“He disappeared on the front page”, had written the novelist Martin Amisa few days after the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, highlighting the paradox of his sudden media exposure and his social disappearance organized by men of the Special Branch. But we can see in this paradox a constant feature of the reception of the Rushdie affair by the media, which played at the same time on the exhibition of the writer and his clandestineness, his hypervisibility and his invisibility, offering media (sur)life to its social death.
Salman Rushdie joked on a talk show that the fatwa gave him a “erotic aura”. There is something true, on the condition of specifying that this erotic aura is morbid. What attracted the media was the shadow of death that accompanied Rushdie, the sentence hanging over his head, the ballet of overarmed police…
Three decades after the fatwa decreed against Salman Rushdie by Ayatollah Khomeini, the author of satanic verses was stabbed on the stage of a literary festival by a 24-year-old American of Lebanese descent, who was not even born at the time of the fatwa. The writer seriously injured by fifteen stab wounds survived his injuriesbut his convalescence will be long and he will retain serious consequences.
Once reassured about his state of health, the media quickly returned to the news of the forest fires and the war in Ukraine. We can see in this an effect of the accelerated pace of information, one news item chasing the other, or an effect of saturation specific to the Rushdie affair, which for years was the subject of media coverage which would have reached its limit. But we can also recognize a paradox in the media treatment of this affair, as if, despite its media coverage, it was unassimilable, intractable, by the media.
There’s no a Rushdie affair but at least two, two great periods in the media reception of this unprecedented affair. During a first period which goes February 14, 1989 on September 11, 2001, the fatwa launched against Rushdie was perceived as an obscurantist violence of another age, associated with the alleged barbarism of the Middle Ages.
A second period begins with 9/11: the Rushdie affair has become the inaugural episode of the clash of civilizations put on the agenda by the American neoconservatives in the context of the war in Iraq. First interpreted as the product of a struggle between retrograde archaism and liberal modernity, it was reformatted, after the attack on the World Trade Center, as the symbol of the confrontation between Islam and the West. The multiplication of Islamist attacks around the world and the attack on Charlie Hebdo journalists in January 2015 only confirmed this second reading.
In reality, neither of the two readings is really satisfactory.
To associate the fatwa with so-called medieval barbarism is more a cliché than historical truth. It was in fact in the Middle Ages that the tolerance of the religious authorities with regard to carnival celebrations and rites of parody of religion was the greatest.
From the XIe century, all the elements of the cult were the subject of parodies, the “parodia sacra” in Latin, but also in the vernacular. Everything was a laughing matter: the prayers, the Gospels, the monastic rules, the decrees of the Church, the decrees of councils, the religious sermons… For the Easter ceremonies, tradition allowed laughter and licentious jokes to the very interior of the Church (the “risus paschalis”which was associated with joyful rebirth), and there was also Christmas laughter.
It is difficult for us today to imagine the extent of these parodic practices: clerics, but also high-ranking ecclesiastics and learned theologians, wrote comic treatises in their cell… Reading of Mikhail Bakhtin’s book on the work of Rabelais bears witness to this joyful cohabitation of faith and laughter, of liturgy and carnival.
Conflict of interpretations
Rushdie is no apostate; it is a tern Indian, an Anglo-Saxon Gogol. His work can be read as a guerrilla warfare of the grotesque against the spirit of seriousness (common to the media and the mullahs). Rushdie has repeatedly emphasized that his case pits those with a sense of humor against those who don’t. Rabelais called them “agelastes” (those who can’t laugh, people deprived of humor). These are not exclusive to Islam: they are recruited from all religions.
Just one example: Christianity, in its early days, condemned laughter. We could even pretend like Saint John Chrysostom (died 407) that jokes and laughter came not from God, but from the Devil; and even that Christ had never laughed. Closer to us, Jansenism, and Rancé’s cry “Woe to you who laugh!”bear the mark of a moral rigor that Rushdie’s accusers would not deny…
This is why making the Rushdie affair an episode in the confrontation between Islam and the West is just as simplistic. The Satanic Verses it is not a book on the Koran, there are only three pages on the satanic verses; this novel, according to its author, is “a love song to emigration”, to interbreeding, to the baroque of modern life. It is the first great carnivalesque novel of the post-modern era.
His main subject is the irruption of the new in the world, and to stage this event, Rushdie resorts to the forms and syntax of carnivalesque dear to Rabelais: the logic of things upside down, parody and travesty. , metamorphosis, alternations of old and new…
The hunt launched against The Satanic Verses was therefore not a result of a “clash of civilization” between Islam and the West, but of a conflict of interpretations which opposes two epistemes. One, theologico-political, which recognizes only the sacred text as legitimate, and the other, secular, which authorizes and legitimizes the coexistence of several types of texts: not only the sacred text and the profane text, but also all kinds of texts with very different cognitive statuses and diverse literary genres.
Freedom in peril
What is at stake in this affair should not be confined to a religious war, nor to a geopolitical conflict. It is literary freedom that is threatened through this novel, the possibility of reconfiguring the world by experimenting through fiction with other relationships to oneself and to others. It is a universal right that belongs to all cultures, as the artistic vitality of writers and artists from countries known to have a Muslim culture constantly demonstrates.
The Satanic Verses makes exile the decisive experience that allows a new exploration of reality, the discovery of a new world. He who has been cut off from his origins, from his language, is par excellence a subject open to strangeness, to otherness, to metamorphoses. “America, a nation of immigrants, has created great literature from the phenomenon of cultural transplantation, studying how people face a new world”, writes Rushdie.
Today, through the phenomena of migration and nomadism, languages and cultures enter into new relationships. Rushdie’s novel bears witness to this vertiginous human diversity, its entanglements and its shocks. Bombay is post-modernized while London is creolized, the origin splits, identity dissolves, being opens up. It is undoubtedly in opposition to this identity disorder that the fatwa against Rushdie recruits its followers, and not only in Tehran.
If one of the functions of fiction is to invent “a missing people”it is indeed the birth of a people that we witness in Rushdie: a people of immigrants torn between the side of London and the side of Bombay, a people of men translated because they were “displaced beyond their origin”, and in whom the values, the identities, turn out to be porous before mixing and contaminating each other. Rushdie’s attacker was one of them.
The greater the concentration of attention, the more events escape it. The media focus, as in a photographic focus, creates increasingly large areas of blur. This is one of the paradoxes of media coverage: focusing goes hand in hand with blurring. Post-truth and fake news are only possible at the cost of this optical distraction effect.
We no longer look at the images, we fall into them, we emerge in them, they engulf us. They no longer belong to the regime of the spectacle, but to that of the spectral. Don’t look under the sheets for ghosts’ underwear, they don’t wear any; there is no flesh to consume, nor essence to decode.
Lars von Trier wrote about it in a short manifesto entitled “Defocus”: “In a world where the media bows to the altar of sharpness, and in doing so drains life of all life, the DEFOCALIZER will be the communicator of our time – no more, no less! The enemy is history!”
This new column, Backstage, is inspired by such an approach. It will be less a question of deciphering the dominant narratives than of defocusing attention, looking elsewhere, preferring events that have not found their place in the media, blurred areas, experiences without a narrative. Privilege not only historical hindsight over the event but the wide angle, “defocus”. In short, change focus.