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Cosmopolitan Bias: Salman Rushdie Reads Richard Burton

  • Paulo Lemos Horta (a1)


Taking as its point of departure Rushdie’s use of Burton’s Nights and South Asian travelogues in Shame and The Satanic Verses, this paper reads Burton and Rushdie against their cultural moments and their variant understandings of cosmopolitanism. Contra Appiah’s deployment of Burton in his seminal study of cosmopolitanism, it suggests that Burton’s prejudices were not as Appiah ventures “counter-cosmopolitan” but (because they were often acquired abroad) integral to his cosmopolitanism. In his fiction Rushdie repeatedly deploys the image of a boy’s discovery of Burton’s Nights in a patriarch’s library as emblematic of a neglected cosmopolitanism. Yet he may also be invoking Burton to critique the prejudices of Burton’s cosmopolitan personae in commenting on South Asia and the Nights. In engaging the legacy of Burton’s Nights, Rushdie’s narrators appear most certain of the dangers of neglecting the inheritance of a cosmopolitan tradition than of the virtues of embracing it.



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1 James Seaton asks “Aren’t most of us already the ‘partial cosmopolitans’ Appiah wants us to be?”. Seaton, James, “The Appiahn Way: How to Do the Right Thing in the 21st Century,” review-essay of Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, by Kwame Anthony Appiah. The Weekly Standard, October 9, 2006.

2 Santiago, Silviano, O cosmopolitismo do pobre: crítica literária e crítica cultural. Belo Horizonte: Editora UFMG, 2004.

3 Bruce Robbins in his review of Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism: “To switch metaphors: celebrations of cosmopolitan diversity have largely been uninterrupted by the issues of economic equality or geo-political justice. I wonder whether it isn’t time to stop and ask how much of the praise is merited, what work cosmopolitanism is and isn’t doing.” Robbins, Bruce, “Cosmopolitanism: New and Newer,” review of Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, by Kwame Anthony Appiah. boundary 2 34:3 (2007): 51.

4 See Appiah’s first chapter, “The Shattered Mirror.” Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2006): 1–11.

5 Wilkins, W. H., ed., The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton, vol. 2 (New York: Dodd Mead, 1897): 712. Quoted in Appiah, Cosmopolitanism, 6.

6 Appiah, Cosmopolitanism, 11.

7 Burton, Richard, “Terminal Essay,” in The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, vol. X (The Burton Club, 1886): 176219.

8 See Burton’s letter to the Anthropological Society, dated Rio de Janeiro, June 1, 1867, (pp. 56–57) commenting on A. M. Perdigão Malheiro’s “The Extinction of Slavery in Brazil, From a Practical Point of View.” Anthropological Review & Journal of the Anthropological Society of London, 6.20 (January 1868): 56–63.

9 Said, “In no writer on the Orient so much as in Burton do we feel that generalizations about the Oriental... are the result of knowledge acquired about the Orient by living there, actually seeing it firsthand, truly trying to see Oriental life from the viewpoint of a person immersed in it. Yet... we must recognize how the voice the highly idiosyncratic master of Oriental knowledge informs, feeds into the voice of European ambition for rule over the Orient.” Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1994): 196.

10 Kennedy, Dane, The Highly Civilized Man: Richard Burton and the Victorian World (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2005): 17, 19.

11 Appiah observes: “Such exposure to the range of human customs and beliefs hardly left the traveler untethered from his own. Burton illustrates this clearly enough.” Appiah, Cosmopolitanism, 6.

12 Burton wrote the foreign office that although the majority of the Jewish population in Damascus were “hard-working, inoffensive, and of commercial integrity, with a fair sprinkling of the pious, charitable, and innocent people,” he refused as was previous practice to aid in his capacity as British consul the few creditors under British protection that he deemed acted as usurers “in ruining villages and imprisoning destitute debtors upon trumped charges” (Quoted in Fawn Brodie, The Devil Drives: A Life of Sir Richard Burton [New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1984], 256). The Huntington Library preserves a copy of his eight-page letter on the subject of his recall from Damascus to Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, dated 14 Montagu Place, Montagu Square W. October 16, 1871 (Kirkpatrick, B. J., ed., A Catalogue of the Library of Sir Richard Burton, K.C.M.G. held by the Royal Anthropoligical Institute (London: Royal Anthropoligical Institute, 1978): 34). London Chief Rabbi Sir Francis Goldsmid’s letter of protest to the foreign office remarks upon the perceived anti-Semitism of Burton’s actions as a new prejudice, speculating it to be perhaps the influence in Damascus of his new Roman Catholic wife, Isabel (Brodie, The Devil Drives, 256).

