Salman Rushdie on the value of the outsider

The following writing is not my own, except for the fact that I’m typing it into my computer.  But it’s one of the best things I’ve ever read that describes who I am, what I’m about … and that I’m not alone in it, so I thought I’d share it here.

Even if you’ve never read anything by Salman Rushdie, you probably know his name.  He’s the poor bloke whom then-Iranian supreme voobaha Ruhollah Khomeini put out a contract on in 1988 because Khomeini and his band of scowling thugs thought that his book The Satanic Verses was a slam on Islam.  (He managed to outlive both the fatwa and Khomeini himself, which once again proves that living well is the best revenge.  Or something..)  When he’s not busy being the target of Muslim-extremist death threats, he’s one of the world’s great novelists, winning the Booker Prize (the UK equivalent of a National Book Award) in 1981 for Midnight’s Children.  I absolutely love his skill with the English language, and his ability to conjure up stories and worlds that are utterly fantastic while still ringing with the truth, the realism of human life.

So I hope he’ll forgive me for quoting over a page of his work.  The piece below (only slightly edited) is from his novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet, a sprawling epic that starts with the legend of Orpheus; mixes it with alternative universes, tectonic shifts, two truly odd love triangles, and the history of rock & roll; then races it through postwar Bombay/Mumbai, 1960s England, 1970s New York City and what Joni Mitchell once called “the star-maker machinery behind the popular song.”  It’s never been made into a movie and never will be, because you can’t cram the thing into two-and-a-half hours or less, and even if you could the plot would still be so convoluted it would make Inception look like a nursery rhyme.  It’s an E-ticket thrill ride, and in the hands of a lesser writer it would fall to pieces.  That it doesn’t is testimony to Rushdie’s gift.

And my favorite part of it is a soliloquy by the book’s protagonist, an Indian-born American photographer nicknamed “Rai” (coincidence?) on the subject of being an outsider in society.  As you might guess from the name of my blog, that’s a subject near and dear to my heart.  Every so often, I revisit this passage just to remind myself that no, I’m not crazy, this is how God has made me — and because He’s done so, I must therefore be valuable and useful (even when other voices are dissenting).  Anyway, enough preamble; enjoy, and let me know what you think:

For a long while I have believed … that in every generation there are a few souls, call them lucky or cursed, that are simply born not belonging, who come into the world semi-detached, if you like, without strong affiliation to family or location or nation or race; that there may even be millions, billions of such souls, as many non-belongers as belongers, perhaps that, in turn, the phenomenon may be as “natural” a manifestation of human nature as its opposite, but one that has been mostly frustrated, throughout human history, by lack of opportunity.  And not only by that: for those who value stability, who fear transience, uncertainty, change, have erected a powerful system of stigmas and taboos against rootlessness, that disruptive, antisocial force, so that we mostly conform, we pretend to be motivated by loyalties and solidarities we do not really feel, we hide our secret identities beneath the false skins of those identities which bear the belongers’ seal of approval.

But the truth leaks out in our dreams; alone in our beds (because we are all alone at night, even if we do not sleep by ourselves), we soar, we fly, we flee.  And in the waking dreams our societies permit, in our myths, our arts, our songs, we celebrate the non-belongers, the different ones, the outlaws, the freaks.  What we forbid ourselves we pay good money to watch, in a playhouse or movie theatre, or to read about between the secret covers of a book.  Our libraries, our palaces of entertainment tell the truth.  The tramp, the assassin, the rebel, the thief, the mutant, the outcast, the delinquent, the devil, the sinner, the traveller, the gangster, the runner, the mask: if we did not recognize in them our least-fulfilled needs, we would not invent them over and over again, in every place, in every language, in every time.

No sooner did we have ships than we rushed to sea, sailing across oceans in paper boats.  No sooner did we have cars than we hit the road.  No sooner did we have airplanes than we zoomed to the furthest corners of the globe.  Now we yearn for the moon’s dark side, the rocky plains of Mars, the rings of Saturn, the interstellar deeps.  We send mechanical photographers into orbit, or on one-way journeys to the stars, and we weep at the wonders they transmit; we are humbled by the mighty images of far-off galaxies standing like cloud pillars in the sky, and we give names to alien rocks, as if they were our pets.  We hunger for warp space, for the outlying rim of time.  And this is the species that kids itself it likes to stay at home, to bind itself with — what are they called again? — ties.

That’s my view.  You don’t have to buy it.  Maybe there aren’t so many of us, after all.  Maybe we are disruptive and anti-social and we shouldn’t be allowed.  You’re entitled to your opinion.  All I will say is: sleep soundly, baby.  Sleep tight and sweet dreams.


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