Even all these years after Salman Rushdie dominated headlines following the fatwa declared against him for his alleged anti-Islam blasphemy in the 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, the name still evokes for some readers a figure straddling the realms of literature and political drama. Some admire Rushdie as an author who did not just pay lip service to bold provocation, or strike a pose of creative daring, as many writers do, but really stuck his neck out and became a figurative if not actual martyr to free expression.
But none of this means that a new book from Rushdie is a surefire hit. Now, in 2021, younger readers may not be all too familiar with the Satanic Verses affair, if they have heard of it at all, though some may remember the Rushdie cameo in the 2001 hit film Bridget Jones’s Diary.
Rushdie’s new book, Languages of Truth: Essays 2003–2020, is a curious collection. Though brisk and engaging here and there and graced with some elegant prose, it fairly reeks in places of an author trying too hard to maintain his relevance and topicality decades after the furor with which he came to be associated. The political correctness of many of the pieces here is not a surprise, but its grinding, monotonous regularity may be. What is worse, the question of Rushdie’s actual commitment to unfettered speech proves to be a bit more complicated than one might imagine given his unofficial status as a champion of controversial and unpopular speech.
As a collection of literary essays, this book shows highly questionable judgment, if not on Rushdie’s part then on the part of his editors. One of the pieces here is an introduction that Rushdie wrote to the fourth volume of a series of interviews with writers. The interviews were published originally in The Paris Review. Rushdie fulsomely praises the diversity of the writers featured in the collection and drops the names of his personal friends, Paul Auster and David Grossman. The inclusion of this piece is a peculiar choice. There is no analysis or critical intelligence at work. It is very far from an essay, as Montaigne understood that literary form, and one might fairly ask whether it can even be called journalism. You know that Rushdie isn’t going to find fault with any of the writers he is introducing, nor was that the point. Rather, one might guess that the editors wanted the cachet that would come from having Salman Rushdie’s name on the cover of the book, and for Rushdie here was a chance to make easy money while patting his friends on the back.
The collection is not without merits. The wry tone of some of the essays in Languages of Truth is welcome. It probably wasn’t very amusing to Rushdie at the time, but having grown up in the 1980s, this writer can attest that the Rushdie affair was rich material for humor. The magazine that gave birth to the website you are reading now once ran a brief item mentioning that Rushdie, on the lam from “Iranian literary critics,” had made a brief visit to New York, where at least he stood roughly the same chance of dying a violent and horrible death as everyone else. This was way back in the high-crime early 1990s. And, of course, everyone heard the joke about how Salman Rushdie was working on a new book. “Really? What’s the title?” “Buddha Is a Fat Bastard.”
In this collection, the disdainful attitude that Rushdie showed toward Ronald Reagan in the past is replaced with frequent digs at Donald Trump and the Evangelicals who form part of the GOP’s base. Over and over, Rushdie makes a point of showing a woke progressive’s proper distaste for the less enlightened classes and their political representative. Comments like this one, in the essay “The Liberty Instinct,” about the state of free expression worldwide and the sometimes precarious balance between religious dogma and open discussion of certain topics, are fairly typical: “Even Donald Trump has had to pretend to be religious, which has not been easy for him, because, as video footage from the National Cathedral has demonstrated, he appears not to know the words to the Lord’s Prayer. (Parenthetically: Knowing things is not, on the whole, Trump’s strong point).”
See, Rushdie is cool, with it, relevant, as hostile to Trump as your best Millennial pal.
And, in the text of Rushdie’s commencement address to Emory University’s graduating class of 2015, we get this insight: “The American appetite for bad fiction, including very bad fiction indeed masquerading as fact — Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, for example, or Hillary Clinton’s alleged Benghazi cover-up — seems to be inexhaustible.”
That’s a curious remark. Some of Rushdie’s personal friends in the literary community, including a few he praises in this book, have been known to inflict fiction of variable quality on the world. Paul Auster’s frequently awful writing was the subject of an extensive critique by the highly respected critic James Wood in The New Yorker in 2009. Auster is the perfect example of a writer who frequently crosses over from the literary to the social and political realm in an effort to be relevant and get attention. But don’t look for any candor from Rushdie on this point. The only bad writing that Rushdie sees comes from conservative sources who have the temerity to criticize Democratic idols.
