Rushdie, Satire, and Alchemy

Dr. Margareta Petersson, Lecturer, Högskolan i Väjö, Sweden

Sometimes when he looked around him, especially in the afternoon heat when the air turned glutinous, the visible world, its features and inhabitants and things, seemed to be sticking up through the atmosphere like a profusion of hot icebergs, and he had the idea that everything continued down below the surface of the soupy air: people, motor-cars, dogs, movie billboards, trees, nine-tenths of their reality concealed from his eyes. (The Satanic Verses, 21)

Many motifs, even names and numbers, in Rushdie's extremely complex texts derive from the world of alchemy. In fact, his alchemical motifs, allusions, and symbolism create deep structures below the mimetic multiplicity of the novels. Without mapping these structures, it is difficult both to understand the intentionality of the novels and to defend Rushdie against his critics, who charge that he has appropriated Western -- and some may add cosmopolitan -- multiplicity. The concealed world of alchemical signs in his work, however, points to a far older tradition that has brought together cultures from East and West and that moreover works against the experience of disruption.

Alchemy and the alchemical tradition provides a crucial context for Rushdie's novels. Allegory and satire provide two others. Rushdie often uses a particular type of satire, the Menippean. As Mikhail Bakhtin pointed out in The Dialogic Imagination, this satiric mode developed during the Hellenistic period, a time with which we have much in common, since it was one during which national bonds and moral standards were dissolving, and an intense struggle raged among different religions and philosophies. The form of satire received its name during the second century A.D. from its first practitioner, the philosopher Menippos, who lived five centuries earlier and whose works are lost. Apuleius's The Golden Ass, which provides as Bakhtin's foremost example, serves a central intertext in The Satanic Verses. Menippean satire and the Bakhtinian carnival have attracted the attention of scholars of Rushdie's works, and I shall shall treat them where they are most obviously important -- in the section about The Satanic Verses.

Whereas the allegorical and satirical elements reveal a local, political dimension in Rushdie's texts, the alchemical context, however, reveals an overarching, universal dimension. One context subverts the understanding of Rushdie's texts as expressions of orientalism; the other suggests their character of resistance against given images and conventions.

A mythical pattern is discernible in all Rushdie's novels. He opens his first four novels novels with a birth in some form and follows it by death and after that a new birth. Hopefulness turns into obscurity and darkness but is followed by new expectations. The pattern is most explicit in Grimus, Midnight's Children and The Satanic Verses. But Shame also has signs that forebode a new birth -- for example, the rays of dawn -- but the pattern is used here in a reversed way and the light forebodes nothing but darkness. The novel opens symptomatically with a death, which however becomes a prerequisite for the birth of a child. In The Satanic Verses the pattern is repeated several times, which shows death and life as a perpetual process.

It might seem surprising that a political writer as aware of his times as Rushdhie constructs his texts in accordance with mythical patterns. That this is so shows the profundity of his intentions and the scope of his works. Their pattern is generally mythical, but the novels contain a multiplicity of motifs that depend upon alchemy. The explicit motifs, however, are not always of a thematic or configurative kind. They are scattered about the fictional level of the novels, can easily escape attention, and may not always be consciously always intended. Many of the central themes of the novels, however, such as death and rebirth, gravity and lightness, purity and hybridity, are elucidated by such motifs.

The alchemical pattern, which has not been observed before in Rushdie's works, has varying importance in the novels. It is most obvious in the debut novel Grimus in which a hermaphrodite and the phoenix that dies and is reborn play an important part. The hermaphrodite drinks an elixir of life, which makes him immortal, and he undergoes a journey in which the elements are transmuted and merge into one another. At the end of his journey he finds waiting a mystical rose. (Roses, or the Indian correspondent lotus (Padma), recur in Rushdie's works.) All these motifs are highly representative of alchemy. Grimus draws so importantly upon alchemy that the totality which the motifs build up is incomprehensible if the alchemical structure is not apprehended -- as the critical reception of the novel shows.

In his other novels alchemical symbolism and allusion, which may be more difficult to discern, might seem of minor importance. Explicit alchemical motifs are often peripheral. For example, it is of subordinate significance in Midnight's Children that one of the midnight children makes gold and that another one is said to be a true adept (a common term in alchemy), who has, furthermore, a therapeutical elixir that cures illnesses and rejuvenates the narrator. Of greater importance is the alchemical evolution of metals to which the narrator alludes in Shame, where a medallion of gold, contrary to the alchemical development of metals, turns into lead. This process illuminates Rushdie's reversed use of traditions in the novel. Implicit alchemical themes are totally integrated in the aesthetic structure of Midnight's Children and The Satanic Verses.

[Based upon Margareta Petersson, Unending Metamorphoses: Myth, Satire and Religion in Salman Rushdie's Novels. Lund: Lund University Press, 1996.]


[Apuleius, Lucius] The Transformations of Lucius, Otherwise Known as The Golden Ass . by Lucius Apuleius. transl. Robert Graves [1950]. Edinburgh: Penquin Books, 1955.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays [1981] . ed. Michael Holquist. transl. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.

Rushdie, Salman. Grimus . London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1975.

_____. Midnight's Children . London: Jonathan Cape, 1981.

_____. Shame . London: Jonathan Cape, 1983.

_____. The Satanic Verses . New York: Viking, 1988.

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