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9 June 2021

The paradoxes and platitudes of Salman Rushdie

In a new collection of essays, the author reveals the difficulty of reconciling his belief in multiplicity and ambiguity with a kind of rational absolutism.

By Leo Robson

“I don’t really want to go back to fact,” Salman Rushdie said in a Paris Review interview in 2005. “I want to do less and less of it.” At the time he had published more than 150 essays and reviews in a pair of superb collections, Imaginary Homelands (1991) and Step Across This Line (2002), as well as documentary scripts, a British Film Institute booklet on The Wizard of Oz and an eye-witness account of the Contra War, The Jaguar Smile (1987). Now, he explained, he wanted to devote himself to “the business of imaginative writing”. He had just completed his tenth novel, Shalimar the Clown, and over the subsequent decade and a half, he produced a fairy tale, a fantasia about Renaissance Italy and the Moghul empire, and topical reworkings of the Arabian Nights, Apuleius’s The Golden Ass and Don Quixote.

But “fact” never went away. Within a few years of the Paris Review interview, he delivered a commencement address at Nova Southeastern University in Florida and wrote essays on, among other things, Beckett’s novels and on the subject of sloth in literature, as well as an introduction to a collection of Paris Review interviews. Then, in 2012, he published an enormous – third-person – memoir, Joseph Anton, and though he felt “a deep hunger for fiction” after finishing it, the context for that remark was a lecture on what he calls “the wonder tale”, one of a series that he delivered in his role as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Today he resembles nothing so much as a celebrity-author version of the ageing Michael Corleone, lamenting, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” – and Languages of Truth bears the same relationship to Rushdie’s earlier volumes as The Godfather Part III does to the films that preceded it.

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Rushdie was born in Bombay, in 1947, weeks before India gained independence. His family was Muslim, but he rarely attended mosque and never learned Arabic. (The language at home was Hindustani.) Rushdie lost what little faith he had as a teenage boarder at Rugby School in Warwickshire – a moment he marked with his first ham sandwich. Later, while studying history at Cambridge and working as a copywriter in London, he developed a pantheon of his own, mainly comprising fiction writers – Günter Grass, Thomas Pynchon, Italo Calvino, Gabriel García Márquez – whose work chimed with the Eastern mythology and DC comics Rushdie had inhaled as a boy. From this brew of experience and influence came his spectacular second novel, Midnight’s Children (1981), a magic-realist portrait of the 1,001 children born during the first hour of independence.

Rushdie’s side career as a reviewer, lecturer and op-ed pontiff began around this time. His recurring subjects included Indian politics, representations of the Raj (the film Gandhi, Rudyard Kipling, The Jewel in the Crown), “Commonwealth” literature and multi-ethnic Britain. When he discussed the relationship between politics and monotheism, it was as a novelist who portrayed religious societies. When he discussed censorship, it was in connection to the Pakistan of Bhutto and Zia, whom he depicted, in transmuted form, in Shame (1983). That changed when the Ayatollah Khomeini, then the supreme leader of Iran, issued a death warrant in response to Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses (1988). On Valentine’s Day, 1989, while Rushdie attended a memorial service for the writer Bruce Chatwin in a Russian Orthodox church in west London, he became a wanted man. And so when he talked about theocracy or fundamentalism or repression in any form, he was talking about his own ongoing predicament, and increasingly in statements and open letters.

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[see also: The Good Girls investigates violence against women in Modi’s India]

On the evidence of the new book, he mounted a more effective resistance to becoming a poster boy for the Enlightenment during the nearly ten years of the fatwa – it was rescinded in 1998 – than in the period since. In Languages of Truth, there are essays on “truth”, “courage” and “the liberty instinct”, as well as the five “Texts for Pen” – the writers’ non-profit organisation that celebrates free expression. Rushdie holds forth in what he once self-deprecatingly called “a slightly messianic tone”, whether he’s writing about Ai Weiwei or remembering Carrie Fisher.

Though more than half the book is concerned with writing, there’s a persistent vagueness, a tendency towards platitude, in almost everything he says. He rarely reflects on his own practice – even when staring at an open goal, as in a lecture on his “beginnings” – and relies instead on eroded touchstones and overplayed anthology moments: Hamlet soliloquies; Melville’s Bartleby saying, “I would prefer not to”; Kafka’s Gregor Samsa waking up as an insect; Hemingway on bullshit detection. His essays on other novelists are rarely what you would call literary. Delivering a Philip Roth lecture at the Newark Public Library in New Jersey, he states “so much has been written” on Roth’s American trilogy that he would only add “a few contextualising molehills to that mountain” (“if The Human Stain took on race, then American Pastoral faced up to the consequences in America of the Vietnam War”).

