The Jolt of the Grotesque: Aesthetics as Ethics in The Satanic Verses


Amplifying a tendency in Salman Rushdie’s novels since Midnight’s Children, his The Satanic Verses engages the grotesque to pose various ethical questions. He relates these questions with textual problems that engage literary invention, authorship, normalization, urban tensions, and the migration of both individuals and their stories. Rushdie has been celebrated for his alertness to processes of cultural transfer and transformation, even as he has been accused of an uncritical celebration of mixture. The performance and diagnosis of such transfer in The Satanic Verses combines the dynamics listed above with humor and irony. One of the novel’s recurring strategies is to combine discordant, supposedly heteronomous attributes, thereby blurring identities, geographical specificity, and chronology, as well as breaking linguistic strictures, as its dissonant, frivolous tones define moments of pathos, violence, and doubt. However, its “inappropriateness” allows The Satanic Verses to produce sophisticated acts of introspection and criticism. These incongruities give the text an elusiveness that multiplies the challenges of reading it and of forming an ethical response to its peculiarity. Even as it explores cultural and personal combinations and collisions, it performs verbal combinations, mutations, and collisions. That is to say, its very form evokes qualities and arguments that resist the ironies and asymmetries of orthodox assumptions.

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