The Unbending Idea

November 9, 2011

Usually, I’m an art-for-art’s-sake kind of guy.  What is ordinarily most important to me as a reader of novels is what comes through in my work as a literature teacher at a community college in Minnesota: the layering of meaning, the reverberations of symbol, the scaffolding of motifs that opens views to imagined vistas whose beauties remain deliciously strange with each turn of the page.  In short, rapture.

In such a worshipful attitude this fall, I assigned to my students Salman Rushdie’s 1988 tour-de-force of literary ingenuity, The Satanic Verses.  I tried to stay away from the politics of the “Rushdie Affair,” since I didn’t want my students to lose sight of the novel’s artistic worth in the excitement surrounding the fatwa—the assassination order—that threatened Rushdie’s life for over ten years after the novel’s publication.  Though I managed to keep the classroom focus away from videos of protesters burning Rushdie in effigy, I haven’t been entirely successful at squeezing out politics altogether in my private reflections.  What has been surfacing in my mind, though, is not the repressive politics of Islamic theocracies; it’s the state of politics in the U.S.   That’s due partly, no doubt, to the constant news streaming across airwaves and spreading across front pages about the Republican race for the presidential nomination and approaching presidential election in 2012.  More importantly, though, it’s due to a question that Rushdie asks that has unique relevance after the ideological gridlock that polarized Republicans and Democrats and paralyzed the political process over the past year: “What kind of idea are you?”

Ever the concretely-thinking novelist, Rushdie understands political ideas through metaphor.   The precise form of the metaphor is impossible to discern, except that it embodies a substance that is flexible as a reed, or one that is wooden, petrified.  In The Satanic Verses, Rushdie asks, “What kind of idea are you? Are you the kind that compromises, does deals, accommodates itself to society, aims to find a niche, to survive; or are you the cussed, bloody-minded, ramrod-backed type of damnfool notion that would rather break than sway with the breeze? – The kind that will almost certainly, ninety-nine times out of hundred, be smashed to bits; but, the hundredth time, will change the world?”   Though the boldness of the latter option may beguile us—“changing the world” or dying in the effort is the stuff of glory, right?— Rushdie paints the unbending idea as anything but heroic.  He gives us chilling scenes.  Characters follow a hardheaded prophet into the sea, where they, trustingly, drown.   A crowd of people marches, unarmed, into machine gun fire.  In an airplane full of passengers, a female terrorist answers the question, “What kind of idea are you?” by detonating a belt of explosives tied around her belly.   The literary critic Robert Spencer has recently argued that The Satanic Verses is an indictment of all forms of fundamentalisms—not just the Islamic brand.  He’s right.  Rushdie sets himself against the unbending idea.

Unbending: does any word better describe the hullaballoo of the past year’s American political scene?  House Speaker John Boehner said in October 2010 on the Sean Hannity show, “This is not a time for compromise, and I can tell you that we will not compromise on our principles.”  The sentiment shows no signs of abatement.   Two weeks ago, the co-chair of the congressional “super committee,” Democratic Senator Patty Murray, said “the panel is making progress [on balancing the budget] but there is still no compromise between the Democrats and Republicans.”  I can’t help but wonder what “progress” means here—besides the digestion of mid-meeting bagels.   The unbending idea is growing more flexible in one way: it’s stretching from the federal to local levels.  Only last week the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published an editorial expressing concern that far-right Republicans are “trying to bring to Harrisburg the same no-compromise style of governing that has purged the spirit of bipartisanship and cooperation from the U.S. Capitol.”

As candidates present voters with visions of how to resolve “the issues,” the flipside of Rushdie’s warning against the unbending idea is the notion that that a political idea’s suppleness is a virtue in itself.  The great merit of the supple idea, to Rushdie, is that it survives—it is “strong enough to last.”  And Rushdie isn’t alone in the sentiment.  Over 2,000 years ago, Cicero of Rome advocated “the capacity to behave considerately and understandingly in our associations with other people” and to cultivate a “cooperative attitude,” thus forming the kind of morals that enable compromise among ruling parties in a “mixed and moderated government”—such as that of the U.S.  Rushdie’s suggestion, that the political idea that can bend may be the best one, prods voters think metaphorical terms: to what extent do political ideas sway in the wind?  Do they hold together under pressure?  At what point do they break?

The New York Times recently ran an article titled “Beyond 2012 Field, Nuanced G.O.P. Views on Immigrants,” which provides a case-in-point.  While the majority of the party adheres to the unbending idea that illegal immigration of all forms must be strictly deterred, a growing number of Republican representatives are developing a suppler notion that centers on “a discrete issue, like shortening the green card process, which can now take years, for science and math Ph.D. candidates who wish to teach or work in the United States.”  Whatever the implications of such a position, The Satanic Verses challenges us to think metaphorically and appreciate its degree of elasticity, its possibility of receiving bipartisan support.

I like to proudly tell my students that literature, with its emphasis on pleasure, leisure, and fun, is useless.  But that’s not quite right in Rushdie’s case.  The Satanic Verses is as useful as it is playful.  In its denunciation of the unbending idea, Rushdie’s novel reminds us of the demands of democracy, the necessity of cooperation and compromise.  That message, however commonplace at other times of American history, today deserves attention.