Who gets to decide if something’s 'unforgiveable’?
This is a parable type thing. Read it and decide who you agree with.
It’s an excerpt from The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie:
Alone, Chamcha all at once remembered that he and Pamela had once disagreed, as they disagreed on everything, on a short-story they’d both read, whose theme was precisely the nature of the unforgivable. Title and author eluded him, but the story came back vividly:
A man and a woman had been intimate friends (never lovers) for all their adult lives. On his twenty-first birthday (they were both poor at the time) she had given him, as a joke, the most horrible, cheap glass vase she could find, its colours a garish parody of Venetian gaiety.
Twenty years later, when they were both successful and greying, she visited his home and quarrelled with him over his treatment of a mutual friend. In the course of the quarrel her eye fell upon the old vase, which he still kept in pride of place on his sitting-room mantelpiece, and, without pausing in her tirade, she swept it to the floor, smashing it beyond hope of repair.
He never spoke to her again; when she died, half a century later, he refused to visit her deathbed or attend her funeral, even though messengers were sent to tell him that these were her dearest wishes. “Tell her,” he said to the emissaries, “that she never knew how much I valued what she broke.”
The emissaries argued, pleaded, raged. If she had not known how much meaning he had invested in the trifle, how could she in all fairness be blamed? And had she not made countless attempts, over the years, to apologize and atone? And she was dying, for heaven’s sake; could not this ancient, childish rift be healed at the last? They had lost a lifetime’s friendship; could they not even say goodbye?
“No,” said the unforgiving man.
“Really because of the vase? Or are you concealing some other, darker matter?”
“It was the vase,” he answered, “the vase, and nothing but.”
Pamela thought the man petty and cruel, but Chamcha had even then appreciated the curious privacy, the inexplicable inwardness of the issue.
“Nobody can judge an internal injury,” he had said, “by the size of the superficial wound, of the hole.”
It does seem petty and cruel, and in his position I would have forgiven her. But I am not in her position, and surely in principle only the wronged person gets to decide how serious the wrong was? Certainly the perpetrator doesn’t get to decide. So how can I make a judgement that she’s in the right?
I love this story because I don’t actually know who I agree with — both maybe. I suppose Chamcha. I don’t know.
This piece was originally published in The Whippet #136 – subscribe to get the next issue in your inbox!
Unsolicited Advice: Read The Satanic Verses, I guess? If you want?
Satanic Verses is such a good book, and I didn’t read it for ages because the fatwa completely overshadowed it — I thought it was just going to be a boring militant-atheist lecture. But a) it’s about a dozen or so different things, of which Islam is only one, and b) the stuff that is about Islam isn’t a didactic screed — as with the excerpt above, pretty much everything in the book presents two sides of a question, and compelling reasons why either could be right. For example: one question it asks is “if a religion is beautiful and meaningful, does it matter whether or not the founding facts of it are true?”
(In this case, does it matter whether the Archangel Gabriel really spoke to Mohammed.) Obviously one answer to that is blasphemous to a hardliner, but it’s not trying-too-hard-to-be-edgy-Ricky-Gervais blasphemy, it’s an interesting question that you can apply to secular parables as well.
Secular parables (can you tell I added the subheadings in later?)
Here’s one secular parable: “Steven King’s Carrie was rejected 30 times before it was finally accepted, and went on to become a bestseller.” The moral is “don’t give up, even if don’t see immediate success.”
If we found out that actually, he got a lot of offers to publish Carrie, but he turned them down until the 30th because he thought he could do better — would it matter? Is “don’t give up” still a worthwhile lesson?
(For more secular parables, see: any TED talk. They’ll tell a story about a study that was debunked years ago, or a reductive anecdote about a specific person — “and that man went on to become Steve Jobs” — and then tell you the lesson they think you should take from it.)
Satanic Verses is FULL of these binary philosophical questions on a wild range of topics, so it’s fun to read with a buddy and argue about. It’s like a pokemon evolution of Life of Pi, if you read that (Life of Pi has just the one parable+question, similar to the religion one above, but it’s well told).
Last note on The Satanic Verses: the first chapter, 10 or so pages, is written in this dense, poetic, stream-of-consciousness prose style, which is pretty tough going. It switches to much more normal prose after that. (You can see from the excerpt above that it’s very readable.) So don’t give up on it if you read the first few pages and hate it! Skim ahead, the book-police will never find out.
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