Free Speech and the Life of the Imagination

Houses of Parliment through a warped lens

“If somebody is trying to kill you, if many people say that they want you dead, the question is: is it worth dying for? What is it that you would put your life on the line for? Free speech and the life of the imagination, liberty from religious constraint, these were the things that I cared most about. I did not pick this battle, but, given that its here, this is the war I’m prepared to fight.” – Salman Rushdie (from BBC1’s Imagine: The Fatwa- Salman’s Story)

Alan Yentob and Salman Rushdie at Ground Zero (Picture: BBC)

Consider this: Do we live in a society where we enjoy absolute freedom of speech? Are there times or conditions under which it is essential that we speak the truth, no matter what the consequences? What are the potential consequences for those that exercise this claim to free speech and the life of the imagination?

In my last post, I mentioned that I was writing something in particular in order to delight my mother. This has not sat well in my gut and has gotten me thinking about the necessity for artistic freedom in order to write, or to create anything honest or of merit. That old expression ‘follow your heart’ is so much more than a cliche when viewed in the context of creativity. I do believe that its the only guide you have! Joe Stretch, northern novelist and an ex-love of mine, once suggested that he might name his new novel No Heart Left to Follow, which almost brought a tear to my eye, all the same I thought it a beautiful title. He finally settled on The Adult, which I didn’t like as much, despite the clear connection if you think of children’s almost inability not to speak truthfully. (Perhaps I am wandering off point slightly, and I’ve not yet read this (his third) book, but he is a great writer and I can wholeheartedly recommend it, even without having read it) It is not difficult to make the leap that the process of creativity is impossible without freedom of mind, the freedom to create, and this process should have only one master to answer to. Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of listening to a brilliant lecture by screenwriter Sarah Phelps on ‘the life of the writer’. Sarah asserted that her favourite advice for writers (and indeed the only advice that she lives by), comes from the following final stanza of a poem by Elisabethan poet, solider, diplomat and lover Sir Phillip Sidney.

The Loverman, Sir Phillip Sidney

”Thus, with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite:
Fool! said my muse to me, look in thy heart, and write.”

At the risk of being branded a conspiracy-theorist, I proffer as an example, Dr Seuss’s masterpiece Horton Hears A Hoo. This magnificent film articulates the extent to which the-powers-that-be will go to keep the truth disguised from the masses and maintain the surface-appearance status quo, and how, in spite of this, you must do and say that which you feel compelled to, even if the rest of the world would repress your impulses. Horton (a giant elephant) becomes convinced that he perceives a whole other universe on a speck on a clover flower. Despite protests from all around him, from friend and foe and Sour Kangaroo alike, of the existence of this other reality, Horton has heard a voice that he simply cannot ignore. This film is one of the most psychedelic films I have ever seen. Although it is possible that I was under the influence of psychedelic substances whilst I watched it and this could contribute to my impressions, I stand by its trippy-ness. They may call you crazy if you follow the voice of your heart towards a truth that only you can perceive, but really, what other choice do you have but to take heed and listen to this voice or to deny your own inner reality? Will the voice, ignored, finally shut up and go away? How much choice and autonomy do we have in our society when it comes to freedom of expression and giving voice to that what we find in our heart?

Horton and the Sour Kangaroo

Cat Marnell

Have you heard of New York writer and career amphetamine doll Cat Marnell? Cat has been arousing controversy in the magazine world on both sides of the pond. After being fired from the post of beauty editor of Jane magazine, she has recently been given a more liberal platform, writing a very candid column (now also defunct or temporarily suspended?) called Amphetamine Logic for Vice magazine. In no uncertain terms, in a 1st person narrative, she describes her antics: unprotected sex and illegal drugs and warts and all. In her own words: “Why do I have to clean up? It’s time to question the idea that everybody has to live a certain kind of life”. Whether or not she is able to continue living life on her own terms in the public eye, devoid of consequences, apart from those dictated by her health, and the obvious creative fetter of having to play to the gallery of spectators that are watching her metaphorical car crash, remains to be seen. Marnell has been known to raise the question of whether the reaction she provokes is primarily a gender issue, and there is no doubt there is some weight to this stance. Many people are taking drugs and having sex, yet for the most part these remain taboo subjects, particularly for women to speak openly about. There have famously been many men who have spoken freely about sex and drugs, for example: William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Hunter S Thompson, Bill Hicks; this list could go on and on. Could it be that this is predominately a gender issue or is it one more concerned with the actual subject matter being highlighted? Either way, it does make you wonder: when it comes to controversial or taboo subject matter, how much any of us are truly free to speak our minds in the public domain without facing some sort of consequences or repercussion?

