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Fonctions du Cliché : du Banal à la Violence

Claudine Raynaud
Peter Vernon

Postcolonial Strategies: Rushdie’s Tropicalized Tropes

Martine Hennard-Dutheil

Texte intégral

How does newness come into the world? How is it born? Of what fusions, translations, conjoinings is it made?
(The Satanic Verses)

1The “migratory” rhetoric of Salman Rushdie’s novels tampers with the English language from a position “between two worlds”. It displaces commonplaces and reinscribes familiar metaphors away from home, thereby infusing them with new life and fresh meaning. Written out of the tension with an imperial power, Midnight’s Children (abbreviated after quotations as MC) illustrates a poetics of postcolonial hybridity. I suggest that a related, more daring and also more ambiguous rhetorical strategy is at work in The Satanic Verses (abbreviated after quotations as SV). In this novel, Rushdie selfconsciously reflects on the violence of language and tries to devise means of responding to it. The politics of his text is enacted in the manipulations of what he calls the “blasted cosy metaphors” we live by in order to reveal the racial or cultural stereotypes that underlie them. The writer’s attempt to reclaim the language of abuse in the context of these demystifying strategies has, however, been much misunderstood.

2Salman Rushdie was born in Bombay in 1947, the year of India’s Independence. This near coincidence (they were born within eight weeks of one another) was to have some influence on his career as a writer. It gave rise to a family joke — that the departure of the British was occasioned by his arrival. In turn, this jest became the germ of Rushdie’s first important novel, Midnight’s Children, where not just one child, but one thousand and one are born in the midnight hour of freedom, and thus linked (or rather “handcuffed”) to the birth of a nation (MC, 26). Afflicted with a huge and leaking nose from which hangs a drop of goo equated with Sri Lanka, the narrator Saleem Sinai literally embodies the Indian continent. A living symbol of the implication of private trajectory and public destiny, historical past and narrative present, Saleem confronts the central issue of independence on at least two levels. On the one hand, he retraces India’s recent history as a free nation attempting to exorcise the heritage of a colonial past. On the other, as a story-teller, he is self-consciously involved in a reflection on origin and originality. Exemplary of a postcolonial consciousness, Saleem enacts the need to invent a language that captures the hybrid history of India in rhetorical strategies which challenge discursive boundaries from a position between two worlds.

3For the most part, the action of Midnight’s Children takes place in Rushdie’s beloved Bombay, a metropolis teeming with contrasts and contradictions, “most cosmopolitan, most hybrid, most hotchpotch of Indian cities” where traditions mix so that the writer can claim that he “was a mongrel self, history’s bastard, before London aggravated the condition” (MC, 404). In turn, The Satanic Verses maps out “the immeasurable distance” between Indianness and Englishness through its main protagonists, Saladin Chamcha and Gibreel Farishta. Yet, the narrator immediately adds that Bombay and London are “not very far at all, because they rose from one great city, fell to another” (SV, 41). Otto Cone, a German Jew also exiled in Britain, illustrates this statement rhetorically when he explains that the modern metropolis is:

The locus classicus of incompatible realities. Lives that have no business mingling with one another sit side by side upon the omnibus. One universe, on a zebra crossing, is caught for an instant, blinking like a rabbit, in the headlamps of a motor-vehicle in which an entirely alien and contradictory continuum is to be found. And as long as that’s all, they pass in the night, jostling on Tube stations, raising their hats in some hotel corridor, it’s not so bad. But if they meet! It’s uranium and plutonium, each makes the other decompose, boom. (SV, 314)

