The Fragile Bodies of Famous Men

On Salman Rushdie

by Justin E. H. Smith

“Never forget that writing is as close as we get to keeping a hold on the thousand and one things – childhood, certainties, cities, doubts, dreams, instants, phrases, parents, loves – that go on slipping, like sand, through our fingers.” — Salman Rushdie

The goring of Salman Rushdie at the venerable Chautauqua Institution last week has brought back memories for many of us. As for me, I found my thoughts returning mostly to 1989, and to 2015. The earlier year marks one of my first encounters with real literature, when the Ayatollah Khomeini unwittingly recommended The Satanic Verses by making me want to find out how any piece of writing could be that powerful. In the past 33 years this is one of the only reading recommendations I have ever taken, preferring otherwise to chart my own course through the treasury of world literature both canonical and heretical. The later year saw two ignominious attacks on Paris. On the night of the second and larger one, in November, my partner was out at a concert in a bar on the Canal St. Martin, and had to slink through the streets while the shooting still raged. I was on a train coming back from Turin, and when I arrived at the Gare de Lyon, I needed to find a way up to the Buttes Chaumont. Trying to maneuver around the police barricades on my Vélib rental bike, I wound up close enough to the Bataclan to hear the gun battle inside when the police finally stormed it. In the following days I saw, mostly from acquaintances in the Anglosphere, countless variations on what the oft-imprisoned Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yücel called at the time “the mendacious, shitty ‘but’” [“das verlogene, beschissene ‘Aber’”], as in: “Of course it’s always wrong to murder people, but those cartoons were very offensive.”

All these cowards showing their buts sent me into a long fit of righteous anger, which left a long and verbose trace over the following two years or so in various print and online media. I calmed down eventually, as I think my writing on Substack shows (though my mother still tells me I should write “more like Christopher Hitchens”). I have largely pulled away from “issues”-based writing—what is there to say? It’s all just so much never-ending human comedy, century after century.

What strikes me now, in the wake of this most recent attack, is how important Rushdie—a fellow Substacker, incidentally—has been in helping me to discover and cultivate the sensibility I at least try to put on display here. Rushdie is a lover of stories, fables, the condensed gems of cultural lore that transmit truth by evoking impossibilities, absurdities, magic. Fantasy is a dimension that a writer superadds to reality, not an escape from reality; one is mistaken to overlook the realism in “magical realism.” In a moving 2021 essay Rushdie describes the work of the South American magical realists as a migration of the “wonder tales” that may be traced back to the Arabic oral traditions from which 1001 Nights coalesced, and he reflects that his own work is in some sense a homecoming, back from Colombia and Argentina, of this globalized tradition. So forget for a moment about the imperative to defend the freedom of speech—which, however important, remains a merely “formal” freedom; here is something even more important: to love someone who has the sense and wisdom, almost totally unknown in our mendacious and shitty age, to pursue the truth in the mode of wonder.

I would not speculate that Rushdie is currently savoring the ironies of his role in the recent news cycle. Of course there’s nothing funny about getting stabbed in the neck. And yet, for years Rushdie himself has capitalized on the humor potential of what he knew to be a real, imminent threat against him, even going so far as to appear on Curb Your Enthusiasm and telling Larry David, whose character had gone and got a fatwa against himself for making a musical called Fatwa!, that this is really not such a bad club to join, as it considerably raises your sex appeal. So in time I hope Rushdie will come to appreciate the special and at least somewhat delightful significance of an assassination attempt in western New York State.

Ross Douthat has emphasized the particular irony of the assailant’s choice of Chautauqua. “The wars of the Islamic world,” he wrote on Twitter, “come to the lakeside seat of America’s vanished Protestant establishment.” This is true enough about the particular venue, but for the most part western New York has been, since the early nineteenth century, a breeding ground of anti-establishment Protestantism, and has provided some of the earliest models, even before the United States had any West to speak of, for the effervescent sectarian revivals that have made America the terrifying and wonderful place it is. This was the site of the Second Great Awakening (c. 1790-c. 1830), from which the term “Burned-Over District” emerged to describe the portions of western and central New York State that gave rise, alongside various utopian socialist colonies, to Seventh-day Adventism and Mormonism, and to countless other movements admixing various proportions of individual liberation and puritanical tyranny—all recipes from the great American cookbook. The precise meaning of “Burned-Over” is unknown, yet it seems at least to be motivated by the idea that too many sparks of religious fervor will eventually leave the earth charred.

It was in 1820 in Palmyra, New York, that an angel descended to Joseph Smith and dictated a new book of scripture to him, from which we learn that after the crucifixion Christ came and paid a visit to the Native peoples of North America. This labor of his set in motion a chain of events that would eventually get him assassinated in a mob attack in Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1844.

Unlike writers, among whom I am including the founder of the Church of Latter-day Saints, most political figures never actually do anything to distinguish themselves, but we may as well include here the assassination of President William McKinley, if only because it happened in the Temple of Music at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. He was murdered by the Polish-American anarchist Leon Czolgosz, who was in turn executed in the recently debuted electric chair. Before Czolgosz’s body could be dissolved in sulfuric acid, his brain was delivered to the celebrated anatomist Edward Anthony Spitzka, who, perhaps to his regret, found no lesions or other abnormalities to explain the radical gesture of the deceased.

