|you're in search of a home; I'm in search of a point.
||[Oct. 21st, 2010|02:20 am]
Rushdie o'clock. Gloria got me some Rushdie books from the Amherst library and thank god for that, because there's really no criticism in our library specific to The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Too recent, I suppose--and its globalism threw people, particularly Rushdie critics used to latching onto easy subjects (The Satanic Verses controversy) or more straightforwardly political ones (Midnight's Children). Ground Beneath, as well as Fury, seem to really throw 'em for a loop. The first article I ever read about the first was also about the second, and was a fifteen or twenty-page harrumph about how Rushdie'd lost his political center in favor of wandering philosophy and character, and embraced a distasteful globalism at odds with the attitude of his earlier work. "Oh, how could he," (I paraphrase) "how could he possibly, this just isn't, and where does he get off writing about America? Yuck, America. When he used to be so alluring with his postcolonial voice of the East and so on," never mind that he doesn't let America off lightly, never mind that he never let India off lightly either, never mind that he wrote Midnight's Children in Britain, never mind that he was a novelist first and he's a novelist still. Harrumph back at you. Ugh, it's like the people who are like ULYSSES IS ALL ABOUT HOW THE BRITISH EMPIRE SUCKS psht Ulysses isn't 'all' about a-ny-thing. Both Joyce & Rushdie have got a bit of "Who invited the English?" and it's not to be neglected, but both object to the notion of empire on a wider basis--that it drowns out plurality, that it pretends to absolute authority and that's some nonsense right there, et cetera et cetera, no one ought to read Ulysses and come out saying I KNOW WHAT THIS IS ALL ABOUT unless they can barely get it out 'cause they're laughing so hard.
ahem, rant, rant.
At any rate, now I've made my way through The Ground Beneath Her Feet in tutorial. I still love that book. I wrote a response on the last two chapters--uh, here it is, actually--sans most scattered italics I'm too lazy to format back in:
...when we stop believing in the gods we can start believing in their stories...they would become capable of compelling the only belief that leads to truth, that is, the willing, disbelieving belief of the reader in the well-told tale. (458)
“The only people who see the whole picture,” Darius Cama pronounces in ‘Melodies and Silences’, “are the ones who step out of the frame” (42) and out of context it has the air of aphorism. Invisible Rai certainly returns to the idea time and time again. As a photographer, and as a secret lover, and as a lowly mortal squinting into the gods’ light he takes it as a kind of consolation. In a sense there is only one moment in The Ground Beneath Her Feet where we really feel someone ‘outside the frame’ is speaking to us: the first page and a half of ‘The Keeper of Bees’, before Rai reveals himself as the narrator and the one man trusted by Vina to keep all these intimate details about her life. Rai can only hold out for about four paragraphs before making sure we know he’s there—that’s how ‘outside the frame’ he is. Ormus stands within it, but through one eye can see out for a time and his knowledge of Maria’s world comes quite close to a knowledge of ours. The picture framed in The Ground Beneath Her Feet is the story itself, and Rai-as-storyteller has no distance from it; Ormus and Rai make it very clear how much they both inhabit their art. We the readers, the audience, are as close to seeing “the whole picture” as anyone gets—and the book rarely shrinks back from painting audiences as (at best) mistranslators and (at worst) fickle voyeurs.
Still, the final two chapters of the novel, ‘Mira on the Wall’ and ‘Dies Irae’, are ‘outside the frame’ to some extent—inasmuch as the principal focus is on the tentative story of Rai and Mira, who are learning to take deliberate strides away from the Orpheus and Eurydice story that frames the book. Rai spends the bulk of the text until now telling (among other things) an Orpheus story about himself and the woman he loved and kept losing, shining at times odd lights on Ormus’ life so he’ll cast a Rai-shaped shadow. About halfway into ‘Mira on the Wall’, the tone of Rai’s narration shifts noticeably when he talks about his relationship with Mira: this is because he is telling the beginning of a story to which he does not know the ending. The uncertainty is not just positive: the Rai behind the camera/with the pen is living on an earth wracked by earthquakes, living out the prophecies of Ormus and heading for the hit song of the new VTO (O angry day, when Time, like ash, will blow away), and he speaks of it like something surely finite. His talk of the end of his world comes prophetically close to the end of the story and thus (in a sense) its existence and his, though this being my fifth or sixth time through the book I’d say that he hasn’t vanished any more than Ormus and Vina have.