The inimitable Dr Hunter S Thompson

For a virtually unbeatable example of a writer who uses the 1st person narrative technique combined with essential truths and an unnerving sense of humour to shake things up, please refer to one of my heros, Dr Hunter S Thompson. Using a method he self-coined ‘Gonzo Journalism’, Thompson openly discusses subjects such as alcohol and drug abuse, violence, mental (ill)health, the Hell’s Angels, disdain for authority, the death of the American Dream and politics. In his own words: “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me”. Thompson even went so far as to run for governor of Aspen, just to make a point, ‘In order to prove that the American Dream really is *^!%!$* (beep!)’. Have a look at this BBC doc from 1978: ‘Fear and Loathing in Gonzovision‘ for more. Novelist Hari Kunzro (who has risked arrest by reading excerpts of The Satanic Verses) said of the man, “the true voice of Thompson is revealed to be that of American moralist … one who often makes himself ugly to expose the ugliness he sees around him.” Dr Thompson seemingly lived his life without acknowledging the censor of public opinion and common standards of decency and moderation, even going so far to fearlessly trumpet his uncompromising ideals in the service of truth. Dr Hunter S Thompson, may you RIP. Longtime friend/contributer, illustrator Ralph Steadman said of Thompson:

“I think that the truth of what rings through all his writing is that he meant what he said. If that is entertainment to you, well, that’s OK. If you think that it enlightened you, well, that’s even better”

Either way, it does make you wonder: when it comes to controversial or taboo subject matter, to what extent do practically any of us truly speak our hearts and minds in the public domain? Is the truth not open for discussion? Steadman sums it up nicely, “Some people really deserve a custard pie. If you’re not going to shock or enlighten, I don’t really see the point.” There has been a new doc made about Steadman’s life, in which this idea in expanded on. Its called ‘For No Good Reason‘ and the uncompromising spirit necessary for an artist to speak truthfully is joyously celebrated.

Sir Salman Rushdie

burning the book in Bradford

protestors against ‘evil satan’ Salman Rushdie

There is one author and one book that seemingly trumps all others in these stakes; through my investigations it seems I may have also stumbled upon a suitably interesting subject to write my dissertation on. With regards to this topic: “Free speech and the life of the imagination” I have not come across a more brutally honest book to focus on than Salman Rushdie’s imaginative and artistic overthrowing of the confines of religious censorship: The Satantic Verses. The Satanic Verses, (which were not invented by Rushdie, just openly discussed in his novel of the same name), supposedly mention three female deities who were associates of God. Rushdie, for daring to write a book around these supposed, potentially long-lost pages of the Qur’ an, had a fatwa (in this case a death treat) placed on his head by the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini. The fatwa forced Rushie into hiding for over a decade and in fact can never be lifted as the man who placed it has subsequently passed away, but Rushdie eventually rejoined public life and came out of hiding. The recent publishing of the biography/autobio, Joseph Anton, the 3rd person account of Rushdie’s experience in hiding (named after the pseudonym he used in hiding; the first names of his favourite novelists= Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov), has reportedly had the effect of re-exciting some of Rushdie’s detractors and persecutors. There is a recent doc, ‘Imagine: The Fatwa- Salman’s Story‘, illuminating some of the struggles Rushdie wrestled with while fearing for his life and the lives of those he loves. I believe this to be one of the most important events of our times with regards to freedom of expression. Is open discussion of all subjects not fundamentally intrinsic not only to artistic freedom but also the freedom of life itself? Do we live in a world where there is any hope for the absolute freedom of expression necessary in order to communicate these vital truths when a novel which openly discusses religion results in its creator receiving threats of condemnation to death?

These questions swirl around my head. They demand an answer but this post has already gone on far too long and there is still so far to go until a satisfying answer could be reached. I think about my upbringing by liberal parents who encouraged me to openly speak my heart and mind. This reminds me of when I was 15 and my more conservative and religious, southern grandmother died, and how I felt then that there was no longer someone for whom I might censor my thoughts, my words, my behaviour. Yet as I grew up, I found myself sometimes altering or hiding my truth or my impulses for others. It occurs to me now that if I ever want to possibly create something great, then I must not compromise out of fear or in an effort to please my family and friends, to be rich, to be popular, to conform to societies expectations or to be attractive to the opposite sex. My only motivation must be a need to be true to myself, to follow the honest (and comparatively diminutive) voice of heart and imagination.

“The truth? You can’t handle the truth!”

‘There is a crack in everything, thats how the light gets in.’ Leonard Cohen

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About Gracie Johnson

wordsmith, songstress
Gallery | This entry was posted in written by A. Grace Johnson. Bookmark the permalink.

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