When Worlds Collide
Iconoclasm - Doubt & Belief - Spiritual Flight
In attempting to give a theoretical context to Rushdie's work, one could start anywhere from the dawn of Vedic poetry to the latest postmodern expression of culture. This is because Rushdie has a keen sense of history, and of the varied paths that got us to where we are today. It's also because he loves the diverse and eclectic, as well as the metamorphic and inconstant. One of the big problems with this is that Rushdie's playfulness, his genius for playing with systems, and for playing one system off against another, can easily clash with systems that don't encourage playfulness.
In his radical questioning of the epistemologies found in overarching systems, Rushdie resembles what Borges calls the heresiarch, the "arch heretic who questions all before him, and particularly all forms of established dogma.” Elizabeth Dipple adds that for Borges “reality itself is an infinite mise-en-abyme that cannot be traced to any secure source and requires a brilliant heresiarch to demonstrate its infinite resonances” (The Unresolvable Plot, 66). Rushdie also calls to mind the hammer-wielding philosopher Frederich Nietzsche, the dark visionary Edgar Allen Poe, as well as the hell-bound Charles Baudelaire of “Le Voyage”:
Nous voulons, tant ce feu nous brûle le cerveau, / Plonger au fond du gouffre, Enfer ou Ciel, qu’importe? / Au fond de l’Inconnu pour trouver du nouveau!
We wish, so long as this fire burns in our heads, / To plunge to the depths of the abyss, Hell or Heaven, what does it matter? / To the depths of the Unknown to find something new! (translation mine)
Rushdie’s journeys into dark, dangerous realms are on occasion harrowing, especially in Shame and the Verses. Yet they’re not without their consolations and moments of grace. His fiction is also full of wonder, emotional warmth, sensuality, and humour. He counters the sense of being lost in a meaningless universe with a sense of being liberated by an eclectic, iconoclastic mysticism. His position is difficult to get hold of, for while he hints at an esoteric unifying perspective, what E.M. Forster calls a “huge scenic background” that gives the cosmos meaning, he also questions every act of magic or revelation that would give substance to such a vision.
Paradoxically, Rushdie has become something of an icon of that most iconoclastic of forms, postmodern metafiction. Given his metafictional style, his sense of the metamorphic self, and his extensive use of metaphysical realms, one might even call him a metacist. Meta signals a strategy of displacement, a tendency to place at a distance from, beneath, above. Rushdie constantly puts a metafictional distance between believing and doubting his narrator’s stories, between the habitual personalities of his characters and the selves into which they metamorphize, and between worldly and metaphysical versions of reality. These multiple gaps destabilize the self and render doubtful any explanation it might advance about truth or about the very act of attempting any such explanation.
Rushdie’s metafiction and magic realism go hand in hand in the sense that both distance one belief system from another. In his comments on magic realism, Jean-Pierre Durix notes that much of “the pleasure produced by Rushdie’s work” derives from his “play on verisimilitude” and from his “adept juggling with different levels of ‘reality’” (“The Artistic Journey in Salman Rushdie’s Shame” 454). Stephen Slemon notes that “the characteristic maneuver of magic realist fiction is that its two narrative modes never manage to arrange themselves into any kind of hierarchy.” He calls magic realism
a binary opposition between the representational code of realism and that, roughly, of fantasy … the ground rules of these two worlds are incompatible, neither one can fully come into being, and each remains suspended, locked in a continuous dialectic with the ‘other,’ a situation which creates disjunction within each of the separate discursive systems, rending them with gaps, absences and silences. (“Magic Realism as Postcolonial Discourse” 409-410)
The liberating term magic realism can become reductive, however, unless one assumes that the dialectic between realism and the magical other is also a polylectic between realism and many other magical versions of reality. Such a polylectic offers an endless array of conflicting directions, imperfectly aligned contours, and puzzling gaps. It dooms to obscurity any integrated or systematic vision of the universe, as well as any attempt to relegate specific versions of reality to such categories as true or false, high or low.
