A note on “Quichotte”, a novel by Salman Rushdie
by: Masood Sabet
“Let go of this ruse, O lover! Go mad, go mad!
Come forth into the flame, become a moth, become a moth!
Make yourself a stranger and destroy your own home
then come dwell with the lovers! Come dwell with the lovers!”
Man has come a long way in pursuit of a shred of certainty. Alas, the further we endeavoured, the less we’ve found. What we have become to call virtue has proven so transient over the ages, that our “moral compass” has been rendered useless in this chaotic magnetic field of ideologies and creeds. Whichever way we turn, we can still see the shadow of doubt, an ever-present shade of uncertainty which clouds our minds, individually and collectively as a species. The established world order, founded on the destruction and blood brought about by two gruesome world wars, has long been losing its momentum. But post November 2016, this deterioration crossed a threshold. Since the “catastrophe” struck, political pundits, columnists, psychologists, philosophers and anthropologists have been desperately brainstorming to present a legitimate explanation for what happened, mostly in vain. Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte, in its deepest layers, is an insightful observation and a coherent argument on a major turning point in the advance of human civilization.
Quichotte, a man in the winter of his life, abandons his job and the comfort of his retirement life and sets off on a journey, seeking true love! And the beloved is one Salma R, a former star of Bollywood and today an eminent TV host settled in New York. Later we find out that a stroke has been an influential precedent to this turn of events in his life. Since he’s abandoned reason, now he’s free to create his own reality, with an imaginary son, a sidekick, a teenage Sancho. On an odyssey from the south, Atlanta, town to town to the north, they encounter curious events that represent an insight into a divided nation. Racism and Xenophobia, stoked by the new rhetoric having taken over the State, are rampant and the tone of the skin could still be a curse, even a death sentence for the darker side of the spectrum. Immigration has long been a recurring theme in Rushdie’s works, a constant condition of his main characters from the early years.
Hegel, being the culmination of German philosophy in 19th century, is very well known mostly for his Dialectics. According to Hegel, there’s no truth to anything in the world except for the Whole, which he called the Absolute. He claimed that a constant struggle between the opposites, Thesis and Antithesis, moves the history forward by creating a new predominant reality, Synthesis, at each turning point. ‘He says that America is the land of the future, “where, in the ages that lie before us, the burden of the world’s history shall reveal itself, perhaps in a contest between North and South America.” He seems to think that everything important takes the form of war.’[i] States, according to Hegel, are not there to serve the interests of individuals, but they have a higher purpose: define virtue and set forth standards of ethics. The landscape stretched before Quichotte, is an urban battlefield. The established order has been challenged with a brand-new antithesis that takes it to extremes. It defies the current reality as a whole; “facts are not facts” anymore. “The world stopped making sense. Anything can happen. Here can be there, then can be now, up can be down, truth can be lies. Everything’s slip-sliding around and there’s nothing to hold on to. The whole thing has come apart at the seams.”[ii] Hegel professed that “in every age, there’s one nation which is charged with the mission of carrying the world through the stage of the dialectic that it has reached. In our age of course, this nation is Germany.”[iii] Since Hegel this accurately predicts the rise of German Reich and Nazism some hundred years in advance, the question is, how much should we be concerned?!
Quichotte is the tale of a journey, unfolded simultaneously in two opposite realms: intellect and sense. While the Hegelian intellectual revelation is unrolling in the background, Quichotte embarks on his quest for love. He departs from reason, and sets foot in the first of seven valleys of love, which is a direct reference to The Conference of the Birds, a literary masterpiece of Persian literature, written by Attar, a celebrated figure of Sufism, also defined as Islamic mysticism. “What if Kierkegaard’s right? If you can never really know. Only have faith.”[iv] And faith is all Quichotte has. He believes that when he unites with his beloved, the TV host, the world will come to an end, which is the seventh valley of love: Poverty and Annihilation. Incidentally, this is literally where the world is heading in Rushdie’s novel. The sky seems to be collapsing into wormholes that are sucking our world into demise and oblivion. But one man has a plan: Evel Cent, another Indian immigrant, who has foretold this day long ago, and with his unbounded fortune, has devised a portal into a “Neighbour Earth”, where the laws of physics are to be defined as we go, a completely different world, a novel reality, a newborn Synthesis. On a metaphorical level, the laws governing the new reality could not be predicted by rational thinking, which is constrained by consciousness and knowledge, both of which will take a giant leap forward upon entering the new world.
Rushdie stretches the story from the US to the UK, implying a resemblance between the two nations, in terms of recent developments in political and social scenes. It’s a revolution in a global scale. The rise of demagogues one after another by a domino effect, who blatantly disregard what used to be held as common sense. The conventional demarcation of ideologies and political views is fading away. The binary concept of Left and Right has long been challenged intellectually, but this time it’s finally falling apart in practice. Quichotte’s voluntary renunciation of intellect guides him and his beloved through the portal safe and sound, although not knowing what rests ahead of them. But the outside world is immersed into chaos and falling to pieces. Has 21st century man, some two hundred years after Hegel, reached a level of consciousness to prove him wrong? We’ll find out when the time comes, we’ll discover as we go.
[i] Russel, Bertrand, History of Western Philosophy (Routledge, London and New York, 1996) P.668
[ii] Rushdie, Salman, Quichotte (Jonathan Cape, London, 2019) P.138
[iii] Ibid. i
[iv] Woody Allen, Getting Even, Mr. Big