4In other words, the metropolitan space is a “topos” that challenges a classical definition of the “common place” by upsetting ideas of unity, harmony and homogeneity. More precisely, Otto voices his anxieties about the explosive potential of familiar urban scenes, when individuals living “worlds apart” meet by accident. Erupting through a varnish of routine and civility, the city’s violence is figured by a crash, itself echoed and amplified by a nuclear explosion. Otto’s demonstration of the potentially destructive nature of urban heterogeneity, however, backfires: the two associative systems of his extended metaphor, far from “decomposing” when they meet, trigger poetic images reminiscent of the surrealists, as in the image of a motor-vehicle whizzing past a blinking universe. On the level of style, conflating the cosmic and the mundane releases new energies which aptly convey the creative qualities of Rushdie’s writing. In this sense, the metaphors from astrophysics which are dispersed in the passage, themselves metonymie of socio-cultural difference, symbolise the dynamics of the text. Characteristically, the rhetorical activity of the passage upsets the routine of cliché’d language, idioms and dead metaphors: the banal expressions “worlds apart” and “explosive situation” are literalized and combined before culminating in the dramatic image of a nuclear holocaust. Otto’s pessimism is thus belied by the language, which unexpectedly renews itself at the moment of impact. Contrasting with the drab reality of omnibuses, motor-vehicles, tube stations and hotel corridors, the wild animal life that is “caught for an instant” in the headlights opens up the possibility of a language untamed. On the crossing, a surreal zebra comes to poetic life and escapes from the confines of the idiom to recover its metaphorical origin in the reader’s imagination.

5For Rushdie, cities are places where beings and meanings circulate, sit side by side or bump into each other - for better, for worse. In this sense, by inscribing incompatible, yet viable, realities in the landscape, cities not only redouble the migrant’s experience but also encourage its artistic expression. Thus, when roaming the streets of London, Gibreel hears the voice of the city telling him that “Not all migrants are powerless, the still-standing edifices whisper. They impose their needs on their new earth, bringing their own coherence to the newfound land, imagining it afresh” (SV, 458). The narrator of The Satanic Verses accordingly dramatises the liminality of the migrant’s experience in a poetics of dis-location.

Rushdie’s paleonomy

6In “Imaginary Homelands” (1982; from the volume by the same name [1991] abbreviated after quotations as IH), an essay about the impact of exile on writing, Rushdie plays with the metaphor of inbetweenness in a way that reveals how the uncomfortable and even risky position of the migrant can become enabling, especially for the migrant writer:

The Indian writer, looking back at India, does so through guilt-tinted spectacles. (I am of course talking about myself.) I am speaking now of those who have emigrated... and I suspect that there are times when the move seems wrong to us all, when we seem, to ourselves, post-lapsarian men and women. We are Hindus who have crossed the black water; we are Muslims who eat pork. And as a result — as my use of the Christian notion of the Fall indicates — we are now partly of the West. Our identity is at once plural and partial. Sometimes we feel that we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools. But however ambiguous and shifting this ground may be, it is not an infertile territory for a writer to occupy. (IH, 15)

7In this passage, Rushdie enacts his own cultural hybridity by drawing on several religious traditions to make his point. These multiple references foreground the confusion of national and cultural identity. Hesitating between literality and figurality, creative language becomes an arena where confining self-definitions and fixed identitary referents are put into play. The transgressive aspect of migration (figured by the culturally specific images of “crossing the dark water”, “eating pork” and “falling”) is repeated in a language that maps out an ambiguous but potentially fertile territory where the commonplace is defamiliarized. Two common metaphors are thus juxtaposed (“straddling” and “falling between two stools”) to the effect that their figurative qualities are reactivated and animated in a burlesque scene. The collocation of clichés results in a miniature Chaplinesque comedy that both trivializes and humanizes the predicament of the migrant (Chaplin is, we recall, the author of The Immigrant). At the end of the passage, Rushdie counterpoints his dark picture of exile with a positive, if tentative, note in the form of a double negation that seems to imply that from two negative things something positive can emerge in the migrant’s existential algebra. Also, by suggesting that the intermediary position of the migrant writer is “not infertile”, he indirectly calls into question the automatic valuing of native tongue, culture and home as privileged “territories” to write from. Richness, he argues, does not only lie in the creative interplay between languages but also in the diachronic dimension of language itself, between its semantic strata. Rushdie’s awareness of the mobility of language and the mutability of meaning translates into an interest for etymologies and polysemy (i. e. the “wealth” of significations). The narrator of The Satanic Verses himself foregrounds this activity when, searching for gems, he deplores that“ names, once they are in common use, quickly become mere sounds, their etymology being buried, like so many of the earth’s marvels, beneath the dust of habit” (SV, 217).

