DECEMBER 7, 2012
Joseph Anton: A Memoir
By Salman Rushdie
(Random House, 636 pp., $30)
THE RUSHDIE AFFAIR is the most consequential political event in the history of the novel, and Salman Rushdie’s memoir of his experience of the affair is, by definition, a document of capital importance. The memoir begins on February 14, 1989, when Rushdie learned that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had issued the extraordinary fatwa calling on Muslims all over the world to murder him and everyone else who had contributed to the publication of his latest novel, The Satanic Verses. Rushdie was living in London with his second wife, Marianne Wiggins, also a writer, and right away he disappeared into the protection of Scotland Yard. He adopted for security purposes the name “Joseph Anton,” which he derived from Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. And he retained this name during the entire period when he was fully in hiding and then partly in hiding, more than a decade spent under the surveillance of bodyguards, special drivers, and complicated police arrangements, until the British security experts finally determined that Iran’s secret services and the Islamic Republic’s Lebanese allies in Hezbollah no longer seemed to be fielding hit squads against him, and the risk of assassination had subsided to less than alarming levels. In the ultimate lines of his memoir Rushdie describes wandering out to the street after his reassuring final meeting with Scotland Yard, free at last to hail a passing cab as any ordinary person might do, without having to fret over the intrusive vigilance of the “A” Squad of the Special Branch and its planning and contingency measures—though no one needs to be reminded that, for as long as he lives, the shadow of a theocratic malediction will hover over Salman Rushdie.
The memoir is 636 pages, and Rushdie uses the first ninety-odd of those pages to tell us how he came to write The Satanic Verses. His father—who lived long enough to read Rushdie’s early novels, but not long enough to see The Satanic Verses—was an Indian Muslim of some wealth who attended Cambridge University, and he adopted the family name Rushdie in homage to Ibn Rushd, the greatest of the medieval Islamic defenders of Aristotelian philosophy, known to the medieval Europeans as Averroës. An august philosophical rationalism was the household norm among the Rushdies of Bombay. The father also entertained the ambition of improving the Koran by reorganizing the text, although he never got around to doing this. In 1961 little Salman, at the age of thirteen, departed India for the Rugby School in faraway Britain, which lifted him into a celestial sphere defined by Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Matthew Arnold, Rupert Brooke, and Christian hymns, where he was miserable. And he trod in his father’s footsteps to Cambridge, which seems to have cheered him up.
His final year at King’s College, Cambridge, was 1967–1968, which, in various zones of the student universe around the world, was an age of barricades and insurrections. His own part in the worldwide agitation appears to have been small. At the graduation ceremony he wore the wrong color shoes and was sent back to his room in disgrace to put on the right shoes. Transgression is subjective, however, and it is significant that in Joseph Anton more than forty years later he remembers the shoes. And, incidentally, during that same transgressive final year he took up, with professorial guidance, his own study of the Koran. His studies led him to the curious story of two lines of verse that are known in the lore of Islam as “satanic.” The Koran, as everybody knows, was dictated to Prophet Muhammad by the archangel Gabriel, and then was recited by the Prophet to his followers. One day the Prophet confessed to his followers that two of the verses had been dictated not by Gabriel but by Satan, and the unfortunate verses needed to be expunged from the sacred work—all of which led young Rushdie, as he tells us in Joseph Anton, to exclaim (here was his 1968 uprising), “Good story.” Rushdie’s enthusiasm for italic lettering has always been a happy thing.
Rushdie insists that when he got around to putting the good story to use in The Satanic Verses—by then a couple of decades had passed, and he was already the well-regarded author of Midnight’s Children and two other novels— provocation was not his motive. He entertained complicated ambitions for the novel, but the complications proved difficult to work out, and he took a break from his labors to attend an international PEN congress in New York in 1986, where he happened to meet a Nicaraguan poet named Rosario Murillo, who was a Sandinista revolutionary and the wife of Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega.
The compañera invited Rushdie to Nicaragua, and, since he was already an earnest militant of the British left and even a member of the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign in London, he seized on the opportunity and made his way to Managua. He toured the country and, despite a few modest doubts, drew most of the conclusions that his Sandinista hosts plainly hoped he would draw. Afterwards he turned into what he convincingly calls a “Nicaragua bore.” In this spirit, he dashed off a short hectoring travelogue of his Nicaraguan adventures, and he assigned his little book a vivid title, The Jaguar Smile, which he derived from a silly limerick (but which, without his knowing it, evokes some grand traditions of Nicaraguan poetry). His memoir makes clear that, in retrospect, he takes pride even now in having needled the foolish Reaganites of the United States. A book tour in the United States brought him to San Francisco, where a brainless radio talk-show host was, in Rushdie’s description, “displeased by the book’s opposition to the American economic blockade of Nicaragua and the Reagan administration’s support of the contra forces’ fight to topple the Sandinista government.”
The displeased host put to him one of those sub-moronic American questions that astonish certain kinds of sophisticated people: “Mr. Rushdie, to what extent are you a Communist stooge?”—which (to continue with the account in Joseph Anton) led Rushdie to annoy the host still further by bursting into live radio laughter. Oh, his mischievous younger exploits!—though in Joseph Anton Rushdie appears not to consider that, by following the Sandinistas around Managua, he may have fallen into the syndrome that was described by the historian Paul Hollander in yet another book from the 1980s, a classic called Political Pilgrims, a study of deluded revolutionary tourism.
