from “Extreme Criticism”

Originally Appeared in: Critical Theory: Volume 26, Number 1 | Published: Autumn, 1999

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1.) Post-Enlightenment. In 1989, in the wake of the fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie, the editors of Public Cul­ture, Arjun Appadurai and Carol Breckenridge, wrote an editorial crit­ical of the way many Western intellectuals and the Western media defended Rushdie and castigated the Islamic leaders and crowds who were denouncing The Satanic Verses and threatening its author. They ques­tioned the excesses and ethnocentrism in the outcries, including Rush­die’s, against Islamic politics and saw in Western liberals’ attitudes an ethnocentric attachment to Enlightenment interpretations of free speech.

Their editorial culminated with the following remark:

In our view, the politics of The Satanic Verses is partly about the rights of people to resist reading, and especially to resist reading what they have been told by others whom they hold in respect they should not read…. Some groups in the Islamic world are saying that criti­cism-socially, politically and collectively constructed-can precede the individual act of reading.

Performative contradiction is rather too polite a term for Appadurai and Breckenridge’s hypocrisy. Here are two scholar-editors whose own life practice has value and validity to the exact extent that their own writings and what they publish in their journal exercise critical reflection, free expression, and skepticism toward doctrinal authority. Without the so­ called liberal public sphere neither that exercise nor its controlling val­ues would have the worldly space in which to happen. When Appadurai and Breckenridge then defended their editorial by asserting that “we intended to ask whether the enlightenment values about freedom of ex­pression were beyond debate and thus rather like the values of Khomeini’s Islam,” they absurdly equated commitment to freedom of thought and expression with commitment to theocratic rule and religious authority. One can always of course debate Enlightenment values, but Khomeini’s fatwa was the moment to defend freedom of expression.

The fretting over ethnocentrism is a smoke screen. While it is always relevant to criticize the tendency of Western liberals to believe freedom is uniquely or intrinsically Western, the Rushdie controversy has been about the perilous struggles in the Islamic world to institutionalize spaces of free expression and critical thought. Those freedoms are not the essence of the West. Nor are they, on the other hand, merely its ethnocentric prejudice or its own particularistic values. Such freedoms have their precedents in other cultures, and they have been and remain the product of continual struggles in the West. For those of us whose lives as writers and teachers require those freedoms, the struggle for them is relevant across borders and cultures.

The battle has long centered on writing and reading. In Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, Julien is examined in theology upon his arrival at the monastery by the Abbé Pirard, who is highly suspicious of the methods of Julien’s former teacher Chélan; Julien knows the Bible but nothing of the Church Fathers. The Abbé reflects:

“A thorough, but too thorough, knowledge of the Holy Scriptures.”

(Julien had just spoken to him, without being questioned on this score, about the real time in which Genesis, the Pentateuch, etc., had been written.)

“To what does this endless reasoning about the Holy Scriptures lead,” thought the Abbe Pirard, “if not to free inquiry [l’examenperson­nel]; that is to say, the most dreadful Protestantism?

When the editors of Public Culture-nice title-abandon the struggle to foster discomforting scenes like this one everywhere in the world, touting instead “the rights of people … to resist reading what they have been told by others whom they hold in respect they should not read,” that is, their “rights” not to have rights, post-Enlightenment has distilled itself down to its baldest contradiction. As an antidote, it’s worth reciting a bit of Enlightenment scripture that remains unsurpassed after more than two centuries of intellectual struggles, namely, the opening paragraph of Kant’s ”An Answer to the Question: ‘What Is Enlightenment?'”:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Im­maturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Saper aude! Have courage to use your own understand­ing!,

The maturing of contemporary thought does not lie in believing we can think beyond or post- that motto. . . .

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from "Innovation: Notes on Nihilism and the Aesthetics of the Novel"

Originally Appeared in: The Novel Vol. 2: Forms and Themes | Published: 2007

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“To name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep. “ Salman Rushdie gives these words to the satirical poet Baal of Jahilia, who lends them back to define the aesthetic of The Satanic Verses. The novel invents in order to question, fantasizes in order to expose, disputes in order to designate . . . unnamable reality.

“I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discovered the infinite in every thing.” William Blake gives these words to the prophet Isaiah, and one of Rushdie’s protagonists reads them in his lover’s “long-unopened copy” of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Isaiah is explaining to the enthralled Blake that he never in fact heard God; rather, his own righteous indignation was the voice of God. The biblical rev elation was humanly inspired; the prophet was a poet. Isaiah’s words too lend themselves to Rushdie’s aesthetic. The satanic-satyric-satirical inversion of a sacred text is a poetic reimagining of the religious imagination.

