I have just read Allon White’s fragments in the London Review of 4 May. The beauty and power of his writing made it an extraordinary experience – a mixture of pain, pleasure and bitterness. I don’t know whether it was a difficult editorial decision to publish it as you have, but I am very grateful to have had the chance to read his work and I imagine many readers would like to thank you for publishing it.
‘The Satanic Verses’
The Satanic Verses of The Satanic Verses concern the divine status of three goddesses, Uzza the goddess of love and beauty, Manat the goddess of destiny, and Lat, or Al-Lat, the mother-goddess or simply the goddess, Allah’s opposite and equal. The Grandee of Jahilia, Abu Simbel, recognising the weakness of his plurality of gods in the face of the overwhelming power of the single god, asks that out of the 360 idols worshipped in his city, these three should be granted divine status, and so it is conceded. ‘Have you thought upon Lat and Uzza, and Manat, the third, the other? They are the exalted birds, and their intercession is desired indeed.’ So says Mahound, repeating the verses as they have been revealed to him by the Angel Gibreel. But then the decision is reversed: Mahound maintains that he has discovered, in a further encounter with Gibreel, that the verses come not from Allah but from Satan. I wonder how many people know that these are the Satanic Verses? In my experience, strikingly few.
Is this demotion and ensuing destruction of the three goddesses not the first step towards the denial of equality between female and male? The Satanic Verses questions the nature of divine revelation and explores the idea of truth. It also explores the convergence of interests of patriarchal and religious authority. Women are denied not only divine but also fully human status; within a patriarchal religion women are defined as sexual beings. They can only be wives or whores. This circumscription of women is illustrated most movingly and wittily in a later scene in the book, when 12 prostitutes take on the names and characteristics of Mahound’s 12 wives: a lighthearted and loving game that ends in their deaths.
Amidst the reaction to The Satanic Verses and the reaction to its burning and to Khomeini’s death sentence on Salman Rushdie, a consensus of nonfundamentalist opinion has appeared, exemplified by your correspondent M.T. Al-Rashid (LRB, 30 March), which not only seems to ignore one of the central themes of the book, the long and complex history of women’s oppression, but also suggests that while the Iranian (and Saudi Arabian) brand of Islamicism is fair game, the ‘real’ Islam is something quite different and on no account should offence be given to it; that it has a long and marvellous history of tolerance, plurality etc. But by denying femaleness to the godhead, divine justification is given to the social control of women by men. Islam may not be the only world religion to authorise female submission, but that is no reason for not challenging it.
It must also be said that while Rushdie is questioning the authority of divine revelation and the idea of the Idea, his portrayal of people – ordinary people – who have religious faith is far from unsympathetic. His imaginative sympathy extends to Muslim believers, such as the villagers of Titlipur on their doomed journey to Mecca, and to the mountaineer Alleluia Cone with her anguished transcendental aspirations, as it does to the sometimes confused and often angry scepticism of his two protagonists, Saladin Chamcha (Salahuddin Chamchawala as was) and the Indian screen idol Gibreel Farishta. The reader of The Satanic Verses is asked to laugh and weep for all, believer and unbeliever alike. This is Rushdie’s achievement.
So what is it that has offended sincere (as opposed to fanatic) Muslims? It is, I think, the questioning of the authority on which religious faith is built. There is no denying that if this is what causes offence, then offensive is what The Satanic Verses is. For it is essentially a book about doubt. It suggests doubt is the human condition. And it proposes that to disallow doubt is to disallow an aspect of our humanity a – humanity that is shared by women and men, Muslims and non-Muslims, Indians, Pakistanis and Britons of all racial origins.
Besides being the focus of hatred and fear for a powerful group of fanatical religious leaders, this brilliantly funny, highly literary and immensely readable book has become the target for a transparently dishonest attack on its qualities as literature. If its novelistic properties can be dismissed as second-rate, then nobody need bother about the ideas expressed in it. This indeed, is the line taken by M.T. Al-Rashid, who maintains that it is ‘Vulgar in presentation and fickle in theme’. To describe Rushdie’s extraordinary mastery of style from the demonic to the demotic as vulgar is a patent absurdity. Fickle? Well, yes, in that it is a book of many ideas rather than one Idea, but each of them grasped profoundly. As with all good novels, in fact. Other people – writers, MPs and men on television – have said the book is not very good, or unreadable, or incomprehensible. It is none of these things.
While the experts talk, everyone else – totally put off by hearing how long, boring, vulgar and awful it is – remains in ignorance of another whole area that the book encompasses, that of race relations in contemporary Britain. Rushdie anatomises a host country’s institutionalised fear and hatred of its immigrant population. The experience of being brown, or black, in London is recounted in a story that is bitter, funny and painful. Authority does not come well out of this book. Neither numinous nor mundane.
