Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses
In 1989 my seven year old ears pricked up at the repeated mention of a name in our house. My extended family are big film and music lovers and it would have been more in keeping for them to be discussing Bollywood star Salman Khan. But it was Salman Rushdie who was the talking point.
“How dare he talk about the Prophet and his wives that way!”
“Why did he do it? What is wrong with him?”
“He should have known better.”
Not one person in our immediate circle had actually picked up a copy of The Satanic Verses, yet there was an immediate ferocity of emotion against the author. My family is Muslim and faith plays an important role for us. Our particular strand of Islam has a modernist approach, which sometimes does not sit well with the rest of the Ummah. Yet in that moment the entire Muslim world, the majority of whom did not support the Fatwa, still turned against Rushdie and said: you were wrong to choose that subject matter – some things are sacred.
It was years before I began to actually understand the huge attack on freedom the reaction to The Satanic Verses entailed. It gained notoriety amongst non-readers in Muslim circles with breathtaking speed. That book. That blasphemer. Fiction had intruded on reality and challenged the status quo, and there was no going back.
I am no Salman Rushdie, but as I mine the caverns of my knowledge and experience for my writing life, I have begun to wonder whether some topics are off-limits. What possible reasons might a writer have to self-censor? History is littered with examples of artists being persecuted or punished by the state for their work in the interests of ‘security and castration’ (Jonathan Green, Encyclopaedia of Censorship). The state has the power to contribute to the upward trajectory of artists, such as the patronage of Michelangelo or the support for Leni Riefenstahl in Nazi Germany. But it can also seek to silence artistic voices. Take Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, for example, whose writing, considered subversive by the Chinese Communist Party, is banned. In England, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover were both subject to obscenity trials. Fear at such treatment might be one reason why writers curtail their creative vision.
Then there is not wishing to offend family and friends. As a writer, you borrow, steal and explore the experiences of those around you. Or you fear your loved ones will see connections to your own life or theirs where there is none. How many of you have censored your language or the darker side of your imagination for fear of the reception a free artistic reign might receive amongst your loved ones? Did Patrick Süskind think twice before writing Das Parfum or did Nabokov’s courage fail him as the publication date for Lolita grew closer? With social media closing the distance between authors and their readers, do writers need to develop an even thicker skin to criticism? Today, with the need for writers to engage directly with their readership, they leave themselves open to fans as well as trolls, and fear of criticism could well bring about a less brave editorial decision. As Salman Rushdie says, if a writer ‘is afraid of the consequences of his choice of subject or of his manner of treatment of it, then his choices will not be determined by his talent, but by fear’(On Censorship).
Self-censorship as self-protection
I also ask myself whether the exploration of certain thoughts is dangerous. Have you ever stood at the edge of a cliff or a train platform and wondered for a fleeting moment what it would be like to jump? Or stayed under the bath water for a few seconds too long, thinking what would it feel like to let the water obliterate you, wash it all away? You then get up and carry on happily with your life, forgetting that you were momentarily drawn to the abyss. But art demands that you stay in dark moments, explore them, rinse them of their possibilities. You cut yourself until you bleed onto the page. You exploit the painful experiences you have long since buried for the sake of your writing. Is that the sacrifice we must make to make lasting and memorable art? What if that isn’t good for you? What if that turns you into a version of yourself that isn’t healthy? Take Heath Ledger in Batman, Daniel Day-Lewis in The Gangs of New York, or Anthony Burgess’ and Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange, for example. Does imagining the lives of psychopaths and the most heinous criminals make artists vulnerable, leaving an inescapable impact on their psyche?
Are artists also partially responsible for vile acts committed by audience members who emulate the depraved scenes we imagine, like the killers of Jamie Bulger, who are said to have been imitating scenes from Child’s Play? Many films, including Scream and even Robocop 2 have been blamed for inspiring murder. Excessive violence or sexual content in films can have varying impact on audiences – including desensitisation and imitation – or no influence at all. To blame the writer or encourage him to self-censor for the greater good seems to me to be a step too far when there are so many contributory factors, which determine how people act. It’s questionable that any one creative work is a significant influencer of how people behave.
Should writers ever self-censor?
In his brilliant essay A Severity of Conscience: Writers and Self-Censorship, Thomas Larson talks about how ‘government and other self-selecting demi-gods […] dictate what is consumable in hopes of ethically uplifting or expunging our thoughts.’ In a free society, if content is deemed to be undesirable, however graphic or offensive it is, then its impact should be negated through informed discussion about the work in question, rather than blanket bans or the persecution of its creator. In specific circumstances, there may be exceptions to the rule, and as Larson discusses in his essay, the poet Nissim Ezekiel came out in favour of India’s ban on The Satanic Verses, stating that its publication ‘was an incendiary act in the Indian context, for it could lead to rioting and murder, and no book was worth that’ (A Severity of Conscience: Writers and Self-Censorship).
Art is freedom, and so it follows that censorship of any kind is anathema to it. To my mind enlightenment comes from exploration, discussion and looking at different versions of the truth. The more we censor ourselves as writers, the less our readers can relate to us, the more our voice falls silent to those who need it. There are consequences to telling the truth, just as there are consequences to covering it up. Every writer must decide for herself what she wishes to commit to the page. The decisions she makes come down to her courage, environment and the risks she wishes to take. Over time, the markers about what is acceptable change. The lifetime of art exceeds that of its makers and ultimately, now and in the future, we don’t have any control over how readers interpret our work. Just as it is the writer’s prerogative to create fiction without his vision being suppressed, it is for readers to decide what they wish to read. As Salman Rushdie says, ‘original art is never created in the safe middle ground, but always at the edge’ (On Censorship). He should know.