Yet the overall tone of the last two chapters is bizarrely optimistic, even rebellious: “I feel like arguing with the angry earth’s decision to wipe us out,” Rai says on the book’s last page, and who can blame him? Meeting Mira allowed him to finally break out of the invisibility he’d fought for years; to start his own story with a future. With Mira, he talks as much as she does (rather than listening to Vina’s monologues); with Mira, he can hope for children; Mira saved Ormus his other self and helped him out of Ormus’ shadow; Mira stood on stage and gave him a defiant, unyielding example of how to tear off one’s assigned role and step into the freedom of reality. Mira offered Rai and forced on Ormus the clarity implied by her name in the title, and when she tells Ormus “No more Vina,” Rai hears it, too. Once again, Rai is being inspired and changed by a woman he loves—first Vina, now Mira—and he did first meet Mira in her guise as a Vina impersonator. He’s not entirely free of his old patterns, nor will he ever be. But as he says: “We don’t want freedom. We want love,” and speaking for himself and Ormus (and their classical predecessors), he’s right.
Strangely enough, Ormus himself voices his own kind of rebellion, to Rai after the latter realized with surprise (and a kind of anger) that Ormus either was unaware of or had deliberately forgotten the Orpheus myth, and made no reference to it while designing the narrative for the Into the Underworld tour. Rai insists he should know his history, and Ormus interrupts:
I get it, it’s an old tale, it’s been sung before, especially in Italian… I guess that’s always so with any story. But what I’m trying to make here is still mine, and I’ll just keep going down this stumbling path I’m on, if it’s okay with you. (548)
It’s a gentler, wiser movement of what started in ‘Membrane’ and ‘Season of the Witch’, with his first epiphany: that he doesn’t have to choose between all of his selves, that he can instead be all of them. By the beginning of the Into the Underworld tour Ormus has distilled himself into one self, one desire, and one voice that’s never sounded better. ‘Membrane’ began with a restless need to travel, an uncertain distance from home and love, and the first confusing appearance of Maria from the otherworld on the airplane: on the flight he gains his first second sight and reaches for his first new landscape. In ‘Dies Irae’ Ormus always sleeps on flights between shows, no longer concerned with any journey except one. “Only the show was real,” Rai remembers. “…He stood on his imagination…what could not, would not exist without him…this was something he knew, this was his real life” (559). Tossed between so many realities, near the end of his life Ormus is gifted enough to fashion his own. In these last chapters he and Rai change roles—Rai points out the new (false) triangle between himself, Ormus, and Mira, happy at last to be at least the chosen one, but the real shift is that Ormus is the one that recedes into the background of Rai’s story, and Rai’s changes ring with his own. Ormus is the one on stage, but he’s becoming a voice, while Mira and Rai’s story is front and center. Still, “what I’m trying to make here is still mine”, his defiant answer to the patterns of the past, is not unlike Rai’s final defiant answer to the forebodings of the future (ironically, in a somewhat classical tone):
Fall away if you must, contemptuous earth; melt, rocks, and shiver, stones. I’ll stand my ground, right here. This I’ve discovered and worked for and earned. This is mine. (575)
It’s easy to say that the refrain of The Ground Beneath Her Feet is what’s stressed in those final pages; the enduring power of “ordinary human life”, its value greater than that of “the mythic, the overweening, the divine” (575). Rai identifies the latter directly with Ormus and Vina, and the love of Ormus and Vina, but he does spend quite a bit of time discussing how that love (while fueling their art) was difficult and destructive for both of them. He offers one of his characteristic classical reflections near the book’s end, musing on the pattern of gods departing the stage in most old stories to allow for a “mature civilization” to flourish, freeing mortals from their “autocratic meddling”. One gets the sense by the end of ‘Dies Irae’ that the end is a happy one because divine love has achieved the only immortality it can, at the mercy of Tara’s TV remote (the new generation), and