The Rushdie affair reconsidered

Salman Rushdie has just published a memoir — Joseph Anton — of his life under the fatwa promulgated against him by Ayatollah Khomeni on account of Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses. I have taken my bearings on this saga from Daniel Pipes’s prescient treatment of it in The Rushdie Affair, originally published in 1990. In his rewarding New Republic review/essay, Paul Berman cites Kenin Malik’s From Fatwa to Jihad, which also sounds like a valuable contribution.

Berman finds that the presence of Saul Bellow looms large in Rushdie’s thinking about his experience, and Bellow appears in Berman’s essay almost as a motif. The heart of these references to Bellow follows below, but there are more references in the review. Early on Berman observes that Rushdie is a man of the left:

But this is not to say that, in Joseph Anton, Rushdie sets out to defend The Satanic Verses in a froth of left-wing enthusiasm. Mostly he defends his novel on literary grounds. He quotes Saul Bellow, the non-leftist. Or rather, he quotes the college dean in Bellow’s The Dean’s December, who, speaking on behalf of a dog, says, “For God’s sake, open the universe a little more!”—though Rushdie, given his Bombay rationalism, leaves out mention of the deity. He is fond of the quotation, though. Opening the universe means, in this instance, getting away from the pressures of identity politics. It means escaping from the easy assumption that people in other lands must surely be different from oneself.

In the essay’s third section Berman considers the role of Bellow and Herzog in Rushdie’s account:

IT IS REMARKABLE how frequently Saul Bellow’s name comes up in Joseph Anton. Among the British writers of Rushdie’s generation, Bellow seems to have long ago become a cult figure, though why this should be so is less than obvious. It cannot be Bellow’s politics. Rushdie tells us in his memoir that, during the same New York PEN congress in 1986 at which he was recruited to serve the Sandinista cause, he listened to Bellow argue with Günter Grass at one of the big public events—a much-discussed exchange at the time, one of the last public literary disputes of the cold war, with Bellow speaking for a sober appreciation of America and Grass acting as the accusing spokesman for the wretched of the Bronx and other unhappy parts of the Earth. Rushdie was on Grass’s side. He stood up, at Grass’s instigation, to put an anti-imperialist question to Bellow: “Why it was that so many American writers had avoided—or, actually, more provocatively, ‘abdicated’—the task of taking on the subject of America’s immense power in the world?” And in Joseph Anton Rushdie recalls the response: “Bellow bridled. ‘We don’t have tasks,’ he said majestically. ‘We have inspirations.’”

Bellow’s bridling may explain why Rushdie so insistently invokes him in the memoir. Bellow did have inspirations, and chief among those inspirations was a theory about inspirations. He alluded to it even at the PEN congress. His theory was the old Romantic idea, derived from his own readings in the English literary tradition, together with bits and pieces from other literatures. Bellow liked to believe that mysterious spiritual truths lurk beneath the surface details of everyday reality, and that geniuses of literature or philosophy might be capable of glimpsing downward into the mysterious truths, and might offer mankind insights capable of producing a useful turning point or two—new and liberating recognitions. His More Die of Heartbreak came out roughly at the same time as The Satanic Verses—Rushdie mentions it in Joseph Anton—and duly unveiled the Romantic theory once again: the hidden spiritual truths, the turning points, and so forth, not to mention the grandeurs of William Blake and Edgar Allan Poe and even Alexandre Kojève, the Hegelian, the intellectual heroes of this particular novel. The several ideas added up to a doctrine of literary heroism—a theory about writers as the champions of mankind, promoting civilization through feats of literary insight or inspiration.

Then again, Bellow, not being an idiot, was aware that two hundred years of modern science had taken a toll on the metaphysical ruminations of Blake, Poe, and Hegel. To uphold the old Romantic ideas in the face of science may be a noble enterprise; but it skirts being a ridiculous enterprise. Bellow preferred not to be at war with reality. Accordingly he wrote one novel after another evoking soulful professors who appear to be drunk on the grand fermented old Romantic ideas, and meanwhile can barely cope with their impossible wives and lovers and a sinister landscape of gangsters and other practical-minded people. The bookish Quixotes go on clinging to their Romantic beliefs even so, and they end up exuding a mysterious moral seriousness, which is immensely moving—as if the antiquated Romantic notions about hidden truths and deep inspirations must somehow be on the mark, in spite of everything. And this—the whole set of Bellovian ideas and landscapes—is evidently what appeals to Salman Rushdie.

