Against Intellectual Biblioclasm II

I wrote my first manifesto “Against Intellectual Biblioclasm” over a year ago. I concluded it was time for an update when I read this earlier today:

Yet I am more persuaded by a former jihadi named Shahid Butt, who now spends his time deradicalising misguided souls in Birmingham. To him, another rioter from 1989, Rushdie is simply “a dickhead”. He says: “What kind of literary writer, academic, are you that the only way that you can get any fame is by being derogatory and by insulting billions of people. Is that the best you can do?”

Rushdie’s silly, childish book should be banned under today’s anti-hate legislation. It’s no better than racist graffiti on a bus stop. I wouldn’t have it in my house, out of respect to Muslim people and contempt for Rushdie, and because it sounds quite boring. I’d be quite inclined to burn it, in fact. It’s a free country, after all.

This may or may not be “a modest proposal” on the author’s part—Poe’s Law applies. Yet his logic, the eliminationist-totalitarian logic of #cancellation now rampant within the left-liberal literary world, is impeccable. As I wrote in my review of Albert Murray’s The Hero and the Blues last year:

[T]his [is the] time of the left-liberal literati’s retrenchment, its increasingly shrill insistence, enforced by regular social media mob actions against wreckers and traitors, on a Marxist-derived reductionist approach to human identity and a moralistic attitude toward the nature and purpose of art, the latter coupled with impatient defenses of inquisitorial censoriousness. They want to pull books from the shelves and pictures from the walls; who could possibly doubt that if, say, the Rushdie affair happened today, all of literate Brooklyn would high-mindedly excuse those calling for the “racist” novelist’s head?

When I was a teenager, I joined the political left because I understood it, in that era of the religious right’s now-almost-forgotten hegemony, to be the side that stood for freedom of thought and speech. I was warned by several older people that this was not the case, but with the certitude that can only come from youthful inexperience, I did not listen. 15 years ago, depressed and afraid, I wrote all day on Livejournal (remember that?) about how George W. Bush was going to put us in prison camps and had done 9/11 and would start a nuclear war, about how both climate change and peak oil (remember that?) would end the world within the decade, and about how only proletarian and Third-World revolution would save us.

It only took a year or two, and professional acquaintance with some fellow travelers of this creed, to show me how wrong I was about its reliability as a guide to both facts and ethics. Apocalypticism is always a racket; dystopia is an abuse of the speculative intellect, a genre fit for children, and perhaps not even for them. And if the world ends, you can’t do anything about it anyway. Chekhov said that artists should only participate in politics only enough to keep themselves safe from politics. We need to cultivate our gardens, after we secure our right to them in the first place. The autonomy of art is not incidental to secular freedom but its bedrock. It is logically, because politically, prior to almost every other right. The enslaved were not permitted to read; freedom of speech, thought, and art grounds and founds every other freedom. 

The totalitarian left as a metaphysical entity is, in contrast to secular freedom, an only very slight development of the theocratic imagination, with its anathemas, its iconoclasms, and its eschatologies. In the platonically sterile air of its cultural dominance, laughter itself, laughter per se, becomes a confession of unrighteous thought, hence the perennial necessity of purging jesters like Rushdie or, before him, Joyce. 

How did this happen? How did we, the heirs to Joyce and contemporaries of Rushdie,  become thrall to these latter-day Savonarolas, Matherses, and Zhdanovs? Ours was a literary century inaugurated by the martyrdom of Oscar Wilde, who would be #canceled today if only the present-day literati lifted their heads from whatever children’s books have not yet been pulped for insensitivity long enough to know of his pederasty, his anti-Semitism, or his Confederate sympathies, none of which justify the juridical destruction of his person nor corrupt the spirit of imaginative freedom that respires from his perfumed prose.

Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live. And unselfishness is letting other people’s lives alone, not interfering with them. Selfishness always aims at creating around it an absolute uniformity of type. Unselfishness recognizes infinite variety of type as a delightful thing, accepts it, acquiesces in it, enjoys it. It is not selfish to think for oneself. A man who does not think for himself does not think at all. It is grossly selfish to require of one’s neighbor that he should think in the same way, and hold the same opinions. Why should he? If he can think, he will probably think differently. If he cannot think, it is monstrous to require thought of any kind from him. (“The Soul of Man Under Socialism”)

And this inquisition has nothing whatsoever to do with “anti-racism,” which is just another in a long line of noble causes corrupted into an alibi for tyranny by opportunists who begin to feel insane if they go one second without controlling other people. Albert Murray would be the first to tell you. But also: Toni Morrison stood with Rushdie, Ralph Ellison mocked the Marxists, and Zora Neale Hurston knew the score 90 years ago:

Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more of less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife. (“How It Feels to Be Colored Me”)

As for “social justice,” it is practiced just as you would expect a political concept developed in the 19th-century Catholic Church to be practiced: with less respect than is presently desirable for freedom, individuality, and the imagination.

