«The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh by Tuomas Huttunen Anglicana ...»
Levinas, then, seems to propound the view that the ethical is destroyed by attempting to present it in language and that the proper understanding of, or contact with, the other occurs beyond language. Although Ghosh uses language in several narrative modes to open up ways of representation that would ascribe independence, voice and agency to the other, whether conceived as a person or another discourse, he seems to share the same assumption concerning the ultimate possibilities of language. But, although the ethical cannot rigorously speaking be reached through language, the novel with its polyphonic character seems to be a good device for ‗showing‘ or ‗staging‘ the ethical without explicitly defining it, and thus inviting the imaginative capacity of the reader to compensate for the incapabilities of language (on this point, I am in general agreement with Rorty, Nussbaum and MacIntyre). In the following, I would like to examine three aspects of The Hungry Tide. These are formed by the questions of what is said, how it is said and how what is said draws on outside information. First, there is the level of the inside of the narrative, as it were. This level examines the way in which the characters act within the story frame of the novel. Then there is the level of the narration itself, pertaining to the narrative strategy, i.e. the modes and discourses used to narrate the story.
Most of my interpretation of the novel in the article-section (IV.6.) belongs to the first level. There I examine the manner in which the characters in it conceive of language, nature and each other. I will also look at the ways in which these manners change.
The most striking attempts at descriptions of transcendent ethical experience are those with Kanai on the island of Garjontola. In these scenes, to be examined later in the article, language is really stretched to its limits to give the impression of its transparency or its vanishing, or its forming into a kind of vision. Language cannot properly speaking describe its own transcending, its own beyond. But we, as readers, can imaginatively understand the purpose of the language in this instance and try to think, or rather feel or sense, such an occurrence ourselves. This would in practice mean the use of transcendental imagination as characterized by Cornell and precise imagination as delineated by Radhakrishnan (see the introduction).
The second level has to do with the choice of what is narrated, and through what kind of linguistic strategies the chosen targets of narration are represented. As noted in the introduction to the novel above, the setting is the Sundarbans, a marginal area by any standards, and also an intermediate zone between land and sea, or fresh water and salt water, indicative of diversity and connections within and between areas conventionally conceived as separate totalities. The list of characters is diverse linguistically, socially, as well as in terms of class and ideology. If ethics is about forming connections with various kinds of others while restoring voice and agency to the same others (be they humans, worldviews or discursive representations of the world belonging to these worldviews), then this kind of setting bringing to the fore a marginal area seldom treated in fiction, and a cast of characters covering a wide area of the Indian society and even beyond, has to be considered ethically aware. Also the careful exposure of the many differing viewpoints in many differing discourses, like those of natural science, etymology, religion, myth and diary notes, not to mention the finely tuned differences in the prosodies of the characters, are exemplary in their attempt to secure voice and independence to a multitude of ‗others‘ without appropriating them through ‗knowing‘ them in one discourse.
Information outside the actual novel is constituted by the intertextual references, or hints, to other texts. In The Hungry Tide, the obvious example would be the already discussed (II.6.1.) poetry of Rilke (Duino Elegies). What is interesting about the excerpts from Rilke in the narrative is that they do not represent the passages from the poems that would most obviously or apparently support the themes of the novel. They are very short and appear to be there just to give more poetic grandeur to Nirmal‘s already ‗winged‘ diary style. It is only when one becomes better acquainted with Rilke‘s works that their real significance in relation to the novel becomes evident.
Consequently, Rilke‘s works are, in a sense, hinted at in the narrative, but not discursively defined by tying them into the narrative too strongly or thematising them too obviously. Once again, this has to be considered an ethical way of constructing a narrative: although it wants to form a connection with the poems, the narrative is careful not to appropriate Rilke‘s work into its discourse too strongly.
The novel as a whole can be seen as a way of describing the ethical relationship with the other in a way that is not possible within the discourse of philosophy. Nussbaum (1990) proposes the idea that novels can tell us things about moral or ethical views that cannot be discussed in philosophy. She also states that a novel‘s message of how to live morally is dependent on the narrative form of that novel (the relationship between the content and the form of a narrative is, of course, not a new idea, especially after the studies of Hayden White). Consequently, in addition to containing material that supports or refutes certain philosophical theories, the novel can be seen as representing the philosophical viewpoint of its author (or, if we want to avoid the pitfalls of authorial intention, we can always talk of the philosophical message of the narrative as a whole). As indicated, the message of this novel seems to be that the good way to live is on the one hand to try to keep an open mind regarding the stimuli from the outside and on the other to refrain from too easy or rash acts of defining the outside. The infinity and ultimate unattainability of otherness is emphasized through the use of multiple discourses for its description. The understanding and tolerence of the other requires the transcending of the personal totalities that are largely seen as linguistically constructed.
Although this can be stated in the discourse of philosophy, the ‗showing‘ of it, for instance in the manner of Kanai‘s encounter with Fokir and his experience alone on the island, is beyond the parameters of philosophical language and argumentation. The above mentioned scenes are examined in the article in section IV.6.
