Many are doubtless familiar with the origins, implications and consequences of ‘the Fatwa’: its impact on literature was far-reaching and fundamental. Margaret Scanlan terms it an “enormous political and media event”, one which threatened to consume both text (The Satanic Verses), and author (Salman Rushdie); it was also the moment when Islamic fundamentalism firmly and decisively occupied what Jacqueline Foertsch identifies as the “religious, cultural, economic, political centrestage”. Elsewhere, Sabina Sawhney and Simona Sawhney observe that “The Satanic Verses forced many people – readers and writers of all kinds – to reflect seriously about the effects and scope of literature, its responsibility and freedom”. Some writers moved to support Rushdie in the immediate wake of the Fatwa; others to condemn him. One instance of support saw the co-authorship by the American writers Paul Auster and Don DeLillo of the Salman Rushdie Defence Pamphlet – an unusual act of collaborative ethical activism, particularly on the part of the publicity-shy DeLillo.
In this paper, I will look briefly at the postmodern paradigm into which the Fatwa, and complex relationship with postmodern fiction. A close reading of the pamphlet will follow, with reference to the pre-existing intertextual engagement between DeLillo’s Mao II (1991) and Auster’s Leviathan (1992) – two texts which Dennis Barone summarises as “a response to terrorism and contemporary politics and…studies of the role of the author”. In closing, I will consider how the pamphlet contradicts, supplements and reinforces the theories, concepts and ethical positions explored by both writers, before examining how it anticipated their writing in the wake of 9/11: the ‘enormous media and political event’ of the twenty-first century, which for some – Rushdie and his supporters in particular – constituted an extension and intensification of ‘the Fatwa’.
Penned by Auster and DeLillo five years after Rushdie went into hiding and endorsed by “a coalition of major literary and civil liberties groups in the US”, the Salman Rushdie Defence Pamphlet was inserted into every book sold in the US on Valentine’s Day in 1994. Its principal purpose: to remind America’s book buying public about the fate of a man who had been living “with an incandescent X on his chest and back”. The pamphlet effects a deliberate movement from narrativised ‘serious reflection’ to overt political activism, albeit in deferred continuation of the campaigning of five years previous. It therefore occupies a space analogous but distinct to the large body of journalistic, literary and critical responses to the Ayatollah’s pronouncement, and appears to have been overlooked by criticism, perhaps being considered a cultural curio or a glib gesture which has little relation to the fiction and essays of its co-authors. Auster and DeLillo’s position in the postmodern literary canon – which, as we know, stresses cultural relativism, depthlessness, the death of the subject and the apparent absence of authorial authority – problematizes the content of the pamphlet: in one regard, by removing the ‘politics of ambiguity’ practised through their fiction; in another, extending the Barthesian concept of ‘the scriptor’ and the text as a generative tissue of signs without an author.
Indeed, the problematic nature of postmodernist theory prevents one set of ideas from fully explaining the Fatwa in causational or correlative terms. Foucaultian poststructuralism (by way of Sartrean existentialism) favours the conception of the writer as marginalised, activist ‘other’, while the culture of late capitalism identified by Fredric Jameson negates this possibility, insisting instead upon the “necessary failure of art and the aesthetic”. Both positions are challenged by the accusations of blasphemy levelled at Rushdie by representatives of the Islamic faith: far from being self-reflexive and anti-referential, language and writing engendered physical as well as philosophical danger. As Scanlan records, the Fatwa represented “the exemplary instance of the postmodernist political novel encountering actual politics, actual violence”, where postmodern literature’s fascination with the Barthesian ‘death of the author’ inadvertently transmuted into “a large cash incentive, and a promise of paradise, for the assassination of a Booker Prize winner”. This conflict is explored extensively in DeLillo’s novel Mao II, where the protagonist Bill Gray remarks that “there is a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists...Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated”. While the Rushdie affair calls into question the extent to which all writers can be classified as ‘incorporated’, the relationship between the Fatwa and postmodernist fiction is a knotty and convoluted one. The defence pamphlet reconstructs and prolongs this paradox.
In a Lyotardian sense, Rushdie’s textual critiques of Islam constitute a refraction of the paradigmatic “incredulity towards grand narratives”; yet the Fatwa emerged from the complex machinations of global realpolitik which defined the closing moments of the Cold War. The West’s ideological interventions in the Middle East metastised into a new global metanarrative: that of Islamic fundamentalism. Rushdie’s own personal grand recit (living under the Fatwa) was defined and determined by a sequence of petits recits: the banning of the book by several countries, the subsequent riots and deaths of protestors, the immolation of his effigy by British Muslims in Parliament Square, the public book burning in Bradford, Yorkshire, and Rushdie’s own interventions: interviews, articles, media-appearances, and the essay ‘In Good Faith’. Each of these events was in turn closely covered by the electronic media, arousing “Baudrillardian anxieties” and further tightening the postmodern knot.
