Heresy, Censorship, and Human Liberty Sav(or)ing The Satanic Verses

Heresy, Censorship, and Human Liberty Sav(or)ing The Satanic Verses
David O. McKay Lecture Given by Gale Ward
Brigham Young University–Hawaii

February 10, 2000
Gale Ward
Professor of English

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The schoolboy Stephen Dedalus, the artist-in-embryo of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, looks forward eagerly and anxiously to Tuesdays, when the master returns the essays and declares one superior. On one such day as he waits, head down in hope and fear, he hears the master stop at his desk, hears the dread announcement: ‘“This fellow has heresy in his essay.”’ Stephen asks the nature of his heresy, and the master points to a sentence that errs slightly in defining the relationship of the human soul with God, and Stephen replaces a phrase – “approach nearer” – with one word—“reach.” The master is satisfied; Stephen has submitted – or, to use a word more familiar in collocation with heresy, he has recanted. His recantation, however, is not so effectual with Stephen’s classmates. Later, away from the classroom, they persecute him verbally, and physically attack him (Joyce 327-28).

Stephen’s experience is not unlike that of the accused heretic in any arena at any time in history. An institution defines the terms of orthodoxy, its representatives examine expressions of adherents, announcing “heresy” when they find a breach in language, behavior, or concept, and the unfortunate accused heretic has the choice (sometimes) between recantation and persecution. Furthermore, institutional absolution does not leave the accused with a clean slate since the accusation works more powerfully than its withdrawal upon his or her peers, who may understand the terms of acquittal no better than they do the delicate distinction between acceptable and unacceptable belief behind the charge of heresy in the first place. Accusation they understand, or possibly they find it attractive, so that to be accused of heresy is to be marked different, subject to persecution, exile, even death. Accusation is a powerful form of censorship; both seek in the interest of the institution to silence any voice that might threaten or undermine its power to make and enforce rules, and by stifling the one dissident voice to smother all under a heavy blanket of conformity. Stephen is the one accused of heresy, but the accusation commands the whole class to silence.

My thesis is simple. I am for heresy and against censorship. This may seem a strange position in a world where there are so many challenges to faith and belief, so many things we do not wish to see and read. Nevertheless heresy-hunting silences the very voices that we most need to hear, and censorship is illogical, harmful, and futile.

Perhaps the most familiar and the most dramatic case of censorship in our lifetimes has been that of The Satanic Verses, a novel by Salman Rushdie. Born in India and raised in a Muslim but nonreligious household, Rushdie was schooled in and later migrated to England. His second novel, Midnight’s Children, won the Booker Prize, England’s most prestigious literary award, given to the best noble published in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the Commonwealth countries. The Satanic Verses was published on September 26, 1988, but its controversial reputation preceded it. The account that follows of reaction to The Satan Verses has been reconstructed from a variety of news and magazine articles heard and read over a period of several years in the United States and England. Some of these have been collected or recapitulated. India banned it a week after its publication, South Africa in two months. In the meantime the book had been awarded the Whitbread prize as the best novel published in England. Censorship efforts raged in the first weeks of 1989. Demands that its publisher cease publication were accompanied by demonstrations in Bradford, England, where the book was burned, and in Hyde Park, London. Demonstrations in India and Pakistan on successive days turned into riots, with deaths in both countries. The day after the riot in Kashmir, India, the Ayotolla Khomeini of Iran issued the fatwa against Rushdie and the book’s publisher, Viking Penguin, sentencing author and publishers to death and calling upon “all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly,” an action later made more attractive by the promise of more than $1 million for the assassination of Rushdie. Later this amount was doubled.

