«The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh by Tuomas Huttunen Anglicana ...»
The second attempt in this direction took place in the 1970s, when a group of people, originally refugees from what was now Bangladesh, moved to one of the islands. These people had been promised refuge in India, but instead they had been placed in prison-like camps somewhere in central India. They escaped and found their way to the tide country after what could be described as a long refugee march inside India. The first attempt can, with a slight stretch of imagination, be seen as modelled on the way in which Western states have been known to impose their concept of democracy on the so called third world countries. After the introduction of the idea, people have been left on their own after which the structure has collapsed. But the second attempt described in the novel has not been conceived by an outsider, but is the genuine outcome of the desires of the people themselves, an instance of subaltern agency, as it were. Sadly, these people have chosen as their area an island which the government has assigned as a nature reserve. The events lead to the massacre of the inhabitants of the island, which emphasizes the theme of the relationship between humans and nature. It seems that these people are ranked below trees and animals in the government‘s hierarchy.
Ghosh continues his characteristic dismantling of totalities and categories, this time using the imagery of nature to emphasize the heterogeneous and constantly changing character of human societies on the one hand and the eternally unchangeable cycles of history on the other. The Sundarbans area is seen as an intermediate border zone between land and sea, where river water mixes with sea water producing peculiar life environments. The environment also leads to animal behaviour not found elsewhere and consequently not predictable through previous findings of science. The relationship between man and nature is also altered. Where nature is usually moulded, utilized and exploited by humans, in the Sundarbans there is very little to mould and the accomplishments of people are every now and then washed away by huge tidal waves or tsunamis. Animals too are hostile to man, especially the tigers, which are strongly thematized in the narrative. But animals are also described as ‗working‘ together with people, as in the case of dolphins helping fishermen to round up fish for mutual benefit (The Hungry Tide 168-169), or represented as equally migrant or equally massacred by wars as human beings (The Hungry Tide 305-307).
In addition to varying themes introduced in the previous novels and adapting them to the new scenario, this latest narrative also continues the development of themes that have been central through all the novels by Ghosh. This time, the quest for connections in the narrative covers the relationship of human beings to nature and animals. Another strong theme linked with that of nature and animals is the examination of the linguistic and epistemological alienation of humans from their circumstances and from one another. The capability of language to represent emotions and the encounter with the other is increasingly in doubt in recent work by Ghosh. These functions of language are in The Hungry Tide partly replaced by bodily gestures, like facial expressions and touching, as well as by a kind of transcendental mode of contact that exists beyond discourse. Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke are brought in as an intertextual backup for the thematics of human alienation from nature and animals, who are seen as having a deeper connection with the world proper.
Consequently, the tension between a dimension transcending language and an emphasis on textuality and difference is even more urgent than in the previous writings of Ghosh.
Whereas the article on this novel (V.6.) concentrates on the breaking of the linguistic ontologies of Piya and Kanai and the ethical transcending of human language, which is seen as a deceptive framework alienating us from one another and the world proper, the following section examines how the use of intertexts backs up the central theme of the novel.
II.6.1. Human alienation from nature: intertextual links
The Hungry Tide contains numerous references to the Duino Elegies (1923) by Rainer Maria Rilke. The citations from this collection of poems (The Hungry Tide 8, 165, 182, 206, 216, 225, 275, 278, 287, 360) are usually placed in the excerpts from Nirmal‘s diary, which Kanai is reading. The thematic similarities between The Hungry Tide and Duino Elegies are quite striking.
Rilke writes about the alienation of human beings from nature and animals. As with Ghosh, one dividing factor seems to be language: in Rilke‘s view, humans are not at home in their ―translated‖ world. However, Rilke‘s idea of nature as something unreachable by humans does not come through in the short excerpts that are located in Nirmal‘s diary.
