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George Adams considers Adam Shatz's Writers and Missionaries (Verso 2023) and Salman Rushdie's Victory City (Vintage 2023).
Ultimately, you have to make a choice; are you a writer, or are you a missionary?’ This quote from V.S. Naipaul captures the central question underlying Adam Shatz’s new book: how to resolve the tension between description and prescription. Transcending this dichotomy in Writers and Missionaries, Shatz attempts to be ‘a good listener’ instead. He does so through an engagement with some of the most prominent intellectuals of the twentieth century, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Edward Said, Richard Wright, Jacques Derrida, and Roland Barthes, and their ideas vis á vis ‘the Middle East’.
Victory City, on the other hand, is Salman Rushdie’s highly anticipated novel, published in February 2023, following the infamous assassination attempt at the Chautauqua Institution in New York. A survivor of previous such attempts, Rushdie has lived in hiding for the past thirty years; for Shatz, this is ‘the difficult and sometimes perilous practice of the engaged intellectual’. On August 12 2022, preparing to give a talk about the United States as a haven for exiled writers, Rushdie was stabbed multiple times by a male assailant who was arrested at the scene. The novelist has since recovered, but has lost the use of one eye and one hand.
The fact of the stabbing laid bare the substance of his critique of the illiberalism inherent to any form of fundamentalism, although Rushdie has often reserved his most scathing remarks for the Islamic variety. In response to the blasphemy allegations levelled at The Satanic Verses, a fatwa ordering Rushdie’s execution was passed, and a bounty for his assassination set.
Unlike Shatz, who ‘learned to resist the temptation to have the last word,’ Rushdie cannot help but score a point against his assailants with the closing sentence of his latest novel ‘words are the only victors’. An admission of vulnerability as well as an assertion of the power of language, Victory City’s final line is a testament to the fact that while a man can be killed, his ideas cannot be.
Ideas are the central concern of the intellectual portraits painted by Shatz in Writers and Missionaries. Reminiscent of an interview, Shatz sets up his opening question, sits back, and simply lets his subjects talk. At its heart, the book is an extended exercise in listening; a series of attempts to sensitively record the political nuances and idiosyncrasies of each intellectual.
In modifying Said’s idea of exilic criticism, Shatz’s intellectual biographies advocate unguarded listening and clear-sighted confrontation of illiberal figures, as in the the opening chapter on Foud Ajami. It is a method that counters the contemporary impulse to ‘cancel’ such figures.
Shatz’s illustrations of his chosen writers’ ideas demonstrates a ‘commitment’ to close reading. According to scholar-critic Bruce Robbins, ‘the instructor applies pressure – pressure in some directions and not in others. This is what movement toward genuine democracy requires’.
Perhaps Shatz's close reading is after all an attempt to ‘apply pressure’, at least implicitly, in the direction of the ‘cosmopolitcs’ espoused by these intellectuals. Of course, this is a question that holds within it causes near and dear to Shatz himself. As the US editor of The London Review of Books, Shatz finds himself confronting a deeply anti-intellectual moment, a public sphere that is dismissive, if not contemptuous, of the very values inherent to ‘cosmopolitcs’ – curiosity, pluralism, meaningful debate.
Art by Davina Gray
Rushdie and Shatz merge in their interest in cosmopolitanism and exile, in the fact of finding oneself between identities, and in the reinvention of loss – whether of home, of language, or of people – towards progressive ends. Shatz is deeply interested in how liminal states of national identity facilitate the intellectual’s exilic viewpoint particularly suited to political commentary, of which Rushdie himself is a clear example.
Shatz draws parallels between Richard Wright’s ‘double vision’ derived from his experience of racialisation and Edward Said’s championing of the exilic temperament for the public intellectual. Wright, in 1953, wrote that ‘I’m black. I’m a man of the West...I see and understand the West; but I also see and understand the non- or anti-Western point of view. How is this possible?’ In his exegesis of this sentiment, Shatz recovers the spectre of W.E.B DuBois’ ‘double consciousness,’ theorised at the turn of the century, deep into post-War America.