The effect of the fatwa has been chilling. Rushdie remains alive, but at the cost of a good portion of his life. The British government has protected him, keeping his whereabouts secret and moving him from place to place for ten years at an annual cost of $1.5 to 2.5 million. The novel’s Japanese translator was murdered. One European publisher was seriously injured in an assassination attempt. Some publishers cancelled publication contracts. Bookstores removed the book from their shelves, either not selling it at all or selling it from under the counter. Libraries have removed the book or put it in an area requiring special access. Bookstores in many countries have faced demonstrations, vandalism, fires, and bombs. Two bookstores in Berkeley, California, were firebombed. In one of them, a pipe bomb that failed to go off was, when detonated by police, found to be powerful enough to have destroyed the whole building and to have killed everyone inside. Ten years after the fatwa, a clerk in Bangkok bookstore was packaging my purchase when she noticed that I was carrying a copy of The Moor’s Last Sigh, a later novel by Rushdie. She reached across the counter and took the book from under my arm and, placing both my purchase and Rushdie’s book in a larger package, explained, “You shouldn’t be carrying that book around that way. There are people here who don’t like the author, and they might hurt you.”

My purpose is not to demonize Islam or Iran. Rather it is the twin tendencies to accuse and to silence, especially when accompanied by the force and the will to prosecute them, that constitute the danger to free inquiry and expression. But even the weakest among us implicate ourselves when we turn out apathetic heads and hearts away from a crime. In the early months of the fatwa, I brought it up in a class on this campus. I remember in particular a student who was certain that the threat of death was no more than Rushdie deserved.

“Oh,” I said, “then you’ve read The Satanic Verses?”

“I don’t have to read it,” the student replied. “I just know it’s a bad book.” Rushdie’s loudest accusers around the world had made and would continue to make the same argument. Perhaps some of you here look at the title, The Satanic Verses, and wonder what else you would need to know about a book with such a title.

Having no chance in our time together to suggest the richness of the novel, I will fold over a few page corners to give you some idea of what all the furor is about. At the end of my brief and selective summary, referred to in one review as “picking out the naughty bits,” you will know as much about the book as many of its early accusers. The two principle characters, both actors, are Indian immigrants to England. The charges of heresy and blasphemy center on one of these characters, Gibreel Farishta (Gabriel Angel), especially on a dream sequence paralleling Gibreel’s own religious pilgrimage or quest for spiritual identity. Gibreel dreams of the formation of a new religion much like Islam, brought into existence by the creation of scriptures something like the Koran by a prophet something like Mohammed after he survives a wrestling match with the Archangel Gibreel. The Mohammed-like character’s name is Mahound, an early abusive name for Mohammed hated by Muslims. Gibreel the dreamer frequently call Mahound the Businessman, recalling that Mohammed had been a man of business. The name of the new religion is Submission (translation of ‘Islam’). His first rule-giving verses, to his own consternation, admit three female deities into the pantheon; Mahound later repudiates these verses as having been inspired not by the angel but by Shaitan (thus, Satanic verses). Mahound has an assistant with the suspicious name of Salman the Persian, and it is Salman who actually writes down the scriptures (Mohammed had an assistant named Salman). The scribe, wanting verification of the prophet’s divine inspiration, writes down not what he says but a slightly altered version; when Mahound fails to note the changes, Salman moves to larger and larger changes (again, Satanic verses). Unlike the Koran, supposed to have been dictated to Mohammed by the Archangel Gabriel, the Businessman’s Rules are dictated to Salman by Mahound, thus stripping them of their divine authority. Indeed some of the rules seem made for Mahound’s convenience, as his favorite wife points out in her complaint about the rule allowing him other women. Gibreel recites verses giving him “full divine permission,” and Ayesha replies, “‘Your God certainly jumps to it when you need him to fix things up for you’” (399). Finally there is another writer, a satirist named Baal, who, under threat of death, dyes his skin to mask his identity and goes into hiding as one of the eunuchs in the local house of prostitution, where the “girls of the Curtain” are 12 in number, just as the prophet Mahound has 12 wives. Baal’s stroke of genius is to rename all the women after Mahound’s wives, with a resulting increase in business of 300%, making Baal quite a businessman. Eventually he also becomes the husband of all the women, making him something of a Mahound. When the house is broken up and all the women jailed, Baal ashamed that he has not come to their defense at the time of their arrest, composes a hauntingly beautiful love poem to each of them, which he first recites and then nails up on the jailhouse wall, revealing as he does so that the 12 prostitutes have the same names as Mahound’s 12 wives. Doing so makes him something of a prophet of NonSubmission. The poems comprise yet another set of Satanic verses, a worthy secular counterpart to the Rules of Submission.

