At the end of the first post on Salman Rushdie, I promised to summarize his points on what the novel is for. What is it for? Some would say that novels are nothing but rubbish--they certainly did when novels came to being in the 19th century--while others would fight for their legitimacy as important works of art and vital to understanding the human condition.
Rushdie, however, takes a less specific--or rather, a less definite--track on this question. What is the novel for? It's not a moral question, he argues, nor is it about having answers or solving problems. Really, the most important aspect of a novel is to ask questions rather than pose answers. For it is the complicated questions that survive--why do you think we are still reading Shakespeare? He poses complex questions and often arrives at no answer. Susan Sontag is a theorist who described a story as a journey; and that's the point of a novel, is the journey not any answer it might offer.
Shifting to global implications of his question, Rushdie wondered aloud if perhaps it is a luxury to talk about the novel in this way. However, he believes that even in a place where so much hinges on daily life, it is important to maintain the space for intimacy, for human activity: to maintain the possibility for love in a combat zone. Literature, he said, can look to that which is not affected by outside circumstances.
He brought in the examples of Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, who used humor and comedy to deal with dark and dangerous situations: war, death, etc. Rushdie described them as writers who use language to aim lightness at the darkness. Literature is often used to insist upon seriousness in a time of frivolity, and it is important for literature to insist on serious things, even within a comedy. And the works of Vonnegut and Heller do this.
Literature defines a period. Writers can even replace history as the truth, which is a very dangerous aspect of literature, but one that conveys the power it can wield. Looking backwards, literature tells who we are, just as Huck Finn defines the American identity.
Next post: Finishing up--Literature and worlds