I was raised Catholic and educated in Catholic schools, so I will say what I want about the abuses within the institutions of that faith, if not about the faith itself, which is often salvific and beautiful (Wilde would agree). Perhaps many forms of feminism would make somewhat more emotional sense to me if I hadn’t heard three generations’ worth of stories, and witnessed an example or two with my own eyes, of adult women dressed all in black beating small children with rulers bound into fasces or stabbing them in the chest with ballpoint pens for their sins. My parents were married by a priest now known to be a predatory pedophile, and in my youth a different priest now known to be a predatory pedophile was frequently entertained at my family’s dinner table. So much for holiness, holy women, holy men, and holy causes. In Catholic school, long before I knew about any priest’s private predilections, long before I read Wilde (or Nietzsche), I learned that avowed morality is usually a cover for domination and brutality.

Anyone who speaks of morality while controlling or harming others does the devil’s work. It might even be true, sometimes I suspect it is, that anyone who speaks of morality ever, at all, instead of silently doing all the good that can be managed in this crooked world, is the devil’s assistant. In any case, “morality,” “justice,” and all the rest of “those big words that make us so unhappy,” make me want to vomit. These are abstractions susceptible of being twisted into this shape and that by totalitarians. Those who want to ban and burn the books of authors of color are “anti-racists” in the same way that many communist states were “democratic republics.”

By contrast, the élan vital of literature is specificity, concretion, and singularity. That is not because all writers are moral, or all works are; the very question of the morality of art is—not a childish one, because children blessedly don’t care, but precisely one motivated by all the insecurity of adults who don’t feel they have command of themselves unless they are commanding others. As one good Catholic, Simon Leys, once wrote,

It is not a scandal if novelists of genius prove to be wretched fellows; it is a comforting miracle that wretched fellows prove to be novelists of genius.

Now I write the foregoing because I know how many people agree with me. They are just unwilling to say so in public; in public, they melt into puddles if someone cries, “Think of the children!” or if some opportunist, with transparent phoniness, claims to be the single voice of a race, a gender, a class, or a sexuality, even though doing so is a form of dehumanizing essentialism in its own right because it traduces the complexity of all communities and individuals.

It has to stop. We all have to seize our courage in the face of the all-out assault on artistic freedom that is coming from within the very institutions (the press, academia, publishing) we have appointed custodians of art. There is no excuse. The time for freedom of speech and art is now and forever. Against the book banners and the book burners—against them while we’re allowed to be.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

“Tear Him for His Bad Verses”: PEN, Charlie Hebdo, and the Cosmopolitical Writer in Bad Faith

[The following is more of a collage than an argument, strictly speaking, so please feel free to fill in some of the gaps with your own imagination. For a quality argument on the topic, see here.]

Teju Cole:

I’m a free-speech fundamentalist, but I don’t think it’s a good use of our headspace or moral commitments to lionize Charlie Hebdo in particular. L’affaire Rushdie (for example) was a very different matter, as different as blasphemy is from racism. I support Rushdie 100%, but I don’t want to sit in a room and cheer Charlie Hebdo. This distinction seems to have been difficult for people to understand, and any dissent from the consensus about Charlie Hebdo is read as somehow “supporting the terrorists,” or somehow believing that they deserved to be murdered.

