Taking a Stand While Lacking a Center: Rushdie's Postmodern Politics

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Through Shame (1983) Rushdie's three novels seemed virtually unconnected to one another, each featuring a new subject and a new authorial viewpoint. The uproar following the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988 was such that few critics were able to read the novel in any but a religious context, and continuing controversy over the fatwa has naturally distracted critics from such evidence of interconnection and development as these four seemingly disparate novels may possess. Some common themes have been discerned: deconstruction of dualistic thought, interplay between history and the individual, and the problematizing of identity have been pointed out as unifying elements.(1) However, for most readers, Rushdie remains a curiously fragmented writer whose works seem surprisingly disjunct from one another.

I shall argue that important as the differences among the novels are, Rushdie's fiction can by this point in his career be seen to circle around a pair of intertwined and recurring concerns: the decenterment of the individual and the difficulty of getting rid of tyrants. These matters apparently start out in Rushdie's fiction as distinct, even unrelated, but become increasingly entangled in successive novels.

Rushdie is fascinated and appalled by tyrants and tyranny, and has been from the start of his career. As a postmodern writer, however, he finds effective action against tyrants difficult to conceive. He calls attention to the problem in Shame:

Well, well, I mustn't forget I'm only telling a fairy-story. My dictator will be toppled by goblinish, faerie means. "Makes it pretty easy for you," is the obvious criticism; and I agree, I agree. But add, even if it does sound a little peevish: "You try and get rid of a dictator some time." (Shame, 257)(2)

As Linda Hutcheon observes, the postmodern Weltanschauung offers "no effective theory of agency that enables a move into political action."(3) Postmodern humanity is decentered: how can it take a firm stand against tyranny if decentering removes any solid basis for belief in ethics and political position?

This problem has discomfitted many postmodern writers with relatively social or political inclinations, particularly those who see a form of Foucauldian control (a more comprehensive version of Rushdie's tyranny) rather than Freudian sex or Marxist economics as the key to explaining human experience. Writers working in this vein include Thomas Pynchon, Norman Mailer, William Burroughs, Ishmael Reed, and Kathy Acker, all of whom share a conspiratorial theory of history. Placing Rushdie in this very American line-up may seem odd, but I believe that doing so will help us see and understand some very basic issues and developments in his fiction.

I. Decenterment and Political Tyranny: Grimus,

Midnight's Children, and Shame

To be decentered is not just to be fragmented; fragments are the pieces of a whole, and bear the marks of the original unity. Rather, according to some models, we have no core guaranteeing to ourselves that each of us is an entity. Marx and Freud, Lacan, Barthes, and Derrida have shown us how individuals, texts, and cultures are compiled from competing discourses. For Rushdie, an important example of such an entity without center is India itself. Prior to independence, no nation existed, only a collection of separate states, ruled with varying degrees of directness by the British. No common language or religion or shared historical experience united the entire country. Nehru called for a future governed by "science and spirituality" instead of "religion and politics," but so far this dream has failed. Nonetheless, India exists, however tenuously, and Rushdie wants to see this multicultural, multi-ethnic experiment succeed. Most of the novels' major characters are made up of competing and contradictory impulses, much as is India. Rushdie displays fascination with such composite characters starting with his first, strange novel, Grimus, a philosophical and allegorical romance akin to David Lindsay's Voyage to Arcturus or Doris Lessing's The Marriages of Zones Three, Four, and Five. …