I grew up kissing books and bread.
In our house, whenever anyone dropped a book or let fall a chapati
or a "slice," which was our word for a triangle of buttered leavened
bread, the fallen object was required not only to be picked up but
also kissed, by way of apology for the act of clumsy disrespect.
I was as careless and butter- fingered as any child and, accordingly,
during my childhood years, I kissed a large number of "slices" and
also my fair share of books.
Devout households in India often contained, and still contain, persons
in the habit of kissing holy books. But we kissed everything. We
dictionaries and atlases. We kissed Enid Blyton novels and Superman
comics. If I'd ever dropped the telephone directory I'd probably
have kissed that, too.
All this happened before I had ever kissed a girl. In fact it would
almost be true, true enough for a fiction writer, anyhow, to say
that once I started kissing girls, my activities with regard to
bread and books lost some of their special excitement. But one never
forgets one's first loves.
Bread and books: food for the body and food for the soul - what
could be more worthy of our respect, and even love?
It has always been a shock to me to meet people for whom books simply
do not matter, and people who are scornful of the act of reading,
let alone writing. It is perhaps always astonishing to learn that
your beloved is not as attractive to others as she is to you. My
most beloved books have been fictions, and in the last 12 months
I have been obliged to accept that for many millions of human beings,
these books are entirely without attraction or value.
We have been witnessing an attack upon the very idea of the novel
form, an attack of such bewildering ferocity that it has become
necessary to restate what is most precious about the art of literature
- to answer the attack, not by an attack, but by a declaration of
Love can lead to devotion, but the devotion of the lover is unlike
that of the True Believer in that it is not militant. I may be surprised
- even shocked - to find that you do not feel as I do about a given
book or work of art or even person; I may very well attempt to change
your mind; but I will finally accept that your tastes, your loves,
are your business and not mine. The True Believer knows no such
restraints. The True Believer knows that he is simply right, and
you are wrong. He will seek to convert you, even by force, and if
he cannot he will, at the very least, despise you for your unbelief.
Love need not be blind. Faith must, ultimately, be a leap in the
The title of this essay is a question usually asked, in
tones of horror, when some personage or idea
or value or place held dear by the questioner is treated to a dose
of iconoclasm. White cricket balls for night cricket? Female priests?
A Japanese takeover of Rolls-Royce cars? Is nothing sacred?
recently, however, it was a question to which I thought I knew the
answer. The answer was No.
nothing is sacred in and of itself, I would have said. Ideas, texts,
even people can be made sacred - the word is from the Latin sacrare,
"to set apart as holy" - but even though such entities, once
their sacredness is established, seek to proclaim and to preserve
their own absoluteness, their inviolability, the act of making sacred
is in truth an event in history. It is the product of the many and
complex pressures of the time in which the act occurs. And events
in history must always be subject to questioning, deconstruction,
even to declarations of their obsolescence. To revere the sacred
unquestioningly is to be paralyzed by it. The idea of the sacred
is quite simply one of the most conservative notions in any culture,
because it seeks to turn other ideas Uncertainty, Progress, Change
- into crimes.
To take only one such declaration of obsolescence: I would have
described myself as living in the aftermath of the death of god.
On the subject of the death of god, the American novelist and critic
William H. Gass had this to say, as recently as 1984:
death of god represents not only the realization that gods have
never existed, but the contention that such a belief is no longer
even irrationally possible; that neither reason nor the taste and
temper of the times condones it. The belief lingers on, of course,
but it does so like astrology or a faith in a flat earth.
I have some difficulty with the uncompromising bluntness of this
obituary notice. It has always been clear to me that god is unlike
human beings in that it can die, so to speak, in parts. In other
parts, for example India, god continues to flourish, in literally
thousands of forms. So that if I speak of living after this death,
I am speaking in a limited, personal sense - my sense of god ceased
to exist long ago, and as a result I was drawn toward the great
creative possibilities offered by surrealism, modernism and their
successor, those philosophies and aesthetics born of the realization
that, as Karl Marx said, "all that is solid melts into air."