‘Double vision’ is particularly pertinent to the discussion of Edward Said’s ‘Palestinianism’. A fellow New Yorker, who in fact taught Shatz at Columbia University in the 1990s, Said was one of his critical progenitors. Like Rushdie, Said was an exile, but came to see value in this state of precarity.
Robbins, who had been a dear friend of Said’s, writes that he was an advocate for ‘the detached and unhoused exile, the heroically independent outsider, the oppositional voice of unceasing and unsparing scrutiny’. Thus, for Said, ‘double vision’ is not confounding, as it is for Wright. Rather, while Said acknowledges the existence of such duality, it is also a valuable perspective.
The role of the precarious outsider is a good position for intellectuals to adopt lest they become ‘blind’ to misfortunes they themselves might not experience materially. This is the true commitment to ‘cosmopolitics’ – Drawing from one’s own experiences of marginalisation, the affliction of myriad forms of ‘double vision’, the intellectuals must throw their lot in with, to use Franz Fanon’s words, ‘the wretched of the earth’.
The ‘heroically independent outsider’ is a description that applies equally well to Pampa Kampana, Rushdie’s protagonist in Victory City. A ‘blind poet, miracle worker and prophetess’, Pampa Kampana’s body is a vessel for the exiled goddess Parvati. Literally bringing Bisnaga – the titular ‘victory city’ – into existence, according to the ‘feminist’ visions of Parvati, Pampa enjoyed centuries of power there. However, Pampa’s creation eventually turns on her, forcing her into exile. Thus, Victory City brings to light an issue left untouched by Shatz - women and the question of power.
Through Pampa, Bisnaga is absent of patriarchal power. A place of female agency, the city’s fortunes are nurtured by the labour of women, but quickly unravel into militarism, political corruption and religious extremism once women begin to lose their socio-political eminence. Even in the realm of fiction, women are banished from civilisation, even in spite of their contribution to its creation.
Victory City reads almost like a cautionary tale; although feminism is an admirable goal, it is also a mirage that can never be realised. In Rushdie’s failure to imagine men as non-destructive participants in feminism, the dream is firmly crushed.
A feminist narrative is restricted from the very beginning. In spite of Pampa’s divine power, she delegates the role of creating the city to men, to the cowherd duo Hukka and Bukka. ‘Go and make your city,’ she commands, foreshadowing the male rulers’ ownership of the Bisnaga. In forfeiting her control over the city, Pampa demonstrates doubts in her avowed belief ‘that a woman can put down roots in herself...and not define herself by standing next to any man, not even a king’.
If Pampa’s desire was ‘to be king’ rather than queen consort, it is a goal undermined by her initial failure to take ownership of the city’s foundation. In writing this Rushdie implies, perhaps unconsciously, that only a paranoid feminism invested in capturing and retaining power can hope to succeed.
‘To write for one’s age is not to reflect it passively,’ Shatz quotes from Sartre, ‘it is to want to maintain or to change it, thus to go beyond it towards the future, and it is this effort to change it that places us most deeply within it’.
To rewrite this future, Rushdie looks to a more distant past than Shatz. And despite the pitfalls within his vision of feminism, this endeavour to transcend his precise historical moment is ultimately more valuable than Shatz’s accounts of writers who are too close to our temporality for us to view them as metaphor.
Living in hiding and persecuted in real life, Rushdie is forced to create and explore utopian spaces in his fiction. Shatz’s idea of listening, where the writer steps out of the way to allow his subject to speak in their own voice, contrasts with the present-day ‘spinner of yarns’ in Victory City who narrates the history of Bisnaga.
And although Rushdie’s novel is a tragic one, the enigmatic closing line, ‘Words are the only victors,’ conveys a bittersweet imaginative victory, one that retreats into language, into the material of fictional worlds.
GEORGE ADAMS reads English at Merton. Sometimes he dreams about Tibet.