«The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh by Tuomas Huttunen Anglicana ...»
Ghosh explains that for his next novel (The Shadow Lines), and for descriptions of violence in general, he needed to find a strategy of representation that would not reduce experiences and representations of riots, or violence in general, to mere spectacle.
He had difficulties in finding a way of writing about the riots directly without ―recreating them as a panorama of violence,‖ as an aesthetic phenomenon in the sense Karahasan means. For instance, Robi‘s description of the riot that led to Tridib‘s death (The Shadow Lines 244-246) is narrated by him in the form of a recurring dream, a nightmare that ends before Tridib is actually killed. The description is dramatized and creates the effect of a film with rapid cuts. It seems that here Ghosh the writer does allow for a dramatized, spectacle-like description of violence. But, significantly, Robi‘s version of the incident is represented as a frightening dream; it follows the form and content of a stereotypical nightmare and does not claim to be a realistic account of the event. On the contrary, attention is drawn to the fact that the dream assumes ‗artistic liberties‘ compared to how Robi actually remembers the events. Below is the beginning of
Sometimes it‘s a crowd, sometimes just a couple of men.
[…] The odd thing is, that no matter how many men there are—a couple, or dozens—the street always seems empty. It was full of people when we went through it […] but all the shops are shut now, barricaded, and so are the windows in the houses. […] Then the men begin to move towards us—they‘re not running, they‘re gliding, like skaters in a race. They fan out and begin to close in on us. It‘s all silent, I can‘t hear a single thing, no sound at all. (The Shadow Lines 243-244) Thus the only obviously dramatized description of violence in the novel—the only turning of violence into a predominantly aesthetic phenomenon—is presented as a dream. What is more, this dream is silent, which implies that it somehow unfolds in an ethical dimension outside language.
The death of Tridib is described towards the end of the novel, and this is done in a totally different manner. When the narrator meets May, one of the eye-witnesses to Tridib‘s death in the 1964 riots, he says that he has never asked her about the events surrounding Tridib‘s death because he did not know how to do it: ―I told her the truth: that I hadn‘t known how to ask, that I simply hadn‘t possessed the words; that I had not had the courage to breach her silence without the solid bridgehead of words.‖ (The Shadow Lines 250) When the death of Tridib in the hands of the mob is finally described, it is reported by May without any dramatizing detail, without unnecessary adjectives, bluntly and in as short sentences as possible. Below is the end of the description. May has come out of the car and is running
towards the old man and the rickshaw:
I began to run towards the rickshaw. I heard Tridib shouting my name. But I kept running. I heard him running after me. He caught up with me and pushed me, from behind. I stumbled and fell. I thought he‘d stop to take me back to the car. But he ran on towards the rickshaw. The mob had surrounded the rickshaw. They had pulled the old man off it. I could hear him screaming. Tridib ran into the mob, and fell upon their backs. He was trying to push his way through to the old man, I think. Then the mob dragged him in. He
The short sentences in this quotation may have the effect of building up the atmosphere, but certainly they make for a very undramatical representation of violence, especially towards the end, where the deaths of the three men are stated matter of factly, before moving on to describe quotidian household tasks.
Significantly, May does not see the actual acts of decapitation and throat cutting, in which the violence reaches its peak. The mob envelopes Tridib and the old man, blocking the view. Any description of violence is necessarily dramatic to a certain extent, but at least the above passage avoids aestheticizing the event or turning it into a spectacle. The incident is merely reported, there is no superfluous description and there is no explanation that would seek to give meaning to what happened.
The novel is more concentrated on narrating the inner experiences and consequences of riots than describing the actual acts of violence. And when finally the actual violence is described it is done in a manner that avoids any superfluous narration and by this means avoids superfluous dramatizing and meaning construction. The narrator of the novel seems to be quite as careful in his descriptions of violence as is Ghosh in the essay examined above. In the representation of riots the world of experience and the language of meaning do not coincide: there is a gap, and the narrator tries to avoid banality both by desisting from the use of discourse that would be inappropriate for the description of riots, and by not remaining silent about them. In his essay on the 1984 riots Ghosh explains that he felt responsible for what he would write, what the effect of his words would be in a context where the political situation leaves ―so little room for
To write carelessly, in such a way as to appear to endorse terrorism or repression, can add easily to the problem: and in such incendiary circumstances, words cost lives, and it is only appropriate that those who deal in words should pay scrupulous attention to what they say. It is only appropriate that they should find themselves inhibited. (Ghosh 2002, 61) This kind of awareness of the possibly drastic effects careless words might have has surely influenced the way in which Ghosh the writer represents violence. Ghosh further explains that to be able to write about violence he had to resolve the dilemma between his roles as a writer and a citizen. He maintains that, as a writer, his subject was obviously the violence, and as a writer he was worried about the fact that the contemporary conventions of representation in novels, news reports and films often just give us the bloody details and ―present violence as an apocalyptic spectacle, while the resistance to it can easily figure as mere sentimentality, or, worse, pathetic or absurd.‖ But as a citizen and a human being, Ghosh‘s experience of the riots was ―not the horror and violence but the affirmation of humanity: in each case, I witnessed the risks that perfectly ordinary people are willing to take for one another.‖ (Ghosh 2002, 61) The description of Tridib‘s death in the novel seems to seek an equilibrium between the two ‗faces‘ of a riot taken up by Ghosh in his essay: it depicts both the violence of the event and the ―affirmation of humanity‖ that comes through in the form of Tridib‘s action as he faces the mob. By surrendering himself to the mob, Tridib sacrifices himself on May‘s behalf. When he pushes May down and plunges into the crowd trying to rescue the old man and Khalil, he must know what is going to happen to him. The act of Tridib is characterized as a sacrifice and mystery by May, once again highlighting the evasive nature of collective violence as the object of representation in the novel: matters pertaining to it cannot be understood or voiced properly: ―He gave himself up; it was a sacrifice. I know I can‘t understand it, I know I mustn‘t try, for any real sacrifice is a mystery‖ (The Shadow Lines 252).