The Jaguar Smile is not a classic, except in the sense that Paul Hollander might consider it one. Rushdie’s Nicaraguan episode afforded him, even so, a refreshing break from the taxing labor of disentangling the complexities of The Satanic Verses. He returned to the novel invigorated. Or maybe in Joseph Anton he dwells on his Sandinista adventures in the hope of refuting one of the more irksome accusations that came his way post-fatwa—namely, the notion that he composed The Satanic Verses out of an imperialist urge to inflict injury on the revolutionary Third World. The accusation was unjust and absurd on its face, and the Reaganite accusation against him about The Jaguar Smile drives this point home. A communist stooge cannot be an imperialist agent.
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. Rushdie expounds his view a little windily, but you get his point: “If the art of the novel revealed anything, it was that human nature was the great constant, in any culture, in any place, in any time, and that, as Heraclitus had said two thousand years earlier, a man’s ethos, his way of being in the world, was his daimon, the guiding principle that shaped his life—or, in the pithier, more familiar formulation of the idea, that character was destiny.”
Such is The Satanic Verses’ principal defense. In composing all of his novels, this one included, he was putting up a fight for the beleaguered human race. “Literature’s view of human nature encouraged understanding, sympathy, and identification with people not like oneself, but the world was pushing everyone in the opposite direction, toward narrowness, bigotry, tribalism, cultism and war.” And literature was pushing back.
Only, you could wonder in what way did The Satanic Verses in particular, and not just “the art of the novel,” push back? It was not by offending Islam. He points out that, in the novel’s scandalous ancient Arabian scenes, he was careful never to say Islam’s name. The novel conjures, instead, a fictional religion called “Submission.” And the scandalous scenes unfold in the course of a dream sequence, which no one ought to confuse with reality. Nor does he slander the Prophet Muhammad’s wives, not if you read the scenes closely. The prostitutes in the Arabian brothel merely happen to bear the names of the Prophet’s wives, while the wives themselves remain virtuously at home.
These points may seem a bit narrow. Still, he has to answer the accusations. Also, the defendant would like to be acquitted. He insists that The Satanic Verses reveals a positive estimation of the founding days of Islam, “essentially admiring of the Prophet of Islam and even respectful toward him.” This is believable, from a literary standpoint. You would have to be a pinch-brained novelist indeed to look upon the story of Islam’s early desert days with anything but admiring eyes. The Satanic Verses were “an artistic engagement with the phenomenon of revelation.” Mostly the book was an attempt to do something imaginative with his own “experience of migration and metamorphosis”—the experience that had sent the lad from Bombay catapulting into the blue yonder of Tom Brown’s Schooldays. This is more than believable. Multiple identities are Rushdie’s stock in trade. And his defense of The Satanic Verses, having gone thus far, goes no further, which strikes me as oddly and even excessively modest, almost as if, in matters of egomania, of which Rushdie is constantly taxed, his dosage could use, in truth, an extra milligram. His novel is better than he suggests, and it is not hard to explain why.
ANYBODY WHO has read The Satanic Verses will remember that it is a buddy novel about the South Asia-to-Britain immigration. The buddies are two young men from India who miraculously survive a terrorist bombing of the airplane that is bringing them to Britain. They arrive a bit addled, or more than a bit, with one of the men sprouting horns like a goat and the other sprouting a halo. The young men have a rough time adjusting to their new British home, they get knocked about in the London hurly-burly (which, in The Satanic Verses, Rushdie presents as wonderfully alive), they variously succeed and fail with women and end up pursuing sharply different courses in life.
The novel is less than satisfactory in several respects, its structure sometimes obscure and exasperating, its orchestral arrangements of slang and dialect turned up so loudly as to drown out the tonalities of individual personality. Landscape is character, said Henry James; and it had better be, in the novels of Salman Rushdie. Even before The Satanic Verses had ignited a world crisis, during the hiatus between pub. date and the earliest book-burnings, there were critics who complained that Rushdie’s novel was tedious or even unreadable. But this was only because the critics allowed the novel’s weakest aspects to conceal its strengths.
Rushdie’s achievement in this book was to put his finger on something new and alarming on the modern scene. One of the addled buddies, the halo-bearing Gibreel, falls apart mentally, and the nervous breakdown leaves him unable to distinguish reliably between the everyday world of the London streets and the fabulous Arabian scenes that he remembers from the Koran. Nothing in Gibreel’s delirium hints at supernatural alternatives. This is not the wisdom of madness. Gibreel has merely gone out of his mind. But the exact way in which he has done so, his peculiar befuddlement over the modern West and a phantasmagorically remembered Koran, the agony he feels, the hysteria, his need to blow a trumpet—this ought to attract our attention.
MOST OF RUSHDIE’S readers a quarter century ago may have regarded Gibreel’s psychological disorder as merely one more example of Rushdie’s penchant for spicing his stews with unusual flavors. You pick up a Rushdie novel in the hope of burning your tongue. In the years since then, however, the Islamist movement has scored its many triumphs, and some of the Islamist theoreticians and their works have come up for public discussion, and it may be that, for the purpose of appreciating Rushdie’s insight and mischief, the Islamist master-thinkers can, like a perceptive literary critic, guide us to a broader understanding of the novel’s crucial passages.