The challenge posed to readers of The Satanic Verses is that its realist imperative is borne on the wings of worldly satire and sacred parody. Moreover, the novel mixes several distinct discourses, each with a purpose of its own:

• a fantastic tale of metamorphosis to signify the simultaneity of incommensurate worlds in the migrant’s experience, and in the postimperial metropolis;

• a Dickensian satire to expose the seething wounds of urban life in Thatcherite England;

• a parody of the sacred text of the Quran to interrogate the paradox that todays religious fundamentalisms, far from being a return to pristine beliefs and traditions, are an utterly contemporary form of mass politics; and

• a tragicomic tale of rivalry, madness, and revenge to unfold the inner torment of two privileged expatriates, the novel’s protagonists, Saladin Chamcha (the Anglophilic toady who impersonates a thousand voices in commercials) and Gibreel Farishta (the movie star who plays numberless deities in Indian “theologicals”).

The Quranic parody takes up the novel’s second and sixth chapters, Mahound and Return to Jahilia.” Raucous, irreverent, and profound, it is looped into the Saladin-Gibreel story with a simple premise and complex effects. Gibreel has always been filled with religious imaginings, from Ovid’s tales of Jovian and human metamorphoses to the reincarnations and multiple gods of Hinduism, and he is captivated by Islam’s primary, and dueling, angels: Shaitan, the fallen angel, and Gibreel, the voice emitting Allah’s truth to Mohammed. The cinematic “portrayer of gods” begins dreaming he is the angel Gibreel, and the dream slowly bleeds into his waking life and becomes delusion. The two chapters of parody are his dreams, an oneiric retelling of how Mahound (Mohammed) converts, with negotiations and threats, the polytheistic people of Jahilia (Mecca). That is the simple premise: Gibreel dreams the parody of the Quran.

As a literary feat, however, the parodic chapters abjure psychological realism. Even the dreams of a psychotic could not unfold in a prose so luminous and allusive and penetrating—not to mention in the same style as the rest of the novel. The dream device serves another purpose in The Satanic Verses; it links, loosely but richly, an array of altered states of consciousness: dreams, psychotic delusions, mystical visions, the Prophet’s receiving the Recitation, the hysteria of crowds, the mass appeal of cinematic fantasias. Gibreel’s dream is in the tradition of Lucian’s satires, an occasion to throw the divine and profane, realities and fantasies, into a large bag and shake them up into an exuberant rearrangement that questions all manner of secular and sacred certainties.

The Quran’s episode of the satanic verses is the weak knee of that textual monolith. Islamic tradition reckons that an allusion in the Quran to some demonic tampering with the Prophet’s receptivity to Gibreel’s Recitation—”Never have We sent a single prophet or apostle before you with whose wishes Satan did not tamper”—refers to another episode in which Mohammed apparently rescinds his offer to grant legitimacy to three goddesses worshiped by the people of Mecca, whom he is trying to convert. If the Prophet was deceived by satanic verses once, why not twice? Often? Always?

According to the Quran, the goddesses Al-Lat, Al-Uzzah, and Manat “are but names . . . invented . . . vain conjectures . . . whims of [the unbelievers’] own souls.” Every monotheism hews to its own divinely revealed truth by accusing other religions of being the work of the human imagination. Monotheists were the first religious skeptics. Thats what the Quran s episode of the satanic verses is all about: fallible man created the goddesses, and the Prophet himself is fallible. With that, the Quran opens the way to parody. To explain the flawed Recitation, Salman Rushdie invents Salman the Persian, Mahound’s scribe. As the tranced prophet repeats the verses he hears from the angel Gibreel, Salman writes them down but makes devilish changes in the text because he suspects that Mahound climbs Mount Cone and induces an imaginary Gibreel to tell him what he wants to hear and then is a bit too distracted to remember exactly what he dictates to Salman. It is a reversal worthy of Blake’s Isaiah: “I saw no God, nor heard any.”

Rushdie, however, does not share Blake’s apocalyptism. He has a novelist’s eye for mundane dramas underneath the heroics. As Gibreel Farishta dreams Salman the Persian’s travesties and betrayals, he himself becomes a paranoid angel whose demonic adversary is Saladin Chamcha. Saladin too is infected by angel-devil scenarios and blames his troubles on Gibreel, the cinematic angel whose stardom and erotic conquests mock him with everything he him self lacks. He hatches an Iago-like plot to drive Gibreel into a jealous frenzy against his lover Allie Cone (yes, Cone, whose 27,000-foot ascent of Mount Everest to see the face of God is reversed in Saladin and Gibreel’s 27,000-foot fall from an exploding airliner into the living inferno and waking night mare of the Thatcherite metropolis at the beginning of the novel).

There is indeed an apocalyptic conflagration, an urban riot in which both demonized immigrants and police provocateurs are the arsonists. Saladin’s wife Pamela and her lover Jumpy Joshi perish. Gibreel walks through the fires of Brickhall blowing an angelic trumpet, convinced he is creating the flames, and he saves Saladin from a burning building: “so that on a night when the city is at war, a night heavy with enmity and rage, there is this small redeeming victory for love.”