8In an important essay on “Günter Grass” (1984), Rushdie comes back to the relation between migration and writing to point out that:

migration also offers us one of the richest metaphors of our age. The very word metaphor, with its roots in the Greek words for bearing across, describes a sort of migration, the migration of ideas into images. Migrants — borne-across humans — are metaphorical beings in their very essence; and migration, seen as a metaphor, is everywhere around us. We all cross frontiers; in this sense, we are all migrant peoples. (IH, 278-9)

9After suggesting that the migrant is “the central or defining figure of the twentieth century” (IH, 277), Rushdie goes on to contest the essentialization of the migrant — the “fetish” and favourite “concept metaphor” which embodies his strategic privileging of margin over centre. Circumventing the simplistic binarism that opposes the “native” to the “migrant”, the writer exploits the migrant’s metaphoric dimension, until “migrancy” comes to embrace a variety of experiences common to us all. In other words, migration is itself a migratory notion which subsumes a number of situations explored in The Satanic Verses. In this sense, migration enables us to discover, in Julia Kristeva’s felicitous (and, of course, ambiguous) phrase, the “stranger to ourselves”. It brings about what Homi Bhabha names “the tropic movement of cultural translation”, which defamiliarizes language and makes it the stage where cultural difference is to be performed" (Bhabha, 1994, 229).

The poetics of writing

10The style of The Satanic Verses bears witness to the intermingling that has taken place between English and the languages of Empire and enacts the mixed histories of the novel’s characters and author. Rushdie inscribes the hybridised nature of postcolonial identity through language variance, trans-cultural puns and inter-lingual jokes (Ashcroft et al., 1989, 51-9). Among other rhetorical flowers, “small chhooi-mooi touch-me-not plants” (SV, 45) grow in the edenic garden of Saladin’s childhood and “Gracekali” starlets shoot in and out of Gibreel’s sentimental life. Words and idioms are put to the test of migration, along with the migrants themselves. The Satanic Verses dramatises this process by beginning in space, “the place of movement and of war, the planet-shrinker and power-vacuum, most insecure and transitory of zones, illusory, discontinuous, metamorphic — because when you throw everything up in the air anything becomes possible” (SV, 5). In a mockepic mode, the novel literally starts in medias res, among the remnants of a terrorist-bombed airplane, where “reclining seats, stereophonic headsets, drinks trolleys, motion discomfort receptacles” (SV, 4) and so on are surrounding the two survivors as they fall. The narrative soon effects another displacement, this time rhetorical, in giving visual existence to abstract notions, as in the wonderful “severed mothertongues” which conflates the literal and the figurative meaning of “tongue” in a Magritte-like image. In space, and in the paratactic, agglutinative style that for Derrida constitutes a “spacing” that facilitates the circulation of new meanings,

there floated the debris of the soul, broken memories, sloughed-off selves, severed mother-tongues, violated privacies, untranslatable jokes, extinguished futures, lost loves, the forgotten meaning of hollow, booming words, land, belonging, home. (SV, 4)

11It is tempting to hear textual echoes of the fall from heaven of the main protagonists in the constant slippage between the concrete and the abstract. While the structure of these tropes inscribes the rupture and loss of exile, it also bears witness to the creative possibilities of hybridity. In this sense, the fragmentariness of the migrant’s baggage is a precondition for finding new ways of describing the world, as Rushdie states as early as 1982 in “Imaginary Homelands” (IH, 13).

