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Salman Rushdie’s Beautiful Revenge

A hideous attack is transformed into a statement of bloodied but unbowed humanism

Liel Leibovitz
June 19, 2024

There’s a story in the Talmud about a rabbi, Elazar Ben Durdaya, who loved nothing more than whoring. He’d spend every shekel he had frequenting the finest ladies on offer, and so when he heard one day that a new pro had set up shop in some distant town, he filled his purse with coins and made the long journey. (Yes, this story is in Talmud.) Money exchanged hands, clothes peeled off, and just as Elazar was having his fun, the prostitute let out a mighty fart. (Still the Talmud….)

“Know,” the gassy gal told the stunned rabbi Elazar, “that just as this wind I’d passed could never return to my flatulent behind, so, too, would you never be able to find forgiveness for your sins.”

This drove poor Elazar mad. He ran outside, naked, and began to beg for forgiveness. He asked the hills and the mountains, the sun and the moon, the stars and the constellations all to intervene on his behalf, to tell the Almighty that he wasn’t all that bad after all. The hills and the moon and the stars all refused. They had, they told Elazar, better things to do. Finally, Elazar had an epiphany. “The matter,” he told himself, “depends on nothing other than myself.” And with that, he sat by the side of the road, placed his head between his knees, and begged God to take him. A moment later, he was dead, and a voice from above informed his friends that the sinful Rabbi Elazar had gone straight to heaven.

The wisest among them, Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi, heard this and started weeping. “There is one who acquires his share in the World-to-Come only after many years of toil,” he said, “and there is one who acquires his share in the World-to-Come in one moment.” It took but one moment of clarity and introspection for Elazar to redeem himself after a lifetime of sin.

There’s much to love about this wild story, with its surreal and ribald premise, but the best thing about it, maybe, is that it doesn’t really need that last bit about divine forgiveness. It would’ve worked just as well had it ended with the naked Elazar, teary and transformed. Why? Because the story isn’t really about God at all. It’s about Man, his hilarious appetites, his lofty aspirations, and the rare and terrifying moments in which he steps up—or, in this case, sits down—for something more beautiful and true and everlasting than himself.

I thought about the story of Rabbi Elazar a lot while reading Salman Rushdie’s latest, Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder. The author’s experience, as that subtitle suggests, was far less piquant: He was stabbed 15 times by an assailant while giving a talk on stage in Chautauqua, lost an eye, and spent more than a year recovering from his ordeal. But the account he produced, though brief, is Talmudic in its spirit. It leaves nothing out, lets nothing solid melt into metaphor, and insists that no matter how compromised we may find ourselves, the road to somewhere better is never blocked.

Which, given Rushdie’s circumstances, is a tall order. Long before he himself makes this point, movingly, in the book’s final pages, its cover gives away the plot: the letter “I” in the title is designed to appear like a gash, as if a knife had just sliced through the slim, sand-colored volume itself.

A knife attack, this gash suggests, is a powerful thing. It can do much more than merely rip into flesh or sever a nerve. Even worse, it can pin an author to the circumstances of his injury, and make him watch, helpless and enraged, as the only thing he’d ever wanted to be judged by, his work, goes unheeded and unloved.

Rushdie, of course, is no stranger to this danger: His gorgeous 1988 book, The Satanic Verses—which led the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s Supreme Leader, to issue a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s assassination—was discussed by too many and read by too few, casting a shadow over an even larger talent that was forced to propel itself out of the front pages or gossip columns and back into the book section, one excellent novel at a time.

But the fatwa was a what-if; the stabbing—which resulted in four wounds to Rushdie’s stomach, three to his neck, one to his right eye, one to his thigh, and one to his chest—was something very different. It happened, and it left the author, 75 years old at the time of his 27-second encounter with his assailant, at death’s door.

How, then, might a writer begin to make sense of something so momentous and so monstrous? A lesser writer than Rushdie might’ve, say, let those 27 seconds rush wild before turning the torrent of terror into a rivulet of self-pity and truisms about “resilience” or “the human spirit.” Or he might’ve gone the path of self-effacement, eager to understand not what was happening to him but what had happened to his assailant, interviewing the attacker and his family and putting them at the center of the work. Rushdie, Hallelujah, is wiser.

His first major insight, one he shares with the rabbis of the Talmud, is this: whatever else we may be, we’re all first and foremost embodied creatures. Fear, hope, love are grand, but none may flourish without fingers, skin, glands. Other literary lions might not have been too keen to deliver an account of their urethra, especially in a state of frailty, but Rushdie is braver. He is human, and nothing human is foreign to him. This candor helps him parry the knife. Look, he seems to be saying with every honest and heartbreaking—and, sometimes, hilarious—account of another body part behaving badly, here I am, not a victim but a writer, connecting with you now by working the magic only great books can work and making you feel what I feel, an almost magical act of transitive empathy.

And as goes the body, so does the mind. Rushdie’s deep thoughts are all here for us to admire, but the mind, especially an interesting one, isn’t crystalline. It’s muddied by lesser thoughts, some pitiful and others funny, and it’s precisely the joy of finding a pebble in the reflecting pool that makes reading such a thrill.

In Knife, Rushdie offers us the only antidote that can sustain us. It is love.

Rushdie gives us pebbles aplenty. Here he is, for example, traveling back to the scene of the attack, almost a year to the day after his encounter with the knife. He is nervous, obviously, and unsure, but when he sees a sign for a local New York State town named Fredonia, his minds adds another letter and off we go to Freedonia, and Duck Soup, and some of Groucho’s most uproarious one-liners. A good author cuts such distractions out of the final manuscript because he wants to seem smarter. A great author leaves them in because he knows it means he is human (and, perhaps even more relevantly here, alive.)