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Rushdie’s essential position seems to be that a renewed commitment to secular values – embodied above all in literature – offers the only reliable escape from what he calls “this dark time”, “a darkening world”, a moment when “dark storm clouds rush across the sun”. The book’s title derives from the out-of-nowhere claim, at the end of “The Liberty Instinct”, that the “magic of the languages of the truth is the only magic in which I believe”. But he is surely aware that the phrase requires elaboration, not least because it seeks to overturn, or defy, one of the central binarisms of contemporary philosophy, promoted in the work of Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, and reconfigured by Richard Rorty as a latter-day version of American pragmatism.

In Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (1989), Rorty argued that the new emphasis on “languages”, man-made and self-referential, pointed to a growing acceptance that metaphysical and even scientific “truth” does not exist – that there is nothing “out there” to describe or represent. In 1990, in his Herbert Read Memorial Lecture “Is Nothing Sacred?” – delivered by Harold Pinter on his behalf – Rushdie quoted Rorty’s earlier statement of the anti-foundationalist or neo-pragmatist position made in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979). He also enlisted Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (1979) and Michel Foucault’s essay “What is an Author?” to argue that “sacralised absolutes” were in eclipse, at least in Europe. Rushdie recruited postmodern and post-structuralist thought in his battle against religious faith. But Rorty and Co were no more impressed by the rival claims of Enlightenment reason with which Rushdie proceeded to align himself.

Again and again Rushdie reveals the difficulty of reconciling his belief in the multiple and variegated, the ambiguous and disputatious, with a kind of rational, at times literal absolutism. “I don’t pretend to have a full answer,” he says, but he could have come closer than he does. Writing about the pandemic, he dismisses the comparison between a lockdown and his effective house arrest during the fatwa years on the grounds that “an assassination threat aimed at an individual by a government for religious reasons was not the same as a global pandemic”. Yet if all analogies were viewed in this way, Rushdie’s body of work – novel after novel devoted to puns and coincidences – would be close to non-existent. Indeed, he reprinted his dossier of fatwa statements in Step Across This Line under the title “Messages from the Plague Years”, and even within the pages of the new book, he likens Roth’s rough treatment at the hands of older Jewish intellectuals – Gershom Scholem, Irving Howe – to his own “biggest time of trouble”.

Towards the end of another essay, “Adaptation”, in a passage that crosses from film criticism to something like political philosophy, he declares that those who “cling too fiercely to the old text, the thing to be adapted, the old ways, the past, are doomed to produce something that does not work, an unhappiness, an alienation, a quarrel, a failure, a loss”. He goes as far as saying that “our bad social adaptations” undermined the human response to “the great crisis of our time, the coronavirus plague”. Yet he has already asserted that the Coen Brothers’ film No Country for Old Men “actually succeeds by keeping very close” to Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel.

Surely a taste for top-down utterances is at odds with a love of nuance and counter-example? The closest Rushdie offers to a theoretical statement comes in a three-page gloss on the Walt Whitman line “Very well then I contradict myself”. But the kind of examples Rushdie offers only merit the label “paradox” if he is seeking to dispel a view of human beings as robotically consistent: “We can be gentle with our children but harsh with our employees”; “We can fear for the environment and yet leave electric lights on when we leave the house.” You might reply that Whitman’s acknowledgement came in a lyric poem-sequence (“Song of Myself”), whereas Rushdie is addressing his audience as a sage. Wielding the claim that the “human self is a capacious and multiform thing” as a get-out-of-jail-free card goes little way to elevating or exonerating his lapses in logic. Some things simply don’t hold up, no matter which poet you invoke.

Yet there are moments in Languages of Truth when Rushdie abandons his philosophe pretensions and channels his distaste for what he once called the “totalised explanation”. In an essay on Heraclitus, he shows how an aphorism such as “character is destiny” overlooks “the liquid things about life”, and when writing of his own experience – notably in “The Unbeliever’s Christmas” – he does a vivid job of evoking them. What’s curious is that the idea of authority, being right and in the right, retains such potent appeal. Recognising that we are unable to prove the things we assert, or to master all we survey, can be empowering, an expression of personality and even personal sovereignty. You get to choose what matters.

Languages of Truth: Essays 2003-2020
Salman Rushdie
Jonathan Cape, 356pp, £20

[see also: Jeanette Winterson’s book burning was embarrassingly over the top. But I’m glad she did it]

This article appears in the 09 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Covid cover-up?