12Rushdie’s project is, in his own words, to “Easternize” English. This is echoed in the novel by Gibreel who, suffering from a bad case of alienation in an alien nation, addresses London with these words: ’“City,’he cried, and his voice rolled over the metropolis like thunder, Ί am going to tropicalize you’” (SV, 354). Gibreel’s imperious if enigmatic will to “tropicalize” the metropolis (his reformative fervour is enshrined in a neologism) is in fact prophetic and will be realised in Rushdie’s fictionalized version of the race riots of 1981 involving the police on one side and members of the Club Hot Wax on the other. The very name of the immigrant Club, which literalizes the “melting pot” metaphor, demonstrates that tropicalization involves an intervention on language and a spicing of its tropes.

13Thus, rather than banally preserving facts, Saleem chutnifies history in Midnight’s Children; in turn, in The Satanic Verses Gibreel attempts to “chilify” the chilly atmosphere of London since, for him, “the trouble with the English [is] their weather” (SV, 354); finally, Moraes alias the Moor narrates “the hottest tales, the juiciest-bitchiest yarns” peppered by the spices of passion binding Aurora Da Gama to Abraham Zogoiby in The Moor’s Last Sigh (128).

  • 1 In Butoirs view, “There is in Joyce, and it's crucial from the outset, a wild determination to deta (...)
  • 2 The ambivalent role of the interpreter is nowhere better illustrated than in the infamous “Minute o (...)

14In a feat of linguistic inventiveness, Rushdie’s novels demonstrate the vitality of a cross-cultural exchange resisted by fundamentalists and nationalists alike. Such an enterprise is, however, fraught with ambivalence, or rather ambi-violence, to use the Joycean blend.1 It is telling that, in an article on Hobson-Jobson, the dictionary of British India which records the “Oriental words [that] have become naturalised in the English language” (XVI), Rushdie pauses on the word “muddle”, which Henry Yule and A. C. Bunnell trace back to “the clever — perhaps too clever” Letters from Madras (IH, 81). In these letters, “a muddle” is “a double, or secretary, or interpreter”, which it is tempting to read as an apt definition for the postcolonial writer, who “muddles” national, cultural and linguistic boundaries and provocatively calls into question the notion of a “pure” language. Like the colonial interpreter, the postcolonial writer plays a problematic role, both empowering and alienating (hence “double”): as an intermediary, s/he appropriates the power of the colonial language while running the risk of misrepresenting (or even betraying, like Kipling’s Kim) his or her original culture in the process of translation.2 For that matter, the accusation of misrepresentation, distortion and betrayal is at the heart of the controversy over The Satanic Verses.

15Rushdie, however, is more interested in the transformative and creative effects of translation; in the writer’s opinion, translation is even the metaphor which best transcribes the experience of the migrant. Refuting a commonplace about translation, he points out that:

Having been borne across the world, we are translated men. It is normally supposed that something gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately, to the notion that something can also be gained. (IH, 17)

16The gain Rushdie alludes to in this passage is significantly not named but enacted in the pun on “borne” and “born”. The writer refuses to reduce the experience of migration to loss and symbolic death and goes against the grain of this idée reçue by “clinging obstinately” to the view that migration also enables something to be born. This insight is realised in his writing, where translation allows for word-play as a sign of literary creativity. Shuttling back and forth between past and present, image and idea, literal and figurative meanings, Rushdie views creation as a perpetual journey in a verbal constellation that the key figure of metaphor represents and enacts throughout his texts.

The politics of style

17Rushdie’s deliberate attempt to de-naturalize English has a crucial political dimension. He directly and forcefully addresses the question of stereotyping in “The Empire Within Britain” (1982), where he lists discriminatory practices in both deed and word against immigrants, since “A language reveals the attitudes of the people who use and shape it” (IH, 137). Exemplifying his point by quoting Margaret Thatcher’s speech about being “swamped” by immigrants (IH, 131), he goes on to reflect on the abusive use of the word “immigrant” itself (IH, 132) before denouncing his government’s wilful ignorance of the contributions of the migrant force to Britain’s (not so) common wealth.

