Vol. 11 No. 13 · 6 July 1989

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‘The Satanic Verses’

Someone said recently that since the Salman Rushdie affair multiculturalism is dead. It isn’t, of course, and never will be. But there is no denying that the publication of The Satanic Verses and its aftermath does pose questions for those of us who want to maintain and extend the ground on which people of different cultures can encounter one another and learn from one another on terms of mutual respect. Those who have, very rightly, upheld the view that Salman Rushdie has a perfect right to express himself freely, even though his work may give offence to millions of people, have responded very inadequately to those Muslims who have vociferously demanded that he be denied that right (I am not concerned here with the Muslims’ racist opponents – these are no less bigoted than the anti-Rushdie agitators themselves.) The general response of all too many has been: ‘We recognise that this is the expression of your culture, and we respect it.’ That response won’t get any of us very far.

Those who take this stand need to grasp two important truths. The first is that if the interplay of cultures is to get us anywhere, mutual respect and mutual criticism must go hand in hand. You don’t learn much unless you criticise and assess the worth of the things you are studying. Everyone has the right to criticise everyone, and if the primary need is a willingness to be constantly critical of one’s own values and constantly ready to reassess them, that in no way implies that we may not apply the same critical approach to the cultures of others or that they may not do the same to ours. And the second truth is that there is no such thing in any community as a single, uniform, unchanging, conflict free set of values. True, there are some values in every culture which, in a given period, people of that culture almost universally accept. For example, nearly all South Asians (and not just Muslims) have a far more generous concept of hospitality, a far greater sense of responsibility for the care of the aged, and a far greater respect for patriarchal values, than the white British have. I think that the white British should reject those of their own traditional values which make them less hospitable and less caring than the South Asians, accept the spirit of South Asian values in this area, declare that they are doing so, and acknowledge their debt to the South Asians for the model they have provided. On the other hand, I think that they should, equally avowedly, maintain their rejection of authoritarian patriarchal values. But if these are examples of values which a community may hold almost unanimously, it is no less true that all cultures of all communities are in a constant process of change and embrace conflicting values, different outlooks, which contend all the time for general acceptance. Within the white British community the narrow minded national chauvinism sometimes exalted as ‘the Falklands spirit’ is an authentically British cultural trait. But so also, thank God, is the detestation of flag-wagging jingoism. The same is true of Islamic cultural traits. The bigoted fundamentalism of Khomeini is authentically Islamic in the sense that millions of Muslims uphold it. And (to say the least of it) no less authentically Islamic is a tradition that despises and condemns such bigotry. There is an Islamic tradition as old as Islam itself which preaches the love of humanity – all humanity, not just the Muslim section of it – as an essential aspect of the true love of God, and assails those bigots whose whole conduct is a denial of this. A Persian verse, proverbial in Iran, tells Muslims (with the hyperbole common to the Islamic poetry of many languages):

Drink wine; burn the Quran; throw fire into the kaba;
Dwell in the temple of idols – and do not harm your fellow-men.

The intention here is to shock the reader and rouse him to the realisation that injuring other human beings is as heinous a sin as the others which the poet lists.

It is a regrettable fact that confirmed Muslims who sympathise with this trend generally cannot summon up the courage to say so publicly. In December-January 1980-1981 I had three letters expounding it in the London Urdu daily Jang, and a number of my Muslim acquaintances, some of them in quite influential positions in their communities, declared their complete agreement with them. But not one of them was willing to declare this publicly. No less regrettable is their unwillingness to condemn Muslims like Idi Amin and the rulers of Turkey, Iraq and Iran who seem united in their desire to exterminate the Kurds. It seems that it is enough for any Muslim potentate to declare loudly his devotion to Islam for his fellow Muslims to condone any crime he may care to commit.

It would be easy to show that the humanist tradition in Islam is fully consistent with the teaching of the Quran and the Traditions of the Prophet. Its value to multiculturalism is obvious, and it is this Islamic tradition that we should welcome and build upon. People of all communities are fully entitled to express their opinion on all tendencies in all communities, and true multiculturalism not only permits them to do so: it demands that they should. A spurious ‘respect’ for what the most vociferous, in all communities, declare to be the one authentic expression of their distinctive values is harmful to all of us.