One of the greatest of the Islamist theoreticians, Sayyid Qutb of Cairo (born in 1906, hanged in 1966 by Nasser), was, by remarkable coincidence, a literary critic himself during the early phases of his career, before he embraced the Islamist cause—an Egyptian product of the English literary tradition, steeped in Coleridge and the Romantics. “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan....” Even in his Islamist writings, Qutb gravitated toward questions of a sort that might stir a novelist’s curiosity, and chief among those questions were psychological disorders and their cultural and intellectual sources. This was Qutb’s theme in a pamphlet called Islam: The Religion of the Future—not one of his better-known works, but a stimulating tract even so, at least to anybody who harbors a secret fondness for pop-eyed theories of universal history.
Qutb’s theories were theological. He was Bishop Bossuet, rendered modern and Islamic. In Qutb’s analysis, the early Christians, in trying to rectify the errors of Judaism, introduced more errors into religion, and Christianity’s leaders over the next centuries introduced still more errors, unto the idea of the Eucharist, which seemed to Qutb the acme of irrationality—with catastrophic consequences for still later centuries. Christian error meant that in modern times science and religion, which ought to be one, underwent a split. Or rather, a schism emerged between science and the corrupted religion that centuries of Christian confusion had produced. In the aftermath of the schismatic catastrophe, you could believe in science or you could believe in religion, but you could no longer believe in both. So a struggle broke out between reason and religion.
This unfortunate conflict produced a psychological condition, or pathology, that Qutb called the “Hideous Schizophrenia.” The pathology afflicted Western society, but then, because Western society, with its mastery of science, has ended up dominating the world, the Hideous Schizophrenia spread epidemically to all points. People in every corner of the planet came to feel a pathological agony, as if divorced from their own true nature, inhabiting societies that were no longer properly built for human beings, their imaginations divided into two realms at once, the sacred and the secular.
The whole purpose of the Islamist movement, for Qutb, was to cure the schizophrenia. This was going to be achieved by bringing about the worldwide triumph of Islam, the “Religion of the Future”—though by Islam, Qutb did not mean the error-ridden and corrupt Muslim religion of the twentieth century, his own era. The corrupt Islam of modern times was, in his estimation, merely a dreadful reversion to pagan ignorance—which he called, using an obscure Koranic term, Jahiliyyah, signifying the barbarous state of knowledge that prevailed in pre-Islamic Arabia. Qutb’s aspiration was to resurrect, instead, the ancient faith of Koranic times, when the Prophet and his Companions presided over the original Islamic state in Medina, and a pristine belief in God and His Messenger generated a perfect orderliness of life and ritual that encompassed religion and science and everything else. Qutb’s dream was to restore, by revolutionary action, the Koranic Medina, except in a version that was going to be up-to-date and global—a revived Golden Age in which the faithful would no longer have to endure the agonies of pathological distress, and the faithless would meet their just deserts.
But if you read Qutb, you could find yourself wondering what is, exactly, this singular distress—the Hideous Schizophrenia that meanwhile afflicts mankind. To be subjected to the peculiar experience of inhabiting two realms at once, secular and religious, with each of those realms corrupted and tawdry—how does this feel, in your soul? Qutb made clear that he had undergone the agony of being penetrated by Western ideas. He had visited the United States and had stared bug-eyed at the aberrant ghastliness of American life, so wildly at variance with his own resolutely demure Islamic and Egyptian sensibility. But he never offered any kind of intimate account of the particulars of the schizophrenic agony, the stabs of pain and torment that must render these experiences hideous—at least not in anything I have read.
SO, THEN, The Satanic Verses, in its scandalous portions—what did Rushdie actually do in those pages? He put a human face on the Hideous Schizophrenia. The face is poor Gibreel’s, the addled buddy, stumbling about the London streets in his delirium—not an idiosyncratic instance at all, but all too representative, undergoing the specific agony of culture and psychology and theology that had preoccupied the greatest of the Islamist theoreticians. I do not mean to suggest that in coming up with Gibreel and his problems, Rushdie drew on the Islamist thinkers in any sort of direct way. Joseph Anton gives no indication that Rushdie has bothered to read the Islamists.
Still, the memoir suggests how he may have learned these things. Leftism was his library. By the 1980s, Rushdie had not only enlisted in the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign but, more to the point, had thrown himself also into what was called the “anti-racist” movement—which, alas, he does not describe in Joseph Anton, except to make clear that his participation was in earnest. Nothing is mysterious about these experiences, though. Christopher Hitchens recalled in his own memoir that he met Rushdie in Notting Hill in London in a period when Rushdie was known to run in “Third World” and black-power circles, which led Hitchens to worry about getting “Mau-Mau-ed.” (Rushdie turned out instead to be keen on playing word games based on Shakespeare.) The circles in question were serious enterprises, and you can find a usefully broad account of the atmosphere surrounding them from a British writer with a Pakistani background named Kenan Malik, who remembers his own anti-racist agitations of those days in a book called From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Aftermath, which came out two or three years ago.
