|Q. & A.
||[Nov. 11th, 2010|02:16 am]
I wrote something in answer to Gloria's question.
• Well, why is anyone? (Oh, hell. Leaving that to Morris for now.)
1. Why did Rai choose it? What in Rai makes him (want to be) good at it?
2. Why did Rushdie choose a photographer as the narrator of The Ground Beneath Her Feet?
(In deference to Rai, I’ll allow that the second question can’t be answered without the first, rather than vice versa. The guy believes in no Creator and would hate to have one.)
In ‘The Decisive Moment’—arguably, the chapter most concerned with photography—Rai praises Niépce, not as a god, but as a Prometheus “who stole the gods’ gift of permanent vision, of the transformation of sight into memory, of the actual into the eternal—that is, the gift of immortality—and bestowed it upon mankind” (210). It’s not unlike Rai to have kind of a thing about Prometheus. It’s chicken-or-egg arguing which came first, but Rai’s love of photography and his distaste…hm, not so much distaste for as distrust of the divine, let’s say, are both core elements on his personality. From start to finish Rai argues for the supremacy of ‘ordinary human life’ over the divine, while he bears witness to the transformation of Ormus and Vina into ersatz superbeings, as they play out suspiciously mythic patterns, and shine with the seeming eternal right into the eye of the world. Rai admires Prometheus as he admires Aristaeus: Prometheus’ illumination; Aristaeus’ new life from death. Stolen immortality (Niépce) and the spontaneous generation of “new meaning from the putrefying carcase of what is the case”, Rai’s gift as a self-professed Aristaean successor.
These are two reasons why Rai is a photographer, or at least two things in photography that attract him: immortality and creation. I group them together because of the aforementioned Prometheus/Aristaeus business and because they’re both powers almost always attributed to gods.
The flip side—the human side—of photographic ‘immortality’ is memory, and of photographic creation, communication. Two more reasons, then. Not simply “immortalizing X” but “remembering X, participating in the act of remembering X”; not simply “creating an image” but “conveying an image to those who might not otherwise see it” or “explaining an image via isolation thereof”; “translating reality into image” whether for journalistic or artistic purposes.
Two and two—an even split—that suits Rai, who is at once repelled by and attracted to the mythic/divine (and suits the book, eager to talk in and of pairs). For all his insistence on his own down-to-earth, truth-seeking profession, Rushdie has made him a storyteller as well as a photographer; he is intensely attracted not just to Vina herself but to what/who Vina is—her sound to his silence, her free-floating desire for everything vs. his attachment to specific people and places. In the past, he wanted to free Vina from her myth (and so, Ormus); in the present, he wants to free Vina from her divinity (and so, public perception of celebrity—celebrity being what stands in for myth in the world of the present, as photography stands in for a gift once given only to the gods). But it is impossible to tell the story of Vina without including all the myth and magic and music, and when he gets upset or lost in the historical narrative he uses myth (largely Greek, but not always) as his anchor. The divine unreal patterns may not withstand scrutiny as well as the true events themselves, but they make for some good art, and they withstand time better. The events themselves, as time goes on, either become myths of their own or grow to resemble those that came before. To maintain complete, real accuracy is a struggle and an impossibility. Rai’s first addiction (he claims) is “What Actually Happens”; “what is the case”: “I always liked to stick my face right up against the hot sweaty broken surface of what was being done,” he says, “with my eyes open, drinking, and the rest of my senses switched off” (14).
But taking this at face value is difficult when you have characters like Ormus around, knocking on the fourth wall and listening to how hollow it sounds. “I think we’re trapped in someone else’s mind,” he sings, “and it’s only make-believe, but we can’t leave it behind.”
Photography is , above all, specific. Maybe not that. But its specificity is unique and important. You can take a photograph of something fairly indistinct, like…an empty field (like Rai’s ghoast-filled and desolate landscape). When presenting the photograph, you can decide not to mention where the field is, or whether it has a name, but the photograph is still of that field and no other field, of that place and no other place. The photograph can go on to represent a generic field, an idea of what a field is; it can become an abstract commentary upon the idea of emptiness; it can depict with more emphasis what’s missing from the picture than what’s present, like Rai’s goat fields; it can end up in some online archive as one of thousands of nameless, placeless ‘picturesque’ desktop backgrounds and be forgotten but the photograph still only has one source. Inherent in every photograph is that unspoken, specific reality which few other mediums can achieve with such exactitude.
The epigraph of The Ground Beneath Her Feet is from Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, and when I first read it it struck me as warm and quiet in tone, some tribute to the immortality of the singer.
Set up no stone to his memory.
Just let the rose bloom each year for his sake.
For it is Orpheus. His metamorphosis
into this and that. We should not trouble
about other names. Once and for all
it’s Orpheus when there’s singing.