Unlike Salman Rushdie, Baal knows that he will die for his verses, for Salman the Persian has as much as told him so. Having told Baal the story of his alteration of Mahound’s scriptures, Salman chooses life and prepares to ride a camel out of the Prophet’s jurisdiction. Baal wants to know why Salman is so sure the Prophet will kill him, and Salman’s answer ironically forecasts the Ayatollah Khomeini’s objection to The Satanic Verses: “It’s his Word [capital W] against mine” (381).

I will set aside Rushdie and the fatwa for the time being while I rummage around in that “confused heap of facts we call history” by citing a few instances of heresy and censorship in the western tradition, fully aware that merely to discuss these matters is to border on heresy and blasphemy and disobedience. I remind myself at such times that the people who talk most of disobedience are referring to disobedience not to God but to their idiosyncratic notion of God. The apostle Paul was disobedient to two powerful traditions, and from that disobedience and from his peculiar expression of it, combining “Jewish monotheism and Roman universalism” (Rushdie, IH 380) came the Christianity which at its inception, its reformation, and its restoration was a heretical sundering from an older tradition. What I feared most about this lecture today, after the fear of having nothing to say, was the fear of having nothing new to say. For today the world roots for the heretic, the iconoclast, the voice that will take a stand in the institutional or corporate wilderness and say the unsayable. Perhaps that is why ‘heretic’ sounds so much like ‘hero’. Joseph Campbell wrote The Hero with the Thousand Faces to demonstrate that the great heroes of literature, myth, and religion follow one pattern, a pattern of separation, initiation, return. Each feels a call or identifies a need and has to leave all familiar comforts behind (separation) in order to discover what their contribution will be and to develop the strength to introduce it (initiation). Then upon their return they must displace the tyrant or tradition that forced their separation so that they can offer their life-giving idea or elixir to their society. Unfortunately, the pattern ends with the former hero in the place of the former tyrant, watchful against any threats to prevent his keeping things as they are, heresy and heroism incorporated, while vital insights must await new heretics. Opinions of course vary on the value of those insights. St. Thomas Aquinas, the great cataloguer of Catholic belief in the Middle Ages, thought immediate death a reasonable punishment of heretics. John Bunyan, who illuminated the path to salvation for generations of Protestants, included heresy among the “worst sins.” Others, however, in the Middle Ages and modern times, think that religions and societies die without heretics. Gerald Brenan asserts, “Religions are kept alive by heresies, which are really sudden explosions of faith. Dead religions do not produce them,” while Judge Learned Hand, an American legal thinker, offers his warning:

“Heretics have been hated from the beginning of recorded time; they have been ostracized, exiled, tortured, maimed, and butchered; but it has generally proved impossible to smother them; and when it has not, the society that has succeeded has always declined.” “In the end,” observes Judge Hand on another occasion, “it is worse to suppress dissent than to run the risk of heresy.”

All of us, I am sure, have some vague familiarity the issues that accounted for this edict or that council, or for this or that creed. Each of the following, or variations of it, became doctrine or heresy, sometimes according to who had the loudest voice or the most ingenious argument: whether God or Satan created the world; whether God is one or three or both at once; whether God has gender, and which one; whether God is a formless spirit or has anthropomorphic being; whether God is with or without beginning; whether God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent; whether Jesus was human or divine; whether God the Father suffered on the cross; whether there is life after death; whether there is reincarnation; whether God is the source of sin; whether there is anything in this world that is not sin; whether there is such a thing as sin for one who is saved; whether practices and beliefs were to accord with the primitive church; whether God gives special knowledge to certain people; whether women could gather into religious communities; whether scripture is for all or only for church officials; whether the word of God could be written in the language spoken by the people.