Ralph Russell
Emeritus Reader in Urdu,

Justice for Bohumil Hrabal

History has a long reach, and Chamberlain’s notorious ignorance of Czechoslovakia fifty years ago has not entirely faded. (It was said that Karel Capek, one of the best-known pre-war Czech writers, died of a heart pierced by Chamberlain’s umbrella.) Anthony Thwaite (LRB, 18 May) seems therefore to be on rather dangerous ground in trying to judge fiction by the criterion of national likes and dislikes. Bohumil Hrabal, now in his mid-seventies and one of Czechoslovakia’s most distinguished post-war writers, deserves to have his newly (and excellently) translated novel I served the King of England given more serious consideration than a hasty dismissal as a piece of Continental frippery. Mr Thwaite no doubt has reasons for devoting six times as much space to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, but Hrabal’s novel is far more than ‘a free-wheeling journey through Bohemia and Magical Realism’. Hrabal is exuberant (we agree), sensuous, subversive, erotic, illuminating, and very funny. There is, for instance, a ‘flower-plaiting’ scene which, unlike D.H. Lawrence’s in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, is wholly successful precisely because it is intentionally humorous as well as persuasively tender and erotic. My guess is that admirers of Hasek’s Schweik will not be disappointed, nor will those who have seen only the film of Hrabal’s Closely-Observed Trains.

Humour and tastes, of course, differ, but Anthony Thwaite seems to have invented (or reinvented) a criterion for literary judgment based on national stereotypes. The novel is by a Czech, about a Czech, and set in Bohemia; one of the things it does most effectively is to satirise the Nazis’ grotesque theories about eugenics. I can imagine there might be potential readers of Hrabal who would be reassured by your reviewer’s evidence that Germans nowadays find a pointedly witty attack on breeding-for-the-state both hilarious and laudable. But even if this were a German novel, I don’t think I’d want to try to imagine why he should say: ‘Much of it strikes me as being more like what the Germans think of as uproariously funny than we do and indeed the advance publicity includes two encomiastic quotations from German papers.’ Oh well, that’s all right, then – we can certainly give it a miss. It’s probably as boring as The Tin Drum. After all, they probably like Milan Kundera too. (He’s the Czech writer who calls this novel ‘one of the most authentic incarnations of magical Prague, an incredible union of earthy humour and baroque imagination’.)

Rodney Pybus
Sudbury, Suffolk

What Burke knew

R.W. Johnson (LRB, 16 February) claims that ‘men like Burke are always wise after the event, never before.’ Now Burke may have been a quirky old sod when he wrote the Reflections, but one thing you cannot accuse him of is being wise after the event. Particularly when, as Mr Johnson must well know, ‘the event’ of the French Revolution occupied several years. In tact, Burke was way ahead of ‘the event’, if we consider what was said and thought about the Revolution in England at that time, and do not allow ourselves to yield to the now threadbare ‘class’ view of Burke as simply and solely a dyed-in-the-wool political reactionary, nostalgic for the ‘age of chivalry’. Of course, the Rational Dissenters were overjoyed at the news of the Revolution, while the exuberant Whig leader Fox and his colleague ex-playwright Sheridan also exulted over it. Yet Pitt was hardly less enthusiastic. He thought that the libertarian upheavals in France made the country ‘an object of compassion even to a rival’, that it would now become ‘less obnoxious as a neighbour’, and perhaps even turn into ‘one of the most brilliant powers in Europe’. Of course, such admiration would be transformed into outrage once the September Massacres put him and most other English sympathisers off the Revolution. By then, too, Pitt would have his own native movement of political radicalism to contend with. But, in 1790, as Conor Cruise O’Brien has said, ‘the French Revolution did not seem dangerous, to most Englishmen.’ However, it did to Burke, an acute Irishman whose first-hand experience of his oppressed homeland put him in a unique position to see where abstract ‘rights of man’ arguments could and would lead: to ‘homicidal philanthropy’. For those who don’t know, the essence of Burke’s position can be summarised by quoting from a letter he wrote to A.J.F. Dupont at the end of March 1790, when he was half-way through writing the Reflections on the Revolution in France: ‘I have no great opinion of that sublime abstract metaphysic reversionary, contingent humanity, which in cold blood can subject the present time and those whom we daily see and converse with to immediate calamities in favour of the future and uncertain benefit of persons who only exist in idea.’ (Burke’s emphases.) No one else was saying this at the time, and what he predicted would happen, did happen. So it is true, as George Steiner has said in one of the essays reviewed by R.W. Johnson, that Burke’s Reflections embodies a ‘wholly prophetic’ exposition, seeing ‘Bonapartism coming out of the very matrix of what looked, in 1790, to be a gradual ripening towards constitutional monarchy and the rule of law’. How can we explain Burke’s prescience? This is where his brilliant mind and his extraordinary skills as a writer come in.

