A Dangerous Idea Nicole Scott Free Inquiry

In 1932, a collection of fiction titled Angarey (which translates to “burning coals”) was published in British India. The nine short stories and one-act play in the collection portrayed contemporary Muslim society in a stark light, exposing the psychological toll imposed by the oppressive practices of conservative Islam. After newspaper editorials castigated Angarey for blasphemy, angry protesters burned copies of the book in public, and within days threats were made against the authors. The invective aimed at the sole female author, a young woman who spoke of the experience of isolation and concealment behind the veil, were particularly savage—calls were made to cut off her nose and burn her face with acid. After four months, British authorities confiscated the book, and all but five copies of Angarey were destroyed.1

A novel or short story is neither a declaration of creed nor a statement of fact. It is an invention, a product of imagination. None of the characters on the page, their dialogue, the settings they move within, and the voices that narrate their stories have existence outside of the minds of their creators. And yet, because of some fictional works, mobs have rampaged in the streets, governments have issued decrees, and men and women have been vilified, jailed, forced into exile, and sometimes even murdered. No genre of art seems to foment rage as much as blasphemous literature.

This is the first in a series of articles about blasphemous novels. The works chosen span the past three centuries, with authors of both sexes and multiple nationalities. Though few of the authors had forethought as to the offense their books would cause, it should be made clear that the aim here is not to defend their literary merit against that offense. Rather, we are championing these works precisely because of their blasphemy.

Why? In contemporary idiom, blasphemy is an insult or a crime of “disrespect,” an affront to the narratives, symbols, or figureheads cherished by a religious or other community who, by dint of their prominence, political patronage, or social standing, are privileged with inviolability.2 What each of these novels do, in expressing dissent, conscience, or merely creative license, is challenge that privilege. When Muhammad denied the existence of al-Lat, al-‘Uzza, and Manat, he was exercising dissent against the polytheistic orthodoxy of Mecca, thereby blaspheming those three goddesses and offending their community of worshippers; when Salman Rushdie used in his novel an apocryphal story of Muhammad’s backtracking on that dissent, Rushdie was exercising creative license and thereby offended Muslim worshippers. In the eyes of the aggrieved, the Qur’an is as blasphemous a work as is The Satanic Verses. We champion in this series Rushdie’s and the other authors’ works because they challenge the assumption that the beliefs of the offended are of greater value than the sacrilege.

We will first explore how the suspension of disbelief, the inherent spell that is invoked by storytelling at large, make fictional narratives a unique threat to competing, privileged narratives. We will next examine Austin Dacey’s analysis of blasphemy, particularly his argument that sacrilegious works are not merely expressions of “free speech” but assertions of truth. Armed with these insights, we will then delve into our first blasphemous novel.

A Dangerous Idea

Successful storytelling relies upon an unspoken covenant between author and audience. Whether weaving a tale at a campfire or directing a television series, a storyteller understands that an audience wishes to “believe” the tale being told. If it is told skillfully, if the author avoids revealing her or his presence behind the curtain, the audience assents to being captured in the story’s spell.

This assent is manifest as a willing “suspension of disbelief,” a term coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge for a concept that can be traced back to Aristotle.3 Exploring the nature of an audience’s response to theater, Aristotle posited that the pleasure of the spectacle is derived from the experience of catharsis that is elicited by witnessing the drama on the stage. For this to be possible, the audience must ignore the reality that what they are witnessing is not real.

In his essay On Fairy Stories, J. R. R. Tolkien goes further, emphasizing that the emphasis on disbelief is inadequate to explain the audience’s engagement with fictional works. Rather, successful fiction fosters a belief in the secondary reality that resides within, and is created by, the story itself. Therefore, to become absorbed in the story, we must not merely ignore the reality that we are reading words on a page; we must allow ourselves to contingently believe that what we read on those pages is “true” within the internally consistent, emotionally engaging, and skillfully rendered world of that secondary reality.4

Tolkien’s view that engagement is through active make-belief as opposed to deferment of dis-belief offers a tantalizing glimpse into why the response to blasphemous works of fiction can be so visceral. Unlike other mediums, a novel or short story is not mediated by actors on a stage or spectacles simulated on a screen. While the latter can be immersive and moving emotionally, the audiences of performed art are generally witnesses, not participants. Engagement with a written work is by its nature a participatory act; immersion in it is arguably deeper and more intimate because the reader has direct access to characters’ thoughts and memories and fuller access to their backstories and internal conflicts. A reader does not merely assent to witness action and dialogue and then make-believe it is “true”; they strive to imaginatively experience it.