  • 3 Rushdie, for instance, echoes Wright in “Imaginary Homelands” when he addresses the question of the (...)

18Years before the publication of The Satanic Verses, Rushdie had encapsulated the programme of postcolonial writers in the striking phrase (if by now already cliché’d): “the Empire writes back to the Centre” — which of course diverts (or “highjacks”) the title of the popular sci-fi movie “The Empire Strikes Back” with a vengeance. The reference to the “war of the worlds” topos clearly emphasizes the confrontational nature of the postcolonial enterprise, even though Rushdie’s own strategies of reclamation appear to be far more complex.3 While the statement itself illustrates the re-appropriative strategy at work in the texts of the dispossessed “subjects” of Empire, “the Empire writes back” simultaneously ironizes the Manichean world of its original context. Rushdie’s brilliantly concise watchword thus expresses the formal and thematic tensions with the imperial power and cultural centre (represented by the hegemony of Hollywoodian mass-productions) that The Satanic Verses later explores at length. Staging a mock-colonisation in reverse (two Indians are marooned in Britain), the novel writes back from within the imperial centre to contest its dominant ideology, which excludes and demonizes the foreign “other”. “They have the power of description, and we succumb to the pictures they construct” (SV, 168) explains an immigrant transformed into a Manticore (a man-tiger with three rows of teeth escaped from Jorge Luis Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings) to Chamcha, himself metamorphosed into a foul-smelling, horny and cloven-hoofed Satan after being beaten up by the immigration police officers.

  • 4 “La figure usée n'est-elle pas le lieu stratégique où se laisse saisir, à son niveau verbal le plus (...)

19Rushdie suggests in “Imaginary Homelands” that “those of us who have been forced by cultural displacement to accept the provisional nature of all truths, all certainties, have perhaps had modernism forced upon us” ((IH, 12). In his view, the migrant’s experience epitomizes the crisis of knowledge and representation brought about by modernity. The migrant sensibility is therefore most apt to articulate a critique of the dominant system and intervene in the language that perpetuates it, since “redescribing a world is the necessary first step towards changing it” (IH, 14). The truth value of current linguistic representation is indeed called into question by defamiliarizing its most familiar tropes. As Ruth Amossy has demonstrated, the stereotype (whether linguistic cliché, literary topos or ideological commonplace) inscribes the values of the society which circulates them.4 Since Rushdie seeks to reveal how the English language reproduces structures of power and a logic of exclusion, he attacks these privileged moments of discourse where the often toxic ideas of the doxic masquerade as truth. If Rushdie opposes paradoxes to the rule of the doxa, he also subverts it by manipulating the stereotype from within.

  • 5 In “On Truth and Falsity in an Extra-Moral Sense”, Nietzsche affirms that there is no “natural” rel (...)

20Rushdie’s various strategies include a process of linguistic revival which goes along the lines of Nietzsche’s famous declaration on the metaphorical origin of truth.5 In seeking to retrieve the figurai dimension of key words like metaphor and translation in his essays and by literalizing idioms and clichés in his novels, the writer historicises meaning. In this way, he incites the reader to acknowledge that language like society is a changeable social, cultural and political construct. This of course subverts the dominant ideology that seeks to preserve the status quo in matters of politics as much as in language. Going against political and linguistic conservatism, Rushdie desacralises expressions sanctioned by use. Ossified and hackneyed language is regenerated through the “translated” writer, himself a translator of reality. By ludically dis-figuring worn out figures of speech, Rushdie renews the English language and in doing so he restores its strangeness, its novelty, its initial alterity. In this way, originality rejoins the original.

