1,001 Night Stand: Salman Rushdie’s Scary New Fairytale

The sleep of reason brings forth monsters. So does the sleep of imagination. 


Frontispieces don’t typically blow the reader’s mind. But Salman Rushdie’s new book opens with (for this reader, at least) a truly mind-blowing frontispiece. It’s Goya’s etching Los Caprichos, no 43, with its famous quotation, “El sueño de la razon produce monstruos.” (“The sleep of reason brings forth monsters.”) Like most people, I have always taken this at face value as a defense of reason against superstition. Being generally in favor of reason and scientific thinking, and suspicious of claims about the world that can’t be tested (crystal healing, etc.), I was more or less “primed” for this interpretation.  

Apparently we’ve completely misunderstood Goya’s intention here. Below the image, Rushdie explains that “the full caption in the Prado etching reads": 

"Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: United with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels."

This idea launches and permeates Two Years, Eight Months, and Twenty Eight Nights (that’s 1,001 nights for the mathematically disinclined), Rushdie’s dizzying, delightful new novel in which a rift opens between Peristan (the fairy world) and our own. On another level, it’s about the interplay of fiction and reality, or the ways that stories (true, made-up, and somewhere in-between) rule our lives.

Humans are storytelling animals. Our ability to “make sense” of the world and our place in it through narrative is one of our most distinctive features as a species. As Oliver Sacks brilliantly chronicled in his case studies of brain-damaged or neurologically atypical patients, we seek coherence at all costs, filling in the gaps with fiction when necessary. And as psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his partner Amos Tversky demonstrated in a series of now classic experiments, our cognition is riddled with biases — false beliefs and misunderstandings — that make purely rational thinking impossible for us.

A lesser mind than Rushdie’s (or Goya’s, apparently), confronted with these incongruities, would simply admit defeat. See? Rational thinking is impossible! Therefore science, with its focus on evidence and reproducibility is just another story with no stronger claims than any other narrative on objective “truth.”


What Rushdie gives us in Two Years... is something far subtler. On its surface, it’s a cartoonish explosion of historical and pop culture references held together by an apocalyptic fairytale about Dunia, a Jinnia (female genie) who falls in love with a human (the historical philosopher Ibn Rushd –– Salman’s namesake) and gives birth to a tribe of semi-human, semi-Jinns she calls the Dunyazát who, among other distinctive features, have no earlobes. There are references to Bravo TV (although the network no longer exists in the world of the novel; people call idiots who like to showboat on reality TV "bravoes.") and to Kim Jong Un (one sign of the apocalypse at the center of the novel is a baby-faced dictator who forces everyone to get the same bad haircut as him).

The story is fun and compelling enough on its own (although it does take a little while to get going. I was hooked from around page 70), but the novel’s real pleasures live in the way Rushdie toys with that idea in the frontispiece, beginning with reason and fantasy literally having sex and producing marvels. In Peristan, the Jinni and Ifrits (these words are used more or less interchangeably) apparently have amazing sex constantly, but as a species (?) they’re a total mess: raw, screaming power and potential without context. For this reason, Rushdie tells us, they’re fascinated by humans and enjoy interfering with our lives through possession and other forms of havoc-wreaking, just to be part of a story, any story, for a while. This is a pretty one-sided relationship, obviously, and not especially sustainable for anyone involved.

Humans, on their own, aren’t doing a whole lot better. Most of the book’s purely human characters are flawed in some fundamental way. There is a brilliant heiress (nicknamed “The Lady Philosopher”) whose studies have turned her into a nihilistic recluse, confined to her mansion, bemoaning the pointlessness of everything. Reason without imagination. There are religious charlatans and unscrupulous real estate speculators. And Ibn Rushd’s great enemy, the philosopher Ghazali, whose sole purpose in life (and death) is to destroy Ibn Rushd’s rationalism and make humanity cower before an inscrutable God.  

More than anything else, hypocrisy seems to characterize our species in this book, and in that respect, the chaotic Jinni have one up on us: At least they’re true to themselves.

The novel really comes into its own in the “Time of the Strangenesses,” when the aforementioned rift opens (in Jackson Heights, Queens. Why not?) and evil Jinni and Jinnia begin pouring through to terrorize us in overt and covert ways. Some of Rushdie’s most brilliant bits of wicked satire have to do with human reactions to the Strangenesses, a series of inexplicable events such as the mysterious appearance NYC's city hall of a baby with the power to expose the corrupt by infecting them with an ebola-like degenerative disease. A group of intellectuals calling itself the “post-atheists” claims that these horrors are the deserved consequence of our own irrationality. We are being punished for inventing gods and other fairytales. In other words, for too much storytelling.

Fiction (especially from a writer as well-versed in both fiction and fact as Rushdie is) tends to have a much more powerful effect on me than even the best-written non-fiction. So I read much more of it, feeling guilty all the while for not being a more serious, grown-up human being. In Two Years... Rushdie gives a convincing and thoroughly enjoyable defense of the mutual necessity of thinking clearly and dreaming up the impossible. More sober tongues might spit it out, but to me, it’s nectar.

-- 
@jgots is me on Twitter

You might also like our podcast, Think Again, where we surprise smart people with unexpected ideas. George Takei, Henry Rollins, Bill Nye, and more have been on. We're taping with Salman Rushdie this weekend. 

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less
Big Think Edge
  • Push Past Negative Self-Talk: Give Yourself the Proper Fuel to Attack the World, with David Goggins, Former NAVY SealIf you've ever spent 5 minutes trying to meditate, you know something most people don't realize: that our minds are filled, much of the time, with negative nonsense. Messaging from TV, from the news, from advertising, and from difficult daily interactions pulls us mentally in every direction, insisting that we focus on or worry about this or that. To start from a place of strength and stability, you need to quiet your mind and gain control. For former NAVY Seal David Goggins, this begins with recognizing all the negative self-messaging and committing to quieting the mind. It continues with replacing the negative thoughts with positive ones.

Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
Keep reading Show less
Big Think Edge
  • Master Execution: How to Get from Point A to Point B in 7 Steps, with Rob Roy, Retired Navy SEALUsing the principles of SEAL training to forge better bosses, former Navy SEAL and founder of the Leadership Under Fire series Rob Roy, a self-described "Hammer", makes people's lives miserable in the hopes of teaching them how to be a tougher—and better—manager. "We offer something that you are not going to get from reading a book," says Roy. "Real leaders inspire, guide and give hope."Anybody can make a decision when everything is in their favor, but what happens in turbulent times? Roy teaches leaders, through intense experiences, that they can walk into any situation and come out ahead. In this lesson, he outlines seven SEAL-tested steps for executing any plan—even under extreme conditions or crisis situations.