Monday, September 25, 2006

On Salman Rushdie

In additon to Stephen Mitchelmore, Amitava Kumar makes an interesting point:
The trouble is that despite all his invention and exuberance Rushdie remains to a remarkable extent an academic writer. He is academic in that abstractions rule over his narratives. They determine the outlines of his characters, their faces, and their voices. Rushdie is also academic in the sense that his rebellions and his critiques are all securely progressive ones, advancing the causes that the intelligentsia, especially the left-liberal Western intelligentsia, holds close to its breast. This is not a bad thing, but it should qualify one's admiration for Rushdie's daring.

In the wake of the fatwa, writers all around the world sent letters to Rushdie and to the press, expressing their support for the man who had been forced to go into hiding. One of these letters was from Norman Mailer: "Many of us begin writing with the inner temerity that if we keep searching for the most dangerous of our voices, why then, sooner or later we will outrage something very fundamental in the world, and our lives will be in danger. That is what I thought when I started out, and so have many others, but you, however, are the only one of us who gave proof that this intimation is not ungrounded."

There can be no doubt that the threats that Rushdie faced and also the book-burnings and other protests were shameful and unacceptable. But I do not for a moment support Mailer's assessment. I don't believe that Rushdie has even found his most dangerous voice. In fact, I don't believe that Rushdie's is the most dangerous voice writing today. His is no doubt a powerful voice; often, it has been an oppositional voice; but it is a voice of a celebrity promoting commendable causes; more seriously, in some fundamental way, it is the voice of a metaphorical outsider, and therefore incapable of revealing to ourselves, in an intimate way, our complicities, our contradictions, and our own inescapable horror. I don't deny that it is a voice that can engage and delight and of course annoy, and yet it is very important to make a distinction: what Rushdie writes can easily provoke, but it is rarely able to disturb.

Not sure of course about this distinction wrt "abstractions" (as opposed to what exactly, reality? Reality of feelings?) but nonetheless.

nb. See Marco Roth's review of Shalimar the Clown, and also re: nuisance value. Though I suppose something more radical than nuisance even may be the case. The idea of literature as something ultimately beholden, for example, to a foundational Terror for its generative force.

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