21In the last instance, Rushdie emphasizes the urgency for Western societies to redefine themselves away from fixed identitary referents. By inscribing the presence of the immigrant in the language of his fiction, he seeks to make him or her visible to Western eyes. As he points out in “Imaginary Homelands”, the migrant who writes in English can replicate the liberating movements of formerly colonized people, but even more importantly he or she can dramatise the internal dynamic of multicultural individuals and societies:

Those of us who do use English do so in spite of our ambiguity [sic] towards it, or perhaps because of that, perhaps because we can find in that linguistic struggle a reflection of other struggles taking place in the real world, struggles between the cultures within ourselves and the influences at work upon our societies. To conquer English may be to complete the process of making ourselves free. (IH, 17)

22The rhetoric of warfare (“struggle”, “conquer”, “freedom”) raises the problem of linguistic violence. By inscribing a significant solecism (“ambiguity” for “ambivalence”), Rushdie unwittingly addresses an issue central to The Satanic Verses and, evidently, to its reception. This revealing slip of the pen crystallizes Rushdie’s ambiguous way of manipulating the language of insult and abuse in the context of his ambi-violent strategies.

Strategies of reclamation in The Satanic Verses

  • 6 Fanon is significantly quoted in The Satanic Verses when Gibreel sets out to “tropicalize” London. (...)

23Homi Bhabha observes, with his usual critical acumen, that the controversy over The Satanic Verses can be summed up as “Hybridity is heresy”. For him, “The fundamentalist charge has not focused on the misinterpretation of the Koran, as much as on the offence of the ‘misnaming’ of Islam: Mohammed referred to as Mahound; the prostitutes named after the wives of the Prophet” (Bhabha, 1994, 225). Let us pause on the first “blasphemy”, since it directly links up with the politics of Rushdie’s rhetorical strategies besides being at the heart of the polemic. The Satanic Verses centrally addresses problems of cultural representation in a poetics of reinscription. Rushdie confronts the Question of cultural alienation, and in particular the role of stereotypes in the (re) definition of the migrant’s identity. Not only does he raise the issue of racial and cultural abuse but he also suggests strategies to divert and subvert these forms of psychic violence. In this way, and after Frantz Fanon, he “remind [s] us of that crucial engagement between mask and identity, image and identification” that Bhabha sees in Fanon’s restless interrogation of the damaging Manichean structure of colonial consciousness (Fanon, 1986, XXV).6

24Rushdie’s attempt to reclaim language from the grasp of the oppressor or abuser provides an essential context for understanding the controversial “Mahound” section. Attempting to short-circuit the accusation of a crude orientalism (albeit to no avail), the following authorial intervention already made clear the strategy behind the appropriation of the insulting name given to the Prophet in Gibreel’s hallucinations:

His name: a dream-name, changed by the vision. Pronounced correctly, it means he-for-whom-thanks-should-be-given, but he won’t answer to that here; nor, though he’s well aware of what they call him, to his nickname in Jahilia down below — he-who-goes-up-and-down-old-Coney. Here he is neither Mahomet nor Moe-Hammered; has adopted, instead, the demon-tag the farangis hung around his neck. To turn insults into strengths, whigs, tories, Blacks all chose to wear with pride the names they were given in scorn; likewise, our mountain-climbing, prophet-motivated solitary is to be the medieval baby-frightener, the Devil’s synonym: Mahound. (SV, 93)

25In “In Good Faith” (1990), Rushdie again clarified and justified his use of the medieval European demonization of Mohammed by linking it to the reclamation of the “rivers of blood” simile from the “potisoned] wells” of Enoch Powell’s xenophobic discourse:

Elsewhere in the novel we find the poet Jumpi Joshi trying to reclaim Enoch Powell’s notorious “rivers of blood” simile. Humanity itself can be thought of as a river of blood, he argues; the river flows in our bodies, and we, as a collectivity, are a river of blood flowing down the ages. Why abandon so potent and evocative an image to the racists? “Trotsky” was Trotsky’s jailer’s name. By taking it for his own, he symbolically conquered his captor and set himself free. Something of the same spirit lay behind my use of the name Mahound. (IH, 402)