A specific moment of ethical activism by two members of the literary community for an imperilled community member therefore constitutes another petit recit: localised, mediated, pluralistic. In their compulsion to protect Rushdie, Auster and DeLillo revisited a centuries-old metanarrative: that of Western liberal humanism, possibly reinforced by their respective Jewish-Catholic upbringing and a shared secular scepticism towards the spectre of Islam. James Piscatori observes that “the main effect of the Rushdie affair in international politics [was] at the level of religious and political meaning”. As an attempt to recapture Rushdie from the language of theocratic terrorism, the pamphlet is provisionally successful. It opens: “On February 14, 1989, the religious leader of one country issued a death edict against the citizen of another country”. The first word “ON” occupies a single column and is printed in deep scarlet. Read right to left – as we might do if reading the Koran – or subliminally – DeLillo worked in advertising for a period – the first word we see is a decisive, definitive negation without equivocation: ‘NO’. Viewed in this way, it is a provocative response to the Fatwa. While the remainder of the text deploys language in a measured way, as if guarding itself against accusations of Islamophobia, it inevitably incurs an Orientalist interpretation – hardly helped by closing the first paragraph with a prophetic observation: “it [the Fatwa] is linked to the continuing impact of Islam on the consciousness of the West”. Here, we find ourselves back with DeLillo’s conception of terrorism as consciousness-shapers, how the language of terror informs, occupies and reshapes the governing structures of western power and knowledge.
As a non-narrativised reflection of the friendship between two authors, the pamphlet extends this friendship from Auster and DeLillo – ergo, America – to Rushdie. The pamphlet takes possession of him linguistically, locating the allegedly blasphemous passages of The Satanic Verses within the “American tradition of free expression”. The pamphlet therefore enacts and distils a reaffirmation of American cultural hegemony and historical power. DeLillo once more gives a specific and explicit expression of his prior concerns about the threat of Islamic fundamentalism: “the principle of free expression, the democratic shout, is far less audible than it was five years ago – before the death edict tightened the binds between language and religious dogma”. The phrase “democratic shout” is lifted directly from the text of Mao II, and the pamphlet appears to revise the apolitical ambiguity of that earlier novel into a clearer position vis a vis “the curious knot” binding writers and terrorists: that of doubt, distancing and deliberate negation. It also looks forward to a letter DeLillo wrote in reply to Jonathan Franzen in the mid-1990s: “The writer leads, he doesn’t follow…Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us”. The pamphlet seems to complicate DeLillo’s conception of leadership: is this a continuation of previous campaigns to protect Rushdie, or an instance of DeLillo drawing upon Auster’s deferential nature to facilitate a personal political statement, backed by a literary 'coalition of the willing'? Or is the more-media-savvy but less-critically-lauded Auster the true driving force behind the pamphlet?
These are speculative notions. One thing that is certain is that much like a hostage negotiation the pamphlet attempts to facilitate an exchange: one mediated event for another. Scanlan notes that the Baudrillardian essence of the mediatized ‘Rushdie Affair’ threatened to “swallow up the actual Salman Rushdie” – recalling Martin Amis’ observation that the writer had “vanished into the front page”. Rushdie’s predicament is presented in the pamphlet as a state of acute ontological existentialism related to the curtailment of his life as a writer:
Now the world has grown smaller around this man. He is distanced from the people who have nourished his work and severed from the very texture of spontaneous life, the tumult of voices and noises, the random scenes that represent the one luxury writers sensed they could take for granted.
As it progresses, the polemic of the pamphlet reorients itself, eventually making an open plea to readers, by way of Barthesian poststructuralism and the hermeneutic theories of Wolfgang Iser and Stanley Fish, to “think about him”. Rushdie, we are told, “has become a messenger between readers and writers”, a reminder of “how sensitive and precious this collaboration is, how deeply dependent on individual thought and free choice”:
There is an intimate contract between the two participants, a joint effort of mind and heart that allows for thoughtful differences and thrives on the prospect of understanding and conciliation. This is where the spirit of Rushdie lives, in the narrow passage between the writer who writes in solitude and the reader whose own living space or park bench or plane is ‘the little room of literature’.
One senses a degree of restraint being restored; perhaps the doveish Auster – who has likened the reader-writer relationship to a collaborative process in interviews, and also describes literature as a room in his early work, The Invention of Solitude – is reining in the possibly more hawkish DeLillo.
