Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991 by Salman Rushdie, Granta, 1992
SALMAN RUSHDIE LOST his religious faith at the age of fifteen. The event took place in a Latin class at Rugby and he later celebrated it by eating a stale ham sandwich. He has himself spoken of how he attempted to fill the ‘god-shaped hole’ left by his loss of faith with the art of the novel. But to read this collection of seventy-five essays and reviews, culled from Rushdie’s writing over the past ten years, is to be reminded that there is another spiritual home in which he has always seemed comfortable – the broad church of British socialism. He is certainly not afraid to measure himself up against some of the truly prophetic figures on the British left and, in the case of Orwell at least, to find them wanting. One of the things he shares with Orwell, with E. P. Thompson and with his friend and admirer Michael Foot, is a fine moral rage, a rage which expresses genuine idealism and a resolute refusal to countenance the extinction of social hope or to submit to the politics of money or materialism.
Constructive moral rage such as this is so rare that it may well call forth admiration even from those who do not share Rushdie’s political ideals, and there is a non-conformist strength in many of his more polemical pieces which is both attractive and vital. This is especially true when he combines his political arguments with attempts to rekindle the old flame of his love for India and to express his anger at the false suitors who are always seeking to woo her away.
The terms of his attack on what he calls ‘the Raj revisionism’ of M. M. Kaye and Paul Scott in his essay ‘Outside the Whale’ are as interesting as the reservations about Orwell he expresses in the same piece. His judgments on Richard Attenborough’s Ghandi and on V. S. Naipaul seem both severe and just. His review of Foucault’s Pendulum, in which he splendidly declines to worship at the modish shrine of Umberto Eco, is a small gem and many other pieces in this book merit both reading and re-reading.
The moral rage, then, is genuine. So too is the idealism. They are both in their own way impressive and on a number of occasions they hit their targets. The problem is that moral rage and idealism are a highly destructive combination, and unless they are guided by real insight and by a great deal of ordinary human sensitivity they can often end by hitting the wrong targets – with disastrous consequences.
One indication that there is something wrong with Rushdie’s aim is provided by the text of his celebrated – or notorious – Channel 4 broadcast on racism. A particular section of his talk disturbed me when I first heard it in 1982 and it disturbs me still:
In Germany, after the fall of Hitler, heroic attempts were made by many people to purify German thought and the German language of the pollution of Nazism … But British thought, British society has never been cleansed of the filth of imperialism. It’s still there, breeding lice and vermin, waiting for unscrupulous people to exploit it for their own ends.
Rushdie seems not to have recognised that the rhetoric of pollution and the images of lice and vermin which he uses here were part of the very substance of National Socialist propaganda. What such language perfectly expresses is the extreme racialist’s assumption that he is himself an island of purity and that all corruption, cruelty and uncleanness reside outside him in an alien people which must be cleansed from the face of the earth. Instead of seeking to analyse this self-righteous and repressive frame of mind Rushdie comes perilously close to adopting it himself. The result is a kind of racialism-in-reverse in which he speaks out as the member of a class of wronged and all-virtuous victims against the enemy – the corrupt, all-sinful whites.
British racism, of course, is not our problem. It’s yours. We simply suffer from the effects of your problem. And until you, the whites, see that the issue is not integration, or harmony, or multi-culturalism, but simply facing up to and eradicating the prejudices within almost all of you, the citizens of your new and last Empire will be obliged to struggle against you.
What we encounter in Rushdie’s broadcast is not the rhetoric of liberation. It is the rhetoric of mastery being pressed into service on behalf of the oppressed. So long as Rushdie spoke on behalf of the powerless against the powerful, this rhetoric seemed just and humane to many. Tragically, however, when his own sophisticated insensitivity to the language of faith brought him into conflict with Muslims who, at their most extreme, were themselves rigid and even racialist in their response, he reacted by using similar rhetoric. Instead of recognising that Muslim extremism, like white racialism, is the reaction of people who themselves feel oppressed, vulnerable and wounded, and that moderate Muslims were deeply offended too, he made the mistake of treating all those who opposed the novel as though they were part of a demonic host. As a result a tragedy which might have been defused in its early stages was inexorably deepened.
The article in which Rushdie came closest to demonising Muslim opponents of his novel appeared in the Observer on 22 January 1989 just after the book-burning in Bradford. In it Rushdie described Muslim campaigners as ‘the forces of inhumanity’ and characterised them as agents of darkness. Interestingly, the article has been silently omitted from this collection. If this omission is deliberate it is difficult to know quite how to respond. Should we welcome it as a sign of the wisdom and maturity of Rushdie the convert? Or should we discern a case of Rushdie-revisionism?
My own preference is for the former. On the evidence of this collection, however, in which essays like ‘In Good Faith’ and ‘Is Nothing Sacred’ are reprinted, but in which Rushdie offers no new, more considered analysis of the tragedy, it would seem prudent to reserve judgment.
A shorter version of this review first appeared in The Tablet 20 April 1991.
© Richard Webster, 2002