MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.1 (2002) 18-49
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Migrancy, The Cosmopolitan Intellectual, and the Global City in The Satanic Verses
No novel that I know of articulates more powerfully the theme of postcolonial migrancy in a mutable postmodern world than Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. Critical discussion of the novel has been largely, and understandably, pre-empted by the outrage it aroused in certain Islamic quarters, the fatwa that sentenced Rushdie to death and placed a bounty on his head, and the ramifications of what has come to be called "the Rushdie affair." I do not intend to engage directly with these issues, over which so much ink--and, alas, blood--has already been spilled; I consider The Satanic Verses here as a novel about a world in motion, about the postcolonial migrant condition, about the coming together of incompatible realities in the global city. 1 Rushdie himself has consistently stressed (both before and after the fatwa) that this is above all a novel about the migrant condition: "If The Satanic Verses is anything, it is a migrant's-eye view of the world. It is written from the very experience of uprooting, disjuncture and metamorphosis (slow or rapid, painful or pleasurable) that is the migrant condition [. . .]" ("In Good Faith" 394).
Migrancy and mutability are indeed richly imagined in The Satanic Verses, as I demonstrate in the first of the following three sections. Yet Rushdie ventures beyond the postmodern valorization of mobility, mutability, [End Page 18] and newness to set this discourse of "the post and the trans" (Radhakrishnan 38) in tension with a discourse valorizing continuity, stability, and identity; in the second section of this essay I explore this tension as it emerges in relation to the role of the migrant postcolonial intellectual (in the person of protagonist Saladin Chamcha). Finally, in the third section I turn to the novel's imagining of migrants who are not members of the intelligentsia or other global elites, examining the migrant community in London in the light of Saskia Sassen's hopeful vision of a new transnational politics emerging in the global city.
Metaphors of Migrancy
Creatures of Air
The element of this novel is air. This is the element in which Satan wanders, unhoused, according to the passage from Defoe's History of the Devil that serves as the novel's epigraph: "Satan, being thus confined to a vagabond, wandering, unsettled condition, is without any certain abode; for though he has, in consequence of his angelic nature, a kind of empire in the liquid waste or air, yet this is certainly part of his punishment, that he is . . . without any fixed place, or space, allowed him to rest the sole of his foot upon." Recontextualized, Defoe's Satan becomes a migrant who shares the "transcendental homelessness" said to characterize our own era, 2 an age when "all that is solid melts into air" and the ground beneath our feet is cut out from under us. At the same time, Rushdie presents "air-space" as one of the "defining locations" of the twentieth century, "that soft, imperceptible field which had been made possible by the century and which, thereafter, made the century possible, becoming one of its defining locations, the place of movement and of war, the planet-shrinker and power-vacuum, most insecure and transitory of zones, illusory, discontinuous, metamorphic,--because when you throw everything up in the air anything becomes possible" (Satanic Verses 5).
Here, on one hand, Rushdie shows a sharp awareness of how air-space is implicated in globalization and postmodernity--air-space as twentieth-century theatre of war, air travel as distance-erasing "planet-shrinker," and, related to this, the discontinuities perceived by those who fly great distances; on the other hand, he mythicizes air-space as a zone of illusions and metamorphoses where "anything becomes possible." In [End Page 19] The Satanic Verses, air-space becomes a charged and transformative site, simultaneously empty and dense with meaning. Its nature is emphasized in two repeated expressions: phenomena emerge mysteriously...