Some people in the republic of letters develop a short memory when it’s convenient—when, that is, a little cost-free moralism is to be had, when a few “victims who had it coming” are to be trendily blamed. The offense, if offense it was, of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons was in fact identical to that of The Satanic Verses in the eyes of its detractors. When is the last time Cole read The Satanic Verses? Well, I confess I haven’t read it since high school myself, but I do remember a few things. I don’t have the novel to hand, but here is an account from a critic who broadly shares Cole’s politics:

Religious apostasy may have been the proximate cause, but as in other sectoralist conflicts the real struggle was, as always, over rights, labor, and land. As perceived by the book’s detractors, Rushdie’s crime was the combined product of notoriety and an insider status that could effectively translate itself in Anglo-American surroundings, and do so in a context of palpable contempt for an immigrant community of believers in an era, as Syed Shahabuddin put it, of the “new Crusades.” He had, in the view of Shahabuddin, “peddled his Islam wares in the West.”Following the fatwa, Muslim scholars seeking to explain what was outrageous in the book focused on his distance from the working-class Muslims and Hindus he typically wrote about—above all in England (and British Muslims were the first to burn the book publicly). What, for example, do we make of the fact that among them he was often referred to, with deliberate cruelty, as “Simon Rushton”?


If Rushdie had made a point about the adaptability of immigrants, and their tendency to try on identities in order to “turn insults into strengths,” there is an aspect to the writing of these sections that are presented as strengths but that should in all justice be turned back into insults. It certainly was by many Muslim readers of the book.

Remember that Baal in the novel is a court hireling contracted by the Jahilian Grandee to satirize the village poor. His job is to practice on behalf of the state the “art of metrical slander.” It is a key moment in the novel. When the novel arrives at his portrayal of the resistance of the black communities of Britain,we are introduced to their comically overweight leader, Uhura Simba (named after Tarzan’s elephant?), and the fatuous deejay toaster Pinkwallah, the white black man—both vicious send-ups of British dub poetry and the sorts of popular resistance represented by Linton Kwesi Johnson, Darcus Howe, and other figures recognizable to postwar British, especially left, readers. These portraits are combined with an almost unreadably condescending passage on the Afro-British communities, an Orpheus and Eurydice parody in “Black speech,” involving two lovers who work in the London Underground. One wonders why the first protests against the novel did not come from the Afro-British communities. It seems particularly depressing that one of the characters—Uriah Mosley—is given the same surname as Oswald Mosley, the 1930s leader of British fascism; a joke that, needless to say, falls flat.

From the perspective of the metropolis, there is a good deal of overlap, after all, between black people, working-class people, and the Islamic faithful. The village poor that the Jahilian Grandee first wants Baal to satirize are the water carrier Khalid, a Persian named Salman, and the black slave Bilal—the riffraff who become the Grandee’s targets because they are early converts to Islam. The scene evokes a psychological truth, for Islam in the mind of many Western commentators is a religion of Semites of Arab extraction, Persians with dark eyebrows, laborers from the Punjab, and sub-Saharan blacks—the kind of people who, long before the Ayatollah posted his bounty, were demonstrating in Bradford, Detroit, and Karachi. What is Rushdie doing satirizing such people through his persona, Baal?

(Timothy Brennan, Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right, New York: Columbia UP, 2006, 69-70, 88-9)

But Teju Cole cannot admit any of that because his identity, like that of his cohort at large (Carey, Kushner, Eisenberg, Ondaatje, et al.), let us collectively call them “the cosmopolitical writer,” is to double business bound. It depends on being elite enough not to be mistaken for some mere migrant worker (“I am an Author, after all, and I am better than you”) but still able to don the identitarian mask of the oppressed or the tribune thereof when some rival elites are to be mocked and castigated. Pre-fatwa Rushdie is Cole’s model for the cosmopolitical writer, so Rushdie can’t have been racist, only a bunch of bad cartoonists, merely national, could be racist, and who cares what happens to them? Theirs is a self-serving politics of pure projection, disguised as humanitarian concern. They want to be elites, but silent about it; fellow artists who display the distance between themselves and the wretched of the earth, i.e., who announce the elitism that Cole, Eisenberg, et al. only live, fuck with the brand. Post-fatwa Rushdie has at least aligned belief with practice, however unedifying is the spectacle of his calling his colleagues “pussies” on Twitter.

Of Deborah Eisenberg’s remarks, quoted at the link—

Thus they expended their courage, and ten of them lost their lives, in what was essentially a parochial, irrelevant, misconceived, misdirected, relatively trivial, and more or less obsolete campaign against clericalism. It is also courageous to bait a hallucinating and armed soldier, to walk around naked in the dead of winter, to jump off a roof, to drink from a sewer, or to attempt sexual intercourse with a wild boar.

