The Dangers of Forming Realities: Perspective and “Orientalism” in The Satanic Verses
In Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, ideas about man creating his own reality are explored in ways that intricately involve a series of relationships and themes that, in the end, create a dense meaning behind the idea of reality and how it differs in each character’s life. As defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, reality is “the true situation that exists”. There are problems, however, with this definition. One definition of reality cannot accurately apply to each individual around the world. ‘True situations’ vary from person to person, depending on the background, origin, religion, culture, language, and class status of each person, so who is to say what reality is the true reality? Salman Rushdie, Edward Said and Chinua Achebe are among the multiple writers who have studied conflicting realities, especially between countries, leading into a more complex analysis of themes such as privilege, power, and nation. With a plethora of perspectives comes numerous realities, and with numerous existing realities come conflict, competition, and doubt. Examining all of these themes under the one idea about how each man forms his own reality, the works of these scholars bring out thought-provoking ideas that lead the readers to consciously doubt their own realities and how they were formed.
From the beginning of The Satanic Verses (1988), characters are constantly questioning their identities and their realities. On page 10, the question “Who am I?” is first presented. As the book continues, each character struggles to answer this question and to form their reality in such a way that will bring happiness and success to his/her life. Each character’s attempt to form their reality is based on many factors. First of all, humanity’s reliance on stability leads people to form their realities partly based on what makes them feel the most secure, confident, and in control. The religious aspect of a human’s reality is often extremely crafted in ways that benefit that individual. Often times, people discover feelings of confidence and control within their realities through religious entities. In The Satanic Verses, a religiously focused text, there ironically exists a feeling of an absence of any sort of god. Many characters take determining the path of their lives and their realities upon themselves, using a self-created higher power to justify their actions and decisions. For example, in Part III of the novel, Archangel Gibreel serves not God, but Rosa Diamond. He obeys her requests and bows down to her needs, which are not the expected actions of an archangel. In most stories, you would expect that an angel would be higher in power and status than an old, crazy, ghost-seeing woman, like Rosa Diamond would. However, in this section Rosa completely controls Gibreel, using him as a tool in order to feel comfortable in taking her life and her reality into her own hands. Gibreel is Rosa’s godly source of affirmation and stability. Now confused about the difference between reality and dreams, true love and forced love, and life and death, Gibreel cannot find a route to escape the control of Rosa Diamond. “What the hell am I doing here?”, Gibreel asked himself, “But he stayed, held by unseen chains.” (Rushdie 148). The power in this section lies not in the godly figures, like Archangel Gibreel, but in the common people, like Rosa, because it is people themselves, not their religious gods, who craft their realities. Each man has the power to form ideas and perceptions in creating his individual and unique reality.
Rushdie introduces this relationship between Rosa Diamond and Gibreel as an example of how humans use religious entities as a source of stability and reassurance. The existence of gods and higher powers becomes the foundation of reality for many individuals. People create gods because gods are easy to control and come to know. God is different to every individual because people have the ability to shape their god into whatever they need in order to feel the stability that humans crave in order to be confident and comfortable in their own skin and in their own reality. “A man who invents himself needs someone to believe in him.” (Rushdie 49). In order for humans and for characters like Rosa Diamond to believe that what they want to do is the right thing to do, they must have a higher power that reassures them that they are in the right. Their actions are good, their opinions are reasonable, and the reality that they have shaped for themselves is logical. If an individual succeeds, then they can pat themselves on the back for their grand idea, but if they fail, they have that godly entity to blame for ‘telling’ them to do it. Mortals can never feel stable within their own beliefs, unless there is some sort of supernatural being there to fulfill man’s desire for “nothing left unregulated” (Rushdie 376) and unstable. In Rushdie pointing out such ideas about religious entities, he provokes doubt in the reader’s mind about the validity of religion and about religion as simply a source of comfort in a human’s construction of his own reality. Rushdie discredits religion as simply an instrument of man’s will to power. Religion, however, is not the only factor that affects the molding of an individual’s concept of reality. Another factor that affects one’s perception of reality is what he/she believes constitutes power in an individual.