It did not seem to me, however, that my ungodliness, or rather my
necessarily bring me into conflict with belief. Indeed, one reason
for my attempt to develop a form of fiction in which the miraculous
might coexist with the mundane was precisely my acceptance that
notions of the sacred and the profane both needed to be explored,
as far as possible without prejudgment, in any honest literary portrait
of the way we are.
That is to say: The most secular of authors ought to be capable
of presenting a sympathetic portrait of a devout believer. Or, to
put it another way: I had never felt the need to totemize my lack
of belief, and so make it something to go to war about.
Now, however, I find my entire world-picture under fire. And as
I find myself obliged to defend the assumptions and processes of
literature, which I had believed that all free men and women could
take for granted, and for which all unfree men and women continue
every day to struggle, so I am obliged to ask myself questions I
admit to finding somewhat unnerving.
Do I, perhaps, find something sacred after all? Am I prepared to
set aside as holy the idea of the absolute freedom of the imagination
and alongside it my own notions of the world, the Text and the Good?
Does this add up to what the apologists of religion have started
calling "secular fundamentalism"? And if so, must I accept that
this "secular fundamentalism" is as likely to lead to excesses,
abuses and oppressions as the canons of religious faith?
Herbert Read, one of the leading British advocates of the modernist
and surrealist movements, was a distinguished representative of
the cultural values closest to my heart. "Art is never transfixed,"
Read wrote. "Change is the condition of art remaining art." This
principle is also mine. Art, too, is an event in history, subject
to the historical process. But it is also about that process,
and must constantly strive to find new forms to mirror an endlessly
renewed world. No aesthetic can be constant, except an aesthetic
based on the idea of inconstancy, metamorphosis, or, to borrow a
term from politics, "perpetual revolution."
than twenty years ago, I listened to a lecture by Arthur Koestler.
He propounded the thesis that language, not territory, was the prime
cause of aggression, because once language reached the level of
sophistication at which it could express abstract concepts, it acquired
the power of totemization; and once peoples had erected totems,
they would go to war to defend them. (I ask pardon of Koestler's
ghost. I am relying on an old memory, and that's an untrustworthy
shoulder to lean on.)
In support of his theory, he told us about two tribes of monkeys
living on, I think, one of the northern islands of Japan. The two
tribes lived in close proximity in the woods near a certain stream,
and subsisted, not unusually, on a diet of bananas. One of the tribes,
however, had developed the curious habit of washing its bananas
in the stream before eating them, while the other tribe continued
to be non-banana- washers. And yet, said Koestler, the two tribes
continued to live contentedly as neighbors, without quarrelling.
And why was this? It was because their language was too primitive
to permit them to totemize either the act of banana-washing or that
of eating bananas unwashed. With a more sophisticated language at
their disposal, both wet and dry bananas could have become the sacred
objects at the heart of a religion, and then, look out! - Holy war.
A young man rose from the audience to ask Koestler a question. Perhaps
the real reason why the two tribes did not fight, he suggested,
was that there were enough bananas to go round. Koestler became
extremely angry. He refused to answer such a piece of Marxist claptrap.
And, in a way, he was right. Koestler and his questioner were speaking
different languages, and their languages were in conflict. Their
disagreement could even be seen as the proof of Koestler's point.
If he, Koestler, were to be considered the banana-washer and his
questioner the dry-banana man, then their command of a language
more complex than the Japanese monkeys' had indeed resulted in totemizations.
Now each of them had a totem to defend: the primacy of language
versus the primacy of economics; and dialogue therefore became impossible.
They were at war.
religion and literature, as between politics and literature, there
is a linguistically based dispute. But it is not a dispute of simple
opposites. Because whereas religion seeks to privilege one language
above all others, one set of values above all others, one text above
all others, the novel has always been about the way in which
different languages, values and narratives quarrel, and about the
shifting relations between them, which are relations of power. The
novel does not seek to establish a privileged language, but it insists
upon the freedom to portray and analyze the struggle between the
different contestants for such privileges.