Malik reminds us that, in Britain during the 1970s and 1980s, skinhead louts and the street brawlers of the National Front made a habit of launching assaults on immigrants from the Caribbean and South Asia. Racist murders became a trend. The anti-racist (and “anti-fascist”) campaign started up in response, originally as an enterprise of the Marxist left, especially the Trotskyists of the Socialist Workers Party, but also a variety of other mini-sects and post-Trotskyist tendencies, sometimes with Labor Party affiliations. In the course of the 1980s, however, the movement underwent a weird transformation, losing ever more of its red Marxist tint and gaining an ever-stronger Islamic quality, derived from Islamist organizations that in the past hardly anyone in Britain had heard of.
Kenan Malik attributes the transformation to subsidies from Saudi Arabia, combined with a disastrous policy of multiculturalism adopted by asinine leftists in the Greater London Council and other such institutions, who distributed their own subsidies to the militant mosques. The mosques began to thrive. And ordinary immigrants in the anti-racist movement, who in the past might have defined themselves as foreign-born members of the larger British working class—as militant leftists, affirming the internationalist and anti-racist principles of the traditional left—began to think of themselves instead as militants of Islam. This was a big transformation. A similar development was going on in France during those years, even without foolish multiculturalist policies by the government. A coalition of leftists and intellectuals promoted a pro-immigrant movement, which enjoyed a lot of support in the immigrant neighborhoods—and then was overtaken by an Islamist movement that, in France exactly as in Britain, seemed to come from nowhere.
Or again, if you take in a still wider vista, as if zooming out from a Google map, you might notice that similar trends were playing out across whole expanses of the globe during the 1980s. The traditional left was going down and the Islamists were going up—a trend visible in the Arab world, in East Africa, in Iran (where the Islamists were murdering their own Marxist allies), in Afghanistan (where the mujahideen were pummeling the Communist government and would soon overthrow it), and everywhere else. It was a global development, even if hardly anyone outside of the Islamist ranks bothered to notice.
Anyway, in London it was also a local development, which was evidently noticed at least by Salman Rushdie, as he went about attending his anti-racist meetings and hanging out with Third Worldists and black-power militants. Malik describes what it was like to observe these goings-on—the experience of knowing someone as a pillar of the old proletarian left, only to discover that, a few years later, the same old comrade has turned into a champion of Islam in a strange and politicized version. Rushdie, with his ear attuned to the peculiarities of exotic rhetorics and his imagination eager to picture the internal workings of other people’s minds, evidently made some exceptionally close observations. And in this way he discovered the psychological traumas that Qutb and the Islamist theoreticians had already explored in their Arabic and Urdu writings. Rushdie was the English-language Columbus of this discovery. Joseph Anton shows that, like Columbus, he had no idea that he had found anything new. Still, land ho!
RUSHDIE ALSO PROPOSED a series of acute observations that Qutb and his fellow-thinkers would never have countenanced, and you run across those observations in precisely the scenes that turned out to be most controversial. Yes, Rushdie can go on pleading in Joseph Anton that his Arabian scenes were never meant to be more than a dream. In The Satanic Verses he altered a few of the Koranic names, just to underline still more emphatically that he never intended Gibreel’s ravings to be regarded as a mockery of the sacred text. The religious prophet in Gibreel’s dream bears the name of Mahound, instead of Muhammad. We readers are supposed to notice the difference; but really there is no point in denying that in these scenes Rushdie has begun to play with a serious blasphemy, and not just in a spirit of amiable satire.
Mahound—to begin there—was the name that Christians in medieval Europe assigned to Muhammad in order to picture the Prophet of Islam as the devil incarnate. The Medina-like society over which Mahound presides in Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses is called, of all things, “Jahilia,” that is, Jahiliyyah, meaning the pre-Islamic pagan ignorance that Qutb so thoroughly loathed. Gibreel’s dream in The Satanic Verses conjures, in sum, an Islam that has been twisted into gargoyle shapes. Not to mention the brothel!—which Rushdie calls “The Curtain,” meaning (to readers in the know) the pious Islamic hijab. And so, in drawing his own portrait of the Hideous Schizophrenia as experienced by his befuddled Gibreel, Rushdie pictured a split between, on one side, a boisterous and dangerous modern secular universe, and, on the other, a religious universe that appears to have sprouted its own diabolical horns. The seventh century, in Rushdie’s resurrection of it, turns out to be a scandal. And the deeper into mockery Rushdie’s portrait appears to descend, the sharper his observations become.
It is worth asking what anyone has in mind when blasphemy comes up for discussion. Everybody can agree that blasphemy is a slap in the face of the sacred, like shouting “boo” or something worse in the middle of the service. But I am not sure that everyone can agree on the meaning of the sacred. If you dawdle over the question for a moment, you might notice that, as a practical matter, we moderns—the readers of novels, anyway—tend to uphold a few post-confessional notions of our own on this crucial question. Human sympathy, respect for life and human reason and individual dignity, aversion to cruelty: thosetraits seem to us sacred, even if they lack supernatural qualities. Or is “sacred” too strong a term, given the supernatural lack? Nearly sacred, then. Principles to revere. At any rate, it is hard to imagine a novel getting very far without principles of this sort. And when someone shouts “boo” at these principles, we recoil, as if we had come face to face with a horrifying blasphemy.
