Sunday, December 30, 2012

the last book I ever read (Salman Rushdie's Joseph Anton, excerpt two)

from Joseph Anton: A Memoir by Salman Rushdie:

He paid up, and, in a defiant spirit, went on to the ceremony wearing brown shoes. He was promptly plucked out of the parade of his properly black-shod contemporaries, and ordered to change. People in brown shoes were mysteriously deemed to be dressed improperly, and this again was a judgment against which there could be no appeal. Again he gave in, sprinted off to change his shoes, got back to the parade in the nick of time; and at length, when his turn came, he was required to hold a university officer by his little finger and to follow him slowly up to where the vice chancellor sat upon a mighty throne. He knelt at the old man’s feet and held up his hands, palms together, in a gesture of supplication, and begged in Latin for the degree, for which, he could not help thinking, he had worked extremely hard for three years, supported by his family at considerable expense. He had been advised to hold his hands way up above his head, in case the elderly vice chancellor, leaning forward to clutch at them, should topple off his great chair and land on top of him.

Looking back at those incidents, he was always appalled by the memory of his passivity, hard though it was to see what else he could have done. He could have refused to pay for the gravy damage to his room, could have refused to change his shoes, could have refused to kneel to supplicate for his B.A. He had preferred to surrender and get the degree. The memory of that surrender made him more stubborn, less willing to compromise, to make an accommodation with injustice, no matter how persuasive the reasons. Injustice would always thereafter conjure up the memory of gravy. Injustice was a brown, lumpy, congealing fluid, and it smelled pungently, tearfully, of onions. Unfairness was the feeling of running back to one’s room, flat out, at the last minute, to change one’s outlawed brown shoes. It was the business of being forced to beg, on one’s knees, in a dead language, for what was rightfully yours.

Many years later he told this story at a Bard College commencement ceremony. “This is the message I have derived from the parables of the Unknown Gravy Bomber, the Vetoed Footwear, and the Unsteady Vice Chancellor upon His Throne, and which I pass on to you today,” he told the graduating class of 1996 on a sunny afternoon in Annandale-in-Hudson, New York. “First, if, as you go through life, people should some day accuse you of what one might call Aggravated Gravy Abuse—and they will, they will—and if in fact you are innocent of abusing gravy, do not take the rap. Second: Those who would reject you because you are wearing the wrong shoes are not worth being accepted by. And third: Kneel before no man. Stand up for your right.” The members of the class of ’96 skipped up to get their degrees, some barefoot, some with flowers in their hair, cheering, fist punching, voguing, uninhibited. That’s the spirit, he thought. It was as far from formality of Cambridge as you could go, and much the better for it.

His parents didn’t come to his graduation. His father said they couldn’t afford the airfare. This was untrue.

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