Carlos Fuentes has called the novel "a privileged arena." By
this he does not mean that it is the kind of holy space which one
must put off one's shoes to enter; it is not an arena to revere;
it claims no special rights except the right to be the stage
upon which the great debates of society can be conducted. "The
novel," Fuentes writes, "is born from the very fact that we do not
understand one another, because unitary, orthodox language has broken
down. Quixote and Sancho, the Shandy brothers, Mr. and Mrs. Karenin:
their novels are the comedy (or the drama) of their misunderstanding.
Impose a unitary language: you kill the novel, but you also kill
He then poses the question I have been asking myself throughout
my life as a writer: Can the religious mentality survive outside
of religious dogma and hierarchy? Which is to say: Can art be
the third principle that mediates between the material and spiritual
worlds; might it, by "swallowing" both worlds, offer us something
new - something that might even be called a secular definition of
I believe it can. I believe it must. And I believe that, at its
best, it does.
What I mean by transcendence is that flight of the human spirit
outside the confines of its material, physical existence which all
of us, secular or religious, experience on at least a few occasions.
Birth is a moment of transcendence which we spend our lives trying
to understand. The exaltation of the act of love, the experience
of joy and very possibly the moment of death are other such moments.
The soaring quality of transcendence, the sense of being more than
oneself, of being in some way joined to the whole of life, is by
its nature short-lived. Not even the visionary or mystical experience
ever last very long. It is for art to capture that experience, to
offer it to, in the case of literature, its readers; to be, for
a secular, materialist culture, some sort of replacement for what
the love of god offers in the world of faith.
It is important that we understand how profoundly we all felt the
needs that religion, down the ages, has satisfied. I would suggest
that these needs are of three types: firstly, the need to be given
an articulation of our half-glimpsed knowledge of exaltation, of
awe, of wonder; life is an awesome experience, and religion helps
us understand why life so often makes us feel small, by telling
us what we are smaller than; and, contrariwise, because we
also have a sense of being special, of being chosen, religion
helps us by telling us what we have been chosen by, and what for.
Secondly, we need answers to the unanswerable: how did we get here?
How did "here" get here in the first place? Is this, this
brief life all there is? How can it
be? What would be the point of that? And, thirdly, we need codes
to live by, "rules for every damn thing." The idea of god is at
once a repository for our awestruck wonderment at life and an answer
to the great questions of existence, and a rulebook, too. The soul
needs all these explanations - not simply rational explanations,
but explanations of the heart.
It is also important to understand how often the language of secular,
rationalist materialism has failed to answer these needs. As we
witness the death of communism in Central Europe, we cannot fail
to observe the deep religious spirit with which so many of the makers
of these revolutions are imbued, and we must concede that it is
not only a particular political ideology that has failed, but the
idea that men and women could ever define themselves in
their spiritual needs.
It seems obvious, but relevant, to point out that in all the countries
now moving toward freedom, art was repressed as viciously as was
religion. That the Czech revolution began in the theaters and was
led by a writer is proof that people's spiritual needs, more than
their material needs, have driven the commissars from power.
What appears plain is that it will be a very long time before the
peoples of Europe will accept any ideology that claims to have a
complete, totalized explanation of the world. Religious faith, profound
as it is, must surely remain a private matter. This rejection of
totalized explanations is the modern condition. And this is where
the novel, the form created to discuss the fragmentation of truth,
comes in. The film director Luis Bunuel used to say: "I would give
my life for a man who is looking for the truth. But I would gladly
kill a man who thinks he has found the truth." (This is what we
used to call a joke, before killing people for their ideas
returned to the agenda.) The elevation of the quest for the Grail
over the Grail itself, the acceptance that all that is solid has
melted into air, that reality and morality are not givens but
imperfect human constructs, is the point from which fiction begins.
This is what Jean François Lyotard called, in 1979, La
Condition Postmoderne. The challenge of literature is to start
from this point, and still find a way of fulfilling our unaltered
Dick meets that challenge by offering us a dark,
almost Manichaean vision of a universe (the
Pequod) in the grip of one demon, Ahab, and
heading inexorably toward another; namely the
Whale. The ocean always was our Other, manifesting
itself to us in the form of beasts - the worm
Ouroboros, Kraken, Leviathan. Herman Melville
delves into these dark waters in order to offer us a very modern
parable: Ahab, gripped by his possession, perishes; Ishmael, a man
without strong feeling or powerful affiliations, survives. The self-interested
modern man is the sole survivor; those who worship the whale - for
pursuit is a form of worship - perish by the whale.