13 Burton’s early letters demonstrate his sympathy and identification with the predicament of Jews in Britain and Europe.

14 Rushdie, Salman, The Satanic Verses (New York: Viking Press, 1988): 36.

15 Burton, Richard, Goa, and the Blue Mountains; or, Six Months of Sick Leave (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991): 128. First published by Richard Bentley in London (1851).

16 Burton, , Goa, and the Blue Mountains, 127.

17 Rushdie, Salman, Shame (New York: Picador, 2000): 26.

18 Burton, , Goa, and the Blue Mountains, 128129.

19 Rushdie, , Shame, 27.

20 Rushdie, , Shame, 27.

21 For instance, the Mughal Emperor Babur’s writings anticipate for Rushdie the contemporary struggle “between conservatism and progressivism, between Islam’s male-dominated, aggressive, ruthless aspect and its gentler, deeply sophisticated culture of books, philosophers, musicians, and artists.” Rushdie, Salman, “The Baburnama,” in Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction (New York: Random House, 2002): 176.

22 Burton, Goa, and the Blue Mountains, 130.

23 Burton, Nights, vol. X, 156.

24 Hence to translate The Lusiads is the “perfection of a traveler’s study” (Burton, Richard, “Preface,” in The Lusiads, vol. 1, trans. Richard Burton (London: Bernard Quaritch, 1880), xi)—the phrase captures well the cognitive and imaginative education Burton believed travel affords the youthful traveler such as Camões and himself and which he believes eludes the “learned” Orientalist who ventures East only after his schooling and specialization (Burton, The Lusiads, vol. I, xiii).

25 For instance, he faults Orientalists visiting the Sindh for simply confirming their pre-existing biases against Muslims and in favor of Hindus. Burton, Richard, Scinde; or, The Unhappy Valley, vol. II (London: Richard Bentley, 1851): 7.

26 “The language of these mountaineers is the Belochki, either a barbarous corruption, or more probably an unpolished cognate dialect of that venerable and most beautiful tongue, the Persian” (Burton, , Scinde, vol. II, 199). Burton complains of corrupted Portuguese words and of locals “Salaaming to the river, and mangling an Arabic sentence” (Burton, , Scinde, vol. II, 300).

27 Burton notes “the Hindoo’s religion has, like the Moslem’s, been contaminated by contact with strangers” and generalizes “when the Polytheist and the Monotheist meet on at all equal terms, the former either ruins, or subjects himself to the latter” (Burton, Scinde, vol. I, 246, 230).

28 Burton remarks of the “mass of the population” in Sindh that “the connection with the superior subfamily has, however, failed to produce a strictly speaking improved development” and typically comments on a mixed group: “[t]he people are partly Scindian, partly Beloch: both are equally savage and ferocious” (Burton, Scinde, vol. I, 251, vol. II, 188).

29 Respectively, Burton, Scinde, vol. I, 42, vol. II, 143.

30 Burton, Scinde, vol. II, 278. The passage refers to the adoption of attire neither English nor local. Elsewhere he writes: “I have learned how largely we gain... by widening the pantaloons, and by exchanging the beaver for a turban” (Burton, Scinde, vol. II, 33).

31 Burton, , Scinde, vol. II, 156.

32 Burton habitually uses the formulation in passages such as “We semi-orientals understood...” (Burton Scinde, vol. I, 195). In contrast the he admonishes “[y]ou England-English” for deserving the label “Britons fierce to strangers” due to a “fashionable superciliousness and a guindé attempt at exclusivity,” which compares unfavorably with the hospitality of both the English and locals of the subcontinent (Burton, , Scinde, vol. II, 2830).

33 For instance, in the Sindhi poet Abd el Latif’s Sufism, Burton recognized an expression of cultural syncretism that transcended the mere assimilation of a conquered people to the culture of their conquerors. By preserving a harmonious blend of Hinduism and Islam, just as the Sindhi language was able to absorb a certain proportion of words from Sanskrit and Arabic, Sufism in Sindh would transcend the fixed imbalances of power that appeared to define other forms of cultural fusion in the region.

34 “I, too, am a translated man. I have been borne across.” Rushdie, Shame, 23.

35 “The other Omar [Khayyam] wrote great things out of love; our hero’s story is poorer, no doubt because it was marinated in bile,” Rushdie, Shame, 35.

36 (Italics in original). Rushdie, Shame, 22.

37 “The Angrez sahibs had diverted large quantities of the region’s sparse water supplies into the hoses with which the Cantt gardeners strolled around all day. It was clear that those curious grey beings from a wet northern world could not survive unless grass and bourgainvillaea and tamarind and jackfruit survived as well.” Rushdie, Shame, 39.

