Athenaeum Meeting Minutes – February 9, 2002 – Dog & Duck Pub

Attending:  John Mays, Jimmy Martin, Bob Hardister, Alan Hunt, Jeff Mays, Eli Pickering

Welcome to visiting Athenaeum member, Jeff Mays.

Book for Discussion:  Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie


Jimmy: The book was vulgar and offensive to Muslims. Most of the group agreed. Bob adds the tone was disrespectful, noting the Mahound’s character was a thinly veiled Muhammad.

Jimmy: Rushdie writes a postmodern novel, tearing down the wall between dreams and reality throughout the work.

Bob: One example of this blurring of reality occurs when Ayesha’s pilgrims see the sea part, while the bystanders on the beach see nothing. Jimmy recognizes this as akin to the views of some liberal Christians today, ie: they recognize the "idea" of Moses parting the Red Sea, but do not profess the actual event took place.

Eli: Misunderstanding some of the discussions asks whether the group was suggesting all the scenes with Mahound/Ayesha were dream sequences, and not truly happening. The answers is "no", and Eli agrees. There are clearly supernatural events actually taking place. However, especially with regard to Gibreel (who turns out to be a paranoid schizophrenic) it is never really clear what is real and what is not. (see Jimmy’s earlier comments).

John: That’s the point! The book is subversive to any claims of truth. Is it a dream? Is it real? There is never any resolution.

Eli: There are interesting parallels to many of the characters. One of these is the "ghost" character that follows Gibreel (Rekah Merchant) and Allie Cone’s (Wilson). Note that whenever these "ghosts" appear to torment their human counterparts they are sitting cross-legged and usually up in the air. Merchant is usually floating on a rug, and Wilson perched in a tree or on a mountain.

John: The group launched into a frank discussion, "who liked the book?" Answers varied, but most give Rushdie high marks for brute literary force. The book was brilliantly woven together, with a strong, unique style, and in-depth character development. The complete lack of moral fortitude in his message, however, curbed most enthusiasm for the book (more on that later).

Bob: The one positive aspect of the novel is Chamcha’s redemption toward the end.

Eli: Rushdie, during one of his interludes as the "God" figure, states the root of Chamcha’s evil is based in his attempt to be something he is not. He throws off his Indian roots while trying to become English, and consequently this give rise to the schism by which "evil" takes hold.

Jimmy: Rushdie sees God as a concoction of good and evil. This is fundamentally at odds with a Christian World View. This single nucleation point fails to provide a foundation for the growth any morally redeeming message in the novel.

John: In fact, there is no "moral center" at all in Satanic Verse, but rather an AMORAL center in which Rushdie’s main objective is to simply say what he wants.

Bob: Rushdie’s use of movies is interesting. So many of the characters are actors, producers, marketers, etc. This is probably due to Rushdie’s own experience in the business.

Jimmy: Did anyone notice that "white people" are portrayed badly? For example, Dumsday the Evangelical on the hijacked plane plays the buffoon. Another example is the treatment of the London police force as cultists.

John: At this point in the discussion John points out the two main classifications of 20th Century literary techniques. One is the "stream of consciousness" technique employed by the likes of William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Virginia Wolfe. The other technique is that of Neo-Realism. Rushdie, we all agree, is employing something akin to "stream of consciousness" in Satanic Verses.

Eli: Why is it so many authors are fascinated with Central/South America? Many authors use the region as an exotic escape in their novels. Exp.: The sequence between Rosa Diamond and Gibreel in Satanic Verses; Chesterton and the Nicaraguan President in The Napoleon of Notting Hill; Shelley when "the fiend" in Frankenstein wishes to escape with his bride to the wilds of South America.

John/Jimmy: There is a series of notes and comments written by an unnamed English Professor pulled off the web that make parallels between Satanic Verses and One Hundred years of Solitude. Neither Jimmy nor John really care for the parallel, saying the "chaotic temporal style" (my description) employed by these authors is superficial, and not used by each author to achieve the same ends, or with the same effectiveness.

Jimmy: What does Chamcha’s nickname "Spoono" mean? From Rushdie’s own words; Chamcha is Hindi for "spoon", or "spoon seller". Also it means "humble everyday object", or in more derogatory context a "suck-up", "ass kisser" or even "homosexual". By contrast, Saladin is a great Muslim warrior from the 3rd Crusade. Therefore, his chosen English name, Chamcha Saladin, is the pinnacle of irony.

Eli: The most shocking scene in the novel occurs during Ayesha’s pilgrimage to the sea. At the mosque in Sarang, "the great metropolis at the edge of the Arabian Sea", the townsfolk stone an illegitimate baby to death. John sites it as another example of Rushdie’s rebellion against anything orthodox.

Jeff: Advice received during seminary training: "Make it a matter of prayer about the books you choose to read". With this in mind, was it worth our time to read Satanic Verses? Bob recalls the book was recommended in light of the events of Sept 11th, with its association with Islamic religion.

Eli: What constitutes "good" reading? If we read only literature that navigates the moral landscape calibrated with a compass of indisputable truth, we end up with but a single book on the bookshelf.

Eli: Is Rushdie not simply espousing a point of view (erroneous though it may be) when he portrays God as equal part good and evil. John is not willing to distill it down to those terms.

John: Any author has a responsibility to the underlying themes that they profess as true. Rushdie espouses thoughts and beliefs shared by many, and so as participants in the great dialog of ideas, we are compelled to engage in the debate. In Athenaeum, we read books voted on by the group as a whole, and sharpen our understanding (indeed, our minds) through discussion.

Alan: Can we not read atheistic philosophers and learn something? Absolutely! Often extreme heretics highlight certain things that we then recognize to a lesser degree in our friends, our family, and ourselves.

John/Bob: Satanic Verse portrays evil as the inner workings of human beings. Evil comes from within us, but within this book, often with signs of divinity (exp.: Ayesha’s butterflies). The novel does recognize the capacity for the human religious experience.

Jimmy: There is a visceral, tangible communal religious experience by many groups in the book (Ayesha’s pilgrims, Mahound’s revival, Chamcha’s redemption, etc.) Rushdie recognizes a reality to spiritual events.

John: The civil response to the death of 15,000 miners in Sarang is a rebuke against the low value of life held by super-populated countries like India.

Eli: Rushdie uses transformation/rebirth imagery liberally in Chapter 1. Exp.: Chamcha watches Bombay "fall away like an old snakeskin" as the Bostan flights leaves India, his speech is "metamorphosed into the Bombay lilt he had so diligently unmade", reference to the plane as "not a flying womb but a metal phallus" whose passengers were "spermatozoa waiting to be spilt", Chamcha’s English education as a "transmutation into Vilayeti", and my favorite the description of the exploding Bostan flight as "a seedpod releasing it’s contents".

Bob: The scene of Chamcha’s transformation from a goat back to human was punctuated by the melting of wax figurines in the nightclub.

Eli: Another example of Rushdie’s poignant use of imagery is seen shortly after his return to human form. He flips through the TV channels and "amid all the televisual images of hybrid tragedies" – the Dr. Who "Mutts", mermen, lycanthropy, centaurs, sex change operations, he was "given this one gift" of renewed hope for the possibility of his own former condition.

Jeff: Discussion of the liberal, and largely vulgar use of phallic imagery is reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, in which every man’s penis is discussed in larger-than-life detail (excuse the pun).

Voting for April:

(Bob) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions 
(John) Visions of Order
(Eli) Inferno
(Eli) The American Myth of Religious Freedom 

Next Meeting:

March 9th at the Dog and Duck Pub

March Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad

April The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas S. Kuhn

Athenaeum Meeting Minutes