Is Nothing Sacred?
Reflections on the Attempted Murder of Salman Rushdie
As I write this, Salman Rushdie is on a ventilator with a damaged liver, unable to speak, and likely to lose an eye. He was brutally and repeatedly stabbed while on stage at the Chautauqua Institution, preparing to deliver a public lecture. His assailant has been charged with second-degree attempted murder.
Midnight’s Children, Shame, and The Satanic Verses are three of the best novels I have ever read—all brilliantly conceived and executed, all beautifully written. These were Rushdie’s second, third, and fourth books respectively, written over a truly inspired ten-year stretch.
The Satanic Verses was published in 1988. The book was banned in several countries and burned in many more. In 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering the killing of the author, and placed a bounty of several million dollars on his head. In 1991, the Japanese translator of the book was stabbed to death, and the Italian translator attacked and wounded. We do not yet have an official motive for this week’s assault, but it is clear that it was targeted and premeditated.
About a year after Khomeini issued his edict, Rushdie published an essay with the title Is Nothing Sacred? The piece is a reflection on religion and art, the longing for transcendence, and the importance of expressive freedom. It acknowledges both the dangers and the appeal of holding things sacred.
In the essay, Rushdie defines transcendence as “that flight of the human spirit outside the confines of its material, physical existence which all of us, secular or religious, experience on at least a few occasions… the sense of being more than oneself, of being in some way joined to the whole of life.” This is not just a universal experience, it is also a basic human need, one that has been met historically through religious devotion:
It is important that we understand how profoundly we all felt the needs that religion, down the ages, has satisfied. I would suggest that these needs are of three types: firstly, the need to be given an articulation of our half-glimpsed knowledge of exaltation, of awe, of wonder; life is an awesome experience, and religion helps us understand why life so often makes us feel small, by telling us what we are smaller than; and, contrariwise, because we also have a sense of being special, of being chosen, religion helps us by telling us what we have been chosen by, and what for. Secondly, we need answers to the unanswerable: how did we get here? How did “here” get here in the first place? Is this, this brief life all there is? How can it be? What would be the point of that? And, thirdly, we need codes to live by, “rules for every damn thing.” The idea of god is at once a repository for our awestruck wonderment at life and an answer to the great questions of existence, and a rulebook, too. The soul needs all these explanations—not simply rational explanations, but explanations of the heart.
It is also important to understand how often the language of secular, rationalist materialism has failed to answer these needs.
How, then, might a secular society answer these needs? Is it even possible to do so if nothing is held sacred? As Carlos Fuentes posed the question, “can the religious mentality thrive outside of religious dogma and hierarchy?”
Rushdie’s answer to Fuentes is that art, and specifically literature, can fill the “god-shaped hole” left by the retreat from religion:
Can art be the… principle that mediates between the material and spiritual worlds; might it, by “swallowing” both worlds, offer us something new—something that might even be called a secular definition of transcendence?
I believe it can. I believe it must. And I believe that, at its best, it does.
But this leads to something of a paradox. On the one hand, argues Rushdie, “to revere the sacred unquestioningly is to be paralyzed by it.” On the other hand, he is tempted to sacralize artistic freedom itself:
Do I, perhaps, find something sacred after all? Am I prepared to set aside as holy the idea of the absolute freedom of the imagination and alongside it my own notions of the world, the Text and the Good? Does this add up to what the apologists of religion have started calling “secular fundamentalism”? And if so, must I accept that this “secular fundamentalism” is as likely to lead to excesses, abuses and oppressions as the canons of religious faith?
This is a very interesting thought that has a lot of contemporary relevance. One increasingly hears the argument that political communication has started to take on religious overtones; this is the theme of a forthcoming broadcast hosted by Helen Lewis that I have been eagerly awaiting.
But towards the end of his essay, Rushdie steps back from the precipice, and is unwilling to endorse the view that anything—even artistic freedom—should be held sacred:
I find myself backing away from the idea of sacralizing literature with which I flirted at the beginning of this text; I cannot bear the idea of the writer as secular prophet… Literature is an interim report from the consciousness of the artist, and so it can never be “finished” or “perfect.” Literature is made at the frontier between the self and the world, and in the act of creation that frontier softens, becomes permeable, allows the world to flow into the artist and the artist to flow into the world. Nothing so inexact, so easily and frequently misconceived, deserves the protection of being declared sacrosanct. We shall just have to get along without the shield of sacralization, and a good thing, too. We must not become what we oppose.
We must not become what we oppose. But what, then, is to become of the god-shaped hole?
Consider again the profound question posed by Carlos Fuentes: “Can the religious mentality thrive outside of religious dogma and hierarchy?” It seems to me that if a free society is to thrive, there has to be something that is collectively revered. Private and mutually inconsistent conceptions of what is sacred will not do.
In the case of the United States, we have at our disposal a set of principles that can serve this purpose. That all defendants, including Rushdie’s assailant, should be accorded due process of law. That they should be presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. That they should not face cruel and unusual punishment. That our political leaders should not impose religious belief on us, or limit our freedom of expression. That we are all created equal and endowed with inalienable rights. And that the truth of this claim is self-evident.
These are lofty ideals, often honored in the breach. We have a long and bloody history filled with violations. But the principles themselves can still serve as aspiration and inspiration. If they do not, if there is nothing that we can collectively hold sacred, then there is nothing that binds us together as a people.
Perhaps that is where we are headed. This report from 2015 is sobering:
It’s hard to be nostalgic about a fatwa, but Sir Salman Rushdie‘s recent comments in The Telegraph remind us that his Valentine’s Day card from the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 were the good old days. Leading figures from around the world linked arms to express solidarity with him, and to protest any encroachment on freedom of speech. Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Joseph Brodsky, Christopher Hitchens, Seamus Heaney, and others stood for Rushdie. There was no backing down. And today?
Said Rushdie, “We are living in the darkest time I have ever known.” The author of the condemned Satanic Verses, told France’s L’Express. “I’ve since had the feeling that, if the attacks against Satanic Verses had taken place today, these people would not have defended me, and would have used the same arguments against me, accusing me of insulting an ethnic and cultural minority.”
Among those who stood tallest a generation ago was Susan Sontag, as Christopher Hitchens recalled in a memoir:
Susan Sontag was absolutely superb. She stood up proudly where everyone could see her and denounced the hirelings of the Ayatollah. She nagged everybody on her mailing list and shamed them, if they needed to be shamed, into either signing or showing up. ‘A bit of civic fortitude,’ as she put it in that gravelly voice that she could summon so well, ‘is what is required here.’ Cowardice is horribly infectious, but in that abysmal week she showed that courage can be infectious, too.
If 2015 was a dark time for freedom of expression, 2022 is surely worse. But as Hitchens said of Sontag, courage can be infectious too. There is, in that diagnosis, a faint ray of hope.
Finally got to this post and really appreciate the reflection. Also found much here to add to the reading list! And truthfully when I read The Satanic Verses three decades ago it was an effort in college to be edgy. Time I think to return for another read.