Even in Rushdie’s sometimes touching reminiscence about late actress Carrie Fisher, with whom he maintained a long and close friendship, Rushdie cannot resist taking digs at the GOP bigwig then in power. Rushdie genuinely liked Fisher as a person and had adventures with her in which she reenacted her most famous on-screen persona, Princess Leia. And there is a funny anecdote about George Lucas deflecting her question, about the lack of panties and bras available for fitting during the filming of Star Wars, with an avowal that there’s no underwear in space. Later, Rushdie and Fisher visited the White House of George W. Bush during the National Book Festival. In the presence of that reactionary president, “Carrie was magnificently, regally disdainful, as if she were Leia scorning Jabba the Hutt.”
Well, don’t search too hard in the pages of this book for an eloquent critique of fiscal policy under Bush 43. He was Jabba the Hutt. Very funny.
In the essay “Courage,” which is all about the moral imperative to oppose orthodoxy and tyranny even when doing so comes at significant personal, professional, and financial cost, Rushdie lays bare the utter one-sidedness of his view of things. The orthodoxy and repression that have stifled free speech in other parts of the world aren’t absent in America, he posits. Just look at the case of Noam Chomsky. “One may disagree with Chomsky’s critiques of America, but it ought still to be possible to recognize the courage it takes to stand up and bellow into the face of American power.”
Here Rushdie has it exactly backwards. Chomsky of course is always free to publish books and grant interviews as often and as widely as he pleases without fear of repercussions. About the worst thing that’s ever happened to him is having to deal with a rude student in the Q&A following one of his talks, or having to sit down and debate Michel Foucault, a much more assured and articulate debater than Chomsky.
It’s those who contradict the woke narrative, such as conservative intellectual Charles Murray, who cannot visit universities to give a talk without coming under attack. But Rushdie buys into the tired liberal canard that posits that liberals are the ones going out on a limb to speak truth to power. That has rarely been true of liberals in recent decades in the sense that it was once true of Rushdie himself.
What is worse, Rushdie, in a brief allusion to the Masterpiece Cakeshop controversy, suggests that the store’s owner came under attack for refusing to sell cupcakes to gay couples. As Rushdie knows, or should know, the bakery’s owner said no to compelled speech. Rushdie, the putative martyr to freedom of expression, denies a business owner’s right to refuse to put his artistic talents to use to craft a message in which he does not believe.
The best part of this book is a brief passage in the essay “The Liberty Instinct” in which Rushdie does at last briefly acknowledge the problem of politically correct thought-policing and cancel culture. Once again, Rushdie attempts to trace the expansion of the fanaticism that stifled free speech in other parts of the world, and led to the fatwa against his own life, into domains hitherto thought immune to repression and censorship.
Here, it is not possible for any honest and intelligent person to ignore completely what is going on these days on American campuses. And Rushdie, for all his intellectual and moral failings, is not a stupid man. “We live in a censorious age, in which many people, especially young people, have come to feel that limitations need to be placed on freedom of expression,” he writes. “The idea that hurting people’s feelings, offending people’s sensibilities, is going too far now has wide credence, and when I hear good people saying such things, I feel that the religious worldview is being reborn in the secular world — that the old religious apparatus of blasphemy, Inquisition, anathematization, all of that, may be on the way back.”
Maybe Salman Rushdie should be on the show of his hated enemy, Tucker Carlson, you might think.
But, no, in the end Rushdie is a tragic case: a blinkered politically correct writer, ever willing to take jabs at the leaders of a country that has been eminently hospitable to him and all too much in conformity with the spirit of the French expression pas d’ennemis à gauche.
The great bulk of the content in Languages of Truth may bring to mind a remark that W. H. Auden is said to have made when a reporter asked him for his views about the Vietnam War. Auden reportedly said, “Why writers should be canvassed for their opinions about politics I have no idea.”