26The “river of blood” metaphor indeed recurs throughout the narrative, starting with its literalization in the description of the effects of the satirist Baal’s cutting verses: “And if rivers of blood flow from the cuts his verses inflict, then they will nourish him” (SV, 97). Further on, Jumpy Joshi, author of a poem entitled The River of Blood, attempts to “Reclaim the metaphor... Turn it; make it a thing we can use” (SV, 186). Jumpy9 s turning of the trope (like Rushdie’s, as it turned out) is in the poet’s own words a “hard struggle” followed by an “inevitable defeat”. Later on, he reflects with bitterness on the glamour of his friend Hanif, which he imputes to his mastery of the “vocabularies of power”:

The real language problem: how to bend it shape it, how to let it be our freedom, how to repossess its poisoned wells, how to master the river of words of time of blood: about all that you haven’t got a clue. How hard that struggle, how inevitable the defeat.... Language is courage: the ability to conceive a thought, to speak it, and by doing so to make it true. (SV, 281; emphasis added)

27The reclaiming of metaphors and names that Rushdie views as a liberating strategy is made possible by the recognition of meaning as mobile and contextual, not essential and original. Thus, the significance of the “river of blood” simile changes according to the circumstances of its utterance and the (culturally, socially and politically determined) position of the speaker. Yet, as the Rushdie affair has clearly demonstrated, such an appropriating gesture is fraught with risks and justifies Homi Bhabha’s ambivalence on the subject of postcolonial mimicry. Mimicry, like parody, is indeed particularly vulnerable to decontextualization. Read in the context of Rushdie’s strategies of reclamation, however, the use of “Mahound” appears as part of a larger project which retraces the “othering of the Other” in language (as Gayatri Spivak puts it), even though Saladin, another victim of such demonization, refuses to identify with the figure of the Devil despite Mishal’s encouragements and “authorial” view of Saladin’s situation:

“Chamcha,” Mishal said excitedly, “you’re a hero. I mean, people can really identify with you. It’s an image white society has rejected for so long that we can really take it, you know, occupy it, inhabit it, reclaim it and make it our own. It’s time you considered action.”
“Go away,” cried Saladin, in his bewilderment. “This isn’t what I meant, at all”. (SV, 287)

28Saladin reveals the highly problematic dimension of reclaiming negative images when he rejects Mishal’s “bewildering” suggestion. Metamorphosed into a kind of comic opera Devil (hence doubly stereotypical), he voices the pain and anxiety resulting from the loss of his former identity or, more exactly, self-image, due to a combination of psychic and physical violence. His last and desperate act of resistance is a refusal to assume the image produced by a racist imaginary and forced upon him. The ambiguity of his closing words is revealing, since the comma that splits “This isn’t what I meant, at all” encourages an alternative reading of the utterance as “This [i. e. identifying with the Devil] is not what I meant to myself, how I made sense of myself”, thereby expressing the tension between meaning and being. Disavowing an image that denies his difference, Saladin is caught between a self-constructed identity mimicking “Englishness” and the demonized image that the English authorities reflect back on him.

29In the aftermath of the publication of The Satanic Verses, Rushdie was made cruelly aware of the deep ambivalence of “turning insults into strengths” when he found out that the media had substituted a diabolical “false self” for himself to the extent that, as he confides in “In Good Faith” (1990), “There are moments when I worry that my Other may succeed in obliterating me” (IH, 406). One of the many instances of dramatic irony in this affair is that Rushdie now shares what was Saladin’s predicament.

30Finally, the poetics of Rushdie’s novel enacts the values he tries to promote against the “blasted cosy metaphors” (SV, 175) and the fixity of clichés which freeze reality. Viewing reality as a process, a continual becoming which allows change and as such subverts fixed systems of authority and domination, Rushdie reaffirms the essential role of art and the artist in society in “Is Nothing Sacred?” (1990):

Art... is an event in history, subject to the historical process. But it is also about that process, and must constantly strive to find new forms to mirror an endlessly renewed world. No aesthetic can be a constant, except an aesthetic based on an idea of inconstancy, metamorphosis, or, to borrow a term from politics, “perpetual revolution”. (IH, 418)

