Secularism - The Road to Hell - A Noticeable Shift - A Disturbing Conflation
Rushdie's early fiction is challenging because of its otherworldly complexity and obscurity, and because his versions of the huge scenic background fuse or clash depending on the point he is making at the time. In Grimus he fuses four different cosmologies to promote iconoclasm and the free play of dimensions, in Midnight's Children and Shame he sets other worlds on a collision course to dramatize communal tension in the subcontinent, and in The Satanic Verses he revisits a revelatory scenario to explore the hazards of belief. Clearly, there is no pole-star to guide readers across Rushdie’s star-crossed heavens. There are, however, four overall points that I would make about his early fiction.
Rushdie consistently attacks the notion that beliefs relating to the huge scenic background -- that is, to things such as Heaven, angels, or mystical visions -- should be used to determine political or social policy. In Imaginary Homelands he argues that his secularism makes sense in terms of Indian history:
After the terrible communal killings of the Partition riots, it was plainer than ever that if India’s remaining Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Christians, Jews and Harijans (untouchables), as well as the Hindu majority, were to be able to live together in peace, the idea of a godless State must be elevated above all of the 330 million deities” (385)
He is equally aware that such secularism won’t always sit well in Islamic countries:
we see in Christianity a willingness to separate Church and State, and admission that such a separation is possible and maybe even desirable. In the world of Islam, no such separation has ever occurred at the level of theory. Of all the great sacred texts the Qur’an is most concerned with the law, and Islam has always remained an overtly social, organizing, political creed which, again theoretically, has something to say about every aspect of an individual life” (380)
Despite this acknowledgement, he champions a secularism which he sees as indispensable to Indian Muslims and latent in Pakistani Muslims. The latter is contentious enough (Pakistan was, after all, conceived as a Muslim state), yet Rushdie also runs headlong into Trouble with a capital T by applying secularism to 7th century Arabia and contemporary Iran. The more the object of his satire is resistant to his secular vision, the more caustic he gets. The unintended consequences of this are well-known: death threats and a decade playing mouse to the cat of fundamentalist rage.
The Road to Hell
Rushdie's novels from Grimus to The Satanic Verses follow a hell-bound trajectory. I think of his first four novels in terms of Yeats’ widening gyre, that is, in terms of a situation that starts off relatively controlled -- the falcon in the range of the falconer -- and that gets more and more out of control as the falcon moves further and further from the centre. In Shame and The Satanic Verses, one could even say that anarchy is loosed upon the world and the Beast steers the bird toward some vague doom. In Grimus other worlds present an eclectic, shifting pattern reminiscent of Eliot’s Four Quartets, yet there are also hints of death by water, and of the Devil striding toward a burning city of the apocalypse. These latter elements are increasingly prominent in the novels that follow: in Midnight's Children General Shiva and the Widow stalk Saleem and threaten to drain him of all conviction and meaning; in Shame the rough Beast slouches toward the innocence of Sufiya, raping her and scourging the nation; and in the Verses the Devil superimposes his hellish topography on the streets of London, possesses Chamcha, and turns Gibreel into a murderous schizophrenic.
A Noticeable Shift
Rushdie's first four major novels take otherworldly concepts more seriously than his later ones. I should note here that Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Luka and the Fire of Life are constructed along otherworldly lines, yet the otherworldly doesn’t take deep root in the real world as we know it because there is no real world as we know it: the two novels are fantasies in the manner of The Arabian Nights or Alice in Wonderland. Grimus is nearly uncategorizable here, in that it is largely fantastic, yet the realistic elements are strong and the otherworldly elements are more serious than fanciful. The dominant pattern in his first four major novels, however, is that figures like Kali and the Devil wreak destruction, and inexplicable events tied to myth and mysticism permeate the narratives, which (with the partial exception of Grimus) are otherwise deeply grounded in the real world.
While Rushdie questions many of these otherworldly figures and events, often suggesting they are a function of indoctrination, fear, desperation, or diseased minds, this skepticism clashes with the ongoing eruptions of the sacred and the diabolic. These eruptions suggest that the otherworldly is a force to contend with, that it can’t be rejected out of hand. This is seen most clearly in the cases of Aadam Aziz, Omar Khayyam, and Mirza Saeed, all characters who believe against their own wills in the presence of God, the Devil, and angels. The list of characters in his early fiction who out and out believe in the otherworldly is long: Virgil, Grimus, Deggle, Flapping Eagle, Saleem, Padma, Parvati, Raza, Dawood, the Imam, Allie, Gibreel, et al. In his later works, on the other hand, other worlds are mostly metaphorical, ideological, or ineffectual. Characters tend to be religious in a cultural rather than an ontological sense -- like India in Shalimar the Clown, who is contemptuous of religion, her contempt being one of the many proofs that she was not an India” (18), or like Boonyi, who can’t believe in the myth of Sita because if she “set fire to herself no god would protect her. […] Once in despair she did ask the gates of hell to open in the earth below her feet, but no cavity yawned. She was already in hell” (264).