The last of these refer to the role of reading in the establishment of religion and of individual belief, and since it is in reading that heresy and censorship intersect, a more detailed look is in order. Reading is an outgrowth of curiosity, which was a sin, Erasmus tells us, especially in women (qtd. in Manguel 218). Looking backward, curiosity led Eve to partake of the forbidden fruit and bring about the fall. Looking forward, curiosity could lead to all kinds of forbidden knowledge. In The Ship of Fools, published in 1494, Sebastian Brant identified the recent discovery of the new world as a consequence of “covetous curiosity” (qtd. in Manguel 297). Science, the ultimate curiosity, would become the ultimate heresy. Roger Bacon, one of the chief architects of the liberal arts curriculum, “fought for years to have the teaching of science included as part of the university curriculum,” but the death of a sympathetic pope left him without support, and after the Paris Condemnation of 1277 he was imprisoned for his scientific theories until 1292 (Manguel 197). Everyone knows about Galileo and the telescope, the troubles he had over the science enabled by that invention, but how many think of eyeglasses as the means to heresy? The wearing of spectacles went through a phase of respectability before being condemned. Saint Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, even Cicero and Aristotle, were depicted carrying large books and wearing glasses. Eventually, however, spectacles became associated with the worst characteristics of the absent-minded, near-sighted scholar who presumed to know more than God had permitted him to see (Manguel 296).

The argument against Bible translation had a similar basis. If the text of the original word of God is infallible, interpretations and translations would multiply meanings, bringing its infallibility into question. Despite this fear the Bible underwent numerous translations into many languages. The great humanist Erasmus reveals the motive behind translation when he expresses his wish that the “weakest woman should read the Gospel … Scots and Irishmen …Turks and the Saracens …the husbandman … the weaver” (qtd. in Manguel 270). Erasmus’s wish was answered so well that “the authorities sought a way to retain control over the text—a single authoritative book in which the word of God could be read as He intended” (Manguel 270). The result was the King James Authorized Version.

How one read—one’s physical conduct while reading—was also a matter of concern to dogmatists. All reading was done aloud, allowing it to be monitored by anyone within hearing. After St. Ambrose invented silent reading (it sounds comical to say it), readers who followed his example were judged guilty of the sin of idleness (Manguel 51). It takes a sharp eye, after all, to distinguish between someone engrossed in a book and someone daydreaming or sleeping. A worse consequence yet was the realization that a book read silently “is no longer subject to immediate clarification or guidance, condemnation or censorship by a listener” (Manguel 51). Ambrose invented silent reading in the fourth century, but it did not become the norm until the ninth. Once it did, heresy went from being a phenomenon of scattered individuals and small groups to being far more common and also more likely to attract a large following. The church approved the death penalty for heresy at about the same time as silent reading began; the first burning of a heretic at the stake did not occur for another 640 years. Interestingly enough, those first victims burned for heresy objected to reading. Instruction should come directly from the Holy Spirit, not from the Scriptures, which were “the fabrications which men have written on the skins of animals” (Manguel 52).

Their objections lose some of their absurdity when we consider certain magical uses of writing, such as the heresy of divination. Divination is the use of a book to reveal the future, either a book specially made for the purpose or one already in existence. Virgil was so popular for this practice that it became known as sortes Vergilianae. Hadrian, wondering what the emperor Trajan thought of him, satisfied himself with a randomly selected passage from the Aeneid. He became Trajan’s adopted son and the next Roman emperor. King Charles I also consulted the sortes Vergilianae; his random passage from the Aeneid predicted dark days. Six years later he was beheaded by the English people (Manguel 209). If you, then, base a decision on your scriptures falling open to a certain page or your fingers lighting upon a certain passage, you should know that you are practicing an ancient art of augury, one the Deuteronomist (18.10-12) names “an abomination unto the Lord” and therefore a heresy.