Spitzka’s father, Edward Charles Spitzka, had been the author of the 1883 work Treatise on Insanity: Its Classification, Diagnosis, and Treatment, and had been an expert witness at the trial of the President James A. Garfield’s assassin in 1881, two years before the book was published. All of this transpired in Washington, D.C., so it might seem to bring us even further from the topic to which we were trying to remain faithful—purveyors of ideas, both religious and literary, and the violence that follows them, on the particular example of western New York State—but I think there is an important lesson in it so let’s follow this improvisation where it leads us. Nor is it entirely a change of key, for Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau, had been raised in a utopian religious community near Oneida, New York, organized around the charismatic leader John Humphrey Noyes, a conflicted promoter of free love, mostly for himself, and of committee-regulated polygamous group-marriage for other members of his commune. Guiteau, whose mother died of what has been described as postpartum psychosis, had an early zealous attachment to Noyes, and a dissolute later life in which his zeal shifted, around 1872, from Upstate-style utopian radical religion to Democratic politics. When Guiteau was led to the gallows for his hanging in 1882 at the age of forty, he was permitted to sing a song of his own composition, “I am Going to the Lordy.” The song is of unknown length, but 26 lines were sung before he fell. We might imagine that Hadi Matar had some such similar tune, though of course not exactly the same one, when he planted his knife in Salman Rushdie’s neck.

Guiteau did not manage to kill his target immediately, and for a while it looked like President Garfield might pull through. Being the president, he had access to state-of-the-art medical care, which in 1881 included, among other things, the use of nutrient enemas, as related in the remarkable text of the following year entitled Feeding per Rectum, As Illustrated in the Case of the Late President Garfield, and Others, by his doctor Willard Bliss. If I were aiming for something more of a Dave Barry voice here, I might say right around now: I’m not making this up.

It is remarkable that as recently as the late nineteenth century, even in the United States, a typical medical article included a dutiful and thorough survey of the relevant literature reaching back to Galen and the Corpus Hippocraticum. Dr. Bliss cites numerous authorities, in Greek, Latin, French and German, on the question whether it is possible, so to speak, to eat from either end—including, notably, a French author who is particularly preoccupied with the rectal administration of red wine (see F. A. Aran, “De l’emploi des lavements de vin,” Bulletin Gén. de Thérap. Méd. et Chir., Paris, 1850). Bliss’s recipes have a more distinctly American savor to them, emphasizing the possible usefulness of such ingredients as “beef peptonoids” and even tobacco smoke. He reproduces some very detailed instructions from the Assistant Surgeon General C. H. Crane for an enema of beef extract, which direct the medical worker to “infuse a third of a pound of fresh beef, finely minced, in 14 ounces of cold soft water, to which a few drops (4 or 5) of muriatic acid and a little salt (from 10 to 18 grains) have been added… [S]train it through a sieve and wash the residue with 5 ounces of cold water, pressing it to remove all soluble matter,” and so on. In the end Garfield’s feeding per rectum lasted but a little more than a month, from August 14 to September 19, 1881. He died on the last day of his treatment. The experiment was not a failure, in Dr. Bliss’s view: “The late President Garfield,” he writes, “was some of the time entirely, and all of the time very largely, sustained by rectal feeding.”

I have read on Twitter recently a few variations on the observation that the funniest thing Donald Trump could do right now, as his legal troubles mount, is to die. I take this to be funny because Trump is so obviously just a body, an ensemble of kidneys and veins and a rectum and other such things, that his death could only serve to remind us how ridiculous it has been for such a mortal vessel as his to sustain so much inexhaustible discoursing. When by contrast a political leader is loved (and I’m not saying no one loves Trump this way, only that I don’t), death can seem unthinkable. Alekseï German’s remarkable 1998 film, Khrustalyov, My Car!, shows this in painful detail, when the doctors surrounding the moribund Stalin are subjected to ridiculous orders and threats from the generalissimo’s underlings, still hoping to keep him alive. In one scene, what’s left of Stalin is lying on his bed, and, at some point, he farts. “Make him fart again!” a lackey shouts. “Press on his stomach! Fart him!” he shouts again, turning the verb into a transitive, as one does in burping a baby.

Rushdie’s agent Andrew Wylie reported the day after the attack that “the news is not good,” that the author remained attached to a ventilator, unable to speak, with a damaged liver, and at risk of losing an eye. In a subsequent update, we learned that Rushdie had been taken off the ventilator, and had said a few words, and that his spirited personality was again showing through.

I still find it hard to believe that the author of The Satanic Verses has a liver, or a rectum, or a jugular vein in his neck (though I suppose I can at least understand that he has eyes)—that such an imagination as his is dependent on such crude organs for its survival. Why, I will never stop wondering, are the vessels of imagination, and the vessels of mere wind and noise, of the same nature?

On more than one occasion friends Rushdie and I have in common have sent something or other I have written to him, and have told me: “Salman is going to love this!” Nothing further has ever come of it, but in light of the promising medical updates we have heard over the past few days, I am so happy to be able to keep hoping.