Yet it’s poignant to me as I read it again—poignant and uneasy, though I’ve no idea if the poet meant it to be (I suspect not). In the context of The Ground Beneath Her Feet—I thought of the ending of ‘Season of the Witch’, of the story of Ormus in England that began with ‘Membrane’, of the resolution of the story of Mull Standish and Antoinette Corinth and their two sons. In ‘Membrane’ and ‘Season of the Witch’ Rai is telling a story that is not his own, and yet it is his, a little, because Ormus’ story is—in a sense—nearly always his story, too. He says,
It is for each of us to decide which truth we choose to follow: the truth of tragedy, of story, Standish’s Medean truth, or Antoinette’s accusatory version, or the more sober truth of the Law. Innocent until proven guilty, and so on. (312)
But his last word on the subject is just “Either way, it’s not much good to Hawthorne and Waldo.” And it’s not. That Rilke poem—fine, it’s “always Orpheus when there’s singing,” but who is Orpheus? There’s always singing. Orpheus had (maybe, once?) a birth, a life, a death: his specificity, if ever it was, has metamorphosed into something powerful in its lack of particulars. Morris wonders if God, forbidding graven images, foresaw that one day “images, in their kind and number, would exceed any likeness of anything seen and in their increasing proliferation displace the thing seen with the image” (3). This happens with stories, too. It isn’t always Ormus Cama or Vina Apsara when there’s singing. To Rai, perhaps, it may always be. But Rai is trying to rescue Vina from becoming ‘Vina Divina’ (this, perhaps, is his own Orphic quest—“I stand at the gate of the inferno of language”(21))—he’s desperate enough that he is willing to betray all these private details he once kept to himself. It’s not (just) about some bitter pride he takes in having been her confidant and lover, about singing of her so she’ll belong to him—it’s about allowing her and her memory to be human and specific now that (he hopes) he knows he loved her for her humanity. And for Ormus, he does something similar—far less direct, but by speaking for Ormus as well as himself he lends Ormus some of his ‘ordinary human life’, gives Ormus’ life (somewhat) the character of reality that so often escaped him, just as he borrows from Ormus the role of Orpheus—a part at least on the great stage where Ormus and Vina, the gods, the performers, lived their lives while he, the photographer, was invisible.
It’s true that the photographer, like the translator, is often—and at his best, must be—an invisible artist. Wright Morris believes anonymous photography is clearer, a more definite affirmation of “the existence of the visible world”, and suggests that “as much as we crave the personal, and insist upon it, it is the impersonal that moves us. It is the camera that glimpses life as the Creator might have seen it” (7). Rai came to photography through his own ‘knack for invisibility’, and not the other way around; he counts this knack as a gift and an advantage, the center of his art. But in explaining how he manages it in ‘The Keeper of Bees’, he’s discussing his ability to not only remove himself from his photography, but to be invisible when in plain sight of his subject; to “shrink into insignificance” when he would otherwise have gotten into trouble. “There are experiences I carry around with me,” he confesses, “memories I can draw on when I want to remind myself of my low value” (15)—he is probably thinking of what he has not yet told us; Piloo’s goat scam, the dead photographer’s film; his own strange twin the true invisible photographer behind the images from which, ironically, Rai made his name. But Rai’s invisibility is rooted at least somewhat in frustration, and causes frustration. Rai is the narrator not simply because of his eye for detail, his fascination with memory, his addict’s desire for truth—all these things make him a good photographer—but he’s narrating because he’s rejecting his own invisibility, the silence of his own art. The book begins with an invisible Rai telling us many details of the last night of Vina’s life—physical, visual, emotional, temporal—Rai presumably omniscient, anonymous, and unbiased, who can only sustain that illusion for two pages before confessing that far from being an all-knowing stranger he knows and is known to this woman, and furthermore, he can only tell her story because she chose to confide in him. The effect is disorienting, and indeed, he mentions disorientation almost immediately after his appearance. Vina was disoriented—“for the first time in years she was on the road without Ormus,” and singing her own song, she was unsure of herself. Rai, speaking for himself, is disoriented right along with his subject.
Rai’s complicated relationship with his own invisibility comes from his photography, and his narration—well, Rushdie rarely writes invisible narrators, and Rai is among the least invisible of them all.
In photography, the distance between perception and reality is made more striking by the fact that what you’re seeing is some form of a real place/object/person, but the image has no explanation—by itself, it’s just its own explanation—and so it’s easy to perceive as many things it’s not? Does that make any sense?
The novel—no. Rushdie himself is preoccupied with stories/storytelling, not just as a novelist but in general, and he’s also always coming back to this idea of “otherness”, exile, emigration, outsiders, etc. Storytellers are nearly always outsiders in one sense or another—the act of storytelling makes them so. Many artists of all kinds know this and its several faces. The best storytellers (artists?) have some kind of exceptional power of observation, and it’s very difficult to balance observation of a situation with engagement in it. The Ground Beneath Her Feet is a very noisy book, far from concise, crowded with words and languages and accents and quotes but its twin protagonists (let us suppose), Ormus the musician and Rai the photographer, both have decidedly extratextual ways of expressing themselves/understanding the world. If we take Ormus as composer and sometime prophet and Rai as photographer/narrator, Vina stands between them as The Subject, The Voice, the most visible and out loud—Vina the vanished, but Vina Divina. But Vina wants to write her own songs, towards the end of her life, when she’s trying to break the mold of the myth she’s in (and, appropriately, when she comes closest to Rai). Rai, too, tells the story of the novel and is no longer silent—well, except inasmuch as everyone in the book is silent, thanks to the nature of their existence (solely in text). It’s only make-believe but we can’t leave it behind. That’s a deficiency with which they have no choice but to live.