The tom-tom beating in Rushdie’s ear through whole portions of Joseph Anton is unmistakably Bellow’s. In the opening sentence you discover that Rushdie has written his memoirs in the third person, as if the fatwa had fallen upon someone else—a hapless and noble “him” whose adventures Rushdie can speak about only with ironic detachment. By the second paragraph you have already begun to suspect that “Salman Rushdie,” the hero of the book, is under assault not just by the lunatic ayatollah but also by a dangerous and equally sinister second person, who is described as an “American novelist,” namely, Mrs. Rushdie. The wife seems to have been imported directly from Bellow’s pages. She tells Rushdie’s friends that he has attacked her with lighted cigarettes. She steals his photograph albums and papers. She tries to sell a manuscript of The Satanic Verses—even as Rushdie continues writing in his private journal (or so he affirms) that he and his wife “still loved each other.” She tells him that she has cancer and has been undergoing radiotherapy under the care of a London oncologist, but the oncologist says he does not know her. She goes to the United States and telephones Rushdie trans-Atlantically to inform him that somehow the CIA has discovered his hideout in Britain and has broken into the house to steal his papers, which she has learned over coffee with a CIA agent. Rushdie passes the news along to his protectors from Scotland Yard, who pass it along to the higher-ups, who have no alternative but to pass it along to still higher-ups, until at last the report about the CIA possibly breaking into Rushdie’s hideout is brought to the attention of the British prime minister and the president of the United States. But, no, the CIA has done nothing of the sort. The wife also sleeps with Rushdie’s best friend—this last detail straight from the pages of Herzog. “And when the brightness blazed from her face,” Rushdie writes about his soon to be ex-wife, “she could look fabulously attractive, or nuts, or both”—a fine Bellovian sentence.

And all the while Rushdie shows us that his persecuted and inadequate hero—himself—inhabits a universe that is likewise nuts. The account of his continual flight from one safe house to another recalls passages from the autobiographical volumes by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, in grim demonstration that books by Muslim apostates on the run from terrorists have become a modern genre. His account of the police goes beyond anything in Hirsi Ali’s books, if only because Scotland Yard revels in a sort of Sherlock Holmes colorfulness that may not appeal to its Dutch counterparts. He attends the protection squad’s annual party—the “secret policeman’s ball,” he calls it—where he meets some of the other notable worthies under “protection,” not excluding Thatcher herself.

He also glimpses a still larger landscape of world politics that is entirely malign. The British government turns out to have had interests that impinged on poor Rushdie and his fate—the British interest in getting along with the Islamic Republic of Iran, for instance, in the context of the first Gulf war and in regard to British hostages in Lebanon, all of which made it seem as if the dreadful Geoffrey Howe might well be capable of making some sort of deal with the Iranians at Rushdie’s expense. The Americans appear to be not much different, though Rushdie was accorded a not quite formal audience with President Clinton somewhere in the labyrinths of the Old Executive Office Building, next door to the White House. Eventually John Major, Thatcher’s successor, accorded Rushdie a full audience—and like Rushdie’s mother, except in English, took the occasion to lecture Rushdie on the need to show more graciousness in his relations with the British public.

RUSHDIE IS NOT easy on himself. He denounces his own worst failing, as he takes it to be, his “Dreadful Mistake,” which was a moment of cowardice early in the affair. He allowed the British Muslim leaders to convince him that, if only he expressed contrition, his problems would come to an end. So he announced his conversion to Islam and even published an apologetic essay—only to recognize quickly enough that he had been duped by the Muslim leaders, who had no intention of rescuing him from the mad ayatollah but were delighted to reveal him as a malleable weakling. He was mortified, and his friends and supporters were mostly appalled.

Then he recovered from the Dreadful Mistake and, in demonstration of his self-correction, he emits in Joseph Anton a series of fiery and exasperated denunciations of people and ideas that he has had to oppose. Here is a high point of the book; and the high point turns out to be an extended homage to Bellow. Rushdie has composed the denunciations in the form of fantastical letters addressed to the high-and-mighty, not to mention the Almighty, precisely and deliberately in the style of Professor Herzog’s fantastical and slightly cracked letters. “Dear Religion, Can I raise the question of first principles?” begins one of Rushdie’s letters. Another begins, “Dear God,” and goes on to harangue Him on matters relating to the Islamic philosophers of the Middle Ages. The letters are wry, but in their faintly humorous way they offer a solid self-defense, not precisely of The Satanic Verses but of his general outlook.

“Dear Sunday Telegraph,” he begins: “The notion that I have done nothing wrong and, as an innocent man, deserve to be able to lead my life as I choose has evidently been considered and eliminated from your range of options.” To the chief rabbi [who had all but justified the fatwa] he says, in epistolary form: “You do not care how stupid you look.” The most telling of the letters is addressed to a member of parliament named Bernie Grant. “Dear Bernie Grant, MP,” it begins: “‘Burning books,’ you said in the House of Commons exactly one day after the fatwa, ‘is not a big issue for blacks.’” Rushdie responds, in a fashion that owes something to the well-dressed philosopher in Bellow’s final novel, Ravelstein, or to the model for Bellow’s fictional character, the Chicago philosopher Allan Bloom….

Berman’s essay is something of a tour de force and worth reading in its entirety.

Via RealClearPolitics.

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