ordinary human love (solid ground beneath one’s feet, even in an earthquake) is prevailing for now, and just as Ormus became free of all his doubles save Rai, Rai’s doubles are now gone too, and Mira no longer has to be a Vina double but has made her own identity loud and clear—in the public eye, and to Rai and Ormus too. All this is true. Yet: Rai’s ‘ordinary human life’ is still a fictional one, something Ormus’ presence never quite lets us forget, and the stories he tells and the stories he lives are in fact thanks to “the mythic”; to the creator-god(s) that allow him to exist at all and the history he was so intent on reminding Ormus of. “High drama” is what was engaging enough to make his story and Ormus and Vina’s a story able to be told. And the issue isn’t so much mythic life versus mortal life, or fictional, dramatic life versus real life, but the ability Rai claims in the first chapter: “to spontaneously generate new meaning from…what is the case” (22). The ability to take ownership of one’s own story, real or not, tragic or not, and to (even if you’re a character, or, worse, an archetype) live like a real person and find meaning in what is the case for oneself. To find a balance between past and present, myth and mundanity. Rai may bid a satisfied farewell to all kinds of gods at the end of ‘Dies Irae’—and I feel triumphant on his behalf. But nothing in The Ground Beneath Her Feet compels me to say, “Life is best and most richly lived without myths,” any more than “Life is best lived without music.”
Over Hendricks weekend I read two articles on The Ground Beneath Her Feet: Andrew Teverson's "The pop novel in the age of globalisation" (on TGBHF and Fury) and Rachel Trousdale's "What Actually Happens: Degrees of Reality In The Ground Beneath Her Feet" and then, as my reward, I read quite a few essays from Rushdie's own Step Across This Line. I was less interested in the general scope of the first article than I was in something Teverson quoted from a guy named Stuart Hall--something about globalisation, the local transforming the global, as well as the global transforming the local--in my notes I wrote:
global transformed by local as well as vice versa (Stuart Hall quotes) – true in this sense, also is rather resonant with the idea of the mythic being invaded/transformed by the actual and wow I just aligned local with reality and global with myth, that’s kind of interesting. I guess you rarely experience the actual in a global sense, because very few people can live globally, have that privilege or that confusing damn way of being—I mean, Rushdie’s international as all get-out and he still is to India what Joyce is to Ireland. “God, India, what the hell, you’re so messed up and o how I miss you.” Global words local soul. I don’t know. Vina had to be terrifically damaged in order to end up the interloper she became.
And then I got Franz Ferdinand's 'Well That Was Easy' in my head for half the day.
That was easy, but I still miss you
That was easy, but how I miss you now
I watched you clean the filth off your phone dial
Swallowing the things your finger picked up
Tongue, your tongue
I’d watch your tongue lick it up
You are what you eat, English.
Really, Teverson's article had several good points in it, I just took issue with his constant repetition of Oh Gosh Globalization and his sentence structure. Look: "The medium of rock and roll…thus seems to offer [Rushdie] the best of both worlds: on the one hand it takes from the local an enabling sense of a complex intercultural self that is able to survive in global contexts, on the other hand, it is a utopian form that takes from the global an energizing refusal of absolute boundaries." Now that is a very true & sensible sentence. It's synthesized stuff from Ground Beneath to deliver a Good Point. But it really could have benefited from being in Greek or something, because, damn.
And another: "A fundamentally democratic, inherently hybrid, boundary crossing form…indeed, like the novel form itself, pop music is imagined as a dialogical and heteroglossic aesthetic medium that is by definition antagonistic to singular conceptions of self and society." Excellent! Did it need to have that many syllables? I want to quote it in an essay, and I will, but I'm going to have to pollute my essay with phrases like 'dialogical and heteroglossic aesthetic medium' and, I'm not going to lie, little monstrosities like that are going to pop up thanks to me already.