—I will say only that she ought to be ashamed of herself. Her words are the left’s version of “don’t dress that way if you don’t want to be raped” and “don’t mouth off to the cops if you don’t want them to shoot you dead.” And, if you follow the logic of the metaphors, about as racist as anything Charlie Hebdo published, unless being compared to “a sewer” and “a wild boar” is somehow a compliment. Funnily enough, if Eisenberg were assassinated for comparing Muslims to sewers and boars, I would say that she did not deserve to be.

Likewise, if Teju Cole were assassinated for what even I took to be the rather high-handed portrayal of Farouq in Open City (plausibly insulting to immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, unless “tastefulness” and “literariness” are all-purpose shields, unless literally only cartoons can be offensive), I would say he did not invite it and that he was a martyr to the writer’s freedom. A Marxist once told me that The English Patient was a thoroughgoing and rebarbative apologia for imperialism; should Ondaatje return his honors for possibly having aggressed against the disempowered? Do these writers understand the test to which they are implicitly submitting their works? Or are they only submitting the works of those they consider beneath them to the test so that they can look in the mirror and see a friend of the people staring back?

Are these anything more than the ironies of liberalism itself, veering between elite delectation and over-compensatory populism? Is an intellectual just one who “recks not his own rede”? Perhaps, as the best Marxist literary critic of his generation now says, we need “an un-critical theory,” by which I gather he means something like what used to be called “vulgar Marxism.” Though of course that too is an aesthetic position parading as a politics, unless he’s laying in a cache of arms he’s not telling us about (he wouldn’t tell us, would he?). The point isn’t exactly theory, after all, but its materialization as practice, and if the wished-for Red Guard ever arrives, they will not ask for the adjective (“Marxist”) modifying the noun (“professor”) before they apply the proletarian brick to the bourgeois brain. The organic intellectual will categorically not have tenure. On the Day of Red Judgment, subject position will be all—contra some sensitive young men these days, there is no quarrel between Marxism and identity politics; Marxism invented identity politics.

I stopped being a Marxist because the gap it opened between my beliefs and my practices was just too stupid to be endured: “This race and this country and this life produced me, he said. I shall express myself as I am.” I am a literature-loving petit-bourgeois, a skeptical aesthete, a son of assimilationist and ambitious immigrants, and a free-speech fundamentalist of the unequivocal type. With Borges I say that the universe is my birthright, and someday maybe, if the un-critical theory has its day again, they will put me against the wall for the liberalism I am way too cool to espouse but which they will correctly perceive that I nevertheless embody, and until then (who knows what cowardly lies I will come out with on the day?) I will not pretend that I do not care more for Shakespeare than for The People, whoever they might be and not that I have ever seen them, having only met people in my life so far. Here is a passage from Shakespeare that might be profitably studied in the current context:

THIRD CITIZEN. Your name, sir, truly.

CINNA THE POET. Truly, my name is Cinna.

FIRST CITIZEN. Tear him to pieces; he’s a conspirator.

CINNA THE POET. I am Cinna the poet, I am Cinna the poet.

FOURTH CITIZEN. Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses.

CINNA THE POET. I am not Cinna the conspirator.

FOURTH CITIZEN. It is no matter, his name’s Cinna; pluck but his
name out of his heart, and turn him going.

(Julius Caesar, 3.3)

Perhaps we poets, not conspirators, might live honestly. I wonder how discouraged frankness is today. For instance, we might just admit, we literary cosmopolitans, that for the most part the “un-critical theorists” are correct: we have embraced a set of values (to name just three: irony, rootlessness, aesthetic formalism) that entail a certain antipathy to the religious commitments of most of the planet’s poor, Christian or Islamic, migrant or native, and that are moreover inimical to most variants of Marxism (perhaps all except the Adornian adjustment, which is just another aestheticism). I can admit it. My own people were poor and religious; they too were immigrants; then they got a bit less poor; then they could afford to have me educated; and here I am, educated and irreligious and literary, and not really able, deep down, to care whose religion I may happen to insult in the course of my literary endeavors, and generally of the belief that everyone should be educated into my self-delighting skepticism. (I used to think the latter belief—economic provision so that we can all become cosmopolitan nihilists—was what it meant to be on the political left, but increasingly I see that I was mistaken, that the theodicy of the revolution demands absolute sacrifice of the sensibility.) And I have made my peace with who I am and with what I want; I’m certainly not going to twist myself up all in knots to pretend otherwise, let alone to join the cosmopolitical writer in his magnanimous gesture of principle conducted over the corpses of his disowned because less elegant brethren.