Do you need to see the truth of this point demonstrated? Ask yourself how you would respond if someone were to stand up in front of you and flatly advocate or excuse the extermination of this or that ethnic group, or advocate random killings and mass suicide, or display a serene satisfied pleasure at the spectacle of human gore and sundered body parts. Your stomach would tighten, no? Nor would it matter terribly much whether the person expressing the outlandish views had any prospect of putting his ideas into effect. The mere articulation would seem horrendous. Blasphemous, that is; or nearly so. But you do not have to think about any of this in a hypothetical way.
THE EARLIEST PROTESTS against The Satanic Verses broke out in India in late 1988, shortly after the novel was published. The first effort to organize an efficient international campaign was mounted, however, by a religious institution in Leicester, England, called the Islamic Foundation, which you can read about in Malik’s book. The Islamic Foundation’s roots are Pakistani, and its funding is Saudi. The Islamic Foundation, apart from trying to suppress books of which it disapproves, publishes its own books, and in elegant editions, too. Some ten years after the start of the Rushdie affair, the foundation began to bring out, volume by volume, a translation of Qutb’s Koranic commentaries, In the Shade of the Qur’an, a gigantic publishing enterprise.
The commentaries amount to an utopian exposition in the form of a theological exegesis. The sandy desert air brushes against your exposed nose or your hands; the sun beats upon your head, through the shade; and a perfect society deploys before your eyes, pious, just, and stern. You also run into any number of passages that might be expected to catch the attention of a modern and civilized reader, partly because of the subject matter and partly because of the author’s calm and tranquil voice. Qutb’s discussion of the punitive amputations of hands and feet, for instance, is composed in a morbid deadpan, as if he were speaking of something normal, the way a medical textbook might report on procedures to follow in cases of gangrene or war injuries: “When a thief is punished, his hand is cut off up to the wrist. If he commits theft again, then his left foot is cut off up to the ankle. In case of a third of fourth theft, scholars have different views as to what is cut off,” and so on. The tone is calm because utopia is all-encompassing, and rectitude requires correction, and the correctional methods, like everything else, have been dictated by the archangel.
I would like to think that modern and cosmopolitan readers, in turning Qutb’s pages, might notice also his discussion of the Jews. In Qutb’s opus, the Jews play pretty much the same role as they do in Bishop Bossuet’s Discourse on Universal History, from 1681—a people who stand at the origins of universal history because of the revelation they received from God, then are repeatedly massacred and punished in other ways because of their betrayals, yet who never disappear from consideration because their crimes and their sufferings testify to the existence of God. Bossuet emphasizes the Jewish crimes in Roman Jerusalem, and Qutb emphasizes the Jewish crimes in Arabian Medina. In either case slaughter is the punishment, except that Qutb updates his commentary to the twentieth century. Nor is there doubt as to the vastness of Jewish crime, which Qutb establishes by citing The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Qutb’s commentaries in their Islamic Foundation edition are presented as altogether respectable, with prefaces by learned worthies testifying to the author’s grandeur and sagacity. The very design of the volumes bespeaks an august elegance. And yet these editions from the Islamic Foundation—aren’t these volumes the actual blasphemous publications that have appeared in Britain during the last quarter century (though I am sure I could come up with other examples as well)? Isn’t Qutb, and not Rushdie, the genuine example of a literary blasphemer?
RUSHDIE’S FURTHER achievement in The Satanic Verses was to make this point. The dream that animates Gibreel is the Islamist dream; but the Islamist dream turns out to be a horrible transgression. Qutb’s commentaries add up to an Islamist analysis; and Rushdie’s novel adds up to an analysis of Islamism. Qutb is pious, and Rushdie, derisory. Sometimes derision is precision. One of the lesser characters in the The Satanic Verses stammers a truth: “Fact is ... religious fafaith, which encodes the highest ass ass aspirations of human race, is now, in our cocountry, the servant of lowest instincts, and gogo God is the creature of evil.” The evil is marvelously visible, too. In one of the scenes set in India, an entire village decides to make the pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca. The villagers succumb to the mad ideas of a silver-haired preacher dressed in butterflies, who convinces everyone that walking through water is perfectly feasible. And so everyone marches into the Arabian Sea and drowns. Rushdie is playful, light, colorful, and cutting.
Was Rushdie foolish to point out these suicidal and murderous impulses, back in 1988? Khomeini had already devoted the previous several years to fielding vast military units of young Iranian boys devoted to suicide. Suicide bombing had already spread into Lebanon, though a mass cult of suicide had not yet spread any farther. Hamas was organized only in that year. Hamas prospered, though, and suicide likewise. So Rushdie was onto something. The Satanic Verses ought to be celebrated as prophetic. The book is a fine descendant of a series of novels from a century ago and more that turned out to have correctly identified the ideological manias that proved to be the ruin of the twentieth century. Henry James’s The Princess Casamassima, G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and other books, maybe Jack London’s The Iron Heel—those were works of genius because, in feats of artistic intuition, they identified strands of thought and behavior that could only have seemed minor or insignificant at the time, but later swelled into the giant cancers of world war and totalitarian atrocity. The Satanic Verses is the novel that in our time most successfully identified, before the fact, the strands of life and thought that eventually swelled into the Islamist campaign in various parts of the world, including our own—the novel that succeeded in bringing these matters to public attention.