As I have already established, in the fourth novel by Ghosh, The Calcutta Chromosome, silence, or the extra-discursive, is given a prominent role. The extra-discursive represents an instance of subaltern agency in the novel. People who come from the lowest strata of society are secretly using Ross, who represents Western science and rationality. This elusive group leaves only inconspicuous signs of its existence. One of the characters in the
novel describes Mangala as ―her who has so long eluded me:
Silence herself. I see signs of her presence everywhere I go, in images, words, glances, but only signs, nothing more…‖ (The Calcutta Chromosome 122). Nowhere is the group defined straightforwardly, and the characters in the novel are only able to find elusive textual traces of it, despite their frantic search. This is consistent with Levinas‘s idea of silence as ―the inverse of language: the interlocutor has given a sign, but has declined every interpretation‖ (Levinas 1969, 91). Language and speech would consist in the other coming to the aid of the sign given by him/her, enabling the formation of an interpretation, but this is what Mangala‘s group refuses to do for fear of becoming ‗known‘ and appropriated through this interpretation.
Ghosh seems to imply that we can only know through language. Consequently, in knowing the world, scientifically or otherwise, we simultaneously change it by projecting onto it ideological meanings carried by language. In the novel, knowledge, which is conceived as discursive, is strongly linked with the concepts of agency and voice. The project of the group, targeted at the moment of crossing to an alternative mode of being, proceeds through moments of mutual discovery. The borderline between the discoverers and those who are discovered is extremely porous. In the narrative, no person discovers the other person without that other person simultaneously discovering him/her. This guarantees voice and agency to every character and no-one becomes reduced to the position of the passive object of knowledge, to be appropriated to the discourse of the observer. This is phrased by Murugan as follows in novel, ―You see, for them the only way to escape the tyranny of knowledge is to turn it on itself. But for that to work they have to create a single perfect moment of discovery when the person who discovers is also that which is discovered‖ (The Calcutta Chromosome 303). This is ethical: the other is not reduced to a passive object by discursive representation, but retains its subjectivity and agency.
I would say that achieving immortality in the novel is equal to escaping the grip of the totality of the discursive ontology of the discreet intentional subject, and ethically approaching the infinity of the other. In other words, getting outside oneself ethically, not at the level of a separate, discursively functioning consciousness. This dismantling of the solitary self is precisely what ethics as the examination of interpersonal relationships aspires to achieve. The effecting of personal transference in the novel shares some aspects with the Levinasian concept of substitution. As Alphonso Lingis observes in his commentary on Levinas, substitution is the ethical itself; responsibility is putting oneself in the place of another. Through becoming interchangeable with anyone, I take on the weight and consistency of one that bears the burden of being, of alien being and of the world. I become substantial and subject, subjected to the world and to the others. And because in this putting myself in the place of another I am imperiously summoned, singled out, through it I accede to singularity.
(Lingis 1998, xxix) The moving of personality traits, or ―matching symptomologies‖ (The Calcutta Chromosome 107) of people, between different minds and bodies (different selves) is a science-fiction utopia. It is reminiscent of something that cannot, strictly speaking, happen in real life: the ethical substitution of the self for others. Through this substitution, the questions of voice and agency, as well as the notion of discreet subjectivities, would be deprived of meaning.
Furthermore, through the transmission of socially learned personality traits, the distinction between the self and the other would vanish and the contemporary subject appropriating the other and the world through ‗knowing‘ them would cease to exist. In Levinas‘s model, subjectivity would come to mean the subjection of the self to the other, all the way to the substitution for this other. For Ghosh, the transferring of personality traits does not go quite that far, but stops at the dispersal of intentional subjectivity through the establishment of connections and overlappings between multiple subjectivities. In a sense, Ghosh does not reverse the power-relationship between self and the other as the Levinasian model seems to do in its move from appropriation to substitution, but he makes the whole unequal relationship impossible by dismantling independent subjectivities, which are its component parts (see the article in section IV.4. for a more thorough discussion on this point).
As Lingis observes, for Levinasian ethics, ―the other is not experienced as an empty pure place and means for the world to exhibit another perspective, but as a contestation of my appropriation of the world, as a disturbance in the play of the world, a break in its cohesion‖ (Lingis 1998, xxix). In the novel, Mangala‘s group surely represents a contestation of the appropriation of the world by Western discourses, most notably the historical and scientific ones. The Levinasian substitution seems to be quite close to the view on universal/particular implied in the novel. Like the chromosome, this substitution provides access to the universal while maintaining the particular, or singular. But the terms ‗universal‘ and ‗particular‘ can no longer be seen as opposites, or as a binary construction, because they have been redefined. ‗Universal‘ now refers to the multitude of selves, or personality traits, which exist in the same dimension for one another. Singularity is formed through the fact that these selves can be summoned, or called, as single entities (compare to the discussion on universal particularism in section III.4.).
While the above discussion of the novel largely belongs to the realm of what could be characterized as the meta-ethical and tends to concentrate on the thematic contents of the narrative, the narration itself is also ethically aware. If ethics is about the establishment of interpersonal connections across discourses on a mutual basis, then The Calcutta Chromosome has to be considered as a narration that proceeds according to an ethical logic. It forms connections by representing characters from vastly different areas of society, instead of concentrating on just a few.
Furthermore, as established in the section II.4.1., these representatives of different social classes are described in their own environment, instead of placing them in alien, or somehow generalized, circumstances. The narrative also creates interpersonal connections with an awareness of the problems of voice, agency and appropriation. No-one is reduced to being a mere target of knowledge and discursive definition, or appropriation; all are granted voice and agency. Everyone gets to speak and does this in his/her own idiosyncratic English, variants of which in the novel have been illuminatingly examined by Khair (2001, 315). By this means, the narrative dismantles religious, social, ideological and linguistic differences and borders constructed by the use of these discourses in a political vein, as tools of definition utilized to construct powerrelationships. Silence, then, represents the kind of unattainable experience that transcends the level of language, or knowing.