As the book rushes towards its center of gravity, however, mind and body alike take a back seat to the two gargantuan struggles that make Knife so compelling.

The first is with the assailant. Rushdie refers to him simply as the A—as in the attacker, but also the asshole, the dumb kid from New Jersey who was radicalized on a trip to Lebanon and spent years in his mother’s basement, playing video games and watching inflamed sermons online. Rushdie toys with the idea of confronting his stabber, as Samuel Beckett, another celebrated stabee, once confronted the pimp who had plunged a blade into his chest, but he thinks better of it. The A, he argues, had his turn. He applied his sharp tool, and now it was the writer’s turn to brandish sharp tools of his own and imagine a conversation in which, because it is taking place in the writer’s imagination, the A has no choice but to show up and answer truthfully.

The exchange is unsentimental. Neither Rushdie nor his conjured marauder slip into grandstanding. The A admits to having his worldview shaped by Imam Yutubi, whose bile he’d snarfed online instead of seeking more substantive stuff from more serious people in person. Rushdie attempts gentle questions about doubt and translation and mercy. The conversation goes nowhere.

Which is precisely its point. Rushdie has no interest in offering us the comfort of some serviceable explanation, some vantage point from which, if we wish, we may begin to understand, maybe even empathize with, the A. The A, scarlet letter in human form, is a shameful embodiment of all that lies on the other side of compassion. He’s not here for us to engage with; he’s here for us to resist.

The same, Rushdie believes, is true of God—which is why the book’s second great struggle is with the Creator Himself. You may think that a septuagenarian who faced down a much younger, much stronger armed attacker and prevailed would be tempted to entertain a belief in some higher, benevolent power. You may even expect an author whose books show no shortage of fantastic occurrences—you may even call them miracles—to have a late-in-life epiphany, rushing into the arms of a God whose existence he’d always denied.

Thanks, says Rushdie, but no thanks: “my godlessness,” he writes, “remains intact.” Deities, he argues matter-of-factly, were something the human race needed long ago, like young children need their parents when they are too small to feed themselves or tie their own shoelaces. Now that the species is all grown up, “we—or, let me more modestly say, I—have no need of commandments, popes, or god-men of any sort to hand down my morals to me. I have my own ethical sense, thank you very much. God did not hand down morality to us. We created God to embody our moral instincts.” This sort of sentiment is what passes for dogma these days among our self-appointed intellectual and moral betters, the sort who can easily explain each and every evil as an emanation of right-wing bigotry and absolutely nothing else.

Here, too, Rushdie stands apart. Nothing about his pronouncements is facile or blithe. Sure, he allows himself a dig or two at the 45th President and his hardy supporters, but he’s just as sharp when taking issue with the cowardly peers who failed to stand up for the embattled satirists of Charlie Hebdo when they were slaughtered by gunmen in 2015 because the magazine had poked fun at Islam. The same moral clarity led Rushdie earlier this year to rebuke American college students cheering on a “fascist terrorist group,” and to question the current desirability of a Palestinian state. “If there were a Palestinian state now,” he told a German interviewer, “it would be run by Hamas and we would have a Taliban-like state. A satellite state of Iran. Is this what the progressive movements of the Western Left want to create?”

It’s hard to imagine that this statement won Rushdie many new fans in what passes for the smart set these days. It’s just as hard to imagine that his adherence to the great yet battered ethos of humanism would win him any new fans among the hardened ranks of conservatives eager to exterminate the brutes. Rushdie doesn’t seem to care. He isn’t interested in culture wars, even if he understands that we have very real enemies. He is a true Cosmopolitan, even if he knows that every polis, as Bernard-Henri Lévy had observed, had always been judicious about just who and just what it chose to let in. He knows the power of hate. He’d seen what it can do. And in Knife, he offers us the best—the only—antidote that can sustain us.

It is love.

Whatever else it is, Knife is also the account of Rushdie falling in love with his wife, the poet, artist, and novelist Rachel Eliza Griffiths. We get their meet-cute story—following Griffiths to a balcony at a party, the author, smitten, walks into a glass door, passes out, requires care, and is delighted when the lovely woman he was hoping to woo is the one offering it. We read as Rushdie—again, unencumbered by fame or expectations of mirthless profundity—giddily shares his infatuation with his inamorata. We also feel Griffiths’ terror when she’s told that her husband, lying bleeding on stage after the attack, might not make it, and we witness her resilience as she helps Rushdie slowly regain his life force after the attack.

These are not trivial asides, to be done away with quickly before attending to the weightier stuff, like violence or religion or politics. They are, Rushdie understands, the main attraction.

Herein lies the book’s true power, the thing that makes it indispensable. It is one thing for a survivor of a political assassination to stand tall and vow that he’ll fight on; it’s another thing altogether for him to use the very same stage to declare that he also loves his wife. The former is an abstraction, and a rather limp one at that; the latter is a blueprint for life.

Those of us lucky enough to have been in love know its power. We know, too, that there’s no more urgent conversation for us to have. We may make strong pronouncements about believing in God or refuting His existence. We may rant about geopolitics or economics or any of the other forces we cannot possibly begin to understand, let alone control. But when we quiet down and look around and ask what truly matters, what we see is each other, the people we love and who love us in return. This feeling, call it humanism if you must, is the soil in which all faith in a better tomorrow is rooted. And in Salman Rushdie, it has found its great and unbowed bard.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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