Monday, February 23, 2009

Salman Rushdie: Found in Translation

Yesterday Sir Salman Rushdie gave a lecture at Emory University on adaptation - specifically the process of transforming a book into a movie, but also stage, opera, musical, etc. It was a typically illuminating talk from Rushdie, who is a visiting scholar at Emory after allowing his private papers to be housed there.

We live in an era of easy adaptation between the media, he said, with differing results. “Good movies are remade as bad movies. Bad movies get remade as worse movies.” It results, he said, in “a culture that endlessly cannibalizes itself” until we are all swallowed up in the maw.

There were a few surprises in his remarks, perhaps the most surprising that Rushdie hated “Slumdog Millionaire,” (“piles impossibility on impossibility”) while still predicting several hours ahead of time that it would sweep most of its nominated categories at the Academy Awards. He also revealed he had been asked to appear on “Dancing With the Stars,” but declined, fearing it would be a “career ending move.”

The process of adaptation, he said, is determining what is essential in a work and then capturing its essence in a new medium. After a few minutes, though, Rushdie made a few steps in a metaphysical direction, speaking of adaptation in terms of the transition from life to death - “human beings migrating across frontiers.” This is a natural transition for Rushdie, whose novels have always dealt with issues of the immigrant, the fish out of water, the mind finding its way in unfamiliar territory.

When we determine what the essential is in our lives, he said, “life has a way of making us rethink.” Then we adapt to whatever changes happen, to find “the thing that keeps us going.”
Rushdie, of course, has made it clear on several occasions that he has no religion, be it Muslim, Hindu, Christian or otherwise. In fact, he drew an obvious parallel with natural selection - how when animals adapt into new species, what is essential remains. But he did not give in to the temptation to marginalize the religious instinct in his remarks, speaking of the challenge of adapting to a new life or holding to beliefs and risking the label as an “outsider.”

“These are the oldest questions - who are we? How shall we live?” he said. He drew a contrast between those who become rigid in old beliefs with those who “do not know who they are.” There are things which cannot be compromised without losing the essence.

It’s worth noting that Rushdie, as he gave these remarks, was one week removed from the 20th anniversary of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s death sentence on him for writing “The Satanic Verses.” After a period of exile, Rushdie has emerged to become perhaps the world’s most famous author, an international personality who has appeared in movies, co-written a song with U2, and is sought out for his opinion on issues both east and west. Yet curiously, his fame derives not from his words but from the effect his words have had on others. Most people, it is safe to say, have limited or no exposure to his novels. The man sitting next to me at the lecture had to ask me, for example, what Rushdie was famous for.

Yet, he has adapted not only to fame but also living 20 years under a death sentence which technically cannot be suspended. He has responded with a life of investigation, no small amount of courage, and humor. There is a lesson for us. Christians are instructed to live their lives with the certain knowledge that we entered the world under a death sentence, yet Christ saved us. We are to live our lives seeking out His will and others to share Him with. We are to abandon fear in light of His redemptive power, and be a light to those around us. Though something will ultimately be lost of us when our lives are over, what will be gained in the translation will be, strangely enough, incomprehensible.

The power of adaptation, across cultures, across lives, across existence, is a story worth telling.

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