judgment of the outside world that he's a loser, and he internalizes it, meaning he can't work his way out of it -- which ultimately leads to an explosive situation, doing away with self-preservation. (This, then, is the guy who appears on the back pages of the newspapers as the father who went on a rampage and killed his family -- or the suicide bomber.)
There is also the political variant, the coalition of radical losers -- whereby he see Nazis as the perfect example. Gourevitch noted that 'losers' also implies 'winners', but in the essay found only globalization described as winning, and wondered: who are the winners in Enzensberger's theory ? Eventually, Enzensberger suggested that, for example, the failure of Hitler and the Nazi program had left a variety of winners -- Gourevitch interjecting that it's the first time he's never heard Jews being described as winners of World War II. Enzensberger pointed out that Hitler had not succeeded in getting rid of the groups he had meant to (though Gourevitch noted that for all intents and purposes he had wiped out the Jews in Europe). Still, Enzensberger was optimistic about the death of Nazism -- it's old hat, he said, and the neo-Nazis have no idea of actual Nazism.
Gourevitch also wondered about the lumping together of liberation organizations and the like all as "loser-collectives" as Enzensberger does in his essay -- and which he claims all degenerate in a very similar way. Gourevitch read out the entire list of 57 acronyms that Enzensberger lists as examples (MLC, RCD, SPLA, ELA, etc. etc.), and said that he saw differences among them in their approaches and methods. It put Enzensberger somewhat on the defensive -- he wrote an essay, he maintained, not a treatise; it was not meant to be exhaustive. An essay is meant to be an attempt, starting "a train of thought that might be useful".
Asking whether Enzensberger could identify any group that was engaged in fighting the winners with a sense of sacrifice that is meaningful, Enzensberger suggested the PLO -- there was a purpose there, he thought, a rather clear cut idea in their minds. As Gourevitch dryly countered: killing athletes in Munich ?
Much of Enzensberger's essay focuses on the Arab world and radical Islamism, and Gourevitch also took exception to that pretty wholesale damning of the entire Arab world. (Looking over the essay, this was probably worth a closer look; Enzensberger emphasized that the radical loser is a minority in all these societies, but he clearly sees special problems in the Arab world.)
A decent Q& A round touched on several of these points -- including Enzensberger's over-simplification of seeing the Arab world as one -- but Gourevitch's closing remarks were among the most interesting. He suggested that there's nothing bizarre about the phenomenon of the suicide bomber (and the like): terrorism is effective, and the suicide bomber phenomenon shouldn't be so perplexing. He cited in particular the Tamil rebels in Sri Lanka -- a Hindu movement whose techniques have also been adopted by al-Qaida.
Enzensberger's idea of the 'radical loser' does appear to have some value -- as long as it's not simply a dismissal of the people who he means (the American-English connotations of "loser" seem to be weighted considerably more in this direction than the German -- something that was not addressed that evening). The essay did prove a good starting point for discussion -- though with Enzensberger largely on the defensive the audience was ultimately perhaps less receptive to his ideas. Gourevitch had some good points of attack -- but the essay itself is also worth a second (or first) look.
Note that Ian Buruma wrote on Enzensberger's essay in The Guardian a few months ago, in Extremism: the loser's revenge -- where he found: "The only thing missing in Enzensberger's analysis is the sexual factor, the psychology of the great masturbator, the murderous gay thug, the drooping despot", something also not addressed at the PEN event.
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Idols and Insults
One of the Saturday panels of the PEN World Voice festival was devoted to Idols and Insults: Writing, Religion, and Freedom of Expression. Present were Juan Luis Cebrián, editor of El Pais; Indian author (and civil servant) Upamanyu Chatterjee; Hans Magnus Enzensberger; Nilüfer Göle, who teaches sociology in Paris; Somali-born Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali; and moderator Ian Buruma. In some ways the strongest statement of the afternoon came in the form of the fact that one invited panelist had not been able to obtain an American visa and hence was unable to participate -- Swiss national Tariq Ramadan.
