Last night PEN American Center closed its annual World Voices Festival — a week of performances, readings and conversations — with its Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture, which was delivered by legendary writer Salman Rushdie. Held in the historic Grand Hall of Cooper Union, the event welcomed the author of numerous novels, including Midnight’s Children, The Moor’s Last Sigh and the controversial The Satanic Verses, to discuss the topic of censorship. The lecture was quickly followed by a Q&A lead by fellow literary superstar Gary Shteyngart.
His talk was eloquent, and he made many important points, including that “free expression is a component of every healthy society” and going further to say, “No writer ever really likes to talk about censorship. Writers want to talk about creation. Censorship is the anti-creation.” Perhaps the most resounding quote of the evening however, was his assertion that, “The creative act requires not only freedom of expression, but the assumption we will be free tomorrow.”
“Great art, original art, is never created in a safe middle ground. Originality is dangerous, as it is at the edge,” Rushdie proclaimed at one point. Upon hearing this, a composition by Olivier Messiaen came to my mind. In 1940 Messiaen was interned in a German prison camp, where he discovered among his fellow prisoners a clarinetist, a violinist and a violoncellist. He decided to write for them, adding a piano to the ensemble, and created the “Quartet for the End of Time.” Messiaen and his friends first performed it for 5,000 fellow prisoners on January 15, 1941. To this day it is a powerful piece of music, rich with this history of the conditions Messiaen was living in when he wrote it. The piece was created on unsafe ground where freedom was beyond a lost word.
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