In a very different way, Italo Calvino meets the challenge as well.
His trilogy Our Ancestors, which he called an attempt to
provide a family tree for modern man, offers us three bizarre and
comical exemplary figures. There is the cloven viscount, bisected
on a medieval battlefield, whose two halves live on, the one impossibly
evil, the other improbably good, and both of them utterly insufferable.
Only when they are rejoined, when good and evil blend and create
a human being, is the viscount fit for human society again. And
there is the Baron in the Trees, the ultimate rebel, who rejects
the patriarchal command to eat a bowl of revolting snail soup and
takes to the trees for the rest of his days. And finally there is
the Non- Existent Knight, an empty suit of armour that keeps itself
going by will-power and by total, unswerving adherence to the laws
of chivalry. It becomes one of the more illustrious chevaliers
in the army of Charlemagne. These three fables, about the inseparability
of good and evil, about the consequences and importance of refusing
what one finds revolting - snail soup or tyranny - and about a (literally)
hollow being sustained only by a stultifying quasi-religious code,
offer us dreams of ourselves, maps of our inner natures. No less
effectively, but much less prescriptively than any holy text, they
show us who we are.
Joyce's wanderers, Beckett's tramps, Gogol's tricksters, Bulgakov's
devils, Bellow's high-energy meditations on the stifling of the
soul by the triumphs of materialism; these, and many more, are what
we have instead of prophets and suffering saints. But while the
novel answers our need for wonderment and understanding, it brings
us harsh and unpalatable news as well.
It tells us there are no rules; it hands down no commandments. We
have to make up our own rules as best we can, make them up as we
it tells us there are no answers; or, rather, it tells us that answers
are easier to come by, and less reliable, than questions. If religion
is an answer, if political ideology is an answer, then literature
is an inquiry; great literature, by asking extraordinary questions,
opens new doors in our minds.
Richard Rorty, in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, insists
on the importance of historicity, of giving up the illusions of
being in contact with Eternity. For him, the great error is what
he calls "foundationalism," which the theologian Don Cupitt, commenting
on Rorty, calls "the attempt, as old as (and even much older than)
Plato, to give permanence and authority to our knowledge and values
by purporting to found them in some unchanging cosmic realm, natural
or noumenal, outside the flux of our human conversation." It is
better, Cupitt concludes, "to be an adaptable pragmatist, a nomad."
Michel Foucault, also a confirmed historicist, discusses the role
of the author in challenging sacralized absolutes in his essay,
"What is an Author?" This essay argues, in part, that "texts, books
and discourses really began to have authors ... to the extent that
authors became subject to punishment, that is, to the extent that
discourses could be transgressive." This is an extraordinary, provocative
idea, even if it is stated with Foucault's characteristic airiness
and a complete absence of supporting evidence: that authors were
named only when it was necessary to find somebody to blame. Foucault
In our culture (and doubtless in many others), discourse was not
originally a product, a thing, a kind of goods; it was essentially
an act - an act placed in the bipolar field of the sacred and the
profane, the licit and the illicit, the religious and
the blasphemous. Historically it was a
gesture fraught with risks ...
In our beginnings we find our essences. To understand a religion,
look at its earliest moments. (It is regrettable that Islam, of
all religions the easiest to study in this way, because of its birth
during the age of recorded history, has set its face so resolutely
against the idea that it, like all ideas, is an event inside history.)
And to understand an artistic form, too, Foucault suggests, look
at its origins. If he is right about the novel, then literature
is, of all the arts, the one best suited to challenging absolutes
of all kinds; and, because it is in its origin the schismatic Other
of the sacred (and authorless) text, so it is also the art most
likely to fill our god-shaped holes.
There are other reasons, too, for proposing the novel as the crucial
art form of what I can no longer avoid calling the post-Modem Age.