Divination played a significant role in transferring the religious devotion of pagan Greeks and Romans to the new religion of Christianity, which in turn reflected prestige back upon classical texts. Not every classical text enjoyed prestige, however, and not with everyone. When the great French playwright Jean Racine was 18 and studying at the Abbey of the Port-Royal under Cistercian monks, he came across a Greek novel, The Loves of Theogonis and Charicles. Apparently aware that it was forbidden reading, he took it into the forest where the sexton caught him reading, took the book from him, and threw it into the fire. Racine managed to find a second copy; this one also was burned. Racine bought a third copy, memorized the entire novel, and then handed it over the sexton, inviting him to burn it as he had burned the others. The story illustrates just how ineffectual censorship can be at times, but also how dangerous. Had Racine been less persistent, he might not have contributed to the world’s literature the plays he wrote under the influence of his forbidden book (Manguel 57).

Censors have been creative in their efforts to stop forbidden reading and sometimes brutal in their methods of punishing it. Some have tried to bar only the wrong readers, some all. There have been boards of censors and the famous Catholic Index of forbidden books. Censors have burned books, and they have burned readers. Their efforts have at times been comical, but when censorship succeeds it is tragic.

John Milton (1608-1674) gave us the classic text of opposition to censorship. Areopagitica is a beautifully written, powerful argument against censorship with only one regrettable flaw: it is pro-censorship. While I can think of ways to turn it into an anti-censorship tract, once something you love has disappointed you it is hard to overcome the uncertainty and ambiguity of its motives. But I will try.

England throughout the reformation had a tradition of censorship. Offending writers had been punished by measures ranging from imprisonment to mutilation to execution. Every writer understood what Annabel Patterson has called the “hermeneutics of censorship,” which required a subtle acknowledgement of the state’s right to control writing. This acknowledgement took the form of some sort of literary contrivance that hid objectionable meanings (52). In Patterson’s words,

In the plays of Ben Jonson and and Phillip Massinger, in Shakespeare’s King Lear, in a court masque by Thomas Carew, in the sermons of John Donne, there is evidence, if we look carefully, of a highly sophisticated system of oblique communication, of unwritten rules whereby writers could communicate with readers or audiences (among whom were the very same authorities who were responsible for state censorship) without producing a direct confrontation. (53)

Thus Spenser wrote pastoral (The Shepheardes Calendar), in which rustic characters could say the most outrageous things because they were far from court, and romantic allegory (The Faerie Queene), in which the religious, social, and political meanings were layered in behind the actions of elvish characters of legend. The intrigues between the Spanish and English courts could be dramatized as a chess game, and Shakespeare could discuss monarchy and statecraft in history plays a few or many generations removed from the present. Unfortunately, such an accommodation leaves censorship intact. A writer who though implicit approval might occasionally forgive explicit meanings, or one who misjudged the degree of obliqueness required could incur the punishments of that censorship, and these could be severe, even gruesome. In 1579 John Stubbs (remember the name) wrote a pamphlet with the modest title, The Discoverie of a Gaping Gulf, whereinto England is like to be swallowed by another French marriage, if the Lord forbid not the banes, by letting her Majestie see the sin and punishment thereof (Patterson 53). Elizabeth did not take kindly to the nuptial interferences: Stubbs’ right hand was chopped off. Had Stubbs been a better man or had a more aristocratic name, he might have lost his head instead of his hand. It is said that after the stubbing ceremony he raised his good hand in the air and proclaimed, “God save the queen,” an appropriate response to royal prerogative but to my mind altogether too forgiving of censorship. Other body parts fell prey to the censor’s shears and axe under English censorship. Some writers suffered humiliation of their nose for what they wrote. After the publication of Histriomastix, an intemperate attack on both public and private production of plays, William Prynne, a contemporary of Milton, lost both his ears. Prynne had the bad manners to use phrases like “women actors, notorious whores” and the bad luck to publish his work shortly after a court production in which the queen played a role (Patterson 113).

