Joseph Conrad prefaced one of his novels by announcing that the task of a writer is, “by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see!” Here is Salman Rushdie on The Wizard of Oz: “Imagination puts us in the Lion’s skin, places the sparkling slippers on our feet, sends us cackling through the air on a broomstick.” And here is Salman Rushdie on September 11: “It was an iconoclastic act, in which the defining icons of the modern, the world–shrinking airplanes and those soaring secular cathedrals, the tall buildings, were rammed into in order to send a message: that the modern world itself was the enemy, and would be destroyed.” Rushdie’s greatest strength as a novelist is his most serious flaw as a cultural critic: he has given us a collection so beautifully written, there seems to be little distinction between flying broomsticks and world–shrinking airplanes.
Initially, the range of topics covered in these essays, reviews, lectures, and meditations impresses us with the breadth of Rushdie’s knowledge: he moves with ease from contemporary Lebanese novelists to sixteenth–century Indian epic literature, from Vaclav Havel to Bob Dylan. The exuberance with which he engages every topic attests to the wonders he can accomplish with his prose. Rushdie deserves a place alongside Nabokov, Joyce, and Conrad as a pyrotechnic master of twentieth–century English, and one happily cannonades through many of these pieces. But his gifted prose is, unfortunately, also his curse. Rushdie is a paragon of the postmodern mindset; as engaged by Dorothy in Oz as by destruction in lower Manhattan, he is willing and able to pass between cultural registers and diverse subjects with an insouciant disregard for the relative value of the insights offered, the consistency of his arguments, or the durability of his commitments.
This flaw is related to the dominant theme of Step Across This Line, which also happens to be a key premise of Rushdie’s fiction and a sad tenet of our age: freedom means freedom from any form of limitation on how we live in this world (or what we write about). Barriers are to be overcome, borders to be transgressed, rules broken, all in support of the sacrosanct notion of the individual liberated from the tyranny of religious and political authority. A profound flattening of meaning results when such notions dominate an essay collection, strangely made apparent by the uniformly intense beauty of the language. This problem is most evident in the February 2002 Yale lectures Rushdie delivered on freedom, art, and responding to September 11, which provide the collection with its title and comprise its fourth section. Their confusing roster of frontier metaphors are marked by gorgeous language, but the lectures leave us confused as to what and where frontiers exist, how we are to respond to them, and why.
Reviewing a mediocre mid–career work by Ernest Hemingway, Lionel Trilling once suggested that its flaws were the result of Hemingway being overburdened by the persona foisted onto him by fame. Trilling explained the problem as Hemingway attempting to write as “Hemingway,” which understandably resulted in an unintentional parody of his work—the writer seeking to project the image he mistook for his true self. Rushdie has certainly faced this problem for some time, but to his credit, he is aware of it. Halfway through one of the strongest pieces in the collection, a travelogue of his first trip to India in twelve years, Rushdie remarks, “My metamorphosis from observer to observed, from the Salman I know to the ‘Rushdie’ I often barely recognize, continues apace.”
“Rushdie,” for instance, is recognized by a journalist in a restaurant. When word gets out that he spoke to reporters, he is accused by the police of trying to instigate a riot in Delhi by drawing attention to himself, and then preemptively blamed for any police violence if a riot should occur. On one level, this is absurdist comedy, on another, a reflection of how unsettling the “Rushdie affair” was, and continues to be. After Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie for blaspheming Islam in his 1987 novel The Satanic Verses, “Rushdie” became the watchword for free speech and the writer’s ability to affect history, and his reputation as a novelist became inextricably entangled with his political predicament. Indeed, when Rushdie writes of young Elián González becoming a political football, in one of the reprints of New York Times columns that make up the third section of the collection, the restrained but bitter emotion that marks the piece suggests that he understands the experience in a direct way.
The second of the volume’s four sections is a selection of Rushdie’s various statements on the fatwa and its consequences—his forced seclusion, the at times fatal violence directed towards translators and colleagues, the sour undercurrents in British sympathy towards his situation, his devotion to free speech at any cost. While it’s impossible not to deplore the entire mess and admire his courage, Rushdie’s arrogant, dismissive treatment of religion is at times frustrating and—truth be told—explains in part the anger he generated. Rushdie is defiantly a secular humanist, convinced that religion’s only interest lies in a power–driven, ideological control of believers. Addressing a conference on free speech in Washington in 1992, Rushdie follows John Stuart Mill in citing Socrates and Christ as men accused of blasphemy and heresy, founders of Western traditions in spite of persecution. He then announces: “We can say, therefore, that blasphemy and heresy, far from being the greatest evils, are methods by which human thought has made its most vital advances.” The autobiographical elements of this, and many other pieces in section two, are clear; also unmistakable are the overblown terms he uses to imply his apparent achievements, which limit our appreciation for his resilience.