It is interesting too that Auster and DeLillo ultimately equate Rushdie’s predicament to “the most unlikely fiction” given their earlier narrative explorations of the connection between terrorists and writers. Brendan Martin depicts Auster’s novel Leviathan as “the autobiography of a modern American terrorist in the making”, one which “questions the concept of American democracy”. Like Mao II, the novel declines to offer a meaningful resolution to the ontological paradoxes of postmodernity. It is allegorically responsive to Rushdie’s predicament and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, while implicitly referencing the emergence of domestic terrorism perpetrated by Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber) and Timothy McVie. The novel carries a dedication to Don DeLillo, and its narrative engages with the Barthesian dissolution of the reader-writer dichotomy. Like Bill Gray, Benjamin Sachs, the writer-subject of the novel, can be read as a semi-biographical rendering of DeLillo, while the narrator, Peter Aaron, is a narrativised refraction of Auster’s novelist identity. The graduated blurring of Aaron’s character into that of Sachs’, and that of Sachs’ persona into the terrorist ‘Phantom of Liberty’, recalls DeLillo’s psychological restitution of Lee Harvey Oswald in Libra (1988), a novel which was labelled “an act of literary vandalism and bad citizenship” by George Will in The Washington Post. As with Mao II, the Lacanian implications of Auster’s narrative hold that postmodern ontological anxiety inculcates an antagonism between self and other which inevitably gives rise to the death-driven terrorist. Leviathan similarly indicates how media insemination, anticipation and replication facilitate and feed these thanatic impulses: a nod to Baudrillard and a dialogic exchange DeLillo’s earlier intertext.
The geo-political landscape which gave rise to Islamic fundamentalism was undoubtedly intensified and entrenched after 9/11. Postmodern fiction subsequently oscillated between a “violent return to the body” (exemplified by DeLillo’s Falling Man) and the “prospect of understanding and conciliation” (exemplified by Auster’s The Brooklyn Follies). These novels are informed by the nuanced ethical positions intimated in the Salman Rushdie Defence Pamphlet, and explored in their later essays on the attacks. Auster’s highly-personal account written on 11 September 2001 expresses gratitude for the safety of his family and acquaintances, before thinking of another friend, the high-wire artist Philippe Petit, committing his “act of indelible beauty” by walking between the newly-completed Twin Towers. By contrast, DeLillo’s abstracted and distracted essay ‘In the Ruins of the Future’ describes the “howling space” to which writers must “give memory, tenderness and meaning” in the shape of an ambiguously-defined “counter-narrative”. Elsewhere in the essay DeLillo makes his own plea to the transient beauty of humanity, yet it is tempered by a less benevolent urge to annihilate the Islamic fundamentalist other. Their subsequent novels present a New York attempting to heal itself – but while Auster’s explores empathic relationality and restorative affect within a proto-family of afflicted New Yorkers, DeLillo’s darkened philosophy is reflected in the looping narrative from which there is no escape: the horror of the terror repeats and reinforces itself within all that howling space. Muhammad Safeer Awan’s survey of a significant upsurge in Islamophobic literary representations after 9/11 includes DeLillo’s inability to adequately assimilate Islamic otherness into the text of Falling Man.
As we advance into the twenty-first century the knotted tightrope that links freedom of speech and religious tolerance has frayed, giving rise to theological polarisation and greater extremes of behaviour. Before the Fatwa, the possibility of a citizen of one country being subject to a “death edict” from the religious leader of another seemed implausibly fictitious. Post-9/11, the assault on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January by two radicalised French Muslims constitutes the fulfilment by proliferation of Khomeini’s pronouncement. The murder of a number of secular Bangladeshi bloggers for their criticism of Islam point to the fate of Rushdie were he living within a less stable legal and political structure. Elsewhere, Islamic State’s beheading of the American journalists James Foley and Stephen Sotloff in late 2014, and their use of a third, John Kantile, to disseminate propaganda, marks a new chapter in the transgression of boundaries and confluence of influence between media, literature and terrorism.
This triangulation is evident in the production of the Salman Rushdie Defence Pamphlet. Its publication after Mao II and Leviathan indicates that Auster and DeLillo both believed that the political possibilities of ethical fiction in positing critiques of the Fatwa had been reached, and breached. The pamphlet – an ideological intertext – marks the beginning and the end of a consciously collaborative activism. After the pamphlet, Auster and DeLillo’s ethical positions appeared to diverge. Auster’s view of writing has shifted from being a necessary act “in order to stay alive” (financially, creatively, ideologically, emotionally) into a more explicit means of expressing an ethical sense of responsibility – a vision reinforced by his support for Rushdie and other individuals through his championing of human rights abuses, and his work as Vice-President of PEN America. DeLillo, who similarly described writing as an act of survival, has returned to the politics and aesthetics of ambiguity: what Peter Boxall identifies as a ‘slowing down’ in his fiction, presenting an ethically-grounded resistance to terrorism and US politics through decelerated, weightless narratives, with varying degrees of success. In a sense, being of a certain age, both writers can be considered to be slowing down, but their friendship with and support for Rushdie remains firm.
This paper was delivered at the Action Writing Conference held at Birkbeck on 3 July 2015.