38 “[In Karachi...] he began to affect the same dandyism and bad language and admiration for European culture that were Isky’s trademarks before his great conversion. That was why the young man insisted on being sent to study abroad, and why he passed his time in London engaged in whoring and gambling.” Rushdie, Shame, 154.

39 “It is generally believed that something is always lost in translation; I cling to the notion—and use, in evidence, the success of Fitzgerald-Khayyam—that something can also be gained.” Rushdie, Shame, 23.

40 Burton, Richard, Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah, vol. I (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1855): 53.

41 Rushdie, , Shame, 123.

42 Rushdie, , Shame, 124125.

43 “The English word shame, the narrator laments, proves “a wholly inadequate translation” for sharam: “a short word, but one containing encyclopedias of nuance... embarrassment, discomfiture, decency, modesty, shyness, the sense of having an ordained place in the world.” Rushdie, , Shame, 35. Aijaz Ahmad would complain of the presence in the novel of what he describes as “all sorts of banal statements about “the East,” including the assertion that the English word shame falls far short of the Urdu word sharam because the latter is, as sentiment and notion and normative conduct, characteristically Eastern, hence exceeding the Western capacities of cognition and linguistic formulation.” Ahmad, Aijaz, In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (London: Verso, 1992): 136.

44 Burton, , Nights, vol. II, 91.

45 Rushdie, , Shame, 5.

46 A strained quality noted from the first articles and reviews. See Kaiser Haq, “Pakistani Patriarchs: Salman Rushdie’s Shame,” Form 3 (1984): 77–86, and D. J. Enright, “Forked Tongue,” New York Review of Books, 30.19 (December 8, 1983): 26–28.

47 Rushdie, , Shame, 263.

48 Rushdie, , Shame, 254.

49 Ultimately the portrait of Haroun Harappa attests to the dandyish quality of emancipatory sentiment among members of Pakistan’s political elite, and the political system’s ease in harnessing for its own ends what little impetus for questioning authority there is. Rushdie, Shame, 152, 153, 155, 157.

50 Burton, , Scinde, vol. I, 182.

51 Rushdie, , Shame, 21.

52 Rushdie, , Shame, 84.

53 Burton, “The Translator’s Foreword,” Nights, vol. I, xxiii.

54 “Changez neither rubbed it nor permitted it to be rubbed by, for example, his son. ‘One day,’ he assured the boy, ‘you’ll have it for yourself. Then rub and rub as much as you like and see what doesn’t come to you. Just now, but, it is mine.” Rushdie, , The Satanic Verses, 36.

55 Burton, “The Translator’s Foreword,” Nights, vol. I, xxiii.

56 Manuscript revision to Burton’s copy of his translation of the Nights, “The Translator’s Preface,” p. x. (Burton Library 91a in Kirkpatrick’s catalogue).

57 The negative emphasis on what he presents as his culturally barren surroundings in South America and Africa serves as a reminder of the self-fashioned cosmopolite’s prejudices—that Burton did not find all travel and sojourns enabling of cognitive and imaginative expansion.

58 Burton, , Nights, vol. X, 156.

59 Burton, , Nights, vol. X, 115.

60 Burton, , Nights, vol. I, 10. This connection is reinforced in the index entry on this note included in the appendix to the Nights, “Jinn = the French génie, the Hindu Rakshasa or Yaksha” (Burton, , Nights, vol. X, 306).

61 Burton, Sindh, and the Races That Inhabit the Valley of the Indus (London: W. H. Allen, 1851): 403–423.

62 Burton, , Nights, vol. I, 10.

63 Burton, , Nights, vol. X, 102.

64 “Aegypto-Greco-Indian stories overran the civilized globe between Rome and China... tales have wings and fly farther than the jade hatchets of proto-historic days.” Burton, , Nights, vol. X, 109.

65 Burton, , Nights, vol. X, 115.

66 Chabbi, Jacqueline, “Jinn,” in Encyclopaedia of the Qur’ān, ed. J. D. McAuliffe, vol. III (Leiden: Brill, 2003): 4349. See also Chabbi’s excellent bibliography.

67 Jacqueline Chabbi, “Jinn,” 49.

68 Rushdie, , The Satanic Verses, 93.

69 Burton, Richard, “Alaeddin; or, The Wonderful Lamp,” Supplemental Nights to the Book of The Thousand Nights and a Night, vol. III (1888): 52.