One could complain that adding further magical worlds or modes to Slemon’s dialectic further replaces meaning with conundrum, unity with fragmentation, certainty with doubt. One might argue that Rushdie merely replaces solid (or at least integrated or referential) versions of the universe with an infinity of slippery versions, an ocean of divergent narratives. This of course assumes that there was solidity, integration or referentiality to begin with – a difficult proposition in many cases. In addition, one could respond that Rushdie only mirrors the eclectic nature of our times, and that his writing suggests a sort of narrative democracy — not a two or three party system, but rather a parliament with independents running left and right. This applies, however, more clearly to Rushdie's first five novels; in his sixth and seventh he appears to take a more clearly anti-religious stand.
Doubt & Belief
The license Rushdie allows himself in exploring myth, religion and metaphysics remains based on the conviction that no one, himself included, has a monopoly on the truth about whatever might lie beyond this world of practical experience - what I call our common four-dimensional world. (I’m of course assuming here that the three dimensions of space, along with the fourth dimension of time, aren’t themselves illusions.) In this Rushdie resembles the Byron of Don Juan, for whom the question of the afterlife remains a mystery which is superseded by the story of our present lives:
The path is through perplexing ways, and when / The goal is gained, we die, you know – and then – // What then? – I do not know, no more do you – And so good night. – Return we to our story. (I, 133-4)
This type of skepticism is less pronounced in Rushdie's later novels, for in these he comes close to writing in an anti-religious vein – as if he actually knows there’s no God and no afterlife. Yet to insist on this skeptical side of Rushdie would be to ignore his self-critiquing metafiction as well as the majority of his finest earlier creations: Aadam Aziz tortured by “a God in whose existence he could not wholly disbelieve” (MC 12); Saleem lost in mystical visions amid a battlefield of gods, demons, angels and djinns; Padma with her stubborn belief in witches who can make people invisible and in mothers who can keep a moral watch over their daughter’s dreams; Omar the trembling cosmographer who fears the monstrous forces that eventually devour him; Raza hounded by the puritan angel at his right ear and the socialist demon at his left; Chamcha growing horns he doesn’t believe in; Gibreel sprouting the invisible wings of an angel and being flown from one demon-infested realm to the next; and Allie with her icy visions of angels on the peak of Everest.
Rushdie’s extensive use of other worlds in his first five novels fits with his aim of responding less to his own doubts than to the beliefs of the South Asians he writes about. In a 1992 interview with Wachtel, he says that his goal was
to develop a form which doesn’t prejudge whether your characters are right or wrong … a form in which the idea of the miraculous can coexist with observable, everyday reality.
This coexistence of the miraculous and the mundane explicitly includes religion: his fiction has always “been shaped by the everyday fact of religious belief in India — not just Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh, but every belief.”* While he claims that he lost his belief in “God, Satan, Paradise and Hell” at the age of fifteen, and that his “sense of God ceased to exist long ago” (IH 377, 417), he nevertheless finds it impossible to talk about human beings without talking about religion:
It did not seem to me, however, that my ungodliness, or rather my post-godliness, need necessarily bring me into conflict with belief. Indeed, one reason for my attempt to develop a form of fiction in which the miraculous might coexist with the mundane was precisely my acceptance that notions of the sacred and the profane both needed to be explored, as far as possible without pre-judgement, in any honest literary portrait of the way we are (IH 417).
In the area of belief Rushdie is difficult to tie down, at least in his early fiction. It’s not just that he inhabits Aadam Aziz’s middle ground between belief and disbelief and that he agrees with Khayyam that “To be free from belief and unbelief is [his] religion” (Ruba’iyat, st. 62); it’s also that he swings from one side to the next. He sometimes calls himself an atheist, yet he also expresses a strong interest in religion and in the existence of the spirit. While his attacks on orthodoxy appear relentless, his fiction is also rife with heavens, hells, angels and djinns, and he returns again and again to the mystical symbology of Farid ud-Din Attar. At one moment he affirms “the two central tenets of Islam - the oneness of God and the genuineness of the prophecy of the Prophet Muhammad” (IH 430), and then in an interview he retracts this affirmation (Rushdie with Cronenberg 24). In addition to changing his mind, Rushdie withdrew the essay “Why I Have Embraced Islam” from the 1991 edition of Imaginary Homelands. In light of this it's a bit hard to know what to make of his 1990 admission that religion and mysticism have had a growing influence on him: “I have been engaging more and more with religious belief, its importance and power, ever since my first novel used the Sufi poem Conference of the Birds by Farid ud-din Attar as a model” (IH 430).
