«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 crowd has gathered to follow the transition of the mysterious Laakhan to a new body: "It seemed like a strangely motley assortment of people: men in patched lungis, a handful of brightly painted women in cheap nylon saris, a few young students, several prim-looking middle-class women - people you would never expect to see together" (The Calcutta Chromosome 164-165). In other words, the worshippers of Silence come from vastly different social backgrounds. As was seen in the introductory section on the novel (II.4.1.), Ghosh narrates the social spectrum from various viewpoints in several discourses.
As a result of the parallel narration of several temporal and See the article in section V.1. for a more thorough examination of this scene in the novel.
spatial dimensions, the structure of the novel is very fragmented.
Nevertheless, the characters in the novel are "not fractured into their separate and local identities but knitted together along with their differences into a, shall we say, great-narrative that pits their agency against their representation in and by colonial and imperial great-narratives" (Khair 2001, 328). The fragmentary structure, often connected with the Western postmodern novelistic genre, functions here as a useful tool for the simultaneous narration of several realities and voices.
On a political level, Ghosh‘s message here seems to be that the hegemonic position of the Western narrative of rationality and science is so strong that it cannot be overcome through subaltern narration or voice. This has been commented on in the context of the self-alienation of Arjun in The Glass Palace (II.5.1.).
In Ghosh‘s delineation, Western discourse has, over the centuries, partitioned the world both geographically and culturally, and now reigns over this fragmented whole through the ideology of modernism and global capital. This is thematised most clearly in In an Antique Land and shall be discussed in the article in section IV.3. In The Calcutta Chromosome, silence is not seen as mere banality and lack of meaning as it is in The Shadow Lines; on the contrary, in The Calcutta Chromosome, silence represents considerable subversive power. Western narration of the world has no way of containing and understanding reality in the manner of the subaltern people in the novel, because its language, its way of knowing, changes the world into a process of rational causal relationships. Murugan, who has conducted extensive research on Ross‘s career and has found Mangala‘s
secret group in the process, explains the idea of this counterscience in the novel as follows:
Wouldn‘t you say that the first principle of a functioning counter-science would have to be secrecy? The way I see it, it wouldn‘t just have to be secretive about what it did (it couldn‘t hope to beat the scientists at that game anyway); it would also have to be secretive in what it did. It would in principle have to refuse all direct communication, because to communicate, to put ideas into language, would be to establish a claim to know - which is the first thing that a counter-science would dispute. (The Calcutta Chromosome 101) This group cannot voice their aspirations; if they did, they would immediately be appropriated by Western scientific discourse.
Furthermore, these worshippers of the female Goddess of Silence are illiterate and know little or no English. They act outside the reality formed by the English narrative, but still manage to manipulate that reality.
As was seen above in the context of representing communal violence (III.3.), in The Shadow Lines silence is described as something which has been left out by the hegemonic narration and which therefore has not been given meaning. It is a gap, a whole and an emptiness (The Shadow Lines 218). In The Calcutta Chromosome, it is precisely this lack of meaning, the fact that the hegemonic discourse has left this area of the world out of its process of meaning production, dismissing it as irrational, that empowers silence. Silence is here considered a kind of feminine counterforce to Western male-centered science and rationalism.
As long as the group works in silence, Western scientific discourse has no access to it; it cannot, in fact, even be aware of its existence.
On an epistemological level, Ghosh implies 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 conveyed by words.
Silence represents the kind of unattainable experience that transcends the level of language, or knowing. This would be the experience of the ultimate truth that has not been changed through knowing, in other words by the meanings carried by language. In the words of Murugan, this would mean "the ultimate transcendence of nature" (The Calcutta Chromosome 106).
In his writing, Ghosh seems to operate on two levels. First, he acknowledges that the world is a narrative and discursive social construction where alternative narrative realities and ideologies clash and unite. This is evident in his foregrounding of oral stories and is also clearly evident in The Shadow Lines, which examines the multiple narrative realities and the construction of personal and national identities out of these realities. In this novel, the narrator seems to privilege language over images;
reality only comes into existence through the narrative ordering of images. In The Calcutta Chromosome, where silence and the transcending of language have a more prominent role, Phulboni
is less certain of this order:
I have never known, whether life lies in words or images, in speech or sight. Does a story come to be in the words that I conjure out of my mind, or does it live already, somewhere, enshrined in mud and clay - in an image, that is, in the crafted mimicry of life? (The Calcutta Chromosome 226) But there is an alternative to the discursive, in a sense poststructuralist, epistemology, which Ghosh increasingly finds untenable: he acknowledges to the world a reality beyond human knowledge, or narration. This is the world of silence: a unified, but not homogeneous world, free of the power politics distributed by language. It is a space that transcends temporal and spatial distances, as well as differences of social position, without making them vanish. It also brings us back to Ghosh‘s theme of diversity in one: it is in this world that Alu, in the scene in The Circle of Reason referred to earlier, is speaking in his "turmoil of languages." This mixture of languages does not put forward any particular ideology or claim to power in the way a specific language would. In other words, it does not ‗know‘, it does not provide a definitive answer. It is only a question, to which everyone can have their own response. Therefore, it speaks to everyone, regardless of class or language, without treating them as a homogeneous group. As Phulboni says in The Calcutta Chromosome, although this is the world of silence, it is animate, it exists and it has a spirit. Consequently, the crowd is capable of communicating with Alu through silence.
