Salman Rushdie, the ‘intifada of the imagination’

Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie | Photo Credit: AFP

The Indian-born master of literature, the 75-year-old Salman Rushdie, was severely wounded in a knife attack on August 12 at the Chautauqua Institution (western New York State). His attacker was a 24-year-old Shiite Lebanese living in America, Hadi Matar. The young man is said to be sympathetic to the Iranian state and its fatwa declared against Rushdie 33 years ago, after the publication of The Satanic Verses.

Raising questions

We do not know if Matar has any interest in literature, but we know he has an interest in religion. For a devout man, religion surely matters over literature. Secular literature — a term we can safely use for a lot of writing since the advent of western modernity — has no responsibility towards divine injunctions. It is a literature born in, and nurtured by, human will and imagination. In other words, secular literature is an idea of writing that is free from the stranglehold of religious sentiments. It thrives not just by questioning religion, but also modernist values: literature is ideally a form of free expression where all forms of dogma, including dogmas of modern ideologies and values, are under question. The modern task of literature is to raise questions against everything we are comfortable with: be it the idea of god, life, politics or morality. To write is to seek, to seek is to question, to question is to contradict, to contradict is to establish the fundamental otherness that exists in the human world. Modern literature is not just other to religion, but also to the non-religious world. We may not live in real conditions of freedom, even though we may aspire for it. Only in literature, in the art of writing, do we find the freedom we always seek, and are denied.

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Since the fatwa was delivered against him, Rushdie has been asking questions about literature. In three sharp essays published together in an anthology of essays in 1991, the writer raised certain questions that surfaced regarding the relationship between fiction and faith. These questions were not simply political in nature, but also aesthetic and ethical.

In his reflective essay, ‘In God We Trust’, Rushdie uncovers the unconscious roots of modern literature by emphasising how the “room of dreams” became occupied by unholy thoughts and creatures. Rushdie calls this room of dreams as the psychological root, or source, of modern imagination. The difference between faith and its loss is understood in terms of whether even our dreams are dictated by divine ordainment or there is space for deviation.

Rushdie sees our indoctrinated images of the world that are part of our dreaming, our unconscious, as a “veil, maya” that prevent us from perceiving “things as they truly are” (like the deceptive form of shadows that hide reality in Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’). Dreaming outside strict “frames”, Rushdie suggests, may enable us to break out of our religious narcissism and accept the other, the world of difference, or heterodoxical imagination. In this sense, dreaming is not just a state but an act that enables us to register our freedom.

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Here, Rushdie judiciously cautions us that the freedom to dream may not just be our “gift” but also “our fatal flaw”. Imagination might be prone to a fundamental error. The refusal to submit to the “frames” handed down by religious truth might lead us to (make) mistakes. Dreaming, imagining, or writing, is precarious, where truth and error are equally possible. To act in freedom is not a guarantee of truthfulness. Writing about Dante’s love for Beatrice in a short work of prose in 1948 titled ‘The Meeting in a Dream’, the Argentinian polymath, Jorge Luis Borges wrote: “To fall in love is to create a religion with a fallible god”. We can extend that idolatrous definition of love to art and literature: all mortal creations, and what inspires them, are vulnerable.

Refugees of the imagination

In his combative essay, ‘In Good Faith’, Rushdie affirms his right to imagine against the diktat of purists. He declares his existential irresponsibility as “a b****** child of history”. This audacious sensibility belongs to the ‘minor’, or marginalised, subject that wants to belong to the world (or nation, or community) by questioning its credentials. To consider oneself an illegitimate subject of history is not to find oneself outside history, but to register one’s contrarian presence, as much as to seek respite and shelter from the sultans of power. The ‘minor’ figure of the refugee fits that description both in real and metaphoric terms. All modern writers are refugees of the imagination, looking for, to use Rushdie’s inventive phrase, “imaginary homelands”. The most provocative moment in the essay occurs when Rushdie defines freedom of expression, as “the freedom of offend”. Offend whom, in what way, and how much? Is it a matter of measure, consideration, or responsibility? Or is it the free horse of imagination running wildly across the meadows of language?

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Rushdie knows more than anyone else, such imagination has consequences. The audacity of imagination is not without risks. To write is to risk both language and the world. There is no fiction without friction. We are able to walk because the ground produces friction. We walk, think, speak and write, within a certain style and structure that enhances and limits our acts. The frictions and limits we face in language are socially and culturally produced within us. The whole point of writing (as much as walking and thinking) is to constantly push these limits that tend to hold us back. That is why freedom is precious: it makes us realise we can push the boundaries of nature.

In a short piece titled ‘Against the Orthodoxies’ that was part of an anthology by Muslim and Arabic writers in defence of Rushdie in 1994, Edward W. Said wrote: “Rushdie is the intifada of the imagination.” Evoking Rushdie’s rebellious gesture against the monopoly of truth by religious orthodoxy, Said connected it to the spirit of the resistance movement of Palestine. To question what is written, to be free to err against enforced certainties, to escape the room where we are guilty to dream, is what makes literature an act of rebellion in our times. The acts of cowardice by fanatics such as Matar keep the risks and promises of literature alive.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is the author of ‘Nehru and the Spirit of India’

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Printable version | Aug 19, 2022 5:53:22 pm |