The Verses marks the peak of his engagement with belief and disbelief, after which he tones down his serious and problematic explorations. One thing that remains constant in his novels, however, is the idea of transcendence or spiritual flight, which, not surprisingly, he explains very broadly as “that flight of the human spirit outside the confines of its material, physical existence.” He claims that “all of us, secular or religious, experience [it] on at least a few occasions” (IH 421). Flight also represents “the imagining spirit” which is “at war with the real world in which “centres cannot hold” (IH 122).
It’s perhaps this notion of flight and unity which makes most sense of his otherwise puzzling obsession with the mystical poetry of Attar. It also explains his related interest in the ghazal, a Persian and Urdu form of poetry and music which highlights the separation between the human lover and his beloved, as well as between the human soul and the Divine. Exemplified in the singing of Saleem’s sister, the ghazal
is filled with the purity of wings and the pain of exile and the flying of eagles and the lovelessness of life and the melody of bulbuls and the glorious omnipresence of God. (MC 293-294)
Like tragic love, the ghazal is all the more potent because the love it praises can’t be realized; it is, like Attar’s Impossible Mountain of Qaf, impossible in this world.
One could argue that Rushdie’s notion of transcendent flight can’t be compared to that of Attar or other Sufis since Rushdie's too deep into materialist philosophy, sexuality, plurality, and doubt. Yet Sufism in its most poetic and iconoclastic form insists neither on an unswerving monotheism nor an explicitly religious sentiment. While some Sufis follow strict definitions and codes of belief and behaviour, others have more in common with Hindu and Taoist mystics, who by and large see dogma as a limitation imposed by humans, not God.
A helpful comparison of Sufism and Hinduism can be found in Hindu & Muslim Mysticism, in which R.C. Zaehner observes that Hindu mystics have operated within a framework that encourages mysticism, whereas Sufis have often been forced to hide their revelations. For this reason metaphor is all the more crucial, since it obscures what the orthodox will never permit. Rushdie takes this a step further in Shame and the Verses: both novels highlight the manner in which Sufi ideals and symbolism are crushed and ground into the dirt. These ideals aren't just marginalized; they're actively crushed. The forces behind the crushing can be secular (Iskander, Thatcher, etc) or religious (Raza, Dawood, the Imam, the Devil, etc.), but one thing they have in common is an intolerant attitude to anyone who dares to question their authority.
By using Sufism in secular and irreverent contexts, Rushdie creates a brand of mysticism -- if in fact it can be called that -- which is more iconoclastic and permissive than Attar or most Sufis would allow. Although anyone who has read the famous Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi would see that Sufism isn’t only about whirling in a dance of atoms and stars, Rushdie combines Rumi’s subversive and humorous take on life with an even deeper and more anguished sense of doubt, which makes him closer to skeptics like Khayyam than to believers like Attar or Rumi. He is perhaps even closer to the Cairene writers Mahfouz or Gorgy. In any case, were Attar still living, he would probably disapprove of Rushdie’s fiction, given that -- according to Avery in his introduction to Khayyam's Ruba’iyat -- Attar condemned his contemporary Omar Khayyam for hedonism.
Rushdie may not be compatible with most mystics or theologians, yet he feels free to take Sufi notions and use them for his own narrative aims. Here at least he’s consistent, for he’s always attacking what he calls “the bogey of authenticity,” the purist notion that one must refrain from altering the paradigms of culture and religion. He insists that "it is completely fallacious to suppose that there is such a thing as a pure, unalloyed tradition from which to draw. The only people who believe this are religious extremists” (IH 67). We see this in the negative portraits of Shame’s Bariamma, who believes that family stories are sacred and unchangeable, in the Verses’ Imam, who smashes clocks so that ancient religious versions of reality can’t be transformed, and in Haroun’s Cultmaster, who tries to stop the flow of stories that flow into the moon’s great ocean of narrative.