A Week in Books: How Plato started the fatwa business
Dame Iris can account for Rushdie's plight
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Saturday 13 February 1999
Murdoch argued so hard for the fearless art of fiction because, as a philosopher, she knew that most of the world's leading doctrines detested it. She grasped the force behind the ancient critique of imitative art as an irresponsible game with truths that lie too deep for tales. Forget the wrangles over "blasphemy", and that critique drives Rushdie's more rational antagonists.
Murdoch makes a superb advocate for a fiction free of priestly - or political - interdict only because she can voice the other case so well. The best commentary on the core assumptions that fuel the Rushdie "debate" (if debates can happen with a gun at one side's head) can be found in her great exposition of "why Plato banished the artists", The Fire and the Sun. This account of Plato's notorious urge to censor and control all art is reprinted in Existentialists and Mystics, the rich hoard of Murdoch essays that Peter Conradi edited in 1997.
Artists, thought Plato, make mischief with religion; they "portray the gods as undignified and immoral". Art "apes the spiritual", and subtly "trivialises" faith. It teaches a "spiteful amused acceptance of evil", and lures us into preferring shadows over substance. That metaphysical loathing for storytellers or actors has shifted very little over the past 2,500 years.
Now, Platonism suffused aspects of Islam almost as much as it did Christianity. Akbar Ahmed's new survey of Islam Today (I B Tauris, pounds 9.95) points out that some Muslim scholars call Plato a secondary "prophet", who spread God's word. So a punitive fury at irreverent fictions grows not from alien superstition, but from the dark heart of "western" culture. Murdoch saw, and explained, all this with a bracing wit and clarity. Which is why we can mourn a truly illuminating thinker, as well as a spellbinding teller of tales.
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