In the last section of Salman Rushdie’s autobiographical nonfiction, Knife, there’s a startling piece of information regarding the man who attempted to murder the writer on August 12, 2022, at the Chautauqua Amphitheatre in New York. Rushdie does not want to call the 24-year-old Lebanese American fanatic who tried to kill him by name, but rather by the initial “the A.” That can mean Assassin, Assailant, and Ass. The police officer who arrested the Assailant found many knives in the bag that was hidden by the stage. Rushdie is justifiably perturbed to learn the fact and wonders about the reason for it. I feel the man thought like a murder-mechanic. He wanted to carry his toolkit, which in his case were variations of the weapon he had chosen for the act. It made him feel professionally armed for the job. He left the final choice to the way he visualised the scene of his crime.

Literature: a doubled edged knife

Yet, it turned out the Assassin wasn’t skilful enough. The doctor at the UPMC Hamot, the hospital in Erie, Pennsylvania where Rushdie was first admitted, told him he was lucky because the Assailant “had no idea how to kill a man with a knife.” The young man who had appointed himself as the chosen one to avenge what he thought was an insult to his religion, proved to be an amateur. His amateurish rage was however enough to considerably damage his victim’s body. Rushdie was lucky to survive not just because the Assailant did not execute his intentions perfectly. The doctors attending to him were better professionals than the Ass who wanted to take his life.

The knife persisted in Rushdie’s mind, both as a real thing and an idea, a metaphor. He writes:

“Language, too, was a knife. It could cut open the world and reveal its meaning, its inner workings, its secrets, its truths. It could be cut through from one reality to another… Language was my knife. If I had unexpectedly been caught in an unwanted knife fight, maybe this was the knife I could use to fight back. It could be the tool I would use to remake and reclaim my world”. 

Literature is a double-edged knife, wounding and un-wounding, winding and unwinding, piercing through the vulnerable body of language. Rushdie’s knife is a nonviolent object, but no less edgy and risky. The knife of literature transforms the nature of the tool, and turns it into a paradoxical act: wounding language in order to speak its wounds. There is a knife of violence and a knife that responds to violence. Violence is an act, a reaction, but never a response. The idea of response leaves open the possibility of response, even if that response to response remains silent. Violence, on the contrary, wants to strangulate the human capacity for response. A response, unlike a reaction, involves thinking and imagination. It seeks to explore and expand the space of the encounter, where you meet others. Rushdie’s knife is a response to the knife that attacked him. The writer’s knife doesn’t seek an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, where the world goes blind. Literature is a knife that heals, and helps open our eyes.

Rushdie grapples with another paradox in this book that has been an abiding one for him as much as for other modern rationalists: between reason and nonreason, where the latter includes the world of intuition, memory, dreams and visions, and of course, faith. It will be productive to engage with Rushdie on this.

A premonition-vision

Two nights before Rushdie left for the fated show at Chautauqua, he had a dream where he was attacked with a spear by a gladiator in a Roman amphitheatre. Rushdie took as a “premonition”, and didn’t want to attend the programme. But he had money concerns that made him decide otherwise. After Rushdie escaped the jaws of death, he imagined the self, or the “I”, as something distinct from his body. Since he did not believe in the immortality of the soul, he reconsidered his idea of human beings possessing “a mortal soul”. Rushdie recollects his immediate sensation after the attack:

“I could see through a glass darkly. I could hear, indistinctly. There was a lot of noise. I was aware of a group of people surrounding me, arching over me, all shouting at the same time.”  

He moves on to describe how his recollection of pain differed from what a group of people that included doctors remembered about the event:

“Members of this group said to journalists that I was wailing with pain, that I kept asking, What’s wrong with my hand? ... In my own memory, strangely, there’s no record of pain… It’s as if a disconnect had appeared between my “outward”, in-the-world self, which was waiting, et cetera, and my “inward”, within-myself self, which was somehow detached from my senses and was, I think, close to delirious.”

When Rushdie regained consciousness at the UPMC Hamot, he had “visions” that were architectural in nature:

“I saw majestic palaces and other grand edifices that were all built out of alphabets. The building blocks of these fantastic structures were letters, as if the world was words, created from the same basic material as language.”