In his early fiction Ryushdie plays with established structures of cosmology, mythology, and mysticism, and these structures carry weights of meaning that penetrate deep into the psyche, reverberating back to the origins of culture and art. Playing with these structures sets up deep vibrations that can challenge or disturb readers -- particularly if they believe in these structures, but sometimes even if they don’t. By lessening the role and meaning of these structures, his later fiction doesn't delve into the same kinds of ontologies, doesn’t inspire readers with dervish pirouettes or frighten them with snake-pit vortexes. Not that his later fiction doesn’t contain complexity and deep psychological, cultural, political, and historical interest -- as in the torments of Malik in Fury, the compared ideals of Akbar’s India and Renaissance Italy in The Enchantress of Florence, or the paradoxical world of geopolitical terrorism in Shalimar. Clearly, Rushdie has retained his relevance and his richness. My point is that his later novels don't go as deeply inside the psyches of characters who think other worlds are real, who are disturbed by E.M. Forster's muddledom, or who are made melancholy by the twilight of the gods. For instance, Shalimar helps us understand the mind of what Duvall and Marzec in “Narrating 9/11” call “a reluctant terrorist” who is “not in the least religious”; it helps us understand
the mutation [that] spreads outward directly to the point of a full clash of civilizations: there are ‘the enemies pretending to defend us … and behind them the enemies pretending to rescue us in the name of God … and behind them the enemies … bearing ungodly names … and behind them the enemies we never see, the ones who pull the strings of our lives’” (392)
This later fiction takes us in interesting directions, indeed. Yet because it doesn’t take other worlds seriously in terms of their capacity to enter into this world of ours, it doesn’t engage in the otherworldly as deeply or problematically. It tends to be less provocative in a world whose art and philosophy have deep roots in myth and spirituality, and in a world still deeply torn by religious beliefs. On the other hand, it may allow Rushdie more scope to explore religion as a function of culture, politics, and history, rather than as a function of belief in gods, prophets, or holy books.
A Disturbing Conflation
Rushdie's use of other worlds can be disturbing or insulting to those who believe in religious traditions, notwithstanding his appeal to the mystical ideals of Farid ud-Din Attar (12th-13th C.). In Grimus, Flapping Eagle smashes an altar and then rapes the goddess venerated at that altar. Taken out of context, his actions underscore desecration and violation; taken in context, they signal the breaking of iconic structures, after which Flapping Eagle is free to continue his spiritual odyssey, the iconoclastic and imploding goal of which has Dantean, Sufi, Norse, and Hindu elements. Rushdie’s mystical idealism here sits easily with his secular vision, in that there's no intrinsic conflict between an Infinity that can't be branded and a social contract that insists upon freedom of enquiry and belief. So far, so good, given that iconoclasm is a key element of Islam and of Attar’s Sufi journey toward the infinity of God. Yet when Rushdie turns this same radical iconoclasm against Islamic tradition in The Satanic Verses, the sparks begin to fly.
In what is perhaps the most controversial novel of the latter 20th Century, Rushdie revisits the satanic verses incident, an episode in the life of Muhammad which to Muslims demonstrates the scrupulousness of the prophet, but which Western scholars have used to suggest the fallibility of both Muhammad and the Qur'an. Referred to by Muslims as the gharaniq or birds incident, it refers to the trick played on Muhammad by Iblis, the Muslim Satan, who fools Muhammad into thinking that God has permitted goddesses (the ‘three high-flying birds’) to act as intercessors between Himself and humans. Muhammad initially accepts the goddesses, then later rejects them when he realizes that the idea came from Satan rather than Gabriel -- that is, when he realizes that they're satanic rather than angelic verses. The cosmic power struggle behind the incident works its way into every layer of Rushdie’s narrative, and includes -- through the dream-worlds of a schizophrenic Gibreel -- a brothel version of Muhammad and his wives, a re-questioning of revelation and the prophet, and a demonized version of Ayatollah Khomeini.
The novel also includes a disturbing and elusive satanic narrator who swoops in and out of the text like an evil wind. Like a mad falconer, this narrator steers the two main characters on a crash course toward each other, and toward a world of jealousy, murder, fire, and brimstone. Yet here too there's a mystical redemption of sorts. Throughout the novel, Rushdie conflates the satanic verses incident and Othello, while also keeping the story of Adam and Eve, as well as the Sufi paradigm of Attar’s Qaf, in the background all the time. In Rushdie's reworking of Shakespeare’s play, Gibreel plays the part of the bright but falling star Othello, Chamcha the deceptive Iago, and Allie (or Alleluia) the innocent and forgiving Desdemona. Rushdie inserts key elements of the satanic verses incident into this Shakespearean drama when the possessed Chamcha whispers doggerel satanic verses over the telephone, thus driving Gibreel into a monstrous green-eyed jealousy. Chamcha succeeds in turning Gibreel’s Edenic garden of love (with his Eve/Alleluia) into a hellish labyrinth of jealousy, thus bringing to fruition the revenge of the ancient, apple-offering, heel-biting Serpent. Like Othello, the novel ends bleakly, and there’s only an echo left of the spiritual freedom represented by the murdered Alleluia, whose unwavering devotion to her Impossible Mountain of Everest gives us yet one more version of Attar’s Impossible Mountain of Qaf. The Satanic Verses is Rushdie’s most dangerous and most potentially insulting text, yet it's ending is also poignant in its evocation of a crushed, impossible form of mysticism.