For one thing, literature is the art less subject to external control,
because it is made in private. The act of making it requires only
one person, one pen, one room, some paper. (Even the room is not
absolutely essential.) Literature is the most low-technology of
the art forms. It requires neither a stage nor a screen. It calls
for no interpreters, no actors, producers, camera crews, Costumers,
musicians. It does not even require the traditional apparatus of
publishing, as the long-running success of samizdat literature demonstrates.
The Foucault essay suggests that literature is as much at risk from
the enveloping, smothering forces of the market economy, which reduces
books to mere products. This danger is real, and I do not want to
seem to be minimizing it. But the truth is that of all the forms,
literature can still be the most free. The more money a piece of
work costs, the easier it is to control. Film, the most expensive
of art forms, is also the least subversive. This is why, although
Carlos Fuentes cites the work of film-makers like Bunuel, Bergman
and Fellini as instances of successful secular revolts into the
territory of the sacred, I continue to believe in the greater possibilities
of the novel. Its singularity is its best protection.
Among the childhood books I devoured and kissed were large numbers
of cheap comics of a most unliterary nature. The heroes of these
comic books were, or so it seemed, almost always mutants or hybrids
or freaks: As well as the Batman and the Spiderman there was Aquaman,
who was half-fish, and of course Superman, who could easily be
mistaken for a bird or a plane. In those days, the middle 1950s,
the super-heroes were all, in their various ways, hawkish law-and-order
conservatives, leaping to work in response to the Police Commissioner's
Bat-Signal, banding together what Superman called "truth, justice
and the American way." But in spite of this extreme emphasis on
crime-busting, the lesson they taught children - or this child,
at any rate - was the perhaps unintentionally radical truth that
exceptionality was the greatest and most heroic of values; that
those who were unlike the crowd were to be treasured the most
lovingly; and that this exceptionality was a treasure so great
and so easily misunderstood that it had to be concealed, in ordinary
life, beneath what the comic books called a "secret identity."
Superman could not have survived without "mild-mannered" Clark
Kent; "millionaire socialite" Bruce Wayne made possible the nocturnal
activities of the Batman.
it is obviously true that those other freakish, hybrid, mutant,
exceptional beings - novelists - those creators of the most freakish,
hybrid and metamorphic of forms, the novel, have
frequently been obliged to hide behind secret identities, whether
for reasons of gender or terror. But the most wonderful of the many
wonderful truths about the novel form is that the greater the writer,
the greater his or her exceptionality. The geniuses of the novel
are those whose voices are fully and undisguisably their own, who,
to borrow William Gass's image, sign every word they write. What
draws us to an author is his or her "unlikeliness," even if the
apparatus of literary criticism then sets to work to demonstrate
that he or she is really no more than an accumulation of influences.
Unlikeness, the thing that makes it impossible for a writer to stand
in any regimented line, is a quality novelists share with the Caped
Crusaders of the comics, though they are only rarely capable of
leaping tall buildings in a single stride.
is more, the writer is there, in all his work, in the reader's hands,
utterly exposed, utterly defenseless, entirely without the benefit
of an alter ego to hide behind. What is forged, in the secret act
of reading, is a different kind of identity, as the reader and writer
merge, through the medium of the text, to become a collective being
that both writes as it reads and reads as it writes, and creates,
jointly, that unique work, "their" novel. This "secret identity"
of writer and reader is the novel form's greatest and most subversive
this, finally, is why I elevate the novel above other forms, why
it has always been, and remains, my first love: not only is it the
art involving least compromises, but it is also the only one that
takes the "privileged arena" of conflicting discourses right
inside our heads. The interior space of our imagination is a
theater that can never be closed down; the images created there
make up a movie that can never be destroyed.
this last decade of the millennium, as the forces of religion are
renewed in strength and as the all- pervasive power of materialism
wraps its own weighty chains around the human spirit, where should
the novel be looking? It seems clear that the revival of the old,
bipolar field of discourse, between the sacred and the profane,
which Michel Foucault proposes, will be of central importance. It
seems probably, too, that we may be heading toward a world in which
there will be no real alternative to the liberal-capitalist social
model, except, perhaps, the theocratic, foundationalist model of
Islam. In this situation, liberal capitalism or democracy or the
free world will require novelists' most rigorous attention, will
require re-imagining and questioning and doubting as never before.