That edifying, reassuring denouement is short-lived. To use Rushdie’s beloved Arabian Nights idiom, it was so and it was not. A few months later, back in Bombay, Gibreel’s Saladin-induced jealousy is still raging, and he murders Allie and kills himself. The small victory of love saves only Saladin the false self, the coward, the evildoer. “In spite of all his wrong doing, weakness, guilt—in spite of his humanity—he was getting another chance. There was no accounting for one’s good fortune, that was plain.” Reconciled with his dying father, inheriting a fortune, and reunited with his secret lover Zeenat Vakil, Saladin is led away from the final carnage by Zeenat, who is filled with dubious plans to reconcile him with India and transform him into a political activist. There the story stops.

In spite of his humanity.” Here we touch on the true mainspring of this novel. It took me more than one reading to see the centrality of the Saladin-Gibreel story and the puzzle posed by Saladin’s survival. When The Satanic Verses was honored as the first selection of the Ayotollah’s Book Club, the author was terrorized and vilified (and not only by Islamic fundamentalists), and the novel itself became the most famous unread book on the planet. Those who did read it were unavoidably preoccupied by the Mahound chapters. Blasphemy was denounced in the name of revealed truth, in the name of multicultural sensitivity, in the name of anti-ethnocentrism, and, implausibly, in the name of Marxism. Or it got an understandably muted defense on the grounds that the satirical romp through the Quran is Gibreel’s dream and psychosis.

But the genius of this novel lies in the moral questioning that interweaves the Quranic parody and the mundane revenge tragedy. Rushdie tempers the apocalyptic possibilities of Blake’s enlarged senses with Kant’s enlarged mentality, the capacity “to put ourselves in thought in the place of everyone else.” Or, more precisely, with the novelistic version of the enlarged mentality: the web of perspectives, identifications, and empathies by which the “standpoint of others” is made palpable—and more stubbornly plural and unreconciled than Kantian universalism would wish. Unlike the monotheist who rejects all other religions as mere human creations, the novelistic parodist—puncturing, inverting, desacralizing sacred texts—affirms a human-all-too-human creativity, including humanity’s prodigious invention of its many gods, angelic voices and burning bushes, redeemers, miracles, and taboos. Saladin’s metamorphosis into a goat incarnates his dehumanization at the hands of immigration cops and so expresses, unambiguously, Rushdie’s satirical social commentary on British racism, but Saladin recovers from his metamorphosis only when envy causes him to imagine that Gibreel is the source of all his suffering: “Mr Saladin Chamcha himself, apparently re stored to his old shape, mother-naked but of entirely human aspect and proportions, humanized—is there any option but to conclude?—by the fear some concentration of his hate.” He is ready for revenge. Is his “falsity of self ” the source of his evildoing?

No! Let’s rather say an even harder thing: that evil may not be as far beneath our surfaces as we like to say it is.—That, in fact, we fall towards it naturally, that is, not against our natures.—And that Saladin Chamcha set out to destroy Gibreel Farishta because, finally, it proved easy to do; the true appeal of being evil being the seductive ease with which one may embark upon that road.

The brutalized being recovers his humanity in concentrated rage; suddenly humanized, he slides effortlessly into the banality of evil. Is our humanity forever caught in this vacillation? The novel asks that question in each of its intertwined tales. It asks it of Saladin and Gibreel, of the brutalized crowds that rise up in rage and burn their own neighbors, of prophets who conquer infidels, of visionaries large and small who dream of leading a revolt of the masses. The novel does not furnish an answer. It tries to make the question stick, most uncomfortably in the survival of Saladin, the story’s least heroic character.

Salman Rushdie yokes together exuberant imagination and tragic realism as few other writers in our time. That is the form-giving innovation of his writing. To what does it give form? The answer lies I think in Rushdie’s own cultural formation—a Bildung rare and yet resonant with the unsettled world of our time. Rushdie was brought up in the monotheism of Islam, but his imagination was quickened by the polytheism of Hinduism; he was torn from his beloved India by sectarianism and partition; ill-adapted to Pakistan, he adopted England to nurture his intellectual curiosity and artistic ambitions.

Monotheism and polytheism have ancient histories and modern avatars, East and West. Max Weber located the origins of capitalism in the ascetic monotheism of Protestantism and then saw the ultimate destiny of the West in the secular polytheism of our world of technical, economic, and bureaucratic rationalities, which dissolve all supreme values and leave only the plurality of human projects and aims. Rushdie’s sensibility has traversed, is traversed by, the harsh monotheism and luxuriant polytheism of the Indian subcontinent and the profane polytheism of the West endlessly rocking be tween rationalism and nihilism: it is the experience of that unnamable reality that his novels shape and name. . . .

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