«The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh by Tuomas Huttunen Anglicana ...»
Nonetheless, it merits a short description. The novel comes across as an epic saga, and is the first in an Ibis-trilogy Ghosh has been planning. The novel is set in northern India and the Bay of Bengal in the 1830s, just before the First Opium War. Typically of Ghosh, the novel has a large array of characters including Deeti, the upper caste wife of an opium addict; Kalua, the low caste ox-cart driver with a strong physique; Neel Rattan, the Bengali aristocrat and Ah Fatt, a half-Parsi and half-Chinese opium addict. The destinies of these characters are intertwined on board the. The Ibis sails over the notorious ‗black waters‘ from Calcutta to Mauritius. The metaphor of journey, or travel, which is a popular one in Ghosh‘s writings, is used to great effect in the narration to examine the typical issues which concern Ghosh beginning with subaltern destinies leading to colonial injustices – going through the large and small ironies of history.
Ironies of history, be they large or small, are also found throughout the non-fiction of Ghosh. It is rather rare for a novelist to create as large a body of essays as Ghosh has.
Whatever his reason for such an extensive engagement in journalism and cultural-political commentary, it serves to reach a wider public than he would have as a writer of fiction. The essays typically form a more ostensibly analytical and politically informed background for the more imaginary contents of the novels, giving voice to Ghosh‘s academically and journalistically oriented interests. Although they are written in a different discourse, these cultural-political commentaries are typically compiled into the form of stories, searching for a high level of engagement in the reader. The non-fictional writings by Ghosh are customarily treated only in passing in academic criticism on his works. Such is the case also in this dissertation. In the following, I shall very briefly look at the themes covered by Ghosh‘s non-fiction publications.
These themes have been listed as follows by John Hawley (2005, 18-19), whose monograph is a good source for an ample overview of Ghosh‘s non-fiction. Where there are obvious thematical parallels with the novels, I have added the novel/s in
question to the list:
- The nuclearisation of India
- The political crisis that has been evolving in Burma and Cambodia (The Glass Palace)
- The maintenance of cultural heritage (The Circle of Reason, In an Antique Land)
- Pre-European trade between India and Africa (The Circle of Reason, In an Antique Land)
- Fundamentalism (In an Antique Land)
- Anthropology & economics in local communities (all the novels)
- The diaspora (The Circle of Reason, The Shadow Lines, The Glass Palace) These themes are spread over the three texts in Dancing in Cambodia, At Large in Burma (1998), Countdown (1999), the collection of essays, The Imam and the Indian: Prose Pieces (2002) and Incendiary Circumstances (2006), which was published after Hawley‘s monograph and adds the theme of international terrorism to the above list. In the preface to Incendiary Circumstances, Ghosh refers to terrorism and violent repression and echoes his statement in an earlier essay on the violence that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, The Ghosts of
Mrs Gandhi from 1995:
The deadly logic of terrorism is precisely to invite repression: it is thus that it brings into being the social gulf on which its existence is predicated. To write carelessly can all too easily add to the problem by appearing to endorse either terrorism or violent repression. In such incendiary circumstances words can cost lives, and it is only appropriate that those who deal in them should pay scrupulous attention to what they say. (2006: ix) Ghosh further evokes the statement by Mahatma Gandhi that there is no such thing as a means to an end – means are ends. I shall come back to Ghosh‘s technique of representing violence in sub-section III.3. For present purposes it suffices to say that in Ghosh‘s view, ‗incendiary circumstances‘ of terror and violence are no longer a feature of ‗half-formed nations‘ (2006: x) (meaning basically third-world, or postcolonial, societies), but have after the strikes of 9/11 become typical anywhere in the world. And it is here that it should be remembered that not all possible means should be permissible to reach the desired end. As for Ghosh as a writer, he certainly tries to take into account the influence words
have in the incendiary circumstances of the contemporary world:
it has become one of the trademarks of his writing, both in fiction and in non-fiction, not to narrate matters into spectacles by being too polemical and provocative.
In his non-fiction, Ghosh in general uses similar strategies to those used in his fiction: he conjures up unforeseen connections through juxtaposing and interweaving lives of ‗small‘, or, alternatively, ‗real-life‘, people against the canvas of large historical developments. Through this technique, such historical persons as, for instance, Pol Pot and King Sisowath become represented as having similar backgrounds (Dancing in Cambodia). Ghosh‘s engagement with the human condition, backed up by its larger global preconditions comes through as a style which manages to hold together a global, ecumenical perspective while focusing on highly individual, often contested or marginalized histories, such as those of King Sisowath and Pol Pot, or that of Aung San Suu Kyi, and so forth.
Ghosh‘s skills as both story-teller and sensitive interpreter of historical and political developments is revealed in the way his non-fiction narratives effectively counterpoise vignettes of human drama that occur in distinctive locales against epic backdrops that adumbrate global issues of capitalized ‗History‘, without taking away the significance from either. His non-fiction (notably The Imam and the Indian) brings to the fore his deep engagement in the political and cultural entanglements typical of the contemporary postcolonial and globalized world.
III. Contexts and Themes The first two sub-sections here are contextualizing in nature. The first sub-section introduces the theoretical and methodological bases for ethical study of literature, before looking at the ways in which Ghosh‘s novels are open to an ethical approach. Subsection III.2. contextualizes Ghosh‘s writing in the general intellectual and political history and climate of the Subcontinent.
The purpose of the latter half of the section is to continue the examination of themes unfolding through the novels of Amitav Ghosh. Where section II was structured according to each of the six novels covered by this dissertation, sub-sections III.3. and III.4. are compiled thematically. The passage on the representation of violence (III.3.) centres on The Shadow Lines, while the section on narration and silence (III.4.) refers to several novels simultaneously.
