"How Newness Enters the World":

The Postmodern Satanic Verses

 

Paul Cohen

Southwest Texas State University

 

Forthcoming in Literature East and West

 

 

Those who oppose the novel most vociferously today are of the opinion that intermingling with a different culture will inevitably weaken and ruin their own. I am of the opposite opinion. The Satanic Verses celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world. It is the great possibility that mass migration gives the world, and I have tried to embrace it. The Satanic Verses is for change-by-fusion, change-by-conjoining. It is a love-song to our mongrel selves. (Rushdie, 1991, p. 394)

 

It is notoriously difficult to predict the future importance of contemporary art works, since this depends not only upon internal qualities but also upon the concerns of the future society which will evaluate them. This allows more confidence than usual in predicting the future importance of The Satanic Verses, since it is not only an unusually ambitious and accomplished art work in terms of traditional internal literary qualities, but it also reflects and embodies lasting concerns. A brilliantly written work about, say, the Cold War may be forgotten as we move farther from that era and our interest shifts to hotter wars. While political ideologies and conflicts, even those of superpowers, may fade within decades, some things have greater staying power. Communism is nearly gone, and capitalism and democracy could go in our lifetimes, as well, but the gaps between faith and secularism, between dark skins and light, between fact and fiction will be with us for the foreseeable future. The Satanic Verses not only treats such conflicts with exceptional insight and intelligence, but, through the controversy which it has aroused, it is itself a part of them.

Everyone has a different definition of postmodernism, and The Satanic Verses, like most contemporary works, fits some and not others. It meets, for instance, Linda Hutcheon's criterion by being, in part, "historiographic metafiction" (1988, p. 5), while it fails to meet Brian McHale's by failing to substitute an ontological dominant for an epistemological (1987, p. 10). We must, however, bear in mind McHale's proper insistence that the term "postmodernism" is a provisional construction, useful but always subject to change (1992, pp. 1-3). While theorists argue over whether postmodernism is an extension or a rejection of modernism, nearly everyone who uses the term agrees that it must logically describe what follows modernism. Since The Satanic Verses has itself changed our understanding of the function, meaning, and significance of contemporary fiction, it is, almost by definition, what follows modernism, and our definitions of postmodernism must now accommodate themselves to this pathbreaking work.

Some writers were able to see the lasting importance of The Satanic Verses almost immediately. As early as 1991, Christine Brooke-Rose placed Gibreel Farishta, one of Rushdie's two protagonists, in another postmodernist novel, alongside the likes of Oliver Twist and Emma Bovary, the Wife of Bath and Captain Ahab. In a remarkably clear-sighted article published in 1989, barely a year after Rushdie's novel, Mark Edmundson argued that The Satanic Verses represented a major new strain of postmodernism, a "new, positive postmodernism" (p. 62). I don't think that we need to see earlier expressions of postmodernism as exclusively negative (consider, for instance, "The Literature of Replenishment" which John Barth had proclaimed nine years earlier), but Edmundson was right to see The Satanic Verses as a landmark case, in part because of the nature of its positive perspective.

For all their differences, most of the major thinkers in postmodern social theory agree that postmodernism stresses the particular-Lyotard's petites histoires, Deleuze and Guattari's nomads, and so on-as opposed to modernist generalizations and groupings. This has been echoed in recent years with the breakup of such constructs as the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, and with the supplanting of the melting-pot metaphor by multiculturalism.

That focus on the particular is also, of course, a central element of romanticism. The reading of cultural history as a series of alternating classical and romantic periods, while obviously an oversimplification with endless exceptions, is nevertheless a useful oversimplification. In general, the classical eras stress unity and assimilation: all people essentially alike, following one set of rules, for art as well as for life. The romantic eras embrace individualism. I read the modernism of the first half of our century as an essentially classical episode, to which the postmodernism of the second half has been a romantic reaction. For all their differences, the great modernist works share some fundamental aesthetic assumptions, not the least of which is a striving for unity. The nearly unquestioned dominance of Leavisian and New Critical approaches through mid-century, with their stress on the integrity of the literary work, fit this literature well. More recent writers have set off in a multitude of directions, writing of many things in many ways, and criticism and theory have become similarly fragmented.

Rushdie is, in many respects, a romantic. We see this in the extravagance of his imaginative creations and the fervor of his progressive political commitment, as well as in his postmodern particularization, his opposition to "the absolutism of the Pure" (1991, p. 394). It should, then, be no surprise to find so many Coleridge allusions in Rushdie's work (especially in Haroun and the Sea of Stories ), perhaps in part because of the poet's famous doctrine of "multeïty in unity." Postmodern thought, with its petites histoires, rhizomatics, schizoanalysis, and so on, generally favors multeïty, and the grandes histoires are explicitly assaulted by a character at the end of The Satanic Verses (p. 537).