He saw visionary resemblances of the Sheesh Mahal, the Hagia Sophia, the Alhambra, Fatehpur Sikri, the Agra Red Fort and the Lake Palace of Udaipur.

I was reminded of the fragment of a verse from the Bible, “… and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions” [Joel, 2:28]. Rushdie’s premonition was also a vision. Some force beyond the limits of rational awareness was using his unconscious to warn Rushdie his life was in danger. The visions at the hospital were triggered by the painkillers. But the exact nature of the visions was close to the fantastic elements and preoccupations of Rushdie’s fiction. Those architectural beauties resided in the storage of the writer’s imagination. Under exceptionally traumatic conditions, the body makes room for dislocations to preserve mental sanity. Rushdie’s description of his outward and inner selves appears to be a defence mechanism of the mind laminating memory from pain. In the state of delirium Rushdie believes his senses succumbed to, reason doesn’t function. It leaves the game of preservation in the hands of a mysterious collaboration between consciousness and the unconscious. Delirium is a whirlpool where the madness of shock dissolves itself in order to preserve the fate of reason.

Rushdie ponders over his dilemma after he realised he survived the impossible:

“What I meant, of course, was freedom, whatever that much-battered word now meant. But I also wanted to think about miracles, and about the irruption of the miraculous into the life of someone who didn’t believe that the miraculous existed, but who nevertheless had spent a lifetime creating imaginary worlds in which it did.”

The trope of fantasy memorably used by Rushdie in novels like Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) and Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (2015) among others came from an acknowledged debt to The Arabian Nights. They often doubled as a political allegory. He called Shame, the satirical novel on Pakistan, a “modern fairytale”. The suspension of disbelief acts as a literary technique to explain, or escape, situations in a certain historical and political context of the story that exceeds rationale. Rushdie admits he thinks of miracles, but also calls himself a disbeliever of miracles. The problem gets intensified when Rushdie’s African-American wife Rachel Eliza Griffith tells him (what others do as well): “Some greater force protected you.”

Even though Rushdie didn’t pay heed to his premonition, the mysterious force that warned him eventually also saved him. What do you name this force? More fundamentally, one needs to acknowledge the heteronomous nature of something that acts as a protector against intense harm. This force of intuition seems to inhabit a space that is both within and without, and impossible to locate, or name.

Rushdie ponders in response to his wife’s belief,

“What was I supposed to do with that information? I had been an atheist all my days… suddenly, I was asked to believe that a shielding hand had reached down from the sky and protected an unbeliever’s life? What next? If miracles were real, what about the rest of it? Life after death? Heaven and hell? Salvation? Damnation? It was too much.” 

It is difficult for Rushdie to cross the line, to jump across the fence and acknowledge a world he does not believe in. The man who conjures up miracles in his fiction is unable to believe in their presence in his life. Rushdie is honest to admit that perhaps for the first time in his life, he faced the temptation of believing in a miraculous power in the universe. Alejo Carpentier said in his 1964 essay (where he coined the term “marvellously real” to describe modern literature in the wider American landscape), that “the sensation of the marvelous presupposes a faith. Those who do not believe in saints cannot be cured by the miracles of saints.” In Rushdie’s case, the miraculous cured the life of a disbeliever. Clearly, Carpentier, trying to create a counter-belief against reason, undermined the generous force of the miraculous. Rushdie devotes more passages to this conundrum and makes it more fascinating:

“But for half a century I, who believed in science and reason, who had no time for gods and goddesses, had been writing books in which the laws of science were often subverted and people were telepaths, or turned into murderous beasts at night, or fell thirty thousand feet from an airplane and lived and actually grew horns… or in which a woman lived to be two hundred and forty-seven years old.   

What had I been up to for fifty years?” 

