The Satanic Verses & Rushdie’s Knighthood
Virtually all recent accounts of the Rushdie affair contain a note of impatience about the book at the center of the controversy: important, yes, but do we really have to read it? I can’t help thinking of the Irish reaction to Ulysses throughout most of the last century, or the American response to Lolita. Such books cause us deep anxiety until we can tame them by turning them into something safe: a tourist attraction, a search term for internet porn, or a line in the sand that Western governments can draw to affirm the value of free speech, even as they turn quietly into regimes of black prisons, Orwellian newspeak, and the “man-sized safes” in which Vice President Cheney satisfies his secrecy fetish. But like Ulysses or Lolita, The Satanic Verses remains a novel — complex, contradictory, often frustrating, but always a creation of an individual imagination as it struggles to free itself from the prison of ideology. And so to read it is a political act: in doing so we resist all attempts to defuse the power of this dangerous book by turning it into nothing more than a weapon in the ongoing wars between those — in both East and West — who would silence the imagination.