Even more to the point, William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, that groundbreaking manifesto including so many key Romantic ideas, lies literally and figuratively at the center of The Satanic Verses. Rushdie, identifying it as one of the "books that were most influential on the shape this novel took," called it "the classic meditation on the interpenetration of good and evil" (1991, p. 403). Gibreel Farishta reads Blake's book on pp. 304-305, and it may well be the best key to the novel's meaning. (Thomas Prasch has noted a significant echo of Blake's Jerusalem in the novel, as well [p. 314].) Like Blake, Rushdie insists upon the instability of morality, and refuses to accept even Iago (alluded to more than once) as pure malignity. Critics have noted "Rushdie's overall assault on polar logic" (Booker, 1990, 987) and desire "to break out of a manichean world" (Nazareth, 1990, 171), and these responses reflect Blake's. Rushdie strives to break down "that Berlin Wall between the dreaming and waking state" (1989, p. 347) and all such walls.

What has not been as clear to readers and critics is Rushdie's complementary rejection of the logic of fragmentation. While an American might expect a leftist Indian in Britain to embrace multiculturalism, Rushdie rejects it right along with assimilation:

 

At first, we were told, the goal was 'integration'. Now this word rapidly came to mean 'assimilation': a black man could only become integrated when he started behaving like a white one. After 'integration' came the concept of 'racial harmony'. Now once again, this sounded virtuous and desirable, but what it meant in practice was that blacks should be persuaded to live peaceably with whites, in spite of all the injustices done to them every day. The call for 'racial harmony' was simply an invitation to shut up and smile while nothing was done about our grievances. And now there's a new catchword: 'multiculturalism'. In our schools, this means little more than teaching the kids a few bongo rhythms, how to tie a sari and so forth. In the police training programme, it means telling cadets that black people are so 'culturally different' that they can't help making trouble. Multiculturalism is the latest token gesture towards Britain's blacks, and it ought to be exposed, like 'integration' and 'racial harmony', for the sham it is. (1991, p. 137)

 

If neither assimilation nor multiculturalism, neither unity nor separatism, then what? The answer is the "hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs" (Rushdie, 1991, p. 394). The central metaphor of Haroun and the Sea of Stories presents the timeless stories of mankind as currents in the sea, continuously merging with other stories to bring newness into the world. Edmundson's "new, positive postmodernism" (1989, p. 62) is a turn from separatism to continuous blending.

Once again, The Satanic Verses embodies what it celebrates, being itself a hybrid. One critic, armed with ample evidence, rightly characterizes it as "profoundly Indian in the sensibility it exports" (Aravamudan, 1989, p. 8), while another claims, also with much justice, that "no writer in the past decade has made more effective use of the Western literary tradition than" Rushdie (Booker, 1991, p. 190).

In the world within The Satanic Verses, too, things and people often change, cross boundaries, or blend. Still, even in that world, an Indian such as Saladin Chamcha, the novel's other protagonist, who wants to cross over into full Britishness, can never manage it, even after years of professional success in London. The strains of humanity, like the streams of story, retain their character as they blend, bringing richness as well as newness into the world. In the world outside the book, on the other hand, impermeability proved to be intransigent. Khomeini and his followers saw no breakdown of boundaries. In Rushdie's next major novel, The Moor's Last Sigh, he has a mad villain denounce "rubbish about unity in diversity," while the largely sympathetic protagonist laments "the tragedy of multiplicity destroyed by singularity, the defeat of Many by One" and pays tribute "to that most profound of our needs, to our need for flowing together, for putting an end to frontiers" (1995, pp. 412, 408, and 433).

In acknowledging that "racism is commonplace" in India as well as in Britain, Rushdie says: "I've never been one-dimensional about it" (quoted in Weatherby, 1990, p. 18). Indeed, he is not "one-dimensional" in any important respect. Like Blake, he grasps and accepts the full complexity of situations which it is easy to take for dichotomies: India/England, Muslim/Hindu, realism/fantasy, and so on. This has not always been true even of the most eminent modernists (e.g., Eliot and Pound) or postmodernists (out of courtesy to the living, let's say Beckett and Cortázar), classicists (Racine and Voltaire) or romantics (Shelley and Byron).

It has been true of some extraordinarily incisive imaginations (Blake and Joyce), and it is not surprising to find these writers' works informing Rushdie's. M. Keith Booker demonstrates the connections to Finnegans Wake [1990], and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak notes that "the echoes from The Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man are a text for interpretation in themselves" [1990, p. 44]. I might add that The Satanic Verses' allusions to Joyce's "Telemachus" chapter of Ulysses, with its highly relevant themes of betrayal, father-son conflict, and colonialism, are also most interesting (1989, pp. 188 and 449). The Ground Beneath Her Feet also features Ulysses allusions, including a breathtaking twist on the famous culmination of Molly Bloom's erotic soliloquy: "I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes." Rushdie's photographer-narrator takes a roll of film hidden in the boot heel of the stinking, decomposing corpse of a murdered photographer: "I put an unused film in its place from my own boot yes and I could feel his body all perfume and my heart was going like mad and . . . I said yes because it might as well be me as another so yes I will yes I did yes" (1999, p. 244). It should thus come as no surprise that Heaven and Hell interact in complex ways in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, culminating in a vast show in "which the audience was nightly bombarded by incessant images of heaven and hell . . . and it was up to each individual to decide which images were celestial, which infernal" (1999, p. 558).