In The Satanic Verses, the reality that Saladin subscribes to is the one that grants the English people all of the knowledge, power, and privilege over neighboring inferior countries. Because this is his perception of the English, and therefore, the truth by which he has chosen to live, he strives throughout the novel to literally become English in every aspect of his life. He tries to alter the reality that he is Indian by changing his accent, moving to England, and becoming romantically involved with an English woman. Saladin strives to alter his identity by becoming a new individual who satisfies his reality about what is socially accepted as powerful. This is driven by a sort of pressure to become the best person that one is able to become, and the idea that this achievement cannot be met in one’s home country and culture. Happiness comes with success in Saladin’s mind, and in order to have this success, he must recreate himself in a new place, where the people are supposedly born with talent and power. Saladin, therefore, is constantly depicted as putting on masks in order to become someone else, as he struggles to rid away his Indian culture in order to become a classy Englishman. In his mind, if this goal is accomplished, then the reality will be that he, now among the rest of the Englishmen, will suddenly have power and privilege. For Saladin, ‘becoming an Englishman’ requires many steps. In the beginning of the novel, as Saladin was growing up, he began to dream about his hopeful future in England. He wasn’t happy following in the footsteps of his father, and he didn’t feel like he could reach his potential in pursuing his Indian culture.
Later, we see Saladin’s name and accent change, which for him began the process of his acceptance into the English culture. In one scene, Saladin is literally wearing a mask in his new English job, as he works as a voice-over actor, a job in which he hides his Indian appearance, but shows off his new English accent. In Part I, Zeeny tries to convince Saladin that his job as a voice-over actor is degrading, as she tells him that “even now, they only let you on the air after they cover your face with rubber and give you a red wig.” (Rushdie 64). In addition, on pages 50 and 51, Saladin ignores the struggles in his life with Pamela by pretending that their marriage is filled happiness and love. Her love is something that he needs. It makes him feel as if, now that he has an English lover, other Englishmen will accept him as fellow man of their culture. “He needed her so badly, as if to reassure himself of his own existence.” (Rushdie 50). All of these examples depict Saladin’s struggle to form his reality into one of English success and power. It is an idea that clearly creates struggle within a character’s life, including struggles with culture, power, privilege, identity, and race. Regardless of these hardships, characters, such as Saladin, strongly fight these themes in their daily lives in order to create a life for themselves that satisfies their idea that power only exists in certain countries and cultures; in this situation, that powerful country is England. Simply altering one’s identity, however, cannot successfully alter the reality that he/she is truly not the person they are forcing themselves to become. Saladin, for example, may truly believe that he has transformed into a noble and respectable Englishman, but the reality in other people’s minds remains that Saladin is an Indian, no matter where he lives or what his voice sounds like. Conflicting realities suddenly become a source of competition and struggle. Contradictory realities among different individuals often lead to conflict. Since humans have the tendency to form personal realities—based on factors such as religion and the need for power—there is inevitably going to exist numerous realities, and the majority of them will not exercise authority over the few realities that have become strong stereotypes engrained in societies across the world. Not everyone can win. This idea is strongly expressed within Saladin. After making so many efforts to become English, Saladin didn’t realize that even after all of these efforts, he would still be scrutinized and degraded by the English. For example, when encountering the English officers, Saladin tried to claim that he was English—because he truly believed he has transformed into a proper Englishman—by giving the officers a London phone number which would supposedly lead them to Saladin’s “lovely, white, English wife” (Rushdie 145). Still, however, because Saladin looked Indian, the English officers treated him with disrespect and disgust, because the reality to which they had subscribed is one that labels Indians, like Saladin, as repulsive and beastly. People like Saladin exist all over the world—people who are stripped of their potential success simply due to the false realities that surround their culture’s identity. It is a deeply rooted and complex system of beliefs created by the human mind’s natural instinct to judge and to stereotype, but it is something that desperately needs to be untangled and uprooted. Because Saladin’s idea of reality conflicted with and was overcome by that of the English officers, he was abused and degraded.