“Our lives are in many ways deficient.” I keep coming back to this quote from Rai, maybe because it’s so stark and matter-of-fact and maybe because I’ve been spending too much time joining Joyce in lamenting the deficiencies of text (while praising its nigh-unto infinite possibilities). I think text is taken as deficient in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, as well—I think Rai is a photographer partly because of this. When Rai complains of the silence of his art, we can hear an echo of the author’s lament, or the author’s at least disappointment that his own art is silent, too. It can be given sound, but is rarely experienced as such. Rushdie’s style of writing takes more than a few cues from oral tradition, which is why it’s so well-suited to first person narration. The sound of the characters’ speech, even the rhythms of the narration, are often in focus. Likewise, his visual descriptions are at times marvelously vivid, creating a solid foundation for his exploration of the role of place/country in the lives of his characters. And yet—Rai/Rushdie draws our attention to what the text lacks, with the long meditations upon the place of photography or music. With the frequent references Rai makes, appealing to his audience as citizens of his own world: he talks about his photograph The Lady Vanishes as an image fixed in everyone’s mind, including ours; he says offhand “You know, you’ve seen my work,” in lieu of explaining it further. He quotes bits and pieces of VTO lyrics, of Ormus’ pre-VTO work with Rhythm Center—even notes with some amusement how they’re nothing without the melody. “It’s the voice,” he tells us, “it’s always the voice,” and later, “but you know, you’re hearing it already…”
It’s a book about Orpheus, and once when we talked about Orpheus we might have talked about death and rebirth, reincarnation; about the ways of the gods and mediation between them, but (Rai’d like this) now when we talk about Orpheus we’re usually talking about artists and art and love and loss. In this book about artists and art, reality is in many ways deficient, but the deficiencies of art come to light, too—photographer-Rai thinks in images, but fights against their silence, and sometimes, “when reality bites,” he “needs Ormus’ music, his take”. Ormus is always portrayed as an undisputable musical genius, but he could really use some of Rai’s clear sight and eye for detail. And as we read The Ground Beneath Her Feet, even if ‘we’ think as I do that it’s a literary tour de force, we can’t help but feel the lack of actual sound, of actual images. We read VTO lyrics and think yeah, so? We read Rai’s description of Ormus and Vina’s voices, of the many musical performances mentioned or depicted over the course of the book, and not only do we feel the lack of melody to accompany the lyrics and music to accompany the description thereof, we get into the habit of feeling the lack of all sound in the book. The individual inflection of dialogue, the cacophony of different clubs and crowded streets, even the click of Rai’s camera. Likewise, speaking as someone without a particularly good visual memory or imagination, once Rai started discussing his photography not only were the photographs themselves noticeably absent, but the images his entire narration suggested. Yes, I could go find thousands of photographs of—Bombay, say, even Bombay in the time Rai lived, but not the Bombay inhabited and photographed by Rai—particularly since it’s a not-quite-real Bombay, already an alternate reality with a different history. Even Rushdie himself has confessed that when he writes about Bombay, he’s writing about an imaginary Bombay from his own memory. The text can be vivid, amazing, compelling, convincing, but it cannot have the specificity of photography. Or reality. It can have the illusion thereof, but that’s it.
If we feel this frustration, we know, in a way, what Rai means when he says “Our lives are in many ways deficient.”
The photography draws attention to the nature of reality in The Ground Beneath Her Feet because there are a lot of art-within-art tricks you can pull—plays-within-plays, excerpts from books-within-books, poetry, song lyrics (as we know), etc. But even if you insert a photograph into a book and say “This is a picture of [whatever in the book it’s meant to illustrate], taken by [character]”, it’s still an image of some real thing captured by some real person.
Besides, if Rushdie did try and find/have photographs taken that were meant to be Rai’s photographs, or attach some recording of music meant to be VTO’s, the power of both would be infinitely diminished. The inclusion of scattered lyrics and description has the perfect effect: readers are obliged to provide their own images/ideas of what the photographs/songs look or sound like; the vague nature of song lyrics in particular is apt for this task. Between lines and words of songs, there’s so much space; it’s easy to crawl into a song and set up your own story in it. The less specific it is, the more easily it can belong to you. Rushdie gives us skeletons of photographs and ghosts of songs and lets us construct the rest, and thus leads us to participate in something parallel to the very phenomenon that transforms Vina Apsara and Ormus Cama into VTO—and Eurydice and Orpheus, for that matter. This is translation of a kind. This is translation, of a sort. More a metamorphosis, but every translation is a metamorphosis. Every photograph is creative as well as communicative, and may be more one than the other.
As ever, bereft of italics.
And, the worst sentences! I just sort of flung ideas at Word, which is (I believe) what was asked of me, but I hope it translates into Anybody Else.
I started reading Wright Morris' Time Pieces. To be able to write like that, I might do any terrible thing. Whew.
I am feeling optimistic. I think I might have something to say.