AND THEN—to return to Joseph Anton—the roof fell in on Rushdie. The novel mocked a send-up of Ayatollah Khomeini, and the real-life ayatollah demonstrated the accuracy of the mockery. The stabbing of Rushdie’s Italian translator, who survived; the murder of the Japanese translator; the serious wounding of the stout-hearted Norwegian publisher William Nygaard by a terrorist who has never been caught; the riot in Pakistan that marched on the American Cultural Center in Islamabad and left five of the rioters dead; the riot in Turkey directed against someone who had defended Rushdie, which left thirty-seven people dead in a fire; the accidental detonation of a bomb in a London hotel that blew someone up; a bombing outside a department store in London; the fire-bombing of various bookstores in Britain; a fire-bombing even in California; and so on—these were merely the violent events.
Huge portions of the British press turned against Rushdie and went on speaking contemptuously of him for many years, such that, in his eyes, the British press became the Daily Insult. It is dismaying to be reminded by Joseph Anton how many writers looked on Rushdie as at fault, from John le Carré to Hugh Trevor-Roper to Joseph Brodsky (a member, Rushdie tells us, of the “he-knew-what-he-was-doing, he-did-it-on-purpose party”). The Iranian leaders went on speaking about Rushdie in a bloodcurdling invective for years, and in Britain a variety of prominent British Muslims expressed themselves in similar fashion; and instead of discrediting themselves, the British men of faith rose ever more prominently in British society. Iqbal Sacranie, of the Balham mosque in London, said about Rushdie, “death, perhaps, is a bit too easy for him”—and was granted a knighthood in recognition of his achievements as a leader of the Muslim community. Rushdie tells us that, according to a poll, four out of five British Muslims believed that some sort of action should be taken against him. In The Satanic Verses he made fun of a Cat Stevens stand-in, and in real life Cat Stevens, presently re-named Yusuf Islam, specified on television that action against Rushdie ought to mean murder. The archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, declared that “we must be more tolerant of Muslim anger.” Britain’s chief rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits, said that “both Mr. Rushdie and the Ayatollah have abused freedom of speech.” Remarks by the leaders of the British government were not better; Margaret Thatcher’s foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, exuded contempt. The first head of state anywhere on Earth to rise to Rushdie’s defense instantly and unequivocally was Václav Havel, the president of what was then Czechoslovakia, followed by Mary Robinson of Ireland, who thereby stuck it to Britain; but these were not superpowers.
And so Rushdie, whose novel described his two buddies from India as victims of recent global developments, ended up likewise a victim even of his own immigrant status. He arrived at his insights because, in his capacity as estimable leftist, ’68er variety, he had attended the anti-racist meetings in the 1980s; but also because, as an immigrant from India, he was able, during those meetings, to make shrewder and more intimate observations about the South Asians sitting in the other seats than might have been expected from the solid non-immigrant Trotskyists of Cambridge or Oxford. His Bombay boyhood made him too hip for his own good. If only he hadn’t been an Urdu-speaker! Urdu is within his sphere of knowledge, though. He tells us that his mother instructed him, in Urdu over the phone, “This time, write a nice book.”
The book that followed The Satanic Verses was in fact generically nice, Haroun and the Sea of Stories—a children’s novel, composed for his little son, an expression of fatherly love. But niceness was of no avail. He knew too much about the immigrant world, and was too quick to write about what he knew, and brought to his writings a confidence in his own principles that may have been bestowed upon him by his father, the admirer of Ibn Rushd, which made him bold instead of diffident. After the Islamists launched their calls for his murder, the disdain expressed for him by the leaders of the government raised the question of whether, in their eyes, too, his Britishness was somewhat attenuated. And so his book turned out to be prophetic in one more fashion: like his immigrant buddies from India, Rushdie ended up, in his haughty celebrity style, an oppressed immigrant himself—though it is entirely to his credit that, in Joseph Anton,he chooses to present himself in no such light. He does not wish to be a demagogue. But Joseph Anton suggests that he has had some difficulty in deciding what sort of posture he should, in fact, adopt.
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 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:
You represent, sir, the unacceptable face of multiculturalism, its deformation into an ideology of cultural relativism. Cultural relativism is the death of ethical thought, supporting the right of tyrannical priests to tyrannize, of despotic parents to mutilate their daughters, of bigoted individuals to hate homosexuals and Jews, because it is part of their “culture” to do so. Bigotry, prejudice and violence or the threat of violence are not human “values.” They are proof of the absence of such values. They are not the manifestations of a person’s “culture.” They are indications of a person’s lack of culture. In such crucial matters, sir, to quote the great monochrome philosopher Michael Jackson, it don’t matter if you’re black or white.
He goes further, too—though for some reason in the climactic passages of his polemic, he puts aside his Herzog mode and speaks directly to the reader:
Something new was happening here: the growth of a new intolerance. It was spreading across the surface of the Earth, but nobody wanted to know. A new word had been created to help the blind remain blind: Islamophobia. To criticize the militant stridency of this religion in its contemporary incarnation was to be a bigot. A phobic person was extreme and irrational in his views, and so the fault lay with such persons and not with the belief system that boasted over one billion followers worldwide. One billion believers could not be wrong, therefore the critics must be the ones foaming at the mouth.