To allow oneself to see the world through the eyes of an invented being is an act of faith. When what is thought, said, believed, or seen contradicts the dogma of a revered figure, exposes its hypocrisies, or makes it ridiculous (or merely human), the secondary reality of the novel comes into direct competition with the secondary reality—itself largely or entirely fictitious—of the religious narrative, national origin myth, or hagiography that holds a place of privilege in the reader’s mind. Blasphemous fiction is subversive.

What we have described thus far, however, is entirely private, an interior experience that seemingly would hardly pose the level of threat that could motivate a mob to riot or fatwa to be issued. If a reader does not choose to pick up the work and read it, the illicit “magic” cannot occur. And yet books containing dangerous ideas are treated as if stained with contagion. They are often de-platformed and gathered up by authorities to be quarantined, rendered into pulp, or burned.

Neither the words it contains nor the ideas it conveys makes a novel dangerous per se. The vector of contagion is not its content but in the universal human capacity that fiction invokes.

Engines of Empathy

“How do people come to know themselves?,” asks Nathaniel Rich in his review of the works of author James Baldwin. “One way is by reading fiction. The profound act of empathy demanded by a novel, forcing the reader to suspend disbelief and embody a stranger’s skin, prompts reflection and self-questioning.”5

Studies suggest that “deep reading” —reading that is immersive and rich in detail, allusion, and metaphor—appears to activate the same brain regions as direct experience of some event, recruiting the same mental subnetwork that is used in our capacity to simulate hypothetical scenes and the mental states of others. And it works both ways; induced by imagining another’s situation and condition, both authors while producing works and the audience while reading them share the feelings and perspectives of the characters.6

Where this pertains to literary texts is in the type of truth that is conveyed through shared experience, even if that “experience” is an imaginative construct. While completing her first novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, Maaza Mengiste struggled with misgivings about fictionalizing the 1974 revolution in Ethiopia, a national tragedy in which some 500,000 were killed. Mengiste asked how, before the cold fact of such an overwhelming loss, one could understand what was lived and felt other than through the personal and intimate. “Only fiction allows us the breathing room to take it all in,” she said. “It offers us a mercy not found in history. History is ruthless and full of noise; it must be reduced for us to bear the burdens of its many truths.” In the words of her mentor, South African poet Breyten Breytenback, fiction tells a truth that history sometimes cannot.7

Fiction tells truths that have been suppressed or erased, truths that orthodoxies—whether religious, social, or political—will not tell. This is the strength and the threat of blasphemous literature: through the power of empathy, it opens readers’ minds to forbidden ideas. In our next installment, we will explore the moral validity of that threat.

[1] Rakhshanda Jalil, “Remembering Writer and Progressive Writers’ Association Founder Sajjad Zaheer.” National Herald, November 5, 2017. Available online at https://www.nationalheraldindia.com/people/remembering-writer-and-progressive-writers-association-founder-sajjad-zaheer.

[2] Austin Dacey, The Future of Blasphemy. New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2012.

[3] William Safire, “Suspension of Disbelief.” The New York Times Magazine, October 7, 2007. Available online at https://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/07/magazine/07wwln-safire-t.html.

[4] See Verlyn Flieger, “On Fairy-Stories,” Available online at https://www.tolkienestate.com/en/writing/translations-essays/on-fairy-stories.html?mode=full.

[5] Among other things, Baldwin strove to surmount the willful blindness of White Americans and their stubborn devotion to the belief that their ancestors “were all freedom-loving heroes.” In doing so, Baldwin was committing blasphemy against the national myth. See Nathaniel Rich, “James Baldwin & the Fear of a Nation,” The New York Review of Books, May 12, 2016. Available online at http://kalamu.com/neogriot/2016/05/17/review-essay-james-baldwin-the-fear-of-a-nation/.

[6] Diana I. Tamir, et al., “Reading Fiction and Reading Minds: The Role of Simulation in the Default Network.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, vol. 11, no. 16, February 2016. Available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4733342/. See also Suzanne Keen, “Narrative Empathy.” The Living Handbook of Narratology, September 14, 2013. Available online at https://www.lhn.uni-hamburg.de/node/42.html and Susan Reynolds, “What You Read Matters More Than What You Might Think.” Quartz, June 30, 2016. Available online at http://qz.com/714987/what-you-read-matters-more-than-you-might-think/.

[7] Maaza Mengiste, “Fiction Tells a Truth That History Cannot.” Guernica, November 2, 2015. Available online at https://www.guernicamag.com/features/fiction-tells-a-truth-that-history-cannot/.

In 1932, a collection of fiction titled Angarey (which translates to “burning coals”) was published in British India. The nine short stories and one-act play in the collection portrayed contemporary Muslim society in a stark light, exposing the psychological toll imposed by the oppressive practices of conservative Islam. After newspaper editorials castigated Angarey for blasphemy, …

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