When he wrote the Reflections, Burke was not acting simply as ‘spokesman’ for an aristocratic élite feeling under threat from ‘levelling’ democratic principles, as R.W. Johnson states. Of course, as a counter-revolutionary pressing his case at painstaking length, he obviously knew that history might well thrust such a role upon him, as it quickly did, from Mary Wollstonecraft onward, and ad infinitum. But we miss the point about Burke if we treat him thus. For what Burke had seen, from as long ago as his brilliant satire on Bolingbroke, the Vindication of Natural Society (1756), was something about the new bourgeois-liberal mentality that made him recoil with horror: what made him shudder was that mentality’s indifference to God, and its neutralising of our ‘capacity for affection’. (I am indebted to O’Brien for this phrase.) What haunted Burke from a very early stage was what we have come to call, since Nietzsche brilliantly investigated the phenomenon, the Death of God. This can be ascertained from that other early work of Burke’s, his brilliant Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), where he develops a theory of language discovering the non-referentiality of words – the now famous ‘arbitrary signifier’ so beloved of Post-Structuralists.

OK, so Burke was of the arriviste class: but being so placed allowed him to see what he saw, and to say what he thought about the age of ‘oeconomists and calculators’ – even if he was then capable of producing the heartless Thoughts and Details on Scarcity. Being a lonely and prominent genius in the midst of industrial and political revolutions was bound to make him somewhat twisted. And OK, so he indulged in ‘gothic’ word-play and rhetorical flights and plungings: but only because, poised on what Foucault has called the ‘threshold of modernity’, he had learnt the terrifying secret that words and the world no longer hang together in quite the same way as they did.

Let us not go back to the bad old days of seeing Burke in the arrogant but vague way that Raymond Williams did when he dismissed him on the second page of Culture and Society. ‘The confutation of Burke on the French revolution is now a one-finger exercise in politics and history.’ Williams admitted his mistake in 1981, but was still too unfamiliar with Burke to do anything about it.

Maurice Hindle
Department of Literature,

Only connect

Why does Tom Shippey (LRB, 1 June) sneer at Thomas Hardy? ‘Very good, Mr Hardy. Excellent poetry, especially in a time of the breaking of nations (1915).’ For writing about a ploughman during the First World War? As Eastern Europe fizzles, as China explodes, as Iran pops its lid, Professor Shippey reviews five books for the London Review, including one on Medieval Iceland. Doesn’t he see the connection?

Bruno Nightingale
London SE22


Would you be good enough to tell Mr Minter (Letters, 1 June) that it was Rehoboam not Jeroboam whose little finger would be thicker than his father’s loins?

Kiffin Rockwell
Marin, North Carolina

‘The Pomegranates of Patmos’

My brother, my bright twin, Prochorus,
Was Christian way back in his youth
Till the LRB spread all before us
and Harrison cried: it’s the Truth!

Prochorus could see it at once,
for he read the great gospel in full:
and St John being labelled a dunce,
the eagle flew off, left the bull.[*]>

But symbols aside to Kerygma:
the truth is a fact there’s no ducking.
Life is delightful from rho down to sigma
when Harrison’s doing the fucking.

My brother, my bright twin, Prochorus,
For Patmos read Pathos throughout:
Now Harrison’s fucking in chorus,
You’ll fuck along with him no doubt.

It only remains now to pray
that at all times we may pass the cup,
that we may be found on the very last day,
sucked off, licked out and fucked up.

[*] The eagle was not only John’s, it was neither religious nor pagan but a hulking great brute with bald bonce who hailed from the US of Reagan.

Nor was the bull Luke’s, I add, but a creature virile sans comparison, something stamping and sexy and glad, – in fact not dissimilar to Harrison.

George Szirtes

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