The Book Club

Criticism and Freedom

Dear Gerry,

I’m glad I asked! Your summary of the issues involved in the Rushdie Affair is incisive, and I have little to add to it. It seems obvious that Rushdie was, and remains, in danger, and that Western governments, especially the British, have been cravenly willing to sacrifice him in the interests of “normalization” with Iran–i.e., access to oil, sale of weapons, etc. The plaintive question Rushdie poses at the end of his extraordinary essay “One Thousand Days in a Balloon” is: How much is one writer’s life worth? How much is the fate of one book worth? And what he knows he’s asking–and not, I think, in a self-serving or self-pitying way–is: What is literature worth? What is freedom of the imagination worth? To governments, even democratic governments, the answer is not that much. Like you, I tend toward absolutism on this matter, but reasons of state seem always, depressingly, to trump considerations of human rights. After all, the situation of writers and intellectuals in Egypt, a secular pseudo-democracy that gets more military aid from the United States than any other country except Israel, is extremely precarious, as it is in Turkey, which is No. 3 on the military-aid list. I can’t recall any official in any American administration ever raising the slightest peep about the situation in either country. “Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game,” Rushdie wrote in 1991. “Free speech is life itself.” He is, unsurprisingly, an absolutist too.

This is the “Book Club,” not the “Breakfast Table,” but I ran across a story in the business section of the New York Times yesterday that seems at least tangentially relevant to our discussion. It seems that Disney has refused to back a Miramax film called Dogma and has publicly called the film “inappropriate,” on the grounds that it might offend the Catholic Church. According to the Times, an anonymous Disney exec “said that parts of the movie could be construed as an attack on Catholic dogma.” Miramax, for its part, released a statement assuring the world that the movie’s director, Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy), is “a practicing Catholic with a solid foundation of love and reverence to faith,” as if that were at all relevant. (Miramax is standing behind the movie.) Now, Kevin Smith is no Salman Rushdie, and Disney is not Iran, but it’s worth noting that threats to free expression in the name of religion are not confined to Iran or the Muslim world.

OK. Off the soapbox, Tony. Since I’ve been writing a formal review of The Ground Beneath Her Feet as well as participating in this discussion, I’m familiar with that inner voice chastising me for every fault I find. It’s never pleasant to criticize a writer you admire, and it’s especially hard in this case. But on the other hand, criticism is the oxygen of free expression, and if we care about Rushdie in part because he stands for the principle of artistic freedom, one way to uphold that principle is to be free with our quarrels and reservations. You point out that the reception of The Satanic Verses turned “an astonishingly rich and complex novel into anti-Muslim agitprop or, no better, a totem of liberal sentiment.” To exempt Rushdie’s subsequent novels from criticism is in a way to perpetuate the distortion of his work begun by the Ayatollahs ten years ago. I’m sure this sounds self-justifying, but I do think that the best way to honor Rushdie is to judge his novels as novels, which means pointing out their faults and praising their virtues.

Perhaps you and I haven’t done enough of the latter, since we’ve been preoccupied with rock ’n’ roll and the effects of the fatwa. I’m still amazed by the vividness and sensuousness of the Bombay chapters, and by the extraordinary characters–young Vina, Ormus and his brothers, the comic villain Piloo Doodhwala, and especially Ormus’ aristocratic, Anglophile parents, Sir Darius and Lady Spenta Cama. Rushdie is, as you’ve insisted, a novelist of ideas, but he’s also one of the great historical novelists of the late 20th century. One of the things I like about this novel and The Moor’s Last Sigh is how they illuminate less well-known corners of the modern subcontinental experience. The best parts of TMLS take place before independence in what’s now the state of Kerala, a matriarchal (and for a long time a defiantly communist) region of southern India. In TGBHF, the Camas are Parsis–part of a community of Zoroastrians who came to India in the eighth century fleeing Muslim persecution in Iran. It’s possible that Rushdie concentrates on these groups, and on India’s Muslims as well, in protest against the rise of Hindu chauvinism. So maybe this is a political novel after all. The earthquakes that roil TGBHF clearly have something to do with the Bharatiya Janta Party government’s underground nuclear tests.

What are your favorite parts of the book? What do you think its political subtext is? There’s a lot more to say, but our time is running out. I’ve enjoyed these exchanges enormously. The last word belongs to you.