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The strange third person singularity of Salman Rushdie

Will Self on Joseph Anton and Winter Journal.

You don’t need to know this – but here goes: due to some acquired infantilism, I feel compelled to fall asleep listening to the radio. On a good night I’ll push the frail barque of my psyche off into the waters of Lethe accompanied by the midnight newsreader – on a bad one it’s the shipping forecast. Somewhere in between the two lies Book of the Week, which goes out at 12.30am on Radio 4. I try to give this programme a swerve – my main occupation is writing books, and listening to other people’s isn’t that relaxing; it’s a bit like a performing seal trying to catch 40 winks while watching another seal . . . perform.

News snooze

Schadenfreude lies at the root of this; I am, shameful to relate, lulled by news of riotous disturbances in distant lands. A baying mob attacking the US embassy in Cairo? Yawn. Crazed Chinese patriots torching Japanese car showrooms in Beijing? My eyelids droop. Machetewielding provocateurs rampaging through Kenyan villages? Zzzzz. But a few weeks ago, when I found myself inadvertently listening to the adaptation of Paul Auster’s Winter Journal, I came viciously into wakefulness. Auster’s memoir employs the second-person singular, so that the saccharine and self-indulgent observations about his own life are addressed to . . . you. You went to Paris, you slept with a prostitute, you sat up all night drinking whisky.

What on earth could have persuaded Auster to so dramatise his relationship with his younger selves if not a spurious belief that we, his auditors, would share in his doubly reflexive self-self-indulgence? Still, I didn’t let it trouble me too much – or, rather, for the next few nights my timing was better and I returned to the more soporific go-round of destruction, hysteria and rapine. Then: another Book of the Week wheedled into my cochlea, Salman Rushdie’s memoir, Joseph Anton; another series of highly subjective recollections, this time treating of their author in the third person. Thus: he had a miserable time at public school, he underwent the miserable confinements of the safe houses following the fatwa and latterly he canoodled with Madonna at the Vanity Fair party.

Two grandish old literary men does not a crowd make – and yet there did seem something telling about this unwillingness on the part of both Auster and Rushdie to own up to their own singularity. I don’t doubt that Rushdie’s explanation for fashioning a third person out of himself relates to the extreme psychological effects of living under an alias for a decade, but as Pankaj Mishra pointed out in his review of Joseph Anton for the Guardian, Rushdie’s inclination to elide the personal with the geopolitical results in a curiously binary view of the world-historical events he has been caught up in. While on the one side there’s the good crowd: Anton/Rushdie, Madonna, Tony Blair et al – all those individuals who unequivocally support the right to unfettered speech and publication; on the other is the great mass of Islamofascistic loonies, who, when not burning copies of The Satanic Verses or cutting off their womenfolk’s clitorises, are plotting the terrorist acts against the west that he so presciently foresaw.

Mishra is at pains to point out that not for a second does he endorse in any way, shape or form the fatwa against Rushdie, or any of the other manifestations of extremist political Islam that have blighted the past quarter century – and I concur wholeheartedly with this. However, what I think concerns us both is that a Manichean approach to these events results in the lumping together of many different crowds into a singular mass.

Age of Innocence

To take the violent demonstrations over the past few weeks; the attacks on embassies and other concerns in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere may have been remotely triggered by the bowdlerised anti-Islamic film Innocence of Muslims, but their proximate causes are to be found in very different local cocktails of corruption, sectarianism and deprivation. These are people for whom freedom of speech is besides the point – for such is their benighted condition, they have not even the ability to speak but can only scream with frustration.

Ideologists of all kinds find a strange sort of comfort in the madness of the crowd; it confirms them in their suspicion that history, far from being made by the great mass of individuals – as Marx averred – is rather unmade by a single massive individual, a collective Other, who stands in stark contrast to you and he. I prefer to adapt Stephen Dedalus’s maxim, and rather than seeing history as a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake, I choose to regard it as a sedative susurration.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Labour conference special