The Satanic Verses is a deeply humanistic book. In political terms, it deals with oppression, suppression, denial of people and their history, and in particular with the complex history of Britain as an imperial nation. In individual terms, it portrays hatred, rage, revenge, shame, and, throughout, compassion and love. By transforming the Satanic Verses of the Koran into the satanic verses which Saladin Chamcha, in the clutches of envy and self-hatred, whispers to Gibreel Farishta, verses that bring about the death of two innocent people besides Gibreel himself, Rushdie offers a secular, humanist meditation on the nature, and the power, of evil. These verses, catchy and trite and designed to fan the flames of sexual jealousy in Gibreel, afford a salutory commentary on the historical Verses: their use in the novel suggests that the circumscription of women to their sexual function alone is a paradigm for all forms of oppression of one group by another. It is easy enough, which is not to say that it is not of enormous importance, to express horror at the death sentence imposed on Rushdie, and at the blood-chilling spectacle of his book being burned. But it is just as important to say what an extraordinarily powerful, profound and entertaining novel this is, and to uphold the right of everyone to read it should they wish to do so.
No one who knows me will deny that I am a Conservative. Someone in New York once said: ‘If that man took another step to the right, he’d fall off the world.’ That is why I am writing to say how strongly I agree with the protests of Nicholas Penny (Diary, 4 May) and of Sir John Pope-Hennessy (New York Review of Books, 4 May) against the behaviour of the Government, the trustees whom it has imposed, and the Director whom they put in, in the matter of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Lord Armstrong is an Honorary Student of Christ Church: if he shows up here in the next few months, he will not find himself universally welcomed.
Christ Church, Oxford
Towards the end of a lively, diverting review of Peter Fuller and others (LRB, 30 March), Nicholas Penny delivers himself of the assertion that ‘it is surely also essential that artists should not be encouraged to think of themselves as prophets, or visionaries, or magicians.’ This Audenesque warning is curiously sweeping and surely odd in its certainty. In an age of Post-Modernist programmes of deliberate self-trivialising, why should some artists not see themselves as visionaries or as prophets? And even if such a path, or such a self-characterisation, can be frowned upon as carrying the potential for personal danger, how could Penny have drifted so far as to find it essential that artists not take on these large roles? The essence of this escapes me completely.
North Carlton, Victoria
Richard Poirier would not recognise either his books or his editorial career under Paul Sawyer’s perjorative labels of ‘a conservative academic’ and ‘a reasonable pragmatist with a long historical perspective’ (Letters, 30 March). But any knowledgable and empirically-minded reader ought to recognise the accuracy of Poirier’s criticism of Baudrillard’s mythologising America. The Parisian journalist Diana Pinto, reviewing it in La Revue Tocqueville, offered it as the best example of L’Amérique dans les têtes, proof of ‘the extent to which America is a figment of the French imagination light years away from any concrete national reality. Americans reading the book can only wonder what society he is describing.’
My colleague Sawyer makes far too much of Poirier’s single brief reference to George Bush’s campaign and implausibly assumes that we need French Post-Structuralism in order to criticise the media’s reduction of political argument to ‘impressions’ – a point Sawyer himself derives from Joe McGinnis’s The Selling of the President. The Frenchman’s exaggeration of the media’s influence makes it impossible to understand why some 46 per cent of the voters chose the ‘cool’ candidate rather than the ‘warm’ one supposedly favoured by the media. Whatever Sawyer’s abstraction ‘the American political consciousness’ means, it must take account as well of the complaint so many of the winners made about the low level of their candidate’s campaign. The important, unhappy and neglected fact, moreover, is that nearly half the electorate (in spite of the media’s wooing) did not vote at all because both candidates seemed weak, as Poirier recognised. Many of us who voted with reservations for Dukakis think he bungled his early lead, not least because for most of the campaign he shunned ‘liberalism’ as if it were a malignity. His philosophical bedfellows on this score, ironically enough, are the rigorously anti-liberal French Post-Structuralists to whom Sawyer misguidedly urges us to turn for political enlightenment.
Denis MacShane (Letters, 20 April) writes that I am wrong ‘and Gordon Brown MP is right to assert that Thatcherism is not sweeping Europe.’ Most of the economic policies identified with Thatcherism (privatisation, preference for monetary over fiscal policy, the recognition that confiscatory rates of income tax are counter-productive, the deregulation of capital markets) have already swept Europe. Others (encouraging home ownership, private pensions), which in Britain are associated with her, were already considered Good Things by pretty well all parties. I cited Spain because we’re in the seventh year of a Socialist government with a Thatcherite economic programme. Naturally the Government, being both Spanish and Socialist, does not call it Thatcherism. Mr MacShane admits to her international stature but attributes it to her long service. Really? Reagan, Brezhnev and Harold Wilson all served for long periods without earning the respect of other leaders; Kennedy, Gorbachev and Churchill all earned respect within a year or two of taking office. Why not strip Mrs T. of all her clothes (her economic policies which work and are popular) and beat her with the stick of mismanaging the nation’s health, education, welfare and transport? Then the Labour Party would not only have the best policies to run Britain, but would have a better chance of winning the next election.
Thatcher and the Open University
Oh that we could strike dead the myth that Margaret Thatcher, as Education Minister, ‘fought to preserve the Open University’ (R.W. Johnson, LRB, 20 April). On the contrary, she looked at it in the hope of abolishing it. It was just too far advanced to stop – its first students started work in January 1971. I was one of them.
Would you be good enough to tell Professor Kermode that it was not Pontius Pilate but Jeroboam whose little finger would be thicker than his father Solomon’s loins (1 Kings 12.10)?