The second article was much more interesting overall, although I felt a little more knowledge of Bakhtin--er, any knowledge of Bakhtin--could have helped me better understand it. As it was, I liked a lot of what it had to say about varying degrees of reality in the novel; it didn't seem to give supremacy to any one of them and I haven't been inclined to do so myself. Trousdale did a swell job of articulating the "bouncing down" metaphor, too. "Ordinary human life," she says, "is made by 'bouncing down' the fantastic into the quotidian." Yes! You need both. O, that's reconciliation again isn't it--like Ithaca--only here it's myth/mundane as opposed to fluid/solid science/art etc. Though, lessons Stephen could stand to learn: the bouncing down, that is. Being part of a larger whole does not mean sacrificing your individuality. Ormus would rather die than lose his, and he didn't even lose it to Vina. Vina had to fight hard to figure out what hers was, and she kept it all her life, though now Rai's fighting to return it to her memory before it becomes submerged in the Vina-Divina media metamorphosis.
...Trousdale did make me really sick of the word 'alterity', however. It was never a word I liked much in the first place. It's not any better than 'otherness', especially not to anyone who knows Latin, and it sounds more Other than it ought. An alienating word. We're already doing to the word 'other' and variants what we did to the word 'theory'. Last week I read an advertisement for a talk proclaiming that if I attended, I'd find out the benefits of a "subaltern counter-public". Jesus H. Sebastian God. Joyce would have a field day with this kind of--
But I digress.
What do I want to write about this week? After all this globalization talk, I want to write about Places. I read an amazing essay by Rushdie, written upon his first return to India in (I believe) twelve years--this is after the Satanic Verses controversy, after he had hideous trouble trying to get a visa and so forth, after India refused to allowing filming of a Midnight's Children miniseries in the country that inspired the book and once praised it so highly. The essay is called 'A Dream of Glorious Return'. It's tremendous. I thought a lot of things when reading it and I'd like to respond to it at length, but I did keep thinking "Gosh, I wish Joyce had gotten around to doing something like this--some step into Ireland--" but of course with Joyce it was different, Joyce's exile was always self-exile; Rushdie's was eventually a real one. "There are those who believe," Rushdie writes in 'Notes on Writing and the Nation', "that persecution is good for a writer. This is false." Joyce spent several decades inventing persecutions for himself to better his writing, as far as I can see from Ellmann--all those betrayals! What!--and changing himself, sculpting himself and the image thereof; rewriting his own biography with Stephen D. as unwitting accomplice; he's been made into something now and I'm sorry but he made himself then. Rushdie, on the other hand, talks about his uncomfortable "metamorphosis from observer to observed, from the Salman I know to the 'Rushdie' I barely recognize" proceeding apace. What must it be like to witness that?
& he writes in 'Messages from the Plague Years':
I got letters, sometimes I still get letters, saying, give up, change your name, have an operation, start a new life. This is the one option I have never considered. It would be worse than death. I don’t want some other person’s life. I want my own.
The fight for individuality; the fight to maintain plurality too; to be able to speak in your own voice that is many voices--There's something--I don't know.
India was the first to ban The Satanic Verses. Ireland was the last to lift the ban on Ulysses.
In the title essay from 'Imaginary Homelands' I remember the point being the creation of memory-countries, imagined worlds that never were but are because you left them; Rushdie and Joyce do this with the countries of their birth. Reality starts to skid and triple not when Ormus lands in England, but on the flight from India, the act of departure a catalyst for shifts in reality thanks to the kind of phenomena described by Rushdie in ‘Imaginary Homelands’, only magnified; not just a transformation by memory of India into a different India and the subsequent clash of imagined-England with real-England but the invention of new worlds along the edges of both; creating what’s below as you squint and fly over it.
Places? I'll come up with something to say about places tomorrow. I have a feeling I have a sort of sentimental knot I need to get out of my system re: Rushdie and a bit of Joyce, and then I can move back on track with more relevant topics.