Saturday, September 23, 2006

A Non-Encounter With Salman Rushdie

Amitava Kumar is currently at Vassar College, and Salman Rushdie was recently scheduled to be a guest speaker. (We had him at Lehigh ourselves about four years ago.) Amitava, as an accomplished critic and essayist, was suggested by the college to introduce Rushdie, but Rushdie apparently vetoed it [**see update]:

Salman Rushdie came to Vassar College earlier this week to deliver a lecture for the Class of 2010–but he made it clear to the organizers that he would cancel if I was involved in his visit. I had earlier been asked to introduce him, and then, well, I was disinvited. Mr Rushdie and I have never met, although I have heard him speak several times. I presume his dislike of me has to do with essays like these that I have written about him in the past. (link)

The essay Amitava links to is a long, partly sunny and partly sour critique of Rushdie, ending with a review of Shalimar the Clown. I think Amitava's best point is probably the following:

The trouble is that despite all his invention and exuberance Rushdie remains to a remarkable extent an academic writer. He is academic in that abstractions rule over his narratives. They determine the outlines of his characters, their faces, and their voices. Rushdie is also academic in the sense that his rebellions and his critiques are all securely progressive ones, advancing the causes that the intelligentsia, especially the left-liberal Western intelligentsia, holds close to its breast. This is not a bad thing, but it should qualify one's admiration for Rushdie's daring.(link)

It's true, many of Rushdie's best, most memorable lines are actually socio-historical commentaries, or nuggets of cultural criticism that could very well come from a professor (though they wouldn't sound as nice). Of course, Rushdie isn't alone in this, and it might be unfair to be overly harsh about academicism, since academic ideas about the fragmentation of the self and problems of nationhood and nationalism have been widely and generally influential. Lots of novelists are discussing issues that are also being discussed at academic conferences. (Indeed, more than a few well-known novelists are themselves academics, to pay the bills -- writing don't pay that well.)

But one can contrast Rushdie's nuggets of cultural criticism (which are especially prevalent in his later fiction) with deeply felt characterization or a personal, human touch. Vikram Seth, who is sometimes named as a protege of Rushdie, has perhaps gone beyond him, both in A Suitable Boy, and in the marvelous personal memoir Two Lives (a much riskier thing to write and publish than a topical novel like Shalimar). Rushdie is still pretty much Mr. Postcolonial, but is he necessarily Mr. India? (Are there term-limits?)

Despite the criticisms, no one can take away from what Rushdie has accomplished as a writer and as a principled public figure over the years, and Amitava acknowledges this at points in his essay as well as in the introduction he had planned to give:

I guess I would be speaking for a lot of readers, particularly in those parts of the planet that used to be called the Third World, who saw Mr Rushdie as having fought and won against, and made an ally of, the English language, the alien language that had come to us with our colonial rulers. Mr Rushdie has had to fight many other battles since; he has made many friends and enemies; and we (I’m speaking as an Indian here) we, as his readers and as writers, have followed his actions, his songs, his mannerisms, and even when we have chosen not to follow him into the sunset, we’ve always had to define ourselves, and our rebellions, against this image we have had of him, looking down at us from giant billboards at each street-corner of our past. (link)

Perhaps a bit passive aggressive? At any rate, nicely put.

[**Update: it appears that Rushdie himself has shown up in the comments to Amitava's post. Rushdie claims that the decision to disinvite Amitava was the college's not Rushdie's, though he affirms that he "refused to share a stage."]


Ennis said...

Now he's not going to come to Lehigh either ;)

3:41 PM  
Ruchira Paul said...

Could it be that Mr. Rushdie, who is immensely clever and readable (at least until Fury came about) but not proportionately "deep", is cognizant of his own lack of lasting gravitas? Hence the paper thin skin? After all, it is possible to tell a long and complicated story without glitz, glitter and gimmicks. Many others have done it admirably.

There is a self absorbed diva like lack of graciousness in refusing to share a stage with someone who has criticized you. Having survived Khomeini's lethal fatwa with the help of police protection provided by a conservative British government whom Rushdie had criticized mercilessly, should have been a lesson in humility, forgiveness and gratitude. Unless of course, one suffers from a massive case of narcissism. What did Rushdie expect A. Kumar to do in a public forum? Come on Mr. Rushdie, the world is big enough to accommodate you and your critics, without blowing up in our faces.

1:19 PM  
ana beynaam said...

Going back to the post regarding Sontag's diaries, I suppose Rushdie has no need for egotism. He's already got plenty of it, and has had it for a bluddy long time!!!

Seriously though. . .he refused to share a stage? Wasn't Amitava just going to introduce him? The stage was practically "his."

I see your point Amardeep, about Rushdie being within his rights to wish not to be introduced by someone who's criticized him. I guess I haven't read all of Amitava's criticisms of Rushdie to comment on them. There is a certain "anxiety of influence" as well, I suppose as far as some of us are involved with Rushdie. And no, no one can take away what he has accomplished over the years, I don't think that is what Amitava intended either. No, there is no great outrage here, but Rushdie doesn't do himself any favors by drawing "battle lines" where they don't need to be drawn.

6:53 PM  
uday said...

I feel that Rushdie's antagonism with Amitava probably runs deeper than an objective critique with a not-so-objective title :)..

I would be surprised if Rushdie vetoed the offer to be introduced by Amitava solely out of a "cognizance of his own lack of lasting gravitas"

3:14 PM  
Ruchira Paul said...

No Uday. I didn't say that he vetoed the offer of introduction by Amitava Kumar for that specific reason. My conjecture is of a bit more general nature. I said that he is a narcissistic diva partly because of that shortcoming. I have no idea what "really" went on between the two but given Mr. Rushdie's other public behavior, any other critic, not just Prof. Kumar, would probably have met the same fate.

Rushdie reminds me of a certain type of intellectual. I was acquainted with several of them in Delhi University. Most were male and the majority belonged to St. Stephen's college. They could endlessly hold forth on a multitude of subjects, blithely quoting from history, politics and the today's headlines. Their glibness was breathtaking. But at the end of the harangue, there was very little of substantive value you came away with, except an admiration for their dazzling rhetoric. Christopher Hitchens is a bright and British example of the species. Perhaps it is peculiarly a product of British or British style education.

Surely, Rushdie, who has a pretty sharp tongue himself can live with a bit of vituperation of others. Especially, when he is a far bigger "star" than the critic in question. And didn't Rushdie, not too long ago, threaten to take a baseball to someone who had criticized his wife's gravitas as a fashionista? Was that purely in jest - another attractive bit of histrionics? Then there was that little incident of asking an elderly man, a fellow writer to
"F--- Off" during a Booker award event.

BTW. I greatly enjoy reading Rushdie - for all the clever irreverence and verbal calisthenics he is so adroit at. I started reading him in 1983, a while before most people had heard of him. The fact that I read every one of his books, stopping only after Fury, is a testimony to the fact that I admire his facility with words. I just don't read him for any deep insights. I had no knowledge of Amitava Kumar, the man or his work, until this post by Amardeep. My comment was solely based on my prior knowledge of Mr. Rushdie's prickly nature. That is why I brought up the topic of the protection provided by the British Government whom Rushdie was in the habit of tearing apart. Should have been a lesson in some humility and social grace, no?

4:26 PM  
Anonymous said...

But don't you see? Amitava Kumar's introduction is not about Rushdie, but about himself. That's also a problem with his 'criticism'. It is too banal.

3:03 AM  

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