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12 - Salman Rushdie: Archival Modernism

from Part III - Postmodernism, Globalisation and Beyond

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 December 2017

Vijay Mishra
Affiliation:
Professor of English Literature at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia.
James Acheson
Affiliation:
University of Canterbury
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Summary

Although Rushdie makes reference to Sanskrit and Old Hindi texts in his fiction, his archival modernism draws primarily on medieval Islamic and European archives. I use the term ‘archival modernism’ to mean the manner in which earlier modernities, earlier and including pre-European Enlightenment modernities, inform the works of a late modernist writer. Instead of looking at modernity as a purely post-Kantian and, more generally, a European legacy with literary modernism as its direct outcome, in this chapter I make creative use of what Susan Stanford Friedman has called ‘planetary modernisms’. Setting aside Friedman's category error in conflating modernism and modernity, what is of value is her claim that modernist writers have self-consciously turned to the past, indeed to the entire cross-cultural global enterprise of modernism, to energise their works. In novels earlier than the ones discussed in this chapter, Salman Rushdie had used Farid Ud-din Attar's Persian-Sufi poem The Conference of the Birds (c. 1187) in Grimus (1975); subversive medieval commentaries on the Qur'an in The Satanic Verses (1988); The Arabian Nights and early Indian tales (notably the Katha¯saritasa¯gara, composed in the second half of the eleventh century) in Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990); and the history of Moorish Spain in The Moor's Last Sigh (1995). Embedded in more recent novels, The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999) and Fury (2001), are classical myths, those of Orpheus and the Furies respectively. In Shalimar the Clown (2005) medieval pastoral serenity is destroyed by jihadist as well as state terror, while in The Enchantress of Florence (2008) Rushdie turns to Mughal India as a Renaissance site equal to Florence, and in Luka and the Fire of Life (2010) to the traditions of Oriental storytelling. His latest work, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (2015), projects a crisis in modernity (Western secularism versus Islamic fundamentalism) on to the battle between two medieval Islamic thinkers, known in the West as Avicenna and Averroës.

In this admittedly schematic account of archival modernism in Rushdie's later novels, I begin with The Ground Beneath Her Feet, where Rushdie's turn to archival modernism is informed by a reading of the Orpheus myth as one composite text in a number of versions.

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Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2017

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