31Rushdie’s innovative rhetoric reveals what is, for him, the raison d’être of literature. Without offering any simple answer to the many issues it raises, The Satanic Verses invites us to redefine our relationship with the word and with the world. As the satirist Baal tells the Grandee of Jahilia:

“A poet’s work,” he answers. “To name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep”. (SV, 97)

32Echoing the symbolic violence of textual strategies that seek to re-invent the world from the migrant’s view-point, state violence, through the death sentence of Khomeini’s fatwa, reminds us that language is, indeed, fundamentally complicit with power. Hunted down by Mahound for having tampered with the words of the Recitation, Salman the Persian tells his friend, the satirist Baal: “It’s his Word against mine” (SV, 368). And later, the Prophet wishes to know if Salman has been found. The answer is:

“Not yet. He’s hiding; but it won’t be long” (SV, 373).



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Macaulay, Thomas Babington [1972. “Minute on Indian Education”, in Selected Writings. Ed. John Clive. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.].

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Rushdie, Salman, 1991. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991. London: Granta & Penguin.

—, 1982. Midnight’s Children. London: Picador.

—, 1995. The Moor’s Last Sigh. London: Jonathan Cape.

—, 1988. The Satanic Verses. London: Viking Penguin.


1 In Butoirs view, “There is in Joyce, and it's crucial from the outset, a wild determination to detach the English language from its nationality” (Butor, 1967, 216; his emphasis). A similar intention underlies Rushdie's rhetorical strategies, which Timothy Brennan criticizes from a somewhat limited Marxist standpoint in his otherwise thought-provoking Salman Rushdie and the Third World.

2 The ambivalent role of the interpreter is nowhere better illustrated than in the infamous “Minute on Indian Education”, where Macaulay advocates an Anglicist education policy for some Indians in order to form a class of native informants or “ interpreters”: “It is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, in intellect” (Macaulay, 249).

3 Rushdie, for instance, echoes Wright in “Imaginary Homelands” when he addresses the question of the politics of language: “The black American writer Richard Wright, once wrote that black and white Americans were engaged in a war over the nature of reality. Their descriptions were incompatible” (IH, 13). The binary logic that prevails in Rushdie's articles and essays is, interestingly, denounced in the novels.

4 “La figure usée n'est-elle pas le lieu stratégique où se laisse saisir, à son niveau verbal le plus concret, l'incontournable socialité du discours? Son maniement dévoile dès lors au sein du texte un rapport particulier au social et à l'idéologique” (Amossy and Rosen, 1982, 18). See also Amossy, 1991.

5 In “On Truth and Falsity in an Extra-Moral Sense”, Nietzsche affirms that there is no “natural” relation between subject and object, except “at most” an aesthetic one. His first analogy for man's apprehension of reality is with “a stammering translation into a quite distinct foreign language” before shifting to the well-known cluster of images capturing truth as “a mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms: in short a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transposed, adorned, and after long usage seem to a nation fixed, canonical, and binding; truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which have become worn out and have lost their sensual power; coins which have lost their pictures and now are no longer of account as coins but merely as metal” (Nietzsche [1964], 184).

6 Fanon is significantly quoted in The Satanic Verses when Gibreel sets out to “tropicalize” London. It is of course dramatically ironic that Gibreel invokes Fanon, the first socio-psychiatrist to analyze and theorize the psychic disorders resulting from the colonial encounter, in a schizophrenic fit. A second irony lies in Gibreel's sudden revelation of good and evil and subsequent indictment of Saladin, his “self-hating, constructing a false ego, auto-destructive... adversary” (SV, 353) in the name of Fanon, who diagnosed colonial alienation as resulting from the oppositional structure of “Good-Evil, Beauty-Ugliness, White-Black: such are the characteristic pairings of the phenomenon that, making use of an expression of Dide and Guiraud, we shall call'manicheism delirium” (Fanon, 1986, 183). Conversely, Gibreel's revolutionary zeal functions as a warped image of Fanon's passionate call for change.


Université de Lausanne

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