The best I can say about Rushdie on religion is that he’s at least consistent in his denunciations. Elsewhere, his ability to commit himself to membership in various groups is confusing, and when these pieces are read together, a tad unsettling. Over the course of the collection, Rushdie is a Muslim, Indian, New Yorker, Briton, European, American, trans–nationalist, post–nationalist, internationalist, immigrant, exile, emigrant, migrant. In each case, he writes in the first–person plural. Perplexities arise, especially regarding September 11 and its aftermath. In September 2001, responding to the terrorist attacks on “our city,” he announces that “we must send our shadow–warriors against theirs, and hope that ours prevail.” Two months later, adopting a Muslim perspective on Islamic terrorism, he declares, “We say that the ills of our societies are not primarily America’s fault—that we are to blame for our own failings.” The effect of these multiple, often contradictory affiliations is dizzying. Rushdie has defended this apparent inconsistency as the mark of a postmodern, post–colonial, globalized world, in which no one belongs to unitary categories of definition, and all are partial, fragmentary selves.
This point has some force in his mongrel fictions, where not seeming to belong to anywhere, anything, or anyone is, understandably, painful. In a cultural commentator, however, the ability to experience the world from a variety of flitting positions leads to inevitable contradictions that in turn call into question the value and depth of the writer’s convictions. In a Times column, he correctly castigates the white–gloved left for its flagellation of America since September 11 as “sanctimonious moral relativism” and “appalling rubbish.” But he adds a smug footnote to the book version, explaining that “I failed to foresee the eagerness with which Messrs. Ashcroft, Ridge, et al. would set about creating the apparatus of a more authoritarian state.” Without blinking, Rushdie manages to chide the chattering classes, then rejoin their ranks.
Against these limitations, his collection has many strengths. His essay on The Wizard of Oz and his Indian travelogue are gorgeously written and full of sincere feeling. Moreover, besides George Steiner and Harold Bloom, Rushdie is perhaps the most expansive reader writing today. In a lecture entitled “On Influence,” he runs through Calvino, Melville, Kleist, Conrad, Cervantes, and Kafka in one paragraph. His facility in moving through such an epic list is far too convincing to seem merely showy. In another piece, he makes an impassioned and welcome plea for a return to judgment in evaluating novels; he also humorously cautions us to “beware the writer who sets himself or herself up as the voice of a nation. This includes the nations of race, gender, sexual affiliation, elective affinity. This is the New Behalfism. Beware behalfies!” And he’s solid on the danger of “skating around this issue” of violence justified by religion in India by “speaking of religion in the fashionable language of ‘respect.’” But his solution is infuriating in its logical leaps: “What happened in India, happened in God’s name. The problem’s name is God.”
Too often, Rushdie provides the correct diagnosis but prescribes the wrong medicine. One reason, I think, is his voracious interests. Independent films, Princess Diana, censorship, terrorism, the BBC, hip–hop music, American politics, soccer, Kashmir, Apple Computer ads—nothing is outside his purview. In Rushdie’s wonderful 1981 novel Midnight’s Children, the production of chutney was the central metaphor for explaining the protagonist’s raucous experience of Indian history. Anything and everything goes into the chutney pot; a pungent, tasty mixture comes out. Step Across This Line is Rushdie’s latest chutney; it produces an unfortunate indigestion in the reader who looks to an essay collection for different sustenance than a novel. We require a certain reflective stance from a writer to whom we turn for direction, a detachment rendered impossible by the near–synchronicity of event and response that characterizes so many of these pieces. The critic must be delicately part of the world he reveals, not onstage with U2 one moment and writing about it the next.
Complaining about the profound dulling of our critical faculties by a sensation–driven media culture, Rushdie suggests that if news commentators “were less eager to spin the news the moment it happens until it becomes a dazzling hypnotic blur, we might see more clearly.” I agree and add that we turn to the best voices of our age to help us see more clearly, to see beyond the daily glut of infotainment. Had Rushdie himself stepped back, reflected more patiently on the various events that this collection chronicles, and sought a greater consistency to his underlying convictions before attempting to direct our course, he would seem less a reflection of the world’s confused beauties, his collection less a dazzling, hypnotic blur.
Randy Boyagoda is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at Boston University.