"Our antagonist is our helper," said Edmund Burke, and if democracy
no longer has communism to help it clarify, by opposition, its own
ideas, then perhaps it will have to have literature as an adversary
I have made a large number of sweeping claims for literature, and
I am aware of a slightly messianic tone in much of what I've written.
The reverencing of books and writers, by writers, is nothing particularly
new, of course. "Since the early 19th century," writes Cupitt, "imaginative
writers have claimed - have indeed enjoyed - a guiding and representative
role in our culture. Our preachers are novelists, poets, dramatists,
filmmakers and the like, purveyors of fiction, ambiguous people,
deceivers. Yet we continue to think of ourselves as rational."
But now I find myself backing away from the idea of sacralizing
literature with which I flirted at the beginning of this text; I
cannot bear the idea of the writer as secular prophet; I am remembering
that one of the very greatest writers of the century, Samuel Beckett,
believed that all art must inevitably end in failure. This is, clearly,
no reason for surrender. "Ever tried. Ever failed. Never mind. Try
again. Fail better."
Literature is an interim report from the consciousness of the artist,
and so it can never be "finished" or "perfect." Literature is made
at the frontier between the self and the world, and in the act of
creation that frontier softens, becomes permeable, allows the world
to flow into the artist and the artist to flow into the world. Nothing
so inexact, so easily and frequently misconceived, deserves the
protection of being declared sacrosanct. We shall just have to get
along without the shield of sacralization, and a good thing, too.
We must not become what we oppose.
The only privilege literature deserves - and this privilege it requires
in order to exist - is the privilege of being the arena of discourse,
the place where the struggle of languages can be acted out.
Imagine this. You wake up one morning and find yourself in a large,
rambling house. As you wander through it you realize it is so enormous
that you will never know it alt. In the house are people you know,
family members, friends, lovers, colleagues; also many strangers.
The house is full of activity: conflicts and seductions, celebrations
and wakes. At some point you realize there is no way out. You find
that you can accept this. The house is not what you'd have chosen,
it's in fairly bad condition, the corridors are often full of bullies,
but it will have to do. Then one day you enter an unimportant-looking
little room. The room is empty, but there are voices in it, voices
that seem to be whispering just to you. You recognize some of the
voices, others are completely unknown to you. The voices are talking
about the house, about everyone in it, about everything that is
happening and has happened and should happen. Some of them speak
exclusively in obscenities. Some are bitchy. Some are loving. Some
are funny. Some are sad. The most interesting voices are all these
things at once. You begin to go to the room more and more often.
Slowly you realize that most of the people in the house use such
rooms sometimes. Yet the rooms are all discreetly positioned and
Now imagine that you wake up one morning and you are still in the
large house, but all the voice- rooms have disappeared. It is as
if they have been wiped out. Now there is nowhere in the whole house
where you can go to hear voices talking about everything in every
possible way. There is nowhere to go for the voices that can be
funny one minute and sad the next, that can sound raucous and melodic
in the course of the same sentence. Now you remember: There is no
way out of this house. Now this fact begins to seem unbearable.
You look into the eyes of the people in the corridors - family,
lovers, friends, colleagues, strangers, bullies, priests. You see
the same thing in everybody's eyes. How do we get out of here? It
becomes clear that the house is a prison. People begin to scream,
and pound the walls. Men arrive with guns. The house begins to shake.
You do not wake up. You are already awake.
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. The reason for ensuring that that privileged
arena is preserved is not that writers want the absolute freedom
to say and do whatever they please. It is that we, all of us, readers
and writers and citizens and generals and godmen, need that little,
unimportant- looking room. We do not need to call it sacred, but
we do need to remember that it is necessary.
knows," wrote Saul Bellow in The Adventures of Augie March, "there
is no fineness or accuracy of suppression. If you hold down one
thing, you hold down the adjoining."
Wherever in the world the little room of literature has been closed,
sooner or later the walls have come tumbling down.
© Salman Rushdie, 1990