70 Rushdie, , The Satanic Verses, 45.

71 Burton, , “Alaeddin; or, The Wonderful Lamp,” 69.

72 Burton, “Alaeddin; or, The Wonderful Lamp,” 61n.

73 Rushdie, , The Satanic Verses, 35.

74 Rushdie, , The Satanic Verses, 36. Burton notes that the magic of the lamp extends “far and wide over the physique and morale of the owner” and can transform the “raw laddie” into “a finished courtier, warrior, statesman, etc.” Burton, “Alaeddin; or, The Wonderful Lamp,” 104n.

75 Burton, “Alaeddin; or, The Wonderful Lamp,” 55n.

76 Rushdie, , The Satanic Verses, 528.

77 Rushdie, , The Satanic Verses, 36.

78 Rushdie, , The Satanic Verses, 36.

79 Fittingly Changez materializes as if out of thin air on the street (another of shaitan’s abodes) reeking of “the stink of chemicals and fertilizer.” Rushdie, The Satanic Verses, 33.

80 Rushdie, , The Satanic Verses, 60, 62.

81 Rushdie, , The Satanic Verses, 48. Changez writes Saladin: “It’s my belief some devil has got into you and turned your wits.... You are no son of mine, but a ghoul, a hoosh, a demon up from hell.... Now that you have your own bad jinni, do not think you will inherit the magic lamp.” Saladin retorts: “Is it I who have been the subject of devilment, am I the one possessed? It’s not my handwriting that changed.” The hitherto secular Changez appears to convert to Islam, in Saladin’s eyes at least, “perhaps in order to escape this world in which demons could steal his own son’s body.” (Rushdie, , The Satanic Verses, 4748).

82 Rushdie, , The Satanic Verses, 61.

83 Rushdie, , The Satanic Verses, 51.

84 As the overt references to Dafoe’s History of the Devil and Blake’s “Milton” and “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” indicate, it is Rushdie’s goal to re-envision the Islamic story of revelation through the romantic literary tradition in which Blake conceives of Satan as the true hero of Paradise Lost.

85 Zakariya al-Qazwini (1203–1283 CE), author of the cosmography Marvels of Creatures and the Strange Things Existing, referenced by Lane, Edward William, Stories from the Thousand and One Nights, vol. I, 34.

86 Rushdie, , The Satanic Verses, 36.

87 Saladin is first associated with a jinni when he convinces himself he can make a “miracle happen even without his father’s lamp to help him out.” Rushdie, , The Satanic Verses, 38.

88 Rushdie, , The Satanic Verses, 49.

89 According to tradition jinn, denied the freedom to enter heaven, ascend to the confines of the lowest heaven to listen to the conversations of the angels about God’s decrees and risk being felled by shooting stars. When an airplane lifts Saladin to heaven’s lowest level in the novel, he has intimations of his status as a ghoulish jinni: it is only at this high altitude that he experiences visions of the future, including an accurate premonition of the terrorist attack that will ultimately destroy the plane. The plot device of having the hijacked plane stranded on a runway for 111 days allows Saladin the opportunity to hear the near-monologues of the “Angel” Gibreel Farishta of his dream visions of the birth of Islam. Like the evil jinn who fly close to heaven to eavesdrop on angels, Saladin is exposed to knowledge that should be forbidden to him. In Rushdie’s novel the four hijackers of flight AI 420 are described as “stars now, shooting stars or falling” (Rushdie, , The Satanic Verses, 78). The tumbling Gibreel, who literally sprouts angelic wings, perhaps suggests as much: “Those bastards down there won’t know what hit them. Meteor or lightning or vengeance of God” (Rushdie, , The Satanic Verses, 1). The transformation of Saladin into a goatish ghoul upon falling on the ground is also reminiscent of the fate of the eavesdropping jinn who are struck by shooting stars, in which falling upon the land they become ghouls.

90 Rushdie, , The Satanic Verses, 560.

91 Rushdie, , The Satanic Verses, 561.

92 The rubbing of the lamp enables further the appearance of a jinnlike kindred spirit, Saladin’s friend and lover Zeeny, to grant his wish to return to her and the Bombay culture of his youth. Saladin appears conscious of the incongruity between this fairy tale and the tragedies that preceded it in the last moment of introspection registered by the novel, “There was no accounting for one’s good fortune, that was plain.” (Rushdie, , The Satanic Verses, 561).

93 Cosmopolitanism not a detachment but as “a reality of (re)attachment, multiple attachment, or attachment at a distance.” Robbins, Bruce, “Introduction Part 1: Actually Existing Cosmopolitanism,” in Cosmopolitics, ed. Pheng Cheah and Bruce Robbins (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998): 3.


Cosmopolitan Bias: Salman Rushdie Reads Richard Burton

  • Paulo Lemos Horta (a1)


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