The writer of the Martin Marprelate tracts has never been identified; the pseudonym, the secrecy, and the moveable press (in this case, a press that moved from hideaway to hideaway) kept the authorities at bay. Two men who were merely suspected, however, were brought up on other charges and condemned to die. Christopher Hill has written in several essays that censorship changed the course of English history and literature. His “certainly not complete” lists of poets, playwrights, and prose writers whose works were altered, delayed, or held from publication include almost every name of consequence in the period leading up to the English Civil War (CE 1.39-40). In a piece of understatement, Hill describes the fortunes of several writers, including Prynne, whom we have already heard about:
The Reverend Alexander Leighton in 1630 was shipped and branded, had his ears cropped and nose slit, and was imprisoned for life…. The lawyer William Prynne had his ears cropped twice, in 1634 and 1637, and was also imprisoned. Dr. Henry Burton and the Rev. William Bostwick lost their ears in 1637, and received swingeing fines and life imprisonment. Richard Lilburne, a gentleman’s son, was flogged through the streets of London for handling illegal pamphlets. (CE 1.37)

If that doesn’t seem like understatement, consider this: Prynne also had his academic degrees revoked, was pilloried, and his books were called in and burned. And if the dangers of censorship were not enough to discourage writing, there were the costs, which censorship made exorbitant. Nor were readers safe. The punishment for merely reading unlicensed material included flogging and having one’s ears cut off. Still writers wrote. As restrictions on publication eased, a bookseller friend of Milton tried to get a copy of every book published “in these exciting times:; he bought 22 in 1640, 1966 in 1642.
It was as if every literate person in the country had a personal computer linked to a linotype press.

We misunderstand the importance of these delicate negotiations between writers and society if we think they occur only in literature. In the 16th and 17th centuries in England, writers of personal letters had to be just as careful as writers of plays and poems. And according to political scientist James Scott, similar negotiations between public and hidden messages occur in every social transaction where there is a disparity of power. He expresses the ultimate “hermeneutics of interpretation” in an Ethiopian proverb: “When the great lord passes the wise peasant bows deeply and silently farts” (ii).

What did Milton write in Areopagitica that might have saved Stubbs’ hand and Prynne’s ears? Milton observes that God’s providence operates on the principle of plentitude. Manna came in sufficient quantity to satisfy three times the heartiest appetite, with each free to choose what was best for them. Intellectual appetites also vary, and God leaves us free to choose according to our gift of reason. Much reading is a weariness to the fresh, says Solomon, but if it were also unlawful surely God would have found it expedient to tell us that instead. A theme of youth and maturity runs through Areopagitica; the society that takes away choice in reading condemns itself to an inescapable childhood, never to reach the maturity promised by an unfettered choice of books. Milton manages this point in prose that reads like a serious of intellectual explosions. I could not forgive myself if you did not hear some of it. Here is Milton recommending promiscuous reading:

As therefore the state of man now is, what wisdom can there be to choose, what continence to forbear, without the knowledge of evil? He that can be apprehended and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true warfaring Christian. I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather: that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary. That virtue therefore which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evil, and knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers, and rejects it, is but a blank virtue, not a pure; her whiteness is but an excremental whiteness…. (Milton 18)