Sub-section III.1.1. offers a short introduction to the varied field of ethical study of literature by way of looking at its theoretical and philosophical starting points. In sub-section III.1.2., the theory of the meta-ethical, as developed by Emmanuel Levinas, is brought into contact with novels by Ghosh, anticipating the theoretical basis of the six core articles of this dissertation. My purpose is to show how I have adapted Levinas‘s thinking to the analysis of fiction, and to demonstrate how literature lends itself to ethically informed analysis. This section is loosely based on a previous article (Huttunen 2009).
Section III.2. explores the cultural and political background of Ghosh‘s writing by examining the ways in which ideologies of modernism and postmodernism have been adopted among the intelligentsia on the Subcontinent. This is done in relationship with the political developments in India after independence.
Although secondary to family as a combining unit, nationalism is a prominent theme in Ghosh‘s novels (notably in The Shadow Lines and The Glass Palace). This section touches on nationalism as a superimposed Western discourse in Indian circumstances, but does not linger on this vast topic.
Violence and its representation are central to Ghosh‘s writing and are somehow featured in all his novels.
Acknowledging this, section III.3. examines Ghosh‘s depiction of communal violence in the subcontinent and the two-dimensional way in which he represents both the horror of violence and the affirmation of humanity involved in violence through his representation of rioting. The power-related political overtones carried by language are balanced by an ethical awareness in Ghosh‘s fiction. As a result, violence is not straightforwardly defined by any singular discourse appropriating the phenomenon into its own knowledge production strategies. Its presence is acknowledged and it is defined to the extent it has to be, but the ethical awareness of the combined impossibility and precariousness of an adequate representation of it is also present in the narrative. This subsection is also based on a previous article (Huttunen 2008a).
The relationship between narration and silence, examined in section III.4., continues the introduction of important themes in Ghosh‘s novels. This section examines the way narratives by Ghosh stand in relationship to issues such as globalization and universality versus particularity, before turning to the ways in which the relationship between narration and silence is treated in his fiction. In Ghosh‘s writing, the function of silence in relationship to discourse and narration varies from a mere lack of meaning, or banality, into subversive action unfurling beyond discourse in the realm of the ethical. This subsection, again, is based on a previous article (Huttunen 2003b).
III.1. Theoretical and methodological starting points
This section aims to quickly chart the diverse terrain of the contemporary ethical study of literature beginning from its theoretical and methodological starting points. The section begins with an overall introduction of ethical studies of literature, while trying to situate the present study within this field. The latter part of the section moves more specifically to the theme of ethics as it comes through in Ghosh‘s writing. The purpose here is to briefly examine four of Ghosh‘s novels with the aim of showing how he represents the relationship between ethics and language. In general, this section has an introductory and contextualizing function. It approaches the main subject of this dissertation and the six articles: the ethics of representing the other and the ethics of narrative representation in general. It also introduces aspects of Levinasian ethics, which spreads over the article section (IV) as the combining theoretical principle.
In Literature, Power and the Recovery of Philosophical Ethics, Coady and Miller maintain that One of the striking features of contemporary literary theory, and indeed cultural studies more generally, is what might be termed its socio-politicisation of the ethical.
Literary texts, traditionally viewed as repositories of moral and aesthetic insight or challenge, tend now to be seen as predominantly ideological constructions, or sites of power struggles between social powers of various kinds (Coady & Miller 201).
This is indeed characteristic of what is often referred to as the ‗ethical turn‘ in literary studies. Contemporary ethical criticism is closely linked with discussions of otherness at the mercy of discursive power. It examines, among other things, questions of how to represent otherness in a text, how to respond to the other and how to bring the concept of otherness to bear on the experience of reading and writing. Much of ethical theory, then, concentrates on interpersonal relationships, emphasizing the need for solidarity across ontological and epistemological divides, while retaining the ultimate alterity of the other. As should be evident by now, this dissertation concentrates on the representation of otherness and the creation of relationships in texts by Amitav Ghosh. And the concept of otherness here engulfs other people (both single and as groups), social classes, other discourses, other narrative epistemologies and discursive formations. Ethics is here conceived as Levinasian meta-ethics — it is not to be confused with compiling rules of conduct, or with the contemplation on the quality of life. Further, ethics is decidedly not the same as morality, a term which in this dissertation, when used at all, refers to the rules set by the surrounding society.
In her pioneering attempt at the application of a clearly defined ethical approach to the representation of social difference, Shameem Black (2010) examines the problem of how to imagine another people without violating the object of scrutiny. This problem is central also to this study. Black presents the problem of conceptualizing experiences that are well beyond one‘s social location as constituting ―a central crisis of representation that haunts the academic study of literature‖ as well as resonating with ―a wider concern with the ethics of encounter in a violently divided world‖ (2). Like Amitav Ghosh in his novels, Black in her book concentrates on ―moments when subjects seek to represent forms of social difference that have been associated with oppression, marginality, or ideologies of inferiority‖ (3).
These kinds of representations were considered problematic especially within the postcolonialist, feminist and ethnic-minority versions of the late twentieth century literary criticism. They were viewed as hegemonic practises creating new forms of representational violence even when aiming to redeem and activate their object of representation. In this brand of literary criticism, novelistic attempts at writing across the borders of social difference shadowed by oppression were deemed as ―complex fantasies that reveal much more about the subject than about the object of imagination‖ (Black 2011, 3). The desire to know the other is in this kind of criticism seen as a futile romantic longing without political significance, leading to forms of selfdeceit in its disguise of seeking the truth and ‗real‘. Ghosh‘s novels have received their fare share of this line of criticism (see eg. Wisvanathan 1996).