As in much postmodernist work, fiction and fact blend freely in The Satanic Verses, and some of the book's defenders have been naïve or disingenuous when they claim that the problem is a simple category error. The view that "Fiction is fiction; facts are facts" is attributed in the novel to the altogether unreliable Billy Battuta (1989, p. 272). Rushdie knows better. The continual interpenetration of fiction and fact in the novel is one of those examples of "hybridity" which, he tells us, "The Satanic Verses celebrates" (1991, p. 394).

This is even more prominent in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, where, for example, Ormus Cama reads

 

books by famous American writers, Sal Paradise's odes to wanderlust, Nathan Zuckerman's Carnovsky, science fiction by Kilgore Trout, a playscript-Von Trenck-by Charlie Citrine, who would go on to write the hit movie Caldofreddo. The poetry of John Shade. Also Europeans: Dedalus, Matzerath. The one and only Don Quixote by the immortal Pierre Ménard.

 

(He must have relished that "one and only.") If these writers created by Kerouac, Roth, Vonnegut, Bellow, Nabokov, Joyce, Grass, and Borges have written Cama's books, then what is the nature of Cama's world? In 1971, he glimpses a bizarre alternative world in which, of all things, "John Kennedy got shot eight years ago. Don't laugh, Nixon's President. East Pakistan recently seceded from the union" (1999, p. 350).

The novel also merges elements of the old and the new. Spivak has accurately observed that "Rushdie's staging of the author is more recognizably 'modernist' . . . , not de-centered but fragmented by dramatic irony. . ." (1990, p. 43). Indeed, in most matters of form, style, and method, The Satanic Verses is a modernist novel. Its postmodernism lies chiefly in its content. In some respects, postmodernist form and content are antithetical. Radical formal experimentalists, while not necessarily conservative in their politics, are limited in their ability to communicate radical content, since their content is subordinated and often partially unclear. Writers who feel compelled to express radical political and cultural positions, such as feminists, tend to use modernist or earler forms. Rushdie is largely in this second group, although he is able to take advantage of the growing acceptance and understanding of postmodernist forms to incorporate elements of them without losing his message. The writers of this past decade or so, such as Rushdie and Kathy Acker, are the first ones able to do this.

The novel resolves the plot and characters in a satisfying modernist, or even pre-modernist, manner, killing off those who are in the way and bringing Saladin together with both his estranged father and his Indian lover. On the other hand, it doesn't try to resolve the issues (the content). These are not simply resolvable, and, in any event, a novel is not simply a work of philosophy or sociology. The novel presents the issues, in all their multeïty, helping us to see them more fully than we usually can, and leaving us to work on them.

A related issue which deserves more attention than it has so far received is Rushdie's literary language. A deliberate choice of language has created new possibilities for some twentieth-century writers. Joyce, for instance, practically forged a language of his own for Finnegans Wake. Beckett's use of his second language surely helped him in achieving the extraordinary purity and precision of his diction. Probably no writer evoked the Nazi Holocaust in poetry more successfully than did Paul Celan, who, coming from Czernowitz, "a crossroads of heterogeneous cultures," and living most of his adult life in Paris, was fluent enough to write in French, Russian, Romanian, Yiddish, or Hebrew, but chose to write in German, the language of the men who murdered his family (Colin, 1991, p. xiii). Celan's "Todesfuge" is made possible not only by the richness of German, but also by the bluntness (as in "blunt instrument") of its sound, which enabled Celan's chilling verse:

 

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends

wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts.

(Celan, 1983, p. 41)

 

Rushdie, who had other choices, has elected to write his novels in English, "by far the most widespread of the world's languages" (Wardhaugh, 1987, p. 128). Moreover, English, with its subtle distinctions between words of Germanic and Latinate origin and its incorporation of words from hundreds of languages, is arguably the major language with the most extensive semantic resources. English did not become such a successful lingua franca (ironically enough) solely through imperial force, but also because of its superb utility and flexibility. Indeed, the English literature of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton did not achieve its eminence only through individual genius, but also because of the splendid resources of the language itself. I wonder whether any other language could have supported an uvre with the verbal range of Shakespeare's, and I doubt that a Finnegans Wake could have been built upon any base other than historically receptive English.

