Salman Rushdie had students lining up on Elm Street for a lecture on lines.
Rushdie, an author well-known for being condemned to death by the late Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, addressed an overflowing crowd of admirers at Battell Chapel yesterday afternoon. His lecture, aptly entitled “Step Across This Line,” surveyed mankind’s never-ending need to cross lines and frontiers. He discussed everything from our ancestral fish’s first inclination to leave the water to the contemporary battle of national boundaries.
Rushdie, who first rose to fame with “Midnight’s Children” in 1981, went into hiding after Khomeini issued his fatwa following the publication of “The Satanic Verses.” The Iranian government lifted the edict in 1998, and Rushdie has since re-entered public life.
As Rushdie delved into his topic, he first asked the crowd to consider what motives drove the first fish to leave the ocean for a breath of fresh air. He said scientists believe the urge was unconscious and completely natural.
“We are fish who learned how to crawl,” Rushdie said. “In our deepest natures, we are frontier-crossing people.”
Rushdie continued by recalling tales of pilgrimages including “Alice in Wonderland” and obscure folk stories about birds. He said humans are defined by such journeys — one of his lecture’s main points.
“The quest for the grail is the grail,” Rushdie said. “To cross a frontier is to become transformed.”
He eventually confronted the use of lines as walls and boundaries, particularly highlighting conflicts along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Even the freest of free societies are unfree at the edge,” Rushdie said.
Rushdie pointed first to Douglas, Ariz., where billboards demanding “Stop the Invasion” depict perfectly the mentality of the city. Rushdie said a resident of the town once said the United States should just invade Mexico, while another compared Mexico to a herd of African wildebeests.
Rushdie quoted an adage of the illegal aliens who successfully enter the United States — “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us” — as a reference to the 19th-century U.S. annexation of Mexican territory. But Rushdie said the opinions of illegal aliens do not matter to the average U.S. citizen.
“No one’s asking the wetbacks and wall-jumpers for their worldview right now,” Rushdie said.
Humanities professor Maria Rosa Menocal began her introduction of Rushdie with humor. Before comparing him to the great storyteller Scheherezade of “1001 Arabian Nights,” Menocal took a moment to joke with Rushdie about his cameo appearance in last year’s movie adaptation of “Bridget Jones’s Diary.”
Rushdie then added that he believed his role in the film was the hinge performance. He said when he made that assertion to Renee Zellweger, the film’s star, she replied, “Yeah, and if anybody asks me about you again, I’ll kill them.”
English professor Jane Levin, who met Rushdie for the first time Monday, said she considered Rushdie to be one of the great figures of our time.
“What an amazing definition of what it is to be a human being,” Levin said.
Andrew Keidel ’00 said he was also impressed.
“He made some good points, and I was impressed with how polished his speech was,” Keidel said, “but I wish there had been more interaction with the audience.”