Ramadan was able to videotape his comments on the subject, and these were shown on a huge screen -- effectively larger than life -- but it was nevertheless a stark reminder of the barriers to freedom of expression that exist even in a country such as the US (which is, after all, far more open to free expression than most of the world). His ideas and words did make it here (indeed, ideas and words are notoriously difficult to stop at any border), but it wasn't quite the same thing as having him here -- and obviously he was unable to participate in any discussion, which is (ideally) how one would like ideas to be further shaped and allowed to grow.
Ramadan's difficulties in getting permission to travel to the US pre-date the PEN festival, but -- as he also mentioned in his taped message -- the American authorities have still not made clear exactly why they refuse to give him a visa. (For more, see Julia Preston's article, U.S. ban on Swiss Muslim still a puzzle, as well as his official site.)
PEN president Ron Chernow opened the panel, certain that there is: "no more incendiary topic". Ian Buruma then took over, noting that all were surely agreed that freedom of expression is fundamentally good, the question being what happens after the qualifying: "But ...".
Embarrassingly, I found myself almost entirely defeated by the heavily accented comments of the first speaker, Juan Luis Cebrián, and never quite figured out what he was going on about. I scribbled down some snatches -- democracy is rooted in some universal values, which are not so universal now ... -- but couldn't piece anything together from them.
Chatterjee was more straightforward. He's all for idols and insults, and his philosophy is: let a thousand flowers bloom -- as long as you don't hurt anybody. He also noted that there's a difference between insults in the private and the public domains -- an idea which variations of were echoed by other panelists, the word 'respect' invoked fairly often.
A tack not much explored that he offered was the idea that if we don't understand a religion we should leave it alone as long as we can. Possibly a safe policy -- for a while -- but I wonder if that doesn't leave things to a worse reckoning; hearty criticism of the incomprehensible (with all due respect) surely might help head things off at the pass ..... Indeed, it seems to me that the ideas/philosophies/religions we don't understand (but that find enthusiastic followers) are the ones we shouldn't leave alone, from the very get-go: early, thorough engagement with (and the resulting inevitable (devastating, one hopes) criticism of) Nazism, various cults, militant religious off-shoots, etc., surely is the way to go.
Among the points Enzensberger raised were the absence of reciprocity in the contemporary world, with a penchant for feeling insulted being on the rise, a "sensitivity bordering on squeamishness." Not for the last time, the Danish cartoons came up -- a minor incident that those who felt insulted made much larger than it had to be (though Enzensberger also acknowledged the likely original provocative intent of those who first published them).
Ayaan Hirsi Ali asked: can and should religion be open to criticism and satire ? As far as 'can' she said: sure. The central question, she believes is: should it be ? -- and here her answer was also unequivocal: yes, it should be open to criticism. She thinks that's the way it has been in the West for centuries, and that has led to peace and prosperity. (Quite a few challenges, questions, and arguments those claims might lead to ... but they were not brought up.)
She believes it is necessary to criticize Islam, for example. She also noted that all religions limit free speech, with some limiting it more than others. And she noted that governments and institutions have mechanisms to counter criticism and satire -- including denials, positive publicity, diplomatic pressure -- and violence and the threat of violence. All the mechanism are fine with her -- except for violence (and the threat thereof): that's where she draws the line.
In his taped message Ramadan also brought up the respect-aspect, and the idea that the important thing is to use the freedom wisely -- education, rather than the law guiding how we see it.
Buruma was concerned that the panel wouldn't find enough to disagree on, and -- despite Nilüfer Göle's best efforts -- that was, for the most part, the case. The panelists seemed basically on the same page; somewhat disappointingly, there was no one who argued for stricter limitations on free speech (aside from the voluntary respectful ones ...) ... and there was no one who dared yell: "Fire ! Fire !" in the (not too crowded) auditorium either. Yes, their position (not quite a uniform one, but close enough) was a sensible one, but I think the panel could have been more constructive if some had been willing to put forward more extreme positions. Or does being a public writer necessarily make one an adherent of this particular notion of freedom of expression ?
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