Two passages from two different novels by Salman Rushdie.
The first from Quichotte:
“After you were badly beaten, the essential part of you that made you a human being could come loose from the world, as if the self were a small boat and the rope mooring it to the dock slid off its cleats so that the dinghy drifted out helplessly into the middle of the pond; or as if a large vessel, a merchant ship, perhaps, began in the grip of a powerful current to drag its anchor and ran the risk of colliding with other ships or disastrously running aground. He now understood that this loosening was perhaps not only physical but also ethical, that when violence was done to a person, then violence entered the range of what the person—previously peacable and law-abiding—afterwards included in the spectrum of what was possible. It became an option” (339).
The psychology of violence, how it can be committed and why so many turn to it, has been a puzzle I have returned to again and again over the past forty years, without ever getting anything close to a solution that satisfied me. That violence is contagious seems indisputable; that people become inured to violence is demonstrated by the behavior of soldiers in wartime; that much violence stems from an enraged self-righteousness also seems true. But what has eluded me is how one commits the act itself—the plunging of the knife into another’s body, the pulling of the trigger of the gun whose barrel sits in one’s own mouth. That seems non-human, which is perhaps why violence is often outsourced as bestial but also divine (Charles Taylor’s “numinous violence.”) I don’t say Rushdie’s thought here is the answer, but it seems very shrewd to me, focusing in on the dehumanization that underlies the ability to act violently, while also highlighting the ways in which violence is done by those to whom violence has been done. A curse handed down in various ways through time.
The second from Golden House:
“When I looked at the world beyond myself I saw my own moral weakness reflected in it. My parents had grown up in a fantasyland, the last generation in full employment, the last age of sex without fear, the last moment of politics without religion, but somehow their years in the fairy tale had grounded them, strengthened them, given them the conviction that by their own direct action they could change and improve the world, and allowed them to eat the apple of Eden, which gave them the knowledge of good and evil, without falling under the spell of the spiraling Jungle Book Kaa-eyes of the fatal trust-in-me Snake. Whereas horror was spreading everywhere at high speed and we closed our eyes or appeased it” (188).
I always want to resist narratives of lost innocence—or of ancestors whose strength and virtues we cannot hope to reproduce. Lost innocence is in many ways the favorite American narrative, and it will play us as false as narratives about a lost greatness. Yet Rushdie’s list of what we have lost resonates with me. I graduated from college in 1974, into the gas crisis recession that started the ball rolling away from full employment and endless, inescapable precarity. I turned 30 in 1983, just as AIDS appeared over the horizon and put an end to the promiscuity of the 1970s, my 20s. And the emergence of the religious right in the Reagan triumphs of the 1980s was a shock to those of us who had assumed we lived in the secular world of the modern. In short, the three things Rushdie lists were actual and momentous changes, registered (at least by me) in the moment. The kind of thing that history throws at you—and you discover you are powerless to thwart.
To discover one’s powerlessness is to lose a kind of innocent optimism, a faith that things can be made better. But let’s not get carried away in either direction. Life in 1955 America was terrible for blacks and gays, as J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy reigned. That things in 2022 are better for blacks and gays is the result of hard, persistent political work. We are never fully powerless, even if we are also never in the clear. The forces of reaction are never annihilated. The gains made yesterday can always be lost tomorrow. The struggle is never decided once and for all in either direction. 2022 is better for gays and blacks than 1955, but in various ways worse than 2012.
And it didn’t take the 1980s to teach us lessons in powerlessness. The US waged a pointless and cruel war in Vietnam that millions of protesters were powerless to stop. Nothing seemed capable of knocking the military-industrial complex off its keel, and the logic of doubling down on bad decisions, of not losing face, led the government to lie, spy on domestic dissenters, and pile violence upon violence. History’s imperviousness to efforts to divert its floods coming at us from upriver is always ready to humble naïve political projects and hopes.
Still, it is important to note changes. It is not just the same old same old. Plus ça change and all that shrugging of the shoulders cynicism never has an accurate grasp of facts on the ground. The terms of the struggle shift. To take just one example: capitalism today is not the same as capitalism in 1955 or even 1990. It is organized very differently, while the alignment of forces for and against various of its manifestations has also shifted dramatically. Similarly, the obstacles blacks face in America today are very different from those they faced in 1955, and somewhat different from those faced in 1990.
So I think Rushdie does name three crucial things that did change in my lifetime, as someone who was just a bit too young to really live through the 60s (I was a freshman in high school in 1967), and for whom the 1970s and early 1980s were the truly formative years, the time of my coming into my own, picking my head up and actually getting a view of how this world I was entering was configured. The loss of economic security was evident immediately in the way I and my classmates navigated the years after college. No security assumed; it was going to be dog eat dog. And the glee with which Reagan and his ilk embraced that inhuman and dehumanizing competition was appalling. Especially when that cruelty was wrapped in the pieties of a Christianity that saw the sufferings of the poor as their just desert.
I was mostly a bystander to the promiscuity—both hetero- and homo- –of the 70s. But a bystander in fairly close proximity to both of those worlds. Some of its was tawdry, some of it exploitative (the abuse of unequal hierarchical relationships was rampant). But there was also a joyousness that has been lost. Not having sex always be a serious business has things to recommend it. All the studies indicate that young people today (caught in the evermore insecure world of precarity) are having much less sex than my generation did at their age. And I really can’t see that as a good thing. Sex under the right conditions is one of the great goods of life. It is a mark of our human perversity that we can also manage to turn it to evil so often and (apparently) so effortlessly.
When Rushdie’s narrator contemplates his parents’ faith that humans are moral and by striving can make a better world, he ends up demurring:
“And they were wrong. The human race was savage, not moral. I had lived in an enchanted garden but the savagery, the meaninglessness, the fury had come in over the walls and killed what I loved most” (152).
This is Rushdie’s valediction to a certain form of hopeful liberalism, a form he thinks was only made possible by the Trentes Glorieuses, those thirty halcyon years (ignoring Vietnam, Korea, and the violences of decolonization) in the West following the second World War. I, of course, still want to hold on to that hopeful liberalism, to its vision of a social democracy that does its utmost to deliver to all a life now reserved to the privileged.
Rushdie’s narrator’s viewpoint is echoed in one of the book’s epigraphs, which itself echoes the currently fashionable academic preoccupation with ways of living in the ruins. The passage is taken from D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover: “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road to the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.”
Giving in to a notion of a necessarily ruined world, about which we can do nothing except try to carve out a “little habitat,” a way to keep on keeping on, seems defeatist to me. But forging such a separate peace is also deeply alluring since the general madness and cruelty are so relentless and so resistant to alteration.