Situations similar to that of Saladin exist all across the world. Edward Said, author of the text Orientalism (1978), shares parallel ideas with Rushdie about degrading stereotypes and false realities that the majority of the people around the world succumb to. Said invents the terms “Orient” and “Oriental” to describe what he calls “Orientalism”. Said argues that the Orient’s identity is based on a series of refined European misconceptions. Asia and the Middle East are portrayed through the European imagination, and nothing else, whether or not the Europeans’ knowledge is credible and/or even accurate. These frequently inaccurate and bias perceptions bind Orientals into an inescapable, inferior position, in which they are subject to foreign rule, religious oppression, powerless roles, and unjust and ignorantly conceived stereotypes. Whether the Orientals succumb to this superior force is irrelevant, as the English’s self-acclaimed ‘superiority’ and ‘knowledge’ gives them the power to draw the lines and make the decisions in all of the Oriental countries. On page 56 of Orientalism, Asia is represented by ideas formed only by outsiders, and more specifically by Orientalists. Rushdie explored this idea with Saladin and the British officers. Saladin was defined metaphorically as a monstrous goat-like animal by the British officers due to his birthplace and heritage and nothing else. Similarly, Asia “speaks through and by virtue of the European imagination” (Said 56). Whatever the European Orientalists view Asia as is what Asia will be. Supposedly, as a superior nation, Europe has the power to create and enforce these descriptions and stereotypes upon the Asians, no matter how absurd and crude the descriptions may be. Through ideas passed on in literature and through word of mouth, Asia is depicted as unknowledgeable and powerless, while the Europeans are the opposite. This deeply rooted description is hard to escape and therefore, it is almost required that the Asians accept and succumb to it. All of these ‘realities’, however, are invented by simply the Orientalist imaginations, so how can a large portion of the world justify subscribing to such degrading so-called realities?
Said’s ideas about Orientalism directly relate to the theme of forming one’s own reality explored by Rushdie. Orientalist views are all created by nothing more than imagination. “The Orient was a scholar’s word, signifying what modern Europe had recently made of the still peculiar East” (Said 92). This quote describes the essence of Orientilism well. The European Orientalists are a group of people who publish facts that aren’t necessarily even researchable—facts about culture, religion, language—all things that one must experience to truly understand. Therefore, most of the knowledge on which the study of Orientals is based contains information made up by the Orientalist perception and by the reality that the Orientalists have formed about the Orientals. In this quote, it points out that the word “Orient” is even a scholar’s word. The actual noun that describes this group of Asian and Middle-Eastern people was even invented. What does this say about the rest of the information that the Orientalists have come up with? This quote clearly indicates the likelihood of all it being bogus. Nothing is completely accurate, as it is almost all simply a false reality created on a foundation of opinion and perception, including the name ‘Orient’ itself. The Orientalist imagination is limited by what they actually know. This knowledge does not include the knowledge about what Oriental culture is truly like because the Orientalists have never actually experienced Oriental cultures. Therefore, the misleading realities and stereotypes that we subscribe to are all formed by unquestioned, false information. Many realities exist around the world, as each individual creates his/her own reality based on their opinions, perceptions, and experiences. However, only certain realities are viewed as powerful and credible, whether or not they deserve to be. The reality created by Orientalism is an example of an acknowledged and dominant perspective. Dominant realities are those that are circulated the most across the world. To prove this point, Said refers to the authority that humanity gives to books. Humans doubt themselves so much that they do not trust humanity as a source of information. Humans need books or texts to assure them that certain truths are, in fact, true. Texts lay out laws and say how things should be done, and once texts are published, the words cannot be changed. The words are tangible and irrevocable. A person’s opinion, on the other hand, can change, and their spoken words are not tangible. Humans, therefore, have a “tendency to fall back on a text when uncertainties of travel in strange parts seem to threaten one’s equanimity” (Said 93). This fact works in the favor of the Western nations because with English as the dominant language in many areas around the world, it the English books and films that are the most frequently circulated and recognized worldwide. If humans have the tendency to trust the information in books simply because words are comforting in that they are tangible and if the majority of the books are English, than the majority of the words that individuals across the world will be trusting will be words of the Western English nations.