The novel attempts to address the issue of violence by not defining it too obviously: the riots are there in the background all the time: they have had an effect on everyone. But the narrative appears extremely guarded about straightforward descriptions of violence. It does not try to define violence or give it meaning beyond the absolute minimum, because this would create the danger of allying it with the political discourse and giving riots a political meaning as either terrorism or action against repression.
In the hands of Ghosh, fiction seems to be a useful discursive meta-mode for blending and framing various discourses and topics without defining them to the extent that they no longer seem to exist in their own right or independently. Ghosh has always managed to be surprisingly up-to-date and aware of things going on in cultural and political debates without explicitly thematizing them. This way of writing manages to engulf the urgent aspects of contemporary societies without becoming affiliated with any branch of science or politics; indeed without subordinating these debates to too much defining discourse. The various aspects of the world are not so much transformed into objects of the ‗knowing‘ words of language;
they are rather shown but left undefined so that everyone can form his/her own imaginary identifications with them. The power-related political overtones carried by language are here balanced by an ethical awareness, whereby communal violence is not straightforwardly defined into some discourse (be that public or personal, national or communal) 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 awareness of the impossibility of an adequate representation of it is also present in the narrative. And when a description of violence cannot be avoided, care is taken to feature both the violence and the ―civilized willed response to it,‖ to contrast the horror of violence with the ethical affirmation of humanity. In The Shadow Lines, this affirmation is present in Tridib‘s sacrifice, which is characterized as mystery. This, then, is an example of ethically aware narration, in which the political potential for definition and meaning formation of discourse/language is balanced by juxtaposing, or connecting, it with this ethical sacrifice, or giving away one‘s self, in front of the other. The ethical dimension that comes through in the character of Tridib shall be examined in more detail in the article in IV.2.
In the following, my aim is to outline how Ghosh situates his writing in relation to the process of globalization and the power-relationships that steer it, and how he represents the encounter between different classes, cultures and ideologies.
Language carries with it power-related overtones, and when certain narratives gain hegemonic positions, other areas of reality tend to be left in silence. Therefore, I shall examine Ghosh‘s relationship to various ‗grand‘ narratives by looking at the relationship between narration and silence in his novels. As we have seen, narration in general stands for the political and discursive, and silence for the ethical and non-discursive in Ghosh‘s narration.
III.4. Narration and Silence
Emanating from discussions of the new global world order over the past two decades has been the call for a new ‗multicultural‘ literary paradigm. Apparently the term world literature was first coined by Goethe. As Wail S. Hassan (2000) notes in his article on literature in the age of globalization, when sketching the idea of world literature, Goethe was envisioning the future rather than describing a contemporary state of affairs. For him, world literature was a literature which would describe some kind of universal human experience through cross-cultural understanding, which he thought could be achieved by reading the leading writers of other (Western) nations. There was to be an open dialogue between nations, through which their literatures would eventually reach a synthesis. As Hassan notes, there have been suggestions that Goethe‘s idea of world literature was triggered by the increasing trade and communication that had followed the industrial revolution.
In the case of Amitav Ghosh, the idea of universalism, or universal human experience, is most evident in his call for connections across cultures. Already in The Circle of Reason, he adopts weaving, a symbol also used by Mahatma Gandhi for the creation of connections (see section III.1.), for referring to the universal nature of the experience constructed of particular strands: ―And so weaving, too, is hope; a living belief that having once made the world one and blessed it with its diversity it must do so again. Weaving is hope because it has no country, no continent‖ (The Circle of Reason 58; emphasis added). Weaving, or experience or narration, has no specific country or continent. In this sense, it is a universal feature of mankind. In the introduction, I have already referred to the importance of establishing connections (weaving), and the meaning attributed to place that come through in the above citation. But this passage, and Ghosh‘s narration as a whole, also seem to negate the separate existence of universalism and particularism through a narrative process. The simultaneous emphasis on the diversity and the universality of humankind that emerges from Ghosh‘s narration is close to what Patrick Colm Hogan has named ―particularist universalism‖ (2000, xvii), which can be characterized as simultaneous universalism and cultural particularism.
Hogan distinguishes between absolutism and universalism.
While absolutism represents the idea that one culturally specific set of beliefs or practices applies to everyone, universalism ―involves a self-conscious effort to understand precisely what is common across different cultures‖ (2000, xvi). Hogan seems to construct universalism as a point of view, rather than a dimension that becomes visible through the examination of various sites and their connections, as Marcus suggests (1998, 83).10 Universalism, as defined by Hogan, seems to be adoptable at will, a method for examining heterogeneous groups of people.
Although Marcus in this context does not speak of universalism, but of
the ―global,‖ and although the word ―global‖ bears Western- and capitalrelated overtones of which universalism as a term is relatively free (excluding the discussions on Eurocentric ‗universalism,‘ which actually is absolutism), for the purposes of this text, local and global or particular and universal can be used interchangeably.
According to him, in the universalist view, ―no practices are ethnically particular,‖ but all are ―ethnically neutral‖ (2000, 313).
He also states that through universalism people can discern ―the common humanity‖ and the ―shareable value of distinct instantiations‖ (2000, xviii) of it. He sees cultural particularism not as the opposite of universalism, but as its consequence.