He observes a few difficulties in allowing the Islamist movement to define the limits of what can be said:
He knew, as surely as he knew anything, that the fanatical cancer spreading through Muslim communities would, in the end, explode into the wider world beyond Islam. If the intellectual battle was lost—if this new Islam established its right to be “respected” and to have its opponents excoriated, placed beyond the pale, and, why not, even killed—then political defeat would follow.
He remembers with admiration the tolerant Islam of his grandfather, a medical doctor in India:
But something was eating away at the faith of his grandfather, corroding and corrupting it, making it an ideology of narrowness and intolerance, banning books, persecuting thinkers, erecting absolutisms, turning dogma into a weapon with which to beat the undogmatic. That thing needed to be fought and to fight it one had to name it and the only name that fit was Islam. Actually existing Islam had become its own poison and Muslims were dying of it and that needed to be said, in Finland, Spain, America, Denmark, Norway and everywhere else. He would say it, if nobody else would. He wanted to speak, too, for the idea that liberty was everyone’s heritage and not, as Samuel Huntington argued, a Western notion alien to the cultures of the East.
ALL THIS IS STIRRING and well done; but then Joseph Anton takes an odd turn. As his book advances, Rushdie tends to lapse into a new and different posture, which leaves him railing no longer against his authentic enemies and their apologists but against various worthies on his own team—his publishing house especially, which was Viking Penguin, the CEO of which was Peter Mayer. The ayatollah’s original fatwacalled on the world’s Muslims to murder not only Rushdie himself but also his publishers; and Iranian propaganda helpfully added that Rushdie’s publishers happened to be Jewish, as if to supply additional motivation to any would-be assassins—which meant that Mayer and everyone else at the publishing house had reason to be frightened. Four of Penguin’s bookstores in Britain were fire-bombed. The publishing house surrounded itself with security agents, bomb-sniffing dogs and bomb-detection machines.
Even so, Viking Penguin kept The Satanic Verses in print, which was a solid achievement. Nor did the publishers delete any of the controversial passages, or deck out the book with a new scholarly preface or anything else that, in the ostensible interest of shedding light, might have amounted to a Viking Penguin version of Rushdie’s Dreadful Mistake. Rushdie acknowledges the publishers’ fortitude. On the matter of bringing out a paperback edition, however, the publishers figured that delay was the better part of valor, whereas Rushdie and his literary agents, Andrew Wylie and Gillon Aitken, figured that delay was disaster. The feuding was bitter. This seems to me normal, under the circumstances. Ultimately it was resolved by having Wylie himself bring out the paperback, under the name of a somewhat fictional publisher’s consortium.
But Rushdie is not done seething. Viking Penguin’s lawyer was Martin Garbus, who, in Rushdie’s account, “was a royal pain in the neck, a person of immense self-satisfaction and imperceptible utility.” Rushdie thinks Mayer and the publishing house mounted a whisper campaign against him, as if, like his wife, the publishers had become genuine enemies and not just uncooperative allies. I cannot judge whether Rushdie is right about any of this—though I see that Kenan Malik in his entirely anti-Islamist book on the affair expresses great admiration for Viking Penguin. Whatever might be the reality, the charm fades from Rushdie’s tone in these passages. And it keeps on fading.
He quotes Bellow remarking that, in matters of police repression, there is no accuracy; and this turns out to be true in matters of police protection as well. Police departments did their best by Rushdie, but their best always turned out to be too much. The first time that Rushdie traveled to New York, post-fatwa, the New York Police Department accorded him the same military-level degree of security that would have been accorded to, say, Yasir Arafat—which leads Rushdie to a few lines of mockery at the expense of someone he calls “Lieutenant Bob,” whose bureaucratic solemnity and stiffness strike him as laughable. Rushdie expresses a sincere and gushing gratitude to the members of Scotland Yard’s special squad, four men at a time, who spent large chunks of their police careers protecting him; but something in his gush reminds me of Dickens’s fondness for master-servant relations. “Dear Robinson Crusoe,”begins one of his Bellovian letters, “Suppose you had four Man Fridays to keep you company, and they were all heavily armed. Would you feel safer, or less safe?”—which expresses, I guess, a reasonable annoyance on Rushdie’s part. To be surrounded year after year by four heavies and their weapons is not an agreeable household reality. One of those weapons went off accidentally in the house. But the members of Rushdie’s protection squad were not his manservants, and the comparison to Robinson Crusoe’s slave is the sort of thing that Rushdie’s editors ought to have edited out.
THE TRIPS to the United States that Rushdie began to make in the mid-1990s allowed him to attend parties, to rent a summer house on Long Island, and generally to reacquaint himself with the ordinary pleasures of life. And the greatest of these pleasures, as recorded in Joseph Anton, turns out to be celebrity worship. Normal name-dropping consists of stressing one’s intimacy with people one hardly knows; but Rushdie inverts the form, such that his most intimate friends are repeatedly cited with given and surnames intact, as if life were a talk show and there were no friends, only guests. No matter how many times he may be mentioned in Joseph Anton, Martin Amis can be counted on to make a reappearance, several pages later, with both names intact, in case you should fail to appreciate the scale of the celebrity-spotting.
