“Some people get statues, others get holes.” – Salman Rushdie
David Foster Wallace tells a story about an atheist and a believer sitting at a bar in Alaska. The atheist explains why he doesn’t believe in God. “I was totally lost in a terrible blizzard. I couldn’t see a thing. It was fifty below. I tried prayer. I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out, “Oh God, if there is a God, I’m going to die if you don’t help me.” The religious guy looks puzzled. “Well, you must believe now. After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist rolls his eyes and says, “No, a couple of Eskimos came by and showed me the way back to camp.”
When Gibreel, one of the main characters in Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel The Satanic Verses imagines that he is dying, his thoughts turn to God. He prays to Allah, “Do not abandon me now after watching over me for so long.” He pleads that he doesn’t deserve to die. “Why must I die when I have not killed?” Eventually, hearing no answer, and getting sicker, he completely loses his faith. But then he begins to recover. He attributes the recovery to his loss of faith. A friend suggests that his recovery may have attributable to his prayers.
The same experience can mean totally different things to different people. Rushdie’s books are so complex that they can mean thousands of different things. Khomeni never read Rushdie’s book but condemned him to death because of it.
Rushdie offends everybody. Before Khomeni’s fatwa, his books had been banned in India by the Hindu Prime Minister Indira Ghandhi.
The censoring impulse is strong in the United States. It mostly centers on schools and the rights of school boards or state governments to ban books from curricula. The US Supreme Court upheld the right of a local school board to decide which books should be on the school’s library shelves. Banning a book from a school library on Long Island is not the same as stabbing a writer, killing a translator, firebombing a bookstore, or burning books. But the impulse is the same – it is to limit access to books that are offensive or, as one school board put it, “anti-American, anti-Christian, and antiSemetic [sic], and just plain filthy” and “offensive to Christians, Jews, Blacks, and Americans in general.”
As bad as censorship is in the US today, it pales compared to censorship in other parts of the world. Rushdie’s books have left a trail of blood behind them. Dozens of people have been killed. Four of his translators have been attacked, one fatally. Bookstores have been bombed. After the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie, most of the big bookstore chains stopped selling his controversial book. Cody’s Bookstore in Berkeley didn’t. They were firebombed as a result. The bombing left a hole in the store’s ceiling. When Rushdie visited the store years later and was shown the hole, he commented, “Some people get statues, others get holes.”
Coetzee wrote about writers who were jailed or murdered because they struggled against repressive government. He admits to some ambivalence. If ideas matter, then so does the control of ideas. And it is tough to draw a line between subversive ideas and morally repugnant ones, or “language that is felt by broad groups of people to insult and demean them ought to be permitted public airing.”
Rushdie’s novel is an attempt to understand the complex meanings of religious belief in our world. He portrays the ways that different people construct different meanings from experience. As in all good novels, the characters do not speak for the author. Instead, perhaps, they are depictions of the author arguing with himself. In 1990, Rushdie wrote, “Literature is the one place in any society where, within the secrecy of our own heads, we can hear voices talking about everything in every possible way. We need that little, unimportant-looking room.”
As David Foster Wallace stresses, the construction of meaning is a personal intentional choice. We argue with ourselves and each other about it. But if we cannot argue, if voices are silenced, then we will silence our own voices. That, Wallace notes, will lead to “An imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he is locked up.”