“Faith and Reason” is the theme of the PEN World Voices festival currently taking place in New York City. Here’s how faith and reason are making out so far:
Tuesday Evening: Orhan Pamuk is the big story, and New York City knows it. The Great Hall at Cooper Union is sold out, and when I poll a few of my fellow attendees I confirm that everybody’s here to see Pamuk. This is not because Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie are old news, but rather because we all seem to be discovering at the same time that Orhan Pamuk really is that good. I’m on my second Pamuk novel now, My Name is Red, a fabulous book, as lush and ornate as Snow is austere and modern. What the two books share in common is a crystal clear narrative flow and a wry sense of human comedy. It is a pleasure for me to close the book in mid-chapter on the 6 train, run upstairs, enter a hall and behold the talented author in real life.
He walks up to the podium — tall and gangly — and begins speaking with a calm, confident tone. Others have already chronicled Pamuk’s words, so I will just add that my affection for this writer is increased by his pleasant personal demeanor. I’m also impressed by his guest questioner Margaret Atwood, who I’ve never seen live before. I’ve heard that she has a penchant for falling asleep at literary events (and who can blame her?) but she is lively and funny tonight. Looking vaguely Elizabethean with her curly mop and subversive girlish voice, she does us the favor of skipping right over several obligatory boring questions about public policy, and instead jumps right to the personal stuff. Atwood knows how to work a crowd, too. Somebody get this woman a talk show.
Drinks, food and talk with several delightful litbloggers at the chic Bowery Bar complete the evening, and so we move on to …
Wednesday Afternoon: A 4 pm panel at New York University is about “Faith and Politics in America and Elsewhere”. Ron Chernow’s introductory speech heads straight for partisan territory as he points out that the Republican Party’s relatively recent alliance with Christian evangelism has been tremendously successful. Moderator Robert Silvers (currently co-editor of the New York Review of Books) picks up on this theme, laying out statistics about traditional Protestant churches that are losing members and evangelical organizations that are picking them up. He mentions the highly successful millenialist Left Behind book series, which Silvers says is “much read at the high circles”. He ponders whether or not these evangelistic trends are behind our decision-making in Iraq.
We’ve barely begun but it’s already clear that this is not going to be a feel-good panel. We’ve got stuff to talk about. Hans Magnus Enzensberger balances Silvers’ statistical seriousness with some speculative ponderings about the meaning of religion in the modern world. With a playful smile and modest tone of voice, he tells us that religion is not very strong in his native Germany, and recalls that in the days of his youth — the years when Soviet communism dominated international debate — it was generally believed that religion would gradually go away. Later, he declares that religion is what’s left behind after “the failure of all political utopias”.
Alma Guillermoprieto, a South American writer with a stylish Isadora Duncan haircut and a dead-serious demeanor is up next, and she makes several strong points about the religious undercurrents in the careers of Latin American revolutionaries like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Fidel Castro always exhorted “faith in the impossible”, she says, and this is essentially a mystical or religious concept. Guillermoprieto adds that in her opinion every politician in the world uses religion as a political tool in some way.
Elias Khoury ratchets up the intensity level in the room by announcing that he has withdrawn from a later event with David Grossman after discovering only at the last minute that the event has been co-sponsored by the Israeli consulate. Khoury then delivers some strong words at the expense of anybody who brings religion into politics, pointing out the obvious mess that has been made by pious militants like George Bush and Osama bin Laden.
Next, Suketu Mehta’s short bit lightens the mood a bit. He speaks of the odd balances between Hindu and Muslim communities in India, and points out that the term “Hinduism” does not exist among Hindus; they simply call it the dharma (the way) and would never think to limit it by giving it a name. Mehta ends his speech with a parting shot at George Bush: “I understand that your president found God at the bottom of a bottle. Maybe he should have another drink.”
The room’s temperature heats up again when Polish dissident Adam Michnik begins barking in his guttural native language. We had heard about Christian crusaders earlier, but Michnik remarks (via his translator) that he sees more of a crusader in Osama bin Laden than in George Bush (personally, I say we call it a tie and get rid of both of them). Michnik is the loudest speaker in the group, but he also seems to suffer from a stutter or speaking impediment of some sort. It’s fascinating to try to comprehend his throaty syllables, among which the phrase “presidenta busha” shows up regularly. Michnik struggles especially hard with one of his final phrases, which his translator then sums up neatly: “Most Poles find Bush hard on the stomach”
Wednesday Evening: my energy crash inevitably coming, I make it up to Town Hall for the Woodstock section of the PEN World Voices festival, a group reading with a ton of famous names. I will let somebody else spell out the details of this event (the daytime event was my assignment for today, and I’ll be covering some more events here on Friday and Saturday) but I’d like to mention one moment I liked best: a thin older man is rolled to center stage in a wheelchair and announces in an African accent that he is Chinua Achebe. I really never thought I’d hear Chinua Achebe read to me from Things Fall Apart. But apparently anything is possible.
A Vietnamese writer named Duong Thu Huong is also especially moving, and I was happy to see Zadie Smith, Martin Amis and E. L. Doctorow for the first time.
As I listened to several of the speakers, though, I began to feel disturbed by a certain sameness of stance, an emerging “me-too” world-view. These readings all project a strong anger and disgust at current Christian and Islamic fundamentalists (I guess Jewish and Hindu fundamentalists get a pass today), but what about the wider psychological and personal and artistic questions we should be discussing relating to faith and reason?
I don’t mind that there is a lot of politics at this festival, but I do wish the politics were less partisan. I particularly notice that several of the speakers — Salman Rushdie and Robert Silvers among them — speak to the audience in a way that suggests that we are all atheists or agnostics, more or less. Is this really true among the world’s writers? If so, this sure is a shock to me.
I’m also surprised there is no mention of the many faith-based texts that form some of the world’s greatest historical works of literature, from Tao Te Ching to the four Gospels. I leave Town Hall tonight feeling intrigued but far from satisfied. PEN’s picked a good topic for this festival, though I don’t think they’ve gotten all the way to the heart of it yet.