Some of Rushdie’s social triumphs are painful to witness. Near the end of the book he attends a reception in New York at Tina Brown’s house,
where he found himself standing in a small circle of guests whose other members were Martin Amis, Martin Scorsese, David Bowie, Iman, Harrison Ford, Calista Flockhart and Jerry Seinfeld. “Mr. Rushdie,” Seinfeld said nervously, “did you ever see the episode of the show we did about you?” This was the episode in which Kramer claimed to have seen “Salman Rushdie” in the steam room and he and Jerry interrogated the man whose name, “Sal Bass,” they thought might be code for, well, Salmon. When he reassured Mr. Seinfeld that he had thought the episode very funny, the comedian visibly relaxed.
It is as if, by the end of the book, Rushdie has given up on his ambitiously conceived ironic narrator, “Salman Rushdie,” in favor of writing copy for the Daily Insult. What can explain the decline into this sort of thing? The rancor at his own comrades, the name-dropping, the author’s heavily shrouded eyelids batting orgasmically at the sight of a flesh-and-blood TV star, not to mention the pages devoted to escapades with yet another wife, this time a beautiful TV chef and Playboy cover girl who dropped him in favor of a wealthy old coot, though in the course of the doomed marriage he did have an exciting lunch with Warren Beatty, etc.—it is a bit much.
BUT I THINK I understand. Rushdie is the victim of a gigantic accident. He is an artist, not a theoretician or a philosopher, and his art is more intuitive than well-thought-out. As a young man he achieved a gigantic success with Midnight’s Children, and he did this by coming up with the inspired idea of writing the story of a child whose life is coterminous with the decolonization of India. Alfred de Musset came up with a similar stroke of genius in writing The Confession of a Child of the Century back in 1836, about a young Frenchman who was born at the start of the 1800s and therefore could symbolize the vast trajectory of early nineteenth-century events in France. Musset carried his idea through in a saturnine mood of disillusionment, and Rushdie carried his own idea through in a happy welter of exuberance and bitterness.
Midnight’s Children had the unfortunate effect, though, of conferring on Rushdie a status as literary master of decolonization all over the world, not just in India, which meant that, when he came out with The Satanic Verses, his publishers and readers expected to see a new installment in his world-historical epic of the post-colonial age—a fitting novel to accompany his minor tract about Sandinismo’s battle against American imperialism. Rushdie surprised himself and everyone else, though. Artistic intuition led him to another lucky hit, or an unlucky one. He wrote something more than a lampoon of the Islamist movement in its U.K. immigrant version. He ended up fixating on the precise psychological concern that stands at the heart of the Islamist movement—on the Hideous Schizophrenia. His finger probed the wound. The Islamists went mad.
And then, having achieved those many things, and having set into motion a thousand Islamist campaigns to murder and suppress writers and artists around the world, he discovered that he was at the center of a political crisis, which meant that sooner or later he was obliged to publish a faithful account of the experience. But his gifts—for playful verbal pyrotechnics, dialect imitations, exotic glitter, bigpicture landscapes, together with the occasional intuitive brainstorm—cannot be bent in any direction. These are not the gifts necessary for a historical chronicle of actual events. The very title Joseph Anton expresses Rushdie’s wistful preference for writing about a fictional character, instead of about himself. Really he ought to have written a novel.
The scolding he received from Bellow at the PEN conference in 1986—“we don’t have tasks, we have inspirations”—must have floored him at the time, and evidently it floored him again in retrospect. The composing of a memoir is a task. But he was in need of inspiration, and he looked for it by thinking back on Bellow and his novels. His inspiration was to become a “he” instead of an “I.” But he is not Bellow, and the inspiration could hardly carry him through several hundred pages. So he has looked for additional inspirations, which has led him to the idea that personal revelations might be the way to go—therefore, the recording of petty rancors and of childish excitements at meeting famous people. But Rushdie lacks the artistic judgment to recognize that in aiming at honesty he has merely hit a few surface emotions. Or perhaps he does recognize the problem, which may explain why he has ended up writing a nervous book.
Yet something in Joseph Anton, the good and the bad in it, seems to me moving even so. The nineteenth-century struggle against reactionaries and superstitions and exploiters was led by figures such as Hugo, who presented themselves as gods. The twentieth-century battle against fascism and totalitarianism was led by figures who presented themselves as steely war veterans, such as Malraux and Orwell, or as toughened prison birds, such as Solzhenitsyn. Rushdie has presented himself, by design and by accident, as a confused and insecure artist—a stutterer, as it were, like the character in The Satanic Verses who inveighs against gogo God. But this may be just as well. The god-like champions of certainty nowadays are the Islamists, and likewise the hardened prison veterans—an Islamist specialty in both cases. Rushdie is, willy-nilly, the symbol of the anti-Islamist movement in literature. He presents himself in the memoir as imperfect, annoying, sometimes infuriating, a man without charisma—not at all like Bellow, who brought an odd charisma to his arguments against charisma. Sometimes he is merely ridiculous—and I could go on enumerating his flaws. But Rushdie has not backed down.
Paul Berman is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 20, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Who Are The Real Blasphemers.”