But while the resources of the language remain unmatched, those of English culture do not. Even among the high modernists, early in our century, in the British Isles, the English masters of the first rank, such as Woolf and Lawrence, were greatly outnumbered by Irishmen and other colonials (e.g., Shaw, Yeats, Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Hugh MacDiarmid, Dylan Thomas). By now, the rout is even more overwhelming. In a later, postmodern twentieth century presided over by the French-writing Irishman Beckett, Granta's "Best of the Young British Novelists" issues have been filled with names such as Salman Rushdie, Buchi Emecheta, Kazuo Ishiguro, Hanif Kureishi, and Ben Okri. The Booker Prize, the most important British literary award, may go only to a novel first published in the U.K. and written in English by a citizen of Britain, the Commonwealth, Eire, South Africa, Pakistan or Bangladesh. Even within those limitations, of the past twelve winners, only three were born in the United Kingdom. Narrowly-defined "English" literature has been marginalized by the vitality of other post-colonial English-language literatures, but those literatures in turn benefit from the productive tension between their various cultures and their English language. "Without Contraries is no Progression," as The Marriage of Heaven and Hell taught us. The blending of the streams of story brings us newness. The Indian characters of The Satanic Verses land (literally) in England, and Rushdie's London English is continually enlivened with Hindi and Urdu expressions, and the interplay contributes substantially to the novel's vitality.

It is the multiform celebration of not just diversity but "change-by-conjoining" which distinguishes The Satanic Verses from most of the postmodernist literature which preceded it. Whether this will ultimately be seen as a mere shift in the direction of postmodernism or as something new which succeeds postmodernism can't be foreseen at this point, since it depends upon what other writers and theorists do in the near future.

Many of the best-loved and most respected works in the histories of the arts were powerfully offensive and inundated with vituperation upon their first appearances. The best place to turn for reminders of this is Nicolas Slonimsky's marvelous Lexicon of Musical Invective, where we find the early reviews of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony ("crude," "almost ludicrous" [1969, p. 44]), Chopin ("The entire works of Chopin present a motley surface of ranting hyperbole and excruciating cacophony" [1969, p. 84]), Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto ("music that stinks to the ear," "the most barbarous sort of Russian nihilism," "repulsive" [1969, pp. 207-208, 323]), and so on. Truly worthless work is, of course, attacked too, but Slonimsky's hundreds of examples are nonetheless instructive. Great art, by its very nature, disturbs people , and many people can't tolerate disturbance. In this case, much of the value of The Satanic Verses lies in its ability to make us question our assumptions, and this will ensure it a long life.

Works Cited

Aravamudan, Srinivas. 1989. "'Being God's Postman is No Fun, Yaar': Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses." diacritics 19.2 (Summer 1989), 3-20.

Barth, John. 1984. "The Literature of Replenishment: Postmodernist Fiction." Orig. pub. 1980. The Friday Book: Essays and Other Nonfiction. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 193-206.

Booker, M. Keith. 1990. "Beauty and the Beast: Dualism as Despotism in the Fiction of Salman Rushdie." ELH 57.4 (Winter 1990), 977-97.

__________. 1991. "Finnegans Wake and The Satanic Verses: Two Modern Myths of the Fall. Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 32.3 (Spring 1991), 190-207.

Brooke-Rose, Christine. 1991. Textermination. New York: New Directions.

Celan, Paul. 1983. Gesammelte Werke. Erster Band: Gedichte I. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.

Colin, Amy. 1991. Paul Celan: Holograms of Darkness. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Edmundson, Mark. 1989. "Prophet of a New Postmodernism." Harper's, 297 (December 1989), 62-71.

Hutcheon, Linda. 1988. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. London: Routledge.

McHale, Brian. 1987. Postmodernist Fiction. London: Routledge.

__________. 1992. Constructing Postmodernism. London: Routledge.

Nazareth, Peter. 1990. "Rushdie's Wo/manichean Novel." The Iowa Review 20.1 (Winter 1990), 168-174.

Prasch, Thomas. 1992. "Contested Ground: Center and Margin in Rushdie's The Satanic Verses." West Virginia University Philological Papers. 38, 310-21.

Rushdie, Salman. 1989. The Satanic Verses. New York: Viking.

__________. 1991. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991. New York: Penguin.

__________. 1995. The Moor's Last Sigh. New York: Pantheon.

__________. 1999. The Ground Beneath Her Feet. New York: Henry Holt.

Slonimsky, Nicolas. 1969. Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven's Time. 1953. Rpr. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1990. "Reading The Satanic Verses." Third Text. 11 (Summer 1990), 41-48.

Wardhaugh, Ronald. 1987. Languages in Competition: Dominance, Diversity, and Decline. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Weatherby, W.J. 1990. Salman Rushdie: Sentenced to Death. New York: Carroll & Graf.


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