Salman Rushdie again, for the importance of the courage of detachment

January 28, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Two weeks ago here, and elsewhere in The Sun, I have written about Salman Rushdie and his latest novel, "The Moor's Last Sigh." I am driven to scribble a bit more today by reasons quite personal.

Reading Mr. Rushdie's new book and darting back into some of his earlier work, then taking that all into an intense conversation with him gave to me a renewed sense of the vitality of disciplined distance, a quality that is easy to gloss into triviality.

The mortal enemy and principal alternative to distance, of course, is self-indulgence.

In novels - and even memoirs and other nonfiction forms - the line between self-gratification and distanced self-examination can be a very fine one. (I think of a good deal of later Norman Mailer.)

The most glaring appearances of self-indulgence in writing, to my eye anyway, pop up when the lecturing begins. Polemical, didactic fiction - or for that matter history or biography - generally amounts to the practice of politics, not the making of art.

The quality of disciplined distance, by contrast, is startlingly present in Mr. Rushdie's current book. I won't belabor what I find to be the immense virtues of that volume, except to offer that the narrator and his mother, the Moor and Aurora, both very much parts and outgrowths of Mr. Rushdie's self, his experience and his consciousness, are superbly wrought characters. Yet neither is for a paragraph given a free ride.

Concealing meaning

Leo Strauss, the controversial political philosopher who fled the Holocaust and came to America to teach and work, argued that the great philosophers of the past all wrote their works, stated their major conclusions, in such a way as to conceal their true meaning from casual readers.

I have no idea if Mr. Rushdie has read Strauss' work, or how he might feel about it. It matters not. But it is interesting, I believe, that Prof. Strauss argued that truth, which it is the job of philosophers to seek, is usually threatening and repugnant to prevailing orthodoxies, both religious and political. So if these philosophers' perceived truths were stated clearly and explicitly, such statements historically would have led to the persecution of the philosopher, up to and including death.

He therefore taught his students to seek the meanings of the great philosophers ""between the lines" of their published writings.

It is argued by some that Prof. Strauss' own core conclusion, written in properly cryptic fashion, is that all great philosophers have known there is no God.

This brings the whole examination back to a conundrum. Mr. Rushdie, who is famously under an Iranian/Islamic death sentence for ostensible blasphemy in his "The Satanic Verses," freely admits he too is an unbeliever.

Yet, inevitably, God, mainly manifest in the vitality of man's love of God, plays a major role in his books - particularly, I find, the latest one.

Is there a useful line of delineation between serious novelists and philosophers? It is easy to contrive one, if you have some reason to, but it is probably irrelevant to the question of distance as I take that to be useful.

As a novelist, Mr. Rushdie consistently confirms joy, in fullness and fashions that both were amplified by the isolation and fear which were inflicted on him by Ayatollah Khomeini's 1989 death sentence.

As he emerged from the crippling force of his own persecution and exile, he told me he became increasingly conscious of the importance of joy, both as an element of life and as a truth in art.

"Writers have always faced persecution," he reflected, "and they have done their best to transcend it in their work. Ovid by the Black Sea, poor man, begging letters to be allowed back to Rome, and writing some of the most beautiful lyric poetry of his life."

It was only after wrenching himself out of the disorientation of fear that was precipitated by the death edict, he recounted, that he started reading the classics again.

"I think for all writers, the history of literature is the thing from which one takes inspiration. And the history of prison literature, of exile literature, the history of the literature of persecution - not one that I had been particularly interested in before because I had not been persecuted before," he related.

Cornerstone works

He was struck by the fact that the "writers of the Enlightenment and these books of theirs which we now consider to be not just masterpieces but the cornerstones of the modern idea of free speech all remained unpublished in their lifetimes, because it was too dangerous to publish them."

Despite the strongly affirming quality of "The Moor's Last Sigh," Mr. Rushdie claims to have no quarrel with the resignation and unrelieved grimness of much of today's fiction.

"It is easy," he told me," "for anybody reading the newspapers and living in the 20th century to see the horror of the times. That is easy and necessary. But that doesn't mean that is all there is to life."

And reflecting on the impact of his fear and his emergence from it, he said, "These two layers of the novel, the bright upper layer and the dark lower layer - a reason why I constructed it like that is that most of these things are true. It is true that life is full of corruption and violence and evil and so on. But it is also true that it is full of brightness and color and sensuality and love and laughter."

Just the sort of bald declaration that drives the "committed" practitioners of polemical and political "literature" - well, to thoughts of assassination.

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