It is impossible, says Milton, to remove every book that might infect a reader with evil because it would cause the removal of the best books as well, for even the Bible contains blasphemy and wickedness, and without books people would still find ways to evil, “a thousand other ways which cannot be stopped” (Milton 21). Even if it were posing no danger to our purity (which we don’t have anyway in a fallen world), who will do it? Once we grant that books infect their readers with evil, how will we inoculate our licensers with infallibility and incorruptibility after they have read all the books? Such an important point deserves one more try: reading evil books makes one evil; people who make the determination of which books are evil and which not must have read the evil books and are therefore evil themselves; conclusion–we cannot trust our own reading choices to evil licensers. Milton goes on to suggest that if by some miracle outstanding scholars can be found who have survived the contagion on their reading, they will have better things to do and will never agree to the job, leaving it to licensers “younger, perhaps far… inferior in judgment” to those who have actually had the experience of writing a book (Milton 27-30). And why stop at books, Milton asks in a remarkable reduction ad absurdum. Equal care must be taken “to regulate all other things of like aptness to corrupt the mind…[W]e must regulate all recreations and pastimes, all that is delightful to man. No music must be heard, no song be set or sung, but what is grave and Doric. There must be licensing dancers, that no gesture, motion, or deportment be taught our youth, but by their allowance shall be thought honest…. It will ask more than the work of twenty licensers to examine all the lutes, the violins, and the guitars in every house; they must not be suffered to prattle as they do…” (23-24). He runs on through windows, balconies, food, clothing, conversation—if we censor books we must finish the job by censoring everything.

Obstructing the natural flow of knowledge and faith will introduce a new kind of heresy, according to Milton, and cause the waters of faith “to sicken unto a muddy pool of conformity and tradition” (37). “A man may be,” he writes, “a heretic in the truth, and if he believes things only because his pastor says so, or the Assembly so determines, without knowing other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds becomes his heresy” (37). This form of heresy none of us should admire, charming and beguiling as it is with its promise that not a soul will be lost under a plan of such ease and efficiency.

To echo Wordsworth, “Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour,” and perhaps we could master your pro-censorship with your own argument. For Areopagitica, this great annihilation of the motives for censorship, is not against the censorship of books, only their prior restraint, or censorship before they are published, referred to in his day as licensing. Once a book has been published, it can be judged; if judged evil it can be burned, its author killed. We can defend Milton by guessing that he was practicing the “hermeneutics of interpretation,” stating obliquely his objection to censorship in order to negotiate an end to the more immediate enemy, licensing. I want to believe that, but if Milton was actually anti-censorship, his statement of his position in Areopagitica is so oblique that it is hard not to see him as one of the pious, inflexible forcers of conscience that he criticizes elsewhere.

One who sees him this way is Peter Ackroyd, whose recent novel, Milton in America, posits a Milton who, instead of waiting out seven months of imprisonment for his part in the execution of Charles I and winning his eventual freedom to write Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes, escapes to America and becomes one of the leaders of a Puritan colony. Ackroyd’s Milton speaks piously of “that saving medicine inherited from God, the necessity of just punishment” (112). The community, with Milton presiding and guided by this principle, passes a series of laws:
In the same fashion other holy laws were passed without dissent. Anyone seen kissing a woman in the street was to be whipped, scolding wives were to be gagged and set at a corner for six hours, and those heard swearing or cursing were to be burned through the tongue with a hot iron. Witches and adulterers were to be put to death in the sight of the whole community. I sensed night approaching as we debated the burning of the witches and, although I was naturally reluctant to prevent their godly deliberations, I thought it best to close our assembly with words of praise for our sweetest and mildest manner of paternal discipline. (112-13)
Even as Milton pleads “that many be tolerated rather than all compelled,” he reveals the limits of his toleration in the next sentence: “I mean not tolerated popery and open superstition, which as it extirpates all religions and civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate…: that also which is impious or evil absolutely, either against faith or manners, no law can possibly permit that in tends not to in law itself…” (Milton 52). To be sure, this Milton is fictional, and I suspect that Ackroyd has a Catholic axe to grind with Milton, who was always inflexible in his condemnation of papists. Nevertheless, the unsympathetic portrait begins as a self-portrait in the prose of Milton himself, and it is consistent with the man who could write movingly about the lifeblood of books—“as well kill a man as kill a book”—and yet censor. This contradictory Milton is a parable of warning about the attractions of censorship as a panacea for all that we disapprove of. That John Milton, having encyclopedic knowledge of classical and modern literature, knowing the Bible by heart in English and its original languages, capable of limning every nuance of the futility and injustice of censorship, should yet be a censor must give us pause. We see how beguiling is this urge to suppress, annihilate, the thought and work of others, and prevent their future thought and work by ending their lives.

Prynne’s ears and The Satanic Verses. It’s too late for the ears, and unless we shift Milton’s argument against licensing to include censorship, these Verses and who knows how many future “verses” can be lopped off the body of literature by anyone with a malevolent pruning urge.

What would it have meant not to save The Satanic Verses—what would we have lost? For me personally, Rushdie has a place in a line of writers dear to me—Chaucer, Defoe, Fielding, Dickens, Joyce, Faulkner, Barth; he has things in common with them that I can’t really explain. Each invents a world, populates it with complex characters, and narrates stories about them which move, and amuse, and change me. Fortunately the book has qualities that I can communicate more easily. More to the point, the fatwa has given Rushdie the occasion to reflect on his work and to publish those reflections to the world as hardly any other writer has done. I will draw on these reflections in my concluding remarks on The Satanic Verses.

In our postcolonial moment the book has things to say about the effects of colonialism on both England and its colonies. Rushdie’s London is a microcosm of our world of shifting populations, a blending of cultures from England’s worldwide empire, a place of ghettos and racial hatred, of reconciliation and love in spite of them. It looks at racial purity and hybridization and chooses the latter. It is Defoe’s True-Born Englishman for our times. It is, says Rushdie, “a love song to our mongrel selves” (IH 394). “Perhaps we all are,” he goes on, quoting one of his own characters, “black and brown and white, leaking into one another, like flavours when you cook” (IH 394).

In a time of irreconcilable certainties, The Satanic Verses is also a challenging, probing, disturbing inquiry into the nature of religious belief. Gibreel Farishta has lost his faith; must of the novel represents his desperate effort to regain it. The dream sequences about the birth of the Koran and Islam dramatize not a critique of Islam or its prophet but Gibreel’s failure to find his place in it. As Rushdie puts it, “Gibreel’s dreams portray a soul in crisis, to show how the loss of God can destroy a man’s life” (IH 399).

On the other hand, Rushdie readily admits, even insists, that it is a book of “radical dissent and questioning and reimagining” (IH 397). It dissents, Rushdie explains,
“from imposed orthodoxies of all types, from the view that the world is quite clearly This and not That. It dissents from the end of debate, of dispute, of dissent. Hindu communalist sectarianism, the kind of Sikh terrorism that blows of planes, the fatuousness of Christian creationism are dissented from as well as the narrower definitions of Islam. But such dissent is a long way from ‘insults and abuse’” (IH 396-93).
The novel’s two main characters begin in free fall from a plane exploded by terrorists, to land in the English channel, wetback immigrants in search of themselves. Both are split, Gibreel spiritually, Saladin Chamcha in matters “secular and societal.” Gibreel, says Rushdie, “can neither return to the love of God, nor succeed in replacing it by earthly love” (398). “Chamcha survives,” on the other hand, by reconciling Bombay and London, East and West, “by facing up to…the great verities of love and death” (398).

Areopagitica offers no protection to The Satanic Verses, except to nudge Rushdie to emulate its method, and he has already done that. By putting his meditations about Islam and the Koran in a novel, and in a dream within the novel, and in the dream of a character both deranged and making a profound effort to believe at that, Rushdie no doubt thought that he was protected by the “hermeneutics of interpretation.” It can be argued that Rushdie’s novel, and art in general, is improved by these stresses at its creation. But neither the art nor the artist should forfeit its life to validate a tyrant’s 15 minutes of power. The Satanic Verses is a novel to savor, but I seek the same freedom for novels and other forms of expression for which I have no taste. Until all are safe, none is safe.


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