The Saturday Essay: A free imagination, or the tyranny of the mob?

Ten years on, Rushdie has shown us how literature is forgotten amid the hatred of art that haunts this century
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WHEN THE news came over the wire services on 14 February 1989 that a writer had been condemned to death, the whole thing seemed at first like a dreadful anachronism. But instead of a mystery which we could only comprehend through analogy - that of Inquisition victims burned at the stake - there was the face of a real man on the front pages of our newspapers and on our television screens. It was the face of a writer unknown to the general public, half English, half Indian, who stood out for his novel way of expressing a fascination with mixed origins and mixed lives.

Salman Rushdie has been caught up up in an unprecedented political/literary affair which for 10 years now has kept the secret services of several countries, armies of diplomats and police, commandos of fundamentalists and an overexcited media busy. He could have become lost in a media mirror- world, where the greatest tragedies turn into virtual reality: witness the case of Diana, whose sorry destiny as a media star he analysed on the pages of Le Monde. But he has escaped becoming a media victim, and first and foremost because he is a writer. Even as he led the struggle against terrorism by a state, he was waging another war against another fatwa - this one less clear cut and more difficult to win.

Those who promulgated this second fatwa were not the fundamentalist mullahs in Tehran, but politicians (sometimes progressive politicians), religious figures (sometimes the most enlightened ones) or even writers (John le Carre). Immediately after 14 February 1989 you could see them hurry to express their solidarity and understanding. Not, however, with a writer threatened with death by a terrorist state - but with "Muslims unjustly insulted over their religious convictions".

One church leader saw a link between the Rushdie affair and the campaign which had been launched a few months earlier against Martin Scorsese's film The Last Temptation of Christ. Once again, he proclaimed, "believers are insulted over their faith: first Christians in a film which disfigures the image of Christ, now Muslims in a book about the prophet". Monsignor John O'Connor, the Archbishop of New York, believed that Rushdie's book was offensive and asked Catholics not to read it. The Chief Rabbi of Israel, the Vatican and Margaret Thatcher also expressed their disapproval, while Jacques Chirac, the future president of France, unwisely declared that he had "no sympathy for Mr Rushdie. I have read what has appeared in the press (ie the first chapters of The Satanic Verses), It's pathetic." But it was Mr Lustiger, a member of the Academie Francaise, who went furthest. He did not hesitate to state that "the figures of Christ and Mohamet do not belong to artists and their imagination" - thus incidentally writing off entire centuries of the history of painting.

Ten years on, the Rushdie affair has shown itself to be the final, and most theatrical, act of a tragedy of which all the protagonists - the media, the mullahs, "enlightened" Westerner and radical Islamist, leaders political and religious - have been one by one unmasked. Be it in Paris, New York, Rome or Jerusalem, literature has been forgotten; the fatwa has become steadily more acceptable and Salman Rushdie increasingly suspect. Only the talent, the courage, and the tireless presence of Salman Rushdie has allowed us to see what is really at stake in this affair: how literature is forgotten amid the hatred of art which haunts this century. It is a fatwa against fiction.

According to this fatwa, Dead Souls is an insult to the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, Madame Bovary is a defence of adultery and Nabokov's Lolita - a novel which it would be impossible to publish today - is a defence of paedophilia. Or take Joyce's Ulysses, once described as "the literature of the lavatory" and as "literary Bolshevism". It was published in Paris in 1922 but remained banned in the US until 1933 and in England until 1937. No matter that, throughout this period, pornographic books, anti-religious tracts and licentious pseudo-novels abounded. It's always literature which is persecuted.

But what's so threatening about fiction? Michel Foucault suggested that there are several levels of censorship: that which covers explicit content (for instance, a catalogue of blasphemous words) and that which covers forms of language that are deemed to go too far "not in their meaning, or in their verbal content, but in their interplay". Into this forbidden and proscribed category fall de Sade, Joyce, Rushdie, Rabelais, Celine and Genet. The fatwa against Rushdie did not punish a crime of opinion. It punished a novel. And not just Rushdie's novel, but the genre of the novel in its entirety.

Nadezhda Mandelstam recounts Kruschev's story of how Stalin once saw a famous actor on television playing the part of a traitor. Stalin was so impressed by the actor's skills that he declared only a real traitor could play the role so well - and ordered that the required measures be taken.

Half a century later, on 13 February 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini was also watching television, and saw the Pakistani police open fire on demonstrators who were protesting against the publication in the US of a book entitled The Satanic Verses. Khomeini hadn't read the book but was so taken with the scenes of massacre on screen that he concluded that a book called The Satanic Verses could only be a satanic book, the sole purpose of which was blasphemy and insult. So he went into the next room and dictated his fatwa on the spot, requesting Muslims the world over "to put to death Salman Rushdie and his publishers, wherever they are found".

It's hard to know whether the lesson of these tales is that tyrants are overimpressionable or that they watch too much television. But they are proof anew of a failing of literary history: a Don Quixote-like confusion between reality and fiction.

