I’m reading Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton right now, and in a particularly interesting passage he — writing in the third person, as he does, annoyingly, through the book — explains why he wrote The Satanic Verses:
The strange truth was that, after two novels that engaged directly with the public history of the Indian subcontinent, he saw this new book as a much more personal, interior exploration, a first attempt to create a work out of his own experience of migration and metamorphosis: To him, it was the least political book of the three.
(The other two books being Midnight’s Children, set in India, and Shame, set in Pakistan.) The Satanic Verses is, in its author’s view, “a personal, interior exploration” in this very important sense:
It was unsettling not to understand why the shape of life had changed. He often felt meaningless, even absurd. He was a Bombay boy who had made his life in London among the English, but often he felt cursed by a double unbelonging. The root of language, at least, remained, but he began to appreciate how deeply he felt the loss of the other roots, and how confused he felt about what he had become. In the age of migration the world’s millions of migrated selves faced colossal problems, problems of homelessness, hunger, unemployment, disease, persecution, alienation, fear. He was one of the luckier ones, but one great problem remained: that of authenticity. The migrated self became, inevitably, heterogeneous instead of homogeneous, belonging to more than one place, multiple rather than singular, responding to more than one way of being, more than averagely mixed up. Was it possible to be — to become good at being — not rootless, but multiply rooted? Not to suffer from a loss of roots but to benefit from an excess of them? The different roots would have to be of equal or near-equal strength, and he worried that his Indian connection had weakened. He needed to make an act of reclamation of the Indian identity he had lost, or felt he was in danger of losing. The self was both its origins and its journey.
There’s a lot to unpack here, and maybe I’ll get a chance to unpack it as I continue reading the book. But let me just note two things right now:
1) Nothing is more important to the modern self that to possess, or to feel that it possesses, authenticity. This manifests itself in a lot of ways, including, most obviously and perhaps superficially, choices about food. For many people there’s no higher commendation of a restaurant than to call it “authentic.” (This used to, and probably still does, drive the great food writer Calvin Trillin nuts. To the claim that a restaurant is “authentic” he would typically reply “No it isn’t.” But then he would ask, “Who cares? What matters is: Was it good? Did you clean your plate?”) A deeper problem is that nothing could be less authentic than thinking about authenticity, as Lionel Trilling noted forty years ago when he wrote a book on this topic that’s still deeply incisive, Sincerity and Authenticity.
2) The question of whether it’s possible to be “multiply rooted” — not rootless, but rooted in different places — is an increasingly insistent one not just for immigrants but for all kinds of people in a transient and mobile world. I have lived in Illinois for much longer than I lived in Alabama, but don’t feel rooted here: is that inevitable? Is that my fault? Have I somehow failed to put down the roots that I should have? Is just being an American, whether in Alabama or Illinois, a sufficiently rooted identity? (Few would say yes. Why not?) Can online identity provide roots? (Some people surely believe that it does.) And why does a felt lack of rootedness bother people, including me?
Things to think about….