- The Fictive Origins of Secular Humanism
Shortly before the novel's release in the United States, the Sunday edition of the New York Times hailed Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence as a work of serious literary ambition destined to draw critical and popular attention back to Rushdie's prose and away from the political and personal imbroglios that have overshadowed his fiction since 1989. As of yet, this has not been the case; early reviews were mixed at best, and though it is undeniably a captivating and compulsively readable book, The Enchantress of Florence eschews the significant stylistic innovation and overt, high-stakes cultural commentary that energizes Rushdie's The Satanic Verses (1988). Instead, Rushdie's newest novel seeks sanctuary in the mirror of history—in this case, a mirror veiled in gauzy multiculturalist platitudes. Despite its preening, The Enchantress of Florence proves an essential book; in its strongest moments, The Enchantress of Florence repudiates linear, Eurocentric histories of the Renaissance and conjures in their stead a synchronous world of parallel realities in which the seeds of secular humanism flower not once but twice—once in northern Italy and simultaneously in northern India. Read reparatively, Rushdie's novel invites us to reconsider axiomatic tenets about modernity, secularism, and humanism—chief among them the relation between the ethos of modernity and the rejection of an enchanted world. [End Page 675]
In terms of genre, The Enchantress of Florence is a globe-traversing prose romance about the vicissitudes of love, power, and storytelling—a romance dressed in the guise of an impeccably researched historical novel (complete with an extensive bibliography). The book's opening vignettes transport the reader, along with a golden-haired stranger, by bullock cart into Fatehpur Sikri, the city built by the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great in the sixteenth century. The stranger, who calls himself Mogor dell'Amore (the "Mogul of Love") and whose real name is Niccolò Vespucci—cousin of Amerigo and namesake of Niccolò Machiavelli—has journeyed from his birthplace in the New World via Florence to Mughal Hindustan with a story he will reveal only to Emperor Akbar himself. Gaining entry to the Mughal court through a series of bold stratagems, feats of linguistic virtuosity, and magic tricks, Mogor dell'Amore garners the favor of Akbar and so begins the teasing, digressive weaving and unweaving of a story that captivates the emperor for longer than Scheherazade plied Shahryar with her tales in The Arabian Nights. The story that emerges unites the lives of three Florentines (Niccolò Machiavelli, Antonino Argalia, and Ago Vespucci) with Akbar's dynasty by way of an intrepid princess named Qara Köz ("Lady Black Eyes")—the tragic heroine of Niccolò's tale and the erstwhile enchantress of Florence.
Fictive and real, Florence and Hindustan, East and West evolve as parallel worlds—as "mirrors" of one another, to use one of the novel's favorite metaphors. But so enthralled is the novel with symmetry, parallel, and simultaneity ("We are their dream . . . and they are ours," as one character puts it) that The Enchantress of Florence underplays points of contrast (48). Rushdie's depiction of the birth of modernity in the budding secular humanisms of Florence and Mughal India severs the link—common to Renaissance self-understanding and to centuries of subsequent scholarship—between the rise of humanist sensibilities and the recovery of classical antiquity.
According to regnant narratives of the Enlightenment, in fourteenth-century and fifteenth-century Florence the pietistic, feudal social matrix of medieval Christianity deformed in the crucible of the city-state under the twin pressures of mercantile capitalism on the one hand and a revival of classical aesthetics on the other. Individualism, the emergence of linear temporality, and a powerful critique of Christianity depend in no small part on the scholarly methods of textual analysis, hermeneutics, and archival research pioneered by Italian humanists in the fifteenth century—all of which parallel a steady repudiation of the enchanted world of medieval Christendom. Not only can no equivalent milieu of forces be found in Mughal India, Rushdie's depiction [End...