Salman Rushdie: Reality is an argument

Salman Rushdie argues that “the breakdown in the old agreements about reality is now the most significant reality.” He speaks with Nahlah Ayed about how the old consensus about reality fell apart — and whether it’s possible to build a new one.

The acclaimed writer delves into how the consensus of reality has fallen apart in his collection of essays

'Before there were books, there were stories,' writes Salman Rushdie in his collection of essays, Languages of Truth. The novelist explores how the old consensus about reality fell apart — and whether it’s possible to build a new one. (Knopf Canada/Rachel Eliza Griffiths )

Salman Rushdie argues that "the breakdown in the old agreements about reality is now the most significant reality." But he says the nature of reality has always been at least partly contested. 

"Reality is not just simply something given. It's not just sitting out there to pick up off a shelf," he told IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed. 

"Reality isn't like a bar of soap. I would say it's an argument, and always has been."

Right now, Rushdie says the consensus-based argument about reality is particularly worrisome, polluted by propaganda and misinformation. 

"Look, we are in a tough time. I never thought that there would be a time when important things are being trivialized and trivial things have been made important, and when truth and lies are confused with each other, and when all of that has been weaponized," he said. 

"[But] I think one of the characteristics of a free society is that we're able to have the argument. Because in societies which are not free, it's very hard to have the argument because the truth is imposed."

In his new collection of essays, Languages of Truth, Rushdie considers the role of truth in both fiction and politics. He spoke to Nahlah Ayed as part of an event held by Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto.

Here is an excerpt of their conversation.

Nahlah Ayed: You write: "Facts are fluttery, elusive creatures, but there are armies of fact-lepidopterists chasing after them, and sometimes they do get nailed to the wall, like moths." How useful do you think [that is] as kind of an antidote to this phenomenon of misinformation and propaganda?

Salman Rushdie: I mean, we have to be able to believe that up is up and down is down. We have to be able to believe that the reason we stick to the Earth is because there's something called gravity and that the moon is not made of cheese. There are things that are true. The world doesn't care if we think it's flat. The world continues to be round, even if we think it's flat. 

The great thing about science is that it rests on testing. The fact that the theory of relativity is still called a theory is an act of incredible humility, which is a way of saying we don't know everything. But the fact that we don't know everything does not mean that we know nothing. 

You've said repeatedly there used to be more of a shared consensus about reality. Was it truthful? Was it ever truthful, having this shared consensus? 

What I say in the book is that the19th-century novel, the rise of the realist novel, was based on the writer's expectation that the writer and the reader would, broadly speaking, have a shared idea of what the world was like... but of course, it excluded many things.

It's impossible to go back to the idea of the world which is the unified reality.- Salman Rushdie

One of the things that's really interesting about the age of what's called England's precedence — the age of the British Empire — is how little English literature dealt with the empire. That was sort of over there. And even though it was responsible for the wealth and affluence of Britain… they didn't look at it. 

There was an exclusion of women as points of view. And of course, the reality of people who were not members of the white master race were entirely marginalized until relatively recently. The rise of the modern literatures of Africa and Asia is relatively recent.

So I guess I'm wondering, to what extent do you think it's possible or even desirable to return to a kind of shared consensus about what reality is?

Well, I think we have to have a different consensus. And I think that's beginning to happen. We now understand that the world is different depending on where you stand on it. The world is different if you're a man or if you're a woman, or Black or Asian. The world is different depending on the way in which you navigate the world and the way in which people respond to you. 

Protesters hold up fists at a gathering in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in Leeds, U.K., June 21, 2020. (Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

So I think we can't go back. And in a way, it's impossible to go back to the idea of the world which is the unified reality. But the idea of this polymorphous reality, which is many things, because it's more inclusive, it gives more people access to the microphone. 

So I'm not proposing some naive return to a simpler world. I'm suggesting the need for a sophisticated advance towards a more beautiful, complicated view of the world.

We are in a very interesting moment in history in which as you write, "We are urged to define ourselves more and more narrowly to crush our own multidimensionality into the straitjacket of a one-dimensional national, ethnic, tribal or religious identity. This, I have come to think, may be the evil from which flow all other evils of our time." How do we possibly extricate ourselves from this?

Well, one answer is: read novels. Because in a novel, if a character is only one-dimensional, the character is absolutely uninteresting. If the character is only defined by class or race or a particular kind of opinion or one kind of behaviour, they're not alive. Because human beings are not like that. We are contradictory. As Walt Whitman said: "Do I contradict myself? Very well. I contradict myself."

The idea of a homogeneous self is no longer tenable. We are all heterogeneous. We're all a bag of selves in a bag of skin, and that's what makes us interesting. That's why we like meeting people, because they're complicated, and we like reading about people who are complicated. Because simplicity is tedious and really not believable, because we're not simple creatures. 

So I think that idea of saying that you have to define yourself by race or class or gender or religion … it's [not that these] things are not significant. I define myself, in part, by race and by my personal history. But I won't be put into a box. And I think the trouble is we live in a moment in which people are trying to put us in boxes. But the nature of this world, this shrunken planet, is that we can't live in those little boxes anymore. All our boxes collide with all the other boxes, and plurality is the truth. 

The novel has from the very beginning told us that we are plural entities and the world is plural. So read. Novels tell the truth. 

Q&A has been condensed for clarity. To hear the full interview, click 'listen' above. This episode was produced by Pauline Holdsworth. 

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