Nirmal is an eccentric character. He is a former radical Marxist who ended up as a teacher in the school on one of the islands, Lusibari. He is reminiscent of another eccentric teacher, Balaram, in The Circle of Reason. Balaram was obsessed with Pasteur and phrenology, Nirmal with Rilke and radical Marxism.
Nirmal tends to interpret Rilke‘s writings of transformation and nature as pertaining to socio-political ideals, and is very eager to become part of the socialist project beginning in the area, which he sees as an instance of revolutionary ‗transformation.‘ His wife, Nilima, who runs a hospital and is, in contrast to Nirmal, a very pragmatic character, sees her husband as being obsessed by politics and revolution. For her, this is the ultimate reason for Nirmal‘s interest in the socialist group. But in Kanai‘s opinion, Nirmal is possessed more by words than by politics. In his view, it was important for Nirmal to see himself as a historical materialist, which for him ―meant that everything which existed was interconnected: the trees, the sky, the weather, people, poetry, science, nature. He hunted down facts in the way a magpie collects shiny things. Yet when he strung them all together, somehow they did become stories – of a kind‖ (The Hungry Tide 282). Nirmal, then, represents another example of a character very much alienated from the world by language: he lives in a world translated through stories and fails to interpret correctly the practical reality surrounding him. In a similar manner to another uncle, Tridib in The Shadow Lines, with whom Nirmal also shares certain characteristics, he is destroyed by the violent actions of the real world.
The following excerpts from The Eighth Elegy of Rilke‘s
Duino Elegies contain most of the key concepts of Ghosh‘s novel:
All eyes, the creatures of the World look out into the open. But our human eyes, as if turned right around and glaring in, encircle them; prohibiting their passing.
What lies outside, their faces plainly show us.
Yet we compel even our youngest; force each child always to stare behind, at what‘s already manifest, and not to see that openness which lies so deep within the gaze of animals. (1-10) We never have, not for a single day, pure space before us – all its flowers opening endlessly: there is ever World.
We never find that nowhere, free from negatives, unsupervised and pure; the place which we might breathe and know unendingly, and never crave. (15-21) If they possessed our kind of consciousness those steady animals, whose own direction always counters ours, would wrench us around to follow where they lead. To animals their being is infinite, unknowable;
and they look out from it, not at themselves. (40-45) And we, we stay spectators; turned towards all things and still transcending none. (74-75) Rilke‘s message seems to be almost identical to that of the novel.
Humans are conceived as prisoners of the totalities of selfgenerated ontologies that prevent the transcending of the world of objects, while for animals the world is infinite. When animals perceive the world they can actually see outside themselves, whereas people only find themselves in everything they see. For the poems, as for the novel, the thematics of vision and seeing tend to take the place of language: the excerpts above do not once mention language. The novel thematizes language strongly, but offers seeing, or vision, as an alternative way of perceiving the world. The reference to Piya and Fokir as animals in the intentness of their awareness of each other emphasizes the infinite and non-linguistic nature of a love relationship: animals do not have language and they are conceived as capable of seeing beyond themselves to the other in a manner not possible for humans who are imprisoned within their linguistic totalities.
Rilke‘s observing subject is opposed to the world and its objects to begin with, but there is nonetheless a sense of perpetual contact between everything that exists underlining the poems.
What the poems aim at is the giving away of one‘s personality in front of other forms, be they objects of nature or other humans.
The personality of the observer can dissolve and he/she can transform into other objects, in a sense become the other object or person, much in the way in which Kanai becomes Fokir in seeing though his consciousness (see the article in section V.6.). In her study of Rilke, Priscilla Washburn Shaw detects a quest for ―the pure relation,‖ corresponding to a fusion of the same and the other: ―There is an almost imperceptible shift away from the relationship of self-discipline to realization of the object, away from the seeming conflict between the existence of both self and non-self. These distinctions have become fused or obliterated‖ (Washburn Shaw 1964, 77). In the narration of Ghosh, the subject is constructed precisely through connections with others who, in the manner of the self in Rilke‘s poems, encapsulate both other people, and, in the case of The Hungry Tide, nature and animals.