African writer Chinua Achebe has similar ideas about stereotypes created by imperialist Britain. In The African Writer and the English Language (1975), he investigates ideas explored by both Said and Rushdie—ideas about Western perspectives as influences on others’ views of citizens of potentially less powerful nations. “These nations were created in the first place by the intervention of the British, which I hasten to add, is not saying that the peoples compromising these nations were invented by the British” (Achebe). Achebe makes a great point that the British did, in fact, construct Orient countries, but that they didn’t literally invent the people of these countries. Using Said’s terms, the actual Orients—or in this case, Nigerians—constructed themselves through the natural process by which culture is born. Because the British didn’t ‘invent’ the Nigerians, and because the British don’t share an identical or even similar culture with the Nigerians, the British have no right to claim to understand the culture. This is where Achebe and Said’s points come together. The British may have instigated the birth of the Nigerian culture and of their many colonized nations. However, the British did not experience this birth of culture firsthand. Therefore, to categorize and to scrutinize these nations by attempting to define their culture is wrong. And to subscribe to the false reality that we, as Westerners, are better than or superior to all of them, as Orients, is wrong. It is important to understand Achebe’s statement about the role of the British in the development of the Orient countries. And it is important to accept their role only as it exactly is. When Westerners define these Eastern cultures in books and in films as ‘in need of guidance’, ‘inferior’, or as ‘dependent on our strong and incredible nation” is when the line is crossed. No culture can be defined by any simple explanation. No country or individual should be scrutinized because of being from his or her country. And no country should try to analyze, categorize, or dissect the culture of any country besides its own. It doesn’t matter that the Westerners influenced the development of the Orient countries. Having a role in the development of these countries or not, the Westerners will never relate to or begin to understand all of the wonders, advances, and even the hardships and failures of other countries. It is impossible to write accurately about a culture that you are not a part of, yet Westerns continue to do exactly that, and with success, as their audiences subscribe to the inaccurate information simply because the words are ‘tangible’. It is reasons such as these why certain people, as exemplified by Rushdie’s character Saladin, are treated unjustly due to nothing except the realities associated with their skin color and nationality.
Together, the ideas of Rushdie, Said, and Achebe come together to focus the attention of our world’s readers not on the inaccurate realities published in many Western books, but on the idea that doubt is important, especially when reading about cultures beyond that of one’s own country. Because every individual’s reality is formed—by their religions, by their personal goals, by their perception of power, and by many other important factors—there is no single reality that can be described as entirely factual and applicable to every individual around the globe. The only reality that one can fully understand is their own. Because it is impossible to experience the thoughts and witness the events of any other human besides yourself, it should not be reasonable or just for anyone to act as if he/she does, in fact, understand the reality of another being. The ideas of Rushdie, Said, and Achebe are important to consider when judging another culture or when considering whether a single, universal reality or truth exists. These writers’ ideas are relevant and worth considering because the false realities, which they refer to in their texts, exist all over society. Stereotypes exist in the news, in Hollywood movies, in novels—they exist everywhere. Because stereotypes are so prevalent, it is inevitable that each individual subscribes to at least some of them. Often times, placing stereotypes upon other nations is overlooked. They are embedded deeply into our culture, so much that referring to and believing in certain stereotypes becomes natural.
Saladin in The Satanic Verses, the so-calledd Orientals in Orientalism, and the Nigerians in Achebe’s The African Writer and the English Language, provide our society with examples of nations and individuals scrutinized and degraded based on the stereotypes associated with their nationalities. As these writers’ works have circulated and joined the millions of texts recognized worldwide, their readers hopefully attempted to open their minds to these stereotypes in order to acknowledge their absurdity and falsity. Because creating false realities is among the many natural human instincts, it is, of course, unrealistic to hope that one day, these stereotypes will not exist at all, but it is certainly reasonable to attempt to introduce awareness of such tendencies to the creators of these false realties themselves.
Achebe, Chinua. “The African Writer and the English Language.” Morning Yet on Creation Day. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1975.
Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses. New York, NY: Viking, 1989. Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.
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