When Don Quixote interrupted a puppet show, took his sword and ran through two puppets because they were not behaving in keeping with the rules of chivalry, he was displaying the blindness of Stalin confronted by the actor/traitor. His rigid notion of chivalry denied him that minimum of distance from events, without which parody, the theatre, the very description of something else is impossible.

The crowds who gathered across the world to oppose publication of The Satanic Verses had not read the book. Like Khomeini they were reacting only to the title - as if The Satanic Verses were an anti-religious pamphlet and not a novel; thus do hundreds of thousands of Don Quixotes protest, without knowing it, against the behaviour of an individual, his dreams and his ideas. These are crowds ready to kill on account of beings which are merely the product of paper and ink. But how can you blame them when the West's political and media elites make the same mistake ?

Great works stand out because of the uncertainty they plant in our minds. They do not involve the explicit excesses and obscenities which bring about bans and taboos. Instead, they change perceptions and touch the most sensitive themes, searching out, as Rushdie puts it, "new angles from which to penetrate reality". They strive to create a different hierarchy of the senses, to make us look at ourselves in different ways. The Satanic Verses, after all, is not simply about various episodes from the Koran and the condemnation to death of its author, found guilty of having challenged God's word with his profane words and of having created confusion over identity and origins. It is a paeon of love: to emigration, to cultural cross-breeding, to the sheer exotic richness of modern life. The Satanic Verses turns exile into a defining experience which allows the real world to be re-explored and a new world to be discovered. "America, a nation of immigrants, has created great literature out of cultural transplantation and the study of how people cope with a new world," Rushdie writes.

Today, as a result of migration and nomadism, languages and cultures are moving into a new age. Rushdie's novel testifies to this new and giddy diversity of the human condition, its entanglements and collisions. This is the new world to which The Satanic Verses tries to give shape, with all the attendant risks and surprises.

Rushdie's novel - and this is why it has burst so disastrously into the real world - is an attempt through fiction to gain a grip on the central question of modern life. The question is not the one which confronted writers like Flaubert, Balzac and Proust in their era: how do you enter society? Society then meant the Arnoux family for Frederic in L'Education sentimentale, Rastignac's Paris in Balzac or the Guermantes salon in Proust. The questions Rushdie asks are: how do you enter a world that is absolutely open? How do you come into the world when you belong to several worlds? What are you born as when you are a migrant? In other words, how do you find identity and individuality in a world where all identifications are equivalent and equally possible?

The Satanic Verses is the first great carnival novel of the era of globalisation. It is an immigrant's inside vision of the world - not as something distant and exotic, but with all the conflicts and contradictions that go with the immigrant's condition and the transformed awareness this implies. Perceptions change, not only of time and space, but of sexuality, culture, religion, even of one's own body.

The fall of a plane upon London in The Satanic Verses - which stands for a fall into our Western times and a fall out of a theo-centric world - is the start of a process that reorders our notions of good and evil. Traditional values are not rejected. They crumble gradually. They continue to exist as memories, fetishes, left-overs, cliches. They are carried along, displaced and disformed, in the great swirl of forms and values that constitutes Rushdie's carnival. Kafka wanted to write the world history of a single soul. Rushdie, on the other hand, seeks to bring the great circus of globalisation alive, giving it form and people.

The essential job of fiction, according to Gilles Deleuze, is to invent a people which is missing. With Rushdie and his giants of immigration and the world, we are present at the birth of such a people. It is a people of immigrants, scattered between London and Bombay. It is a people made up of men betrayed, because they have been "moved beyond their origin" and because their values and identities mix with each other and contaminate each other.

This is why the fatwa against Rushdie finds its supporters and not only in Tehran. For modern censorship is first and foremost the tyranny of conformity. Today, we persecute what is unformulated and unbelievable - everything that is different and heterogenous, everything that is being born. It's not surprising, therefore, that in its focus on language, on the individual and his search for new forms of identity, the novel comes up against the drained but still fanatical mob, blindly following the prophets of purity in everything, turning back on their tracks in search of a lost identity, in a futile quest for origins.

The Rushdie affair is different from the Dreyfus case, which produced a clear demarcation between Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards and in which the intelligentsia emerged as supreme defender of right and justice. The Rushdie affair has lacked that clarity, because ultimately it has not been about defying raison d'etat and forcing recognition of the fact that a man unjustly condemned is innocent. It is not about defending established rights or returning honour to a truth scorned. It is about the recognition of a right which cannot be precisely defined and which indeed has yet to be invented. This right involves another sort of compromise between literature and politics. It is the right to fiction, the right to depict things.

The Rushdie affair has become our affair. In some respects it has been played out in the shadows but it has made a huge impact none the less. A festering quarrel that is four centuries old, between literature on one side and religion and politics on the other, has been forced into the open at a global level. Far from being a passive victim, Rushdie has waged a daily war against fear. It has been a strange story of imagination disarmed yet insurgent - what Edward Said has called "an intifada of the imagination".

The author is secretary general of the International Parliament of Writers