‘My survival is miraculous’

Rushdie does not confront the question beyond admitting there is a gap between what he thinks and what he writes. Literature is understood as an aesthetic endeavour where the unconscious is allowed to break the rules of reason, but when it comes to his intellectual makeup, that marvellous transgression is not allowed. Rushdie divides the meaning of intellectual and artistic labour conceptually. He includes the miraculous as an essential and necessary part of his aesthetic imagination but does not accept it as part of his thinking. The Enlightenment thinkers he was introduced to in King’s College, Cambridge and their binaries (between reason and magic, science and superstition) remain a formidable influence. In the end, Rushdie tries a shortcut by taking recourse to Song of Myself:

“No, I don’t believe in miracles, but yes, my books do, and to use Whitman’s formulation, do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I don’t believe in miracles, but my survival is miraculous.”

This is, however, the whole point. To accept contradictions is a departure from the stranglehold of Descartes and Kant. The Cartesian self is not just in doubt, but also in fear of dreams and passions, in other words, the world of the senses. Descartes was unaware of the intricacies of the unconscious world that Freud lit up for us three centuries later. To contradict oneself is to break the monologue of reason, and embrace a dialogic self. In order to describe the distinction between a writer’s private and public self, Rushdie mentions Jorge Luis Borges’ poem “Borges and I”. To treat oneself as other, and other as oneself, is precisely the dialogue that enables the birth of an understanding where the self is no longer a unitary rationalist but a double, conversational self, no longer burdened by the solipsistic limitations of autonomy. Rushdie’s conclusion that his books built a bridge between him and the miraculous and his books saved his life gestures towards a possible dialogue: the Rushdie of his books and the Rushdie of his King’s College training need to have a deeper conversation. If such a conversation happens, who knows, Rushdie’s magical creatures might humble the arrogance of reason.

I am not, however, convinced by Rushdie’s imaginary conversation with the Ass. The character Rushdie picks up from news reports and the interview to the New York Post comes across as too straightforward. He probably lied about himself and hid the identity of those who may have entrusted him with the murder mission. Since something changed in him after his trip to Lebanon to meet his father as his mother testified, it would have been interesting to explore the Assassin’s relationship with his father and others he met there. Rushdie focuses too much on the Assassin’s beliefs. It would have been more interesting perhaps to dwell on his psyche. His indifferent reply and retort to Rushdie’s queries reveal the gap between them, and confirms the futility of the conversation. The conversation never started, and hence, didn’t have a closure. The Ass was a twice-imaginary demon Rushdie wanted to bury for good.

The most significant parts of the book are descriptions of the unbearable days and nights of pain Rushdie endured after the attack. The sewing and un-sewing of his damaged eye, the deep cut in the tongue, insertions of a catheter, the wounds on his face, neck, chest and left hand, kept the 75-year-old man painfully sleepless, “flinging myself around in my bed and shouting and crying”. He also had recurring nightmares that reminded him of surrealist films and paintings, Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou and Salvador Dali. Despite the pain, the writer was alive to reflection. When he finally saw his face after several weeks in the bathroom mirror at the rehabilitation centre in New York, he faced his real other, an unshaven man with bruises on his face and body. Inevitably, the writer imagines a role reversal, the face in the mirror replacing him in the real world. The moment reminded me of its comic double: the scene of a wounded and drunk Amitabh Bachchan pacifying himself before the mirror in Manmohan Desai’s Amar Akbar Anthony.

Love, besides his undaunted spirit, helped Rushdie overcome the pain. Eliza was at his bedside, and her presence was a balm for the wounds and nightmares. It made his heart insist, despite the “terminally unhappy world” surrounding him, that he was happy. The experience of happiness is difficult to explain or define because it is measured against the pain of life that cannot overwhelm us. Happiness is a wave in the tidal flow of life where despite gravity, something tosses you up. Often, the name of that wave is love.

Knife is an exceptional book written in exceptional circumstances by a writer who wanted to “answer violence with art”. The doctors, and his loved ones, helped Rushdie recover from his physical and mental agonies. Literature too has stitched and unstitched his wounds, clearing the way for more words. Like Carlos Fuentes wrote in Diana (1995): “Literature is a wound from which flows the indispensable divorce between words and things. All our blood can flow out of that hole.”

Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder, Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Cape.