And for Ghosh, like Rilke, the ideal utopia would be a space where the lines of division between the self and things outside have dissolved.
In addition to Rilke‘s poems, it may not be too far-reaching to search for connections between The Hungry Tide and American transcendentalism. Ghosh has acknowledged his admiration of Herman Melville, who can be seen as one of the offsprings of this Emersonian quest for transcending nature (Ghosh in Sandall 2004). Of Melville‘s novels Ghosh mentions especially Moby-Dick (1851), which has obvious thematic links with The Hungry Tide.
The search for the whale, which signifies the unreachable and unknowable nature in general, is narrated in several discourses in a manner reminiscent of the narrative technique of Ghosh that creates room for multiple ways of interpreting the world. The two searches for the whale and the dolphins symbolize the search for the transcending of nature. As Ruland and Bradbury describe Moby-Dick, the book itself constantly multiplies its own language, as it conducts its own narrative and linguistic search for the meaning of the ―whale.‖ We hear the language of dusty scholarship, of scientific cetology, of Christian and classical myth and romantic celebration, of voyaging and adventure, as the prose seeks a sufficient commensurability. (Ruland & Bradbury 1991, 161) Of the discursive modes mentioned above the narration of The Hungry Tide has woven into it the languages of scholarship (in the form of etymology), cetology, myth (the story of Bon Bibi), adventure and even what could be characterized as romantic celebration of the beauty of nature. For Ghosh the multiple discourses have to do with the linguistic constructedness of the world. Each ―pattern of work‖ and way of life creates its own construction flavoured by the personal character of the interpreter. Melville‘s point is very similar, although he does not contemplate the functions and character of language to the extent that Ghosh does: in Melville‘s view there is no human way to any ultimate truth, which means that there can only be different interpretations, as becomes evident in Moby-Dick in the chapter ―The Doubloon,‖ in which every member of the crew interprets the coin symbolizing the circle of the world differently.
The characterization of nature as ultimately hostile is also to be found in both novels, although perhaps for different reasons. In contrast to the ideas of earlier transcendentalists like Emerson, Melville does not see nature as benevolent, but as ―a deceitful hieroglyph‖ in which people see their own image.
People plunge into this image they cannot actually reach, and drown in it in the manner of Narcissus. This is very close to the effect linguistic totalities have in Ghosh‘s writing: they block the outside world so that people only see a reflection of themselves when attempting to look outside. People are seen as linguistically alienated from nature, which partly explains why it is seen as hostile. In addition to this, Ghosh also seems to thematise the hostility of nature and its animals in The Hungry Tide partly as a counter-force to the hostility people often show towards nature and animals, cutting down rainforests or killing animals for money. But of course there are other differences. Where Melville‘s novel can be aptly described as ―Romantic Faustian tragedy of man confronting nature and divine power‖ (Ruland & Bradbury 160), Ghosh‘s narrative has more to do with confronting the barriers that linguistic ontologies pose between people on the one hand and between people and nature on the other. The transcending of language does not reveal any divine meaning in the Emersonian sense, but makes possible connections in a common dimension where the border between the self and the other (the other is conceived in the novel both as another human being and as nature including animals) has vanished. Melville constructs ―a resonant material world which would yield its transcendent significance only to the free play of suggestive analogy‖ (Ruland & Bradbury 124). The material world of Ghosh‘s narratives is always meticulously described, but in The Hungry Tide the transcendent dimension is perhaps more thematised by concentrating on the functions of the mediator of analogies, language, than the analogies themselves.
But both novels have as a basic theme the search for something beyond the self, something that is conceived as a mystery.
II.7. Other writing by Amitav Ghosh
In 2008, Ghosh‘s latest novel, Sea of Poppies, was published. As it forms the first part of a trilogy, the whole of which is yet to be written, the novel is not analysed in this dissertation.