The William Blake Blog

The Satanic Verses and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Salman Rushdie has lived under the threat of violence for many years for his novel, The Satanic Verses, which was greatly influenced by William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

The shocking news of the attack on Salman Rushdie has returned me to a novel that I have greatly appreciated over the years and which has been the cause of much personal suffering on Rushdie's part: The Satanic Verses.

At the time of writing, Rushdie is in hospital on a ventilator and is likely to lose an eye following the vicious stabbing by Hadi Matar, who has been charged with attempted murder. According to a recent interview, Rushdie believed that the fatwa issued by Iran was old and that his life was returning to relative normality, but the attack at a literary festival in New York on 12 August demonstrates just how deep and long-lasting is the hate directed against him.

I have written - very briefly - about Rushdie's connection to William Blake a couple of times from the publication of Radical Blake in 2002, but most of the following comments are taken from a wonderful essay by Matt Green. Titled "'This Angel, who is now become a Devil, is my particular Friend;: Diabolic Friendships and Oppositional Interrogation in Blake and Rushdie", the essay was published in a collection - Blake, Modernity and Popular Culture - that I edited with Steve Clark in 2007.

Blake etched and printed The Marriage some time around 1790 at the outbreak of the French Revolution. It began as a pamphlet criticising the ideas and writing of the mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg, whose New Jerusalem Church William and Catherine had signed up to in principle in 1789. As Blake added to his short work, however, he took aim at the entire panoply of organised thought - religious, political, philosophical, and scientific - producing a wonderfully enigmatic and witty assault on the Establishment that ranks as one of the most influential books ever written. 

As Matt Green pointed out, while The Satanic Verses was the only one of Rushdie's novels which had referred to Blake at that time, The Marriage was weaved throughout the book. In the fantastical, magical realist novel, published in 1988, the two protagonists, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, fall to earth after a terrorist bomb explodes in the plane that is carrying them. One, Gibreel, becomes an angel, the other, Chamcha, a devil, and this polarity between them owes much to Blake's idiosyncratic readings of the heavenly and infernal hosts.

In the novel, Gibreel discovers a copy of The Marriage which belongs to his lover, Allie Cone. Initially, he is drawn to the juicer proverbs as well as a photo of Allie's dead sister, Elena, but eventually reads:

I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover'd the infinite in every thing. He riffled on through the book, and replaced Elena Cone next to the image of the Regenerated Man, sitting naked and splay-legged on a hill with the sun shining out of his rear end. I have always found that Angels have had the vanity to speak of themselves as the only wise.
- The Satanic Verses, 1988, p.305.

By the end of the novel it is the devil, Chamcha, who has found a kind of wisdom - painfully, and at great cost. Gibreel, meanwhile, has embodied the vanity of Blake's angels. He seeks a grandiose vision of the infinite, but his actual encounter with one who might either be Ooparvala, "the Fellow Upstairs", or Neechayvala, "the Guy from Underneath", is very different:

For Blake's Isaiah, God had simply been an immanence, an incorporeal indignation; but Gibreel's vision of the Supreme Being was not abstract in the least. He saw, sitting on the bed, a man of about the same age as himself, of medium height, fairly heavily built, with salt-and-pepper beard cropped close to the line of the jaw. What struck him most was that the apparition was balding, seemed to suffer from dandruff and wore glasses. This was not the Almighty he had expected.
- The Satanic Verses, 1988, p.318.

Like Blake, Rushdie invokes a devilish perspective to break the traditional moral order. In Blake's case, it is likely that relative anonymity preserved him from further harm - at least until 1803 when he became involved in an argument with a soldier. For Rushdie, however, The Satanic Verses brought immediate opprobrium from conservative clerics and he lived for many years in fear of precisely the kind of attack witnessed yesterday.

On a very personal note, The Satanic Verses is a book that has brought me immense pleasure and insight. Other than realising this link with the work of William Blake, whose Marriage infuses the later novel, I have little in the way of insights to offer on his current situation other than, like so many, to wish him as speedy and as full a recovery as possible. These angels who cannot see our common humanity must never win.