Step Across This Line

— Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002 — 

Words, words, and more words. A writer’s stock in trade. All manufactured from just 26 letters (in English, that is) or as George Pajari, a subscriber to’s A.Word.A.Day e-letter reminds: “Counting the characters in an alphabet (or the number of unique nucleotides in a chromosome) … is merely an indication of the method used to represent the underlying information. …It is possible to express (or record) all music, spoken language, written material, and images (whether moving or still) on a computer using only sequences of 0 & 1.” Puts things in perspective. Doesn’t make writing any easier, but it certainly provides perspective.

And perspective is just what Salman Rushdie offers in this diverse collection of nonfiction work. Although it was a piece of fiction, The Satanic Verses, that brought Rushdie world-wide notoriety — and more than a little pain (he was the target of the Iranian ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa and its death sentence) — he has written a wealth of nonfiction, from magazine articles for Time and The Nation (among others) to music album liner notes for Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, as well as an extensive catalog of literary criticism.

In Step Across This Line, we learn, for example, of his love for The Wizard of Oz, its content and meaning (including the implications about ‘home’ in the fatwa years when Rushdie escaped capture by staying in perpetual motion around the globe), and we find a precursor of Rushdie’s own book-length critique of L. Frank Baum’s fantasy that is both deeply thoughtful and very readable.

In the essay on Rushdie’s connection to the rock band U2 (early supporters of Rushdie’s decade-long political dilemma), we see how he and Bono searched for a collaborative project. After many misdirections, Rushdie published the novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet, “in which the Orpheus myth winds through a story set in the world of rock music. Orpheus is the defining myth for both singers and writers…,” and Bono found the spark to put music to some of its words. As the song was being written, U2 and Rushdie had lunch with the European film director Wim Wenders, who “startlingly announced that artists must no longer use irony. Plain speaking, he argued, was necessary now: communication should be direct, and anything that might create confusion should be eschewed.” (Think David Bowie, Elton John’s Captain Fantastic, or U2’s glitzy earlier incarnations.) Although Bono wanted to push the point of rock-star-ridiculousness even further, Wenders turned out to be right, Rushdie says. U2 ultimately caught the drift and displayed their talent for clarity in the album All That You Can’t Leave Behind, into which Rushdie’s words are woven and where you’ll find the ubiquitous anthem Beautiful Day.

But Rushdie is nothing if not a commentator on current events. Given his face-to-face encounter with the global political system as a result of Khomeini’s fatwa, the surprise would be if he were not. In 2002, he was invited to present the Tanner Lecture on Human Values at Yale and that speech is the coda to this book. In it, he comments (as a Muslim from India) on militant Islam and the attacks in the U.S. of September 11, 2001, inviting us to “step across this line” and reconnect:

I am trying to talk about literature and ideas, but you see that I keep being dragged back to catastrophe. Like every writer in the world, I am trying to find a way of writing after September 11, 2001, a day that has become something like a borderline. Not only because the attacks were a kind of invasion but because we all crossed a frontier that day, an invisible boundary between the imaginable and the unimaginable, and it turned out to be the unimaginable that was real. On the other side of that frontier, we find ourselves facing a moral problem: how should a civilized society — in which, as in all civilizations, there are limits, things we will not do, or allow to be done in our name, because we consider them beyond the pale, unacceptable — respond to an attack by people for whom there are no limits at all, people who will, quite literally, do anything — blow off their own feet, or tilt the wings of an airplane just before it hits a tower, so that it takes out the maximum number of floors?

Seeing artists and writers as key message-makers in an age where “the shock is the new” but recognizing that “we don’t scare as easily as we used to,” Rushdie advises that “the artist who seeks to shock must try harder and harder, go further and further.” He also suggests that “this escalation may now have become the worst kind of artistic self-indulgence” and asks if “artists and writers still have the right to insist on the supreme, unfettered freedoms of art” or whether they must “start discovering what frontiers might be necessary to art, rather than an affront to it.”

The invitation of the book’s title is summed up at the close of Rushdie’s remarks, when he suggests that we live

in a frontier time, one of the great hinge periods in human history, in which great changes are coming about at great speed. On the plus side, the end of the Cold War, the revolution in communications technology, great scientific achievements such as the completion of the Human Genome Project; in the minus column, a new kind of war against new kinds of enemies fighting with terrible new weapons. We will all be judged by how we handle ourselves in this time. What will be the spirit of this frontier? Will we give the enemy the satisfaction of changing ourselves into something like his hate-filled, illiberal mirror-image, or will we, as the guardians of the modern world, as the custodians of freedom and the occupants of the privileged lands of plenty, go on trying to increase freedom and decrease justice? Will we become the suits of armor our fear makes us put on, or will we continue to be ourselves? The frontier both shapes our character and tests our mettle. I hope we pass the test.

For starters, why not just step across this line….

Author: Salman Rushdie
Published: New York: Random House ©2002

Copyright ©2013 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos