Gods & Monsters

The art [of the novel],” wrote Schopenhauer, “lies in setting the inner life into the most violent motion with the smallest possible expenditure of outer life.”1 Salman Rushdie would not agree. It is not that there is no inner life in his new novel. Nor indeed does one feel that Rushdie would require any external occurrences at all to set his fertile mind in motion. It is just that the sheer quantity of events that crowd these 575 pages is such as to overwhelm any depiction of inner life or any mind’s attempt to grasp the half of them. For brevity’s sake, more elaborate syntax will have to give way to the list—as so often it does in Rushdie’s prose—if we are to offer the slightest idea of what is between these covers.

We have, in the first third of the book: Bombay in the Forties and Fifties, with the immensely complex shenanigans of various extended families, scams, superstitions, Zoroastrianism, arson, cricket, politics, suicides, murders, love at first sight, cinema interiors, mythology, rock music, and goat farming. (The inner life is present most strikingly in the form of bizarre psychic experiences.)

Then: London in the Sixties, with more of most of the above, plus drugs, sex, pirate radio stations, music business entrepreneurs, a delightfully erotic young lady who can pass through walls, Chelsea boutiques, record contracts, a car accident, deep coma, and intimations of a variety of catastrophes. In the Bombay section I omitted to mention an earthquake and some lessons in photography. We discover that Lou Reed is a woman and that Kennedy survived both Lee Harvey Oswald and the assassin on the grassy knoll, only to be murdered later by the same bullet that slew his brother (and incumbent president) “Bobbie.”

Finally the book offers New York and the US in general through the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties, with more of a selection of the above (especially the mythology), plus some rock concerts (though still fewer than the murders and earthquakes). There are stardom and its penthouses, the discovery that “alternative worlds” are in “tectonic collision,” a record-contract dispute with global ramifications, more extremely weird psychic experiences, and even Orphic expeditions to bring back the dead (though this may just be a morbid form of voyeurism), and—to close—earthquake, death, murder, and, at the last—why not?—happy love.

In his novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories Rushdie has his charming young protagonist say: “I always thought storytelling was like juggling…. You keep a lot of different tales in the air, and juggle them up and down, and if you’re good you don’t drop any.” In The Ground Beneath Her Feet Rushdie tosses up a great many balls, most of them very large and decidedly colorful. Certainly he is determined to dazzle. Whether he manages to keep them usefully in the air or not is something it is hard at first for the reader to judge, since the pages are very soon, with respect, so full of balls that the mind can only boggle. Rushdie’s dazzle is not of the variety that illuminates or clarifies. He seems nervous of letting more than a page or two go by without some melodramatic event to distract our attention. In the London section, I see I forgot to mention a potion-brewing, fashion-queen witch-murderer. I also forgot to say that the whole story is told by a man who declares himself one of the world’s great skeptics and rationalists.

Along with a considerable school of critical thought, Rushdie is among those writers and critics who have sought over recent years to turn the energy of the “multicultural” and the hybrid into an elaborate aesthetic with a serious moral and political slant. Most readers will be familiar with the way his books mix different narrative traditions, confuse the historical and fantastical, East and West, gods and men, and, not least, characters and author. So when over halfway through The Ground Beneath Her Feet its Indian rock-star hero, now resident in England, finally records the song that will make him famous, it is evident from the novel’s discussion of this turning point that Rushdie is inviting analogies with his own work. Shortly before the recording we hear: “He hasn’t fully grasped how to make of multiplicity an accumulating strength rather than a frittery weakness.” But when the breakthrough comes, with the psychic hero boldly firing his support musicians and recording instrument after instrument one over the other all on his own, the new star is able to announce:

What I want the music to say is that I don’t have to choose…. I need it to show that I don’t have to be this guy or that guy, the fellow from over there or the fellow from here, the person within me that I call my twin, or whoever’s out there in whatever it is I get flashes of beyond the sky; or just the man standing in front of you right now. I’ll be all of them, I can do that. Here comes everybody, right? That’s where it came from, the idea of playing all the instruments. It was to prove that point.

The energy of the Rushdie aesthetic is thus to come from a rejection of the pathos of choice, of that need, with which most of us will be all too familiar, to become one thing or another, “this guy or that guy,” making decisions from day to day. Instead everything is to be maintained in a fizz of promise, potential, multiplicity, and openness. It will be noted at once that such an attitude, repeatedly expressed throughout Rushdie’s work, falls easily into line with that part of contemporary culture which likes to associate its desire to remain forever young with the political ideals of tolerance and peaceful cohabitation. And indeed for Rushdie, the hybrid, or simply the multiform, comes to be seen as an antidote to that fundamentalism which has treated him so scandalously. Of the Moor in The Moor’s Last Sigh, he remarked in an interview, he was a “poetic type…which means, I suppose, that he was someone in whom all the cultures flowed and therefore was unable to take absolutist views.” 2 Albeit with the uncertain glue of that “I suppose,” the aesthetic and the political are wedded together. Being “poetic” has to do with entertaining various cultures and remaining, as it were, suspended between them and their various implications. In the confrontation between “the pure and the impure, the sacred and the profane,”3 Rushdie is, he tells us, “on the side of the profane,” the melting pot.

The more one considers this line of argument, the more one suspects that certain of its assumptions are flawed. In Haroun Rushdie posits a world where all the stories that exist flow together in beautiful harmony. An evil “cultmaster” wishes to destroy this ocean. In these pages the novelist and critic Hilary Mantel glossed the idea appreciatively thus: “This tyrant hates stories, because he aims to rule the world, and fiction creates an alternative world, a multiplicity of worlds he can never command.”4 In this view of things—almost a critical orthodoxy these days—storytelling is seen as inherently liberal insofar as it offers alternatives to some outside-the-story reality. The story is thus understood as of its nature a hybrid of the factual world we know, its alternatives affording imaginative escape from that world’s political powers.

But is this the case? Do stories flow together in tolerant harmony distinct from our “factual” world? Aren’t they rather, with their rival visions, in urgent conflict with each other to establish what the nature of that world is, what the “facts” really are? Aren’t evil “cultmasters” themselves supported by elaborate stories within whose terms they do not consider themselves evil at all? Far from objecting to stories in general (usually they will be well content to have people read innocuous tales that have nothing to do with anything), don’t they rather object to those particular stories that undermine their own? Good storytelling is always seductive and potentially coercive—Midnight’s Children is a most seductive tale. It draws us, powerfully, to its own position, which, however complex and open to interpretation, may be very far from compatible with other positions. Its enchantments, like Prospero’s, are enchantments that bind as much as they please, that tell us reality is this way or that. It is in this sense that Shelley thought of poets, not as charmingly sensitive people unwilling, as with Rushdie’s Moor, to choose between rival systems, but as “the unacknowledged legislators of the World.”

The only leaps of faith I’m capable of,” we hear from the narrator in Rushdie’s new novel, “are those required by the creative imagination, by fictions that don’t pretend to be fact, and so end up telling the truth.” Perhaps when one begins to feel that it is enough to write fiction to be engaged on the right side of some global moral and political battle, and indeed to “end up” telling the truth, then there is a risk of growing careless. For just as it is notoriously difficult to do anything without making choices and becoming “this guy or that” (Rushdie’s musician, after all, becomes the guy who dismissed his supporting musicians), so—and this is particularly true of writing—the things one merely “ends up” saying will rarely bear examination.

The Ground Beneath Her Feet is narrated in the first person by the self-styled rationalist and war photographer Rai Merchant, the secret third in a love triangle whose other members, Ormus Cama and Vina Apsara, are the book’s larger-than-life rock-star heroes. Vina dies in an earthquake at the beginning of the book, and Rai explains his decision to tell his tale thus:

We all looked to her [Vina] for peace, yet she herself was not at peace. And so I’ve chosen to write here, publicly, what I can no longer whisper into her private ear: that is, everything. I have chosen to tell our story, hers and mine and Ormus Cama’s, all of it, every last detail, and then maybe she can find a sort of peace here, on the page, in this underworld of ink and lies, that respite which was denied her by life. So I stand at the gate of the inferno of language, there’s a barking dog and a ferryman waiting and a coin under my tongue for the fare.

Rushdie loves the grand narrative gesture, and there is a sprint for the portentous in his writing which often comes at the expense of sense. Rai chooses to tell the story so that Vina can find “peace on the page.” Presumably, as a man who insistently pronounces himself a rationalist, he means so that he can find peace (the dead, after all, for rationalists, are beyond human reach). As we approach the end of the book, however, we discover that Rai is in fact now blissfully happy with a new girlfriend. Why then is he writing? Whose peace is at stake? And why, if the book is inspired by a need to get a grip on their love triangle, will it have to include so much absolutely extraneous material? Again, if the page is, as he so melodramatically claims, an “underworld of ink and lies,” is it reasonably a place where one would expect to find peace anyway?

Then what are we to make of the word “lies” after Rai’s confessional solemnity in the opening lines of the paragraph? And why does he use the word “respite,” a temporary cessation of the painful, if what we are talking about here is a final laying to rest? Finally, if “language” is to be made equivalent to an “inferno,” rather than just the muddle it appears to be here (the Christian inferno and the Greek underworld are two very different places), how on earth are we to read the barking dog, the ferryman, and the coin? Is this a dark reference to the machinery of publishing? The more one progresses with Rushdie’s novel the more one feels that its most formidable enemy will not be any evil fundamentalism, but simply a moment’s attention on the part of the wakeful reader.

There are further questions to ask about this passage. Since the story of Orpheus has been amply introduced only a few pages earlier with Vina singing Eurydice’s part from Gluck’s opera shortly before disappearing, presumably swallowed up by the earth, must we then understand the narrator’s entry to the underworld as an Orphic expedition to recover the lost lover rather than, as he claims, to lay her to rest? What would Rai’s new girlfriend think about such a project? The idea of a narrative as a doomed expedition of retrieval is one I find fascinating, but this particular ball is quickly dropped, the analogy is not repeated, and in any event we will shortly discover that Rai is tone-deaf and hence hardly an Orpheus candidate. It is rather his friend and rival, Ormus the musician, who will assume the role of Orpheus obsessively seeking the dead Vina (by casting about for look-alikes) in the final chapters of the book. Why then was the parallel so dramatically invited?

The love triangle is fairly static and its story is quickly told. Growing up in Bombay, the awesomely handsome and musically talented Ormus Cama fritters away his teens seducing the local girls. After spending her early childhood in the USA, the slightly younger Vina Apsara, of mixed Asian Indian and Greek-American parentage, comes to Bombay, where she will eventually find herself living with the family of the, again slightly younger, Rai Merchant. Vina is awesomely beautiful and has an extraordinary voice. The nine-year-old Rai falls immediately and irretrievably in love with her. Shortly afterward the twelve-year-old Vina and the nineteen-year old Ormus fall immediately and irretrievably in love with each other.

From this point on, a series of delays stretches out developments over a lifetime (thus allowing Rushdie to fill the spaces with all kinds of digressions and subplots). With surprising chivalry Ormus agrees to wait until Vina is sixteen before so much as kissing her. Four years. They enjoy a night’s delirious pleasure (which Rai is able to describe in detail), but then Ormus’s hasty offer of marriage causes Vina to run off, and the following morning complicated coincidences lead the couple to lose sight of each other for ten years, during which time Vina will, if only fleetingly, become Rai’s lover. Having moved back to America, Vina rediscovers Ormus when his first successful record is released, but at this point, following a car accident that was actually a murder attempt, the hero is in a coma in his mother’s house on the Thames. At the sound of Vina’s voice Ormus immediately reawakens, and over the next year she nurses him back to health.

The two now team up in a super-successful rock band, but again Ormus’s proposal of marriage (in this at least he knows who he wants to be) is rejected. Despite her love, the sassy Vina has no intention of renouncing her promiscuous nature. At this point Ormus forces a pact on her: they will not touch each other for ten years, during which he will remain celibate, but at the end of that time they will marry. Throughout these ten years Vina continues to sleep with Rai, though Ormus, who is aware of her more casual lovers, never knows this.

Finally the now amazingly famous rock stars marry. All continues as before without revelations, confrontations, or any particular development, until Ormus’s intensifying psychic obsessions eventually become too much for his wife. Ormus is convinced that two worlds (apparently that of the book and our own world outside the book) are involved in a progressive collision that is causing sociopolitical upheaval and indeed earthquakes. Vina walks out on him, and Rai is encouraged to believe he can at last break up the couple and win his woman. To this end he follows Vina on her first solo tour, but at precisely the point where a decision must be made she disappears in an earthquake in Mexico, thus somewhat validating her husband’s nightmare prophecies.

The dynamic of the triangle has potential. All three characters are presented as in search of identity. Of himself the narrator says: “At my worst, I have been a cacophony, a mass of human noises that did not add up to the symphony of an integrated self.” The racially mixed Vina, with her miserable childhood, is “a rag-bag of selves, torn fragments of people she might have become.” Ormus has serious identity crises resulting from his belief that he is in some way inhabited by the personality of his stillborn twin, Gayomart. These are less positive presentations of the multiple self. All three characters sense that the dramatic gesture of choice and (above all) exclusiveness in love will confer a longed-for identity. But Vina in particular is also aware that exclusive love can be coercive and limiting, and it is she who allows the triangle to form and deliberately perpetuates it over thirty years, thus keeping all three characters in a state of tension, on the brink of an identity that is never quite established.

The story, as I said, is promising, and from time to time Rushdie launches into some penetrating reflections on the conflicting claims of identity, love, and trust, in life and in art. He has read widely and thought a great deal. But he seems unable or unwilling to dramatize these relationships in a way that would allow us to savor their emotions and dilemmas. In the end almost none of the book’s action or energy springs from them. His twin vocations for “multiplicity” and hyperbole work against the prolonged and concentrated meditation needed to bring the inner life of a love triangle onto the page. Just as Ormus Cama refuses to choose between conflicting personalities, so Rushdie is determined not to settle on one form or another of novel.

His choice of the first person, for example, with all its scope for transmitting the pathos of a frustratingly limited knowledge, offers an excellent approach to his story. But its conviction soon dwindles when Rushdie allows his narrator into other characters’ heads and starts using him and those around him as the merest mouthpieces for his own many ideas and interests. A section where the largely uneducated and very adolescent Vina is allowed to be an authority on Bombay cinema interiors in the 1950s is particularly unconvincing, and dull to boot. One moment we are being given a pompous lecture on Neo-platonism, then the narrative suddenly slips into cartoon flippancy full of pun and rhyme, only to clang out at the end of a paragraph with some portentous eschatological warning. Rather than a convincing voice, or the continuation (for the claim is often made on Rushdie’s behalf) of a satisfying oral tradition, this only reminds us of certain prevailing and largely literary notions of the modern. In short, again like his rock star Ormus, Rushdie makes no secrets of playing all the instruments. Ormus’s claim for his music, “Here comes everybody”—an improbable reference to Finnegans Wake attributed by a first-person narrator (not present when the words are spoken) to a young Indian rock musician—thus tends to mean “Here comes Salman.”

While the mixed and hybrid is justified both by its liberal openness and its reflection of the contemporary global situation, Rushdie’s insistent use of hyperbole seems intended to take us to those extremes where nature may betray what lies beyond the “curtain of maya.” The two vocations come together in the book’s use of mythology. Inflated by frequent comparison to mythological figures taken from both Western and Eastern traditions, Ormus and Vina, Eastern practitioners of what we have always thought of as a Western musical form, are to be held up as potential archetypes suggesting a deep pattern of truth beneath the superficial clutter of daily reality. Typical passages read thus: “Glistening serpents of hair lay across the wooden verandah floor. Medusa. It crossed my mind”—Rai is referring to a time when he was nine years old—“that we should look at her [Vina’s] face only in a burnished shield lest we be turned to stone.” Or again: “Many different versions of the first encounter between Vina Apsara and Ormus Cama are presently in circulation…. Depending which journal you read, you might have heard that he transformed himself into a white bull and carried her away on his back.”

These mythological allusions are then set off against the narrator’s declared skepticism to generate a dialectic between two opposed interpretations of life, the one usually, though not exclusively, associated with the mystical East, the other with the rationalist tradition of the West. The two views come into most immediate conflict in Rai’s relationship with the mythical and myth-hungry Vina. Of her interest in the sacred music of India, the narrator announces: “I must conclude—and this is hard for a lifelong sceptic like me to write—that what Vina wanted was a glimpse of the unknowable.”

However interesting Rushdie’s intentions—and there can be little doubt that he means this to be the intellectual core of the book—the dialectic never convinces. The project is dogged by two extravagant decisions—or perhaps they might best be described, within the terms of Rushdie’s poetics, as protracted “indecisions.” The first involves the sheer weight of mythical reference that is foisted on the central characters (all of whom are themselves remarkably well versed in both Western and Eastern mythologies). Vina, for example, a girl whose father turned gay and abandoned her mother, who later hanged herself after slaughtering her second husband and his family (Rushdie is anything but ungenerous with background)—a girl, then, whose early life is presented along the lines of the most gruesome and sensationalist “realism”—will be compared with (among others) Medusa, Cinderella, Eurydice, the Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut, Europa, Rati (wife of the Indian god of love), Helen of Troy, an Apsara (a semidivine nymph in Indian mythology), Pallas Athena, Psyche, Dionysus, Galatea, and Pygmalion.

The same wearisome profligacy of interconnection is afforded both to other characters and to the book’s many events. (Of one girl who predicts an earthquake we hear: “If she was our Cassandra, then maybe—just maybe—Bombay was about to fall, like Troy.”) Thus instead of finding a suggestive and potentially convincing structure in myth, the reader begins to suspect only fuzzy thinking and overkill. It may be that the problem of establishing the characters’ identities is more Rushdie’s than theirs.

The other obstacle set before our engagement with this presentation of rival interpretations, the one mythic, the other rational, is the decision to have our skeptical narrator give credence to events that, if accepted as factual, eliminate a priori the very possibility of rational skepticism. Of Ormus Cama we hear that “within moments of his birth [he] began making the strange, rapid finger movements with both hands which any guitarist could have identified as chord progressions.” These movements, Rai tells us, were filmed and are now available on video. Later we hear that Ormus (his name is a Latin hybridization of the Zoroastrian god Ormazd, or Ahura Mazda), in contact with his dead twin Gayomart (another Zoroastrian figure), is being given the words and music to many of the greatest rock songs exactly two years, eight months, and twenty-eight days before they are released in the West. He actually plays “Yesterday” as his own song in a Bombay club before it appears as the work of the Beatles.

Rai remarks: “I’m the least supernaturally inclined of men, but this tall story I have no option but to believe.” While the inspiration here is presumably comic, the result for the book’s larger debate is that the position of the skeptic is untenable and the proposed dialectic spurious. It is rather as if Browning’s Karshish were to declare his familiarity with well-documented miracles before being presented with the enigma of the resurrected Lazarus.

Critics supporting Rushdie will often suggest that we have difficulty understanding him because we are unfamiliar with the tradition he is working in (though they rarely remark that he is most successful precisely where that tradition is least understood). It would seem appropriate then to consider how he uses some of his Indian material.

Alienated from family affections “like an astronaut floating away from a space capsule,” Ormus Cama is saved by Vina Apsara’s love. Rai remarks, in a long parenthesis,

(It is said that when Kama, the love god, committed the crime of trying to shoot mighty Shiva with a dart of love, the great god burned him to ashes with a thunderbolt. Kama’s wife, the goddess Rati, pleaded for his life, and softened Shiva’s heart. In an inversion of the Orpheus myth, it was the woman who interceded with the deity and brought Love—Love itself!—back from the dead…. So also Ormus Cama, exiled from love by the parents whom he had failed to transfix with love’s arrow, shrivelled by their lack of affection, is restored to the world of love by Vina.)

Even those unfamiliar with Indian myth will have grounds for suspecting that the analogy does not hold. Kama’s attempt to shoot a love dart at Shiva is presented as a crime, while it could hardly be considered a crime for Ormus to seek affection from his parents. The reference to darts should also alert us to the fact that Kama is akin to the Greek Eros and has nothing at all to do with filial love. One does not fire off Eros’s arrows at one’s folks (there has been no suggestion in the novel of a desire for incest!). The parallel thus becomes doubly inappropriate, indeed triply so if one further considers that Rati only saves Kama insofar as her appeal to Shiva is successful, while Vina makes no such appeal to her boyfriend’s parents but saves him directly herself.

Nor could it be claimed that this distorted use of analogy is a deliberate attempt on Rushdie’s part to develop the character of his narrator, Rai, whose erudition appears to be coextensive with his author’s and whose point of view generally coincides with Rushdie’s as presented in interviews. Some two hundred pages later Rushdie remembers that his narrator is skeptical of mythological interpretations and gives us this: “When Vina starts with her fanciful mysteries, all you can do is lie back and wait for her to lose interest, which never takes too long. Here she is, back again at the story of Kama and Rati.” But up to now it has been Rai/Rushdie using this particular analogy, not Vina/Rushdie.

The story of Kama and Rati is worth considering in a little more detail. Warned by Brahma that they would be destroyed by the anti-god Taraka unless Shiva bore a son to destroy him, the gods begged Kama to shoot one of his darts at Shiva so that he would fall in love with the girl Parvati, who could then bear the great creator and destroyer a son. The idea of crime doesn’t enter into it. Unimpressed, Shiva shriveled Kama with a blaze from his famous third eye (not with a thunderbolt).

At this point versions diverge, some suggesting Kama was brought back to life and others saying he was not. But the two can be reconciled in the version that tells us how Kama was brought back only to a dispersed and invisible life. In his recent work on Indian mythology, Ka, Roberto Calasso comments on the story thus: “Flowers, bees, mangoes, cuckoos: it was into you that Desire [Kama] dispersed when Shiva’s blaze consumed him. Henceforth a humming or a birdcall, a flavor or a scent, would open a wound in those far from their loved ones.” Calasso concludes with a quotation from the fifth-century poet Kalidasa. “And many were wounded if it is true that ‘upon seeing things of great beauty or hearing sweet sounds even a happy man may be seized by a fierce nostalgia.”’

The myth will perhaps help us to shift the debate on our reaction to Rushdie’s work to more pertinent ground than that of the sterile back and forth of whether or not we can appreciate Indian tradition. Fantastical as it is, Kama’s story illuminates a landscape we recognize all too well. There is in this myth an attempt, an erotic attempt, to seduce the great power that drives the universe. It fails miserably. Erotic love is helpless in the face of necessity. However far it is from realism, myth, unlike some contemporary fiction, always has a very strong sense of what is possible and what is not—it is thus ironic that Rushdie uses the story to demonstrate the power of love, rather than its limitations. Yet something is gained from that attempt and its defeat. The natural world takes on a splendid if painful sweetness. This too we recognize, and our recognition is the token of both the myth’s conviction and its seduction. We know we inhabit the world it describes.

Do we expect our fiction, in whatever form it comes, to have powers of clarification and evocation, to thrill us by getting close to the grain of our most intimate and enigmatic experiences, or do we wish it to conjure no more than that famous one-word “prophecy” that Sal Paradise in On the Road imagines himself as bringing to his friends in a bar in downtown Denver: “Wow!”?5 Again and again in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Rushdie deploys the rhetoric of clear-sightedness. Relentlessly and accurately he satirizes “the swallowing of various forms of gibberish that has replaced the exercise of intelligence.” But having satisfied readers, he hopes, that they are in the hands of the world’s least credulous person, he then proceeds, equally relentlessly, to offer nothing more than the most muddled and spuriously mystical of melodramas, the very thing he had appeared to be satirizing.

Admirably energetic as he is alarmingly approximate, here is our author toward the end of the book drawing on the work of one of the sharpest minds the world ever produced, Plato. Vina’s father, Shetty, has just remarked that if Ormus really wants to be with his dead wife, the noble thing to do would be to “shoot himself in the mouth.” Ever ready to instruct, narrator Rai remarks:

Shetty doesn’t know it, but he’s echoing Plato. This is what the great philosopher has Phaedrus say in the Symposium’s first speech about love: The gods honor zeal and heroic excellence towards love. But Orpheus… they sent back unfulfilled from Hades, showing him a phantom of the woman…because he seemed to them a coward…[who] didn’t venture to die for the sake of love, as did Alcestis, but rather devised a means of entering Hades while still alive. Orpheus, the despised citharode—the singer with the lyre or, let’s say, guitarist—the trickster who uses his music and wiles to cross boundaries, between Apollo and Dionysus, man and nature, truth and illusion, reality and the imagination, even between life and death, was evidently not to austere Plato’s taste. Plato, who preferred martyrdom to mourning, Plato the ayatollah of love.

We shall pass over the bullying techniques of agglomeration and inflation everywhere evident in this prose. Here it is the sheer rashness of Rushdie’s writing that takes the breath away. I shall not presume to come to Plato’s defense; the most cursory reading of the Symposium, witty, fluent, ever as precise as it is profound, will show how inappropriate these remarks are. In contrast, the imprecision of Rushdie’s work—Alcestis is not a martyr—is, at this point, no more than we expected. Yet one would have thought that he would have hesitated a moment before the word “ayatollah.” There at least, one would have expected a moment’s attention. Not so. The temptation of the flourish is too much for him. Plato is the “ayatollah of love.” At one point in The Ground Beneath Her Feet a minor character speaks of myth as “the software of universal consciousness.” Are we then to refer to Rushdie as “the Bill Gates of mythology”? Or, since a good parallel should be reversible, can we from now on think of the Ayatollah—for one can only presume it is that ayatollah he is referring to—as the Plato of Islam?

We live in an age where initiation into the mysteries of a religion or cult has been widely replaced by initiation into the notion that there is no such mystery into which to be initiated. As it turns out, this may prove to be the hardest initiation of all, into the most trying of mysteries. By making the double gesture of appearing clear-sighted and then filling his pages with supernatural incident and metaphysical muddle that could mean anything or nothing, Rushdie, and many like him, play to those who, while understandably unwilling to subscribe to any belief so well defined as to be easily knocked down, nevertheless yearn to have all the mystical balls kept perpetually spinning in the air before them. Closet New Agers will be thrilled. The potential readership is huge.

  1. 1

    Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms, selected and translated by R.J. Hollingdale (Penguin, 1970), p. 165. This section on aesthetics is extracted from Parerga und Paralipomena, section 227.

  2. 2

    See the interview with John Banville in The New York Review, March 4, 1993.

  3. 3

    The New York Review, March 4, 1993.

  4. 4

    The New York Review, February 16, 1995.

  5. 5

    Jack Kerouac, On the Road (Penguin, 1991), p. 38.