This world is also similar to the one for which the narrator in The Shadow Lines is longing when he speaks of a pure, painful and primitive desire, a longing for everything that was not in oneself, a torment of the flesh, that carried one beyond the limits of one‘s mind to other times and other places, and even, if one was lucky, to a place where there was no border between oneself and one‘s image in the mirror. (The Shadow Lines 29) In In An Antique Land this world of diversity in one is represented by the unpartitioned past before the Western hegemony, in which different religions and cultures lived together in peace. And, finally, it is to this kind of world that Murugan, Tara and the numerous other voices are taking Antar in the closing lines of The Calcutta Chromosome: "There were voices everywhere now, in his room, in his head, in his ears, it was as though a crowd of people was in the room with him. They were saying: ‗We‘re with you;
you‘re not alone; we‘ll help you across‘" (The Calcutta Chromosome 306).
Although Ghosh does not thematize this transcendent reality too strongly, it is nevertheless present in the background of all of his novels and represents a kind of ethical universal experience which is beyond language. In The Calcutta Chromosome and The Circle of Reason, it is hinted at on an epistemological or transcendent level, whereas in the other two novels examined here it is represented in the form of a reconstructed past. The sketching of this kind of ‗alternative‘ reality, or reconstruction of the past, may be seen as overtly idealistic or romantic, but to my mind it is a subversive act in itself, offering us a refuge from the oppressive power struggles of everyday life into an ethically constructed world that "has been made one and blessed with diversity" (The Circle of Reason 58).
It seems that this idea of a heterogeneous whole is Ghosh‘s answer to the questions I posed at the beginning of this subsection about the possible direction of the new world literatures and about multiculturalism. Literatures should not aim at "homogenizing heterogeneity", a world embracing hybridity that does away with context-specific differences, nor should they engage in a radical and pointed emphasizing of difference that does not recognize the whole. Ghosh‘s work resonates with both postcolonial and Marxists modifications of ‗multiculturalism‘. In An Antique Land, for instance, shows current multiculturalism in Egypt in a very practical and historically informed guise as the interpenetration of the local and the global, resulting in simultaneous cosmopolitanism and localism, as defined by Dirlik. But there is also the discursively constructed multicultural ‗hybrid‘, for instance in the form of the anonymous narrator of The Shadow Lines. His identity is written at the border-lines of cultures, and his narration adopts a curious strategy of mingling the imaginary and the actual to account for his fragmented experiences.
Gauri Viswanathan has examined In An Antique Land with
reference to the concept of religious syncretism. She states:
Ghosh‘s syncretism denies the historical reality of religious difference. That is why no matter how moving Ghosh‘s book might be, and no matter how appealing his humanist call for dissolving barriers between nations, peoples, and communities on the grounds that world civilizations were syncretic long before the divisions introduced by the territorial boundaries of nation-states, the work cannot get beyond nostalgia to offer ways of dealing with what is, after all, an intractable political problem. (Wiswanathan 1996) I have to disagree, because as a whole the book does offer a feasible way of representing cultural-political problems: it gives voice to various scientific approaches as well as to different cultures, classes and religions without obliterating their differences. If a certain nostalgia for the past emanates from the book, that has to be allowed for a writer of fiction. I shall return to the political viability of Ghosh‘s writing in closer detail in section VI.2. Suffice it to say here, that even though Ghosh can be accused of attempting to produce some kind of nostalgic universal human experience or forced syncretism, he never dispenses with diversity and particularity in his writings. He aims at a unity, but he arrives at it through the representation of diversity, without doing away with the conflicts it enacts.
In her study, Bachmann-Medick evokes Lévi-Strauss and his plea for "a controlled cultural ethnocentrism" which "stresses the need of cultures for self-assertion and defends it against the shapeless multiculturalism" (Bachmann-Medick 1996). Ghosh tries to avoid shapeless multiculturalism by narrating the whole through the distinctive voices of several cultural groups and social classes. He recognizes the whole, but retains its diversity.
This also comprises Ghosh‘s remedy for the contemporary fragmentation and disorganization of the world. In the manner of Mahatma Gandhi, he seeks for ‗wholes‘ that transcend the partitions and differences created and maintained by the changing forms of Western ideology and capitalism. As has been shown, these ‗wholes‘ may appear in the form of narrative reconstructions of the past, or they may appear as ‗silent‘ transcendent realities that exist outside linguistically constructed knowledge, or a discursively realized world.
These ‗wholes‘ disrupt the Western discourses of colonization or globalization far more than some now almost conventionalized forms of postcolonial "writing back". This is because, as was shown in the context of The Circle of Reason, in delineating his characters, Ghosh leaves without emphasis such partitioning concepts as nationality, ethnicity and race. He lets these features, and the conflicts they create, come up in the background, for instance in the stories that his characters tell, but he does not use them as representative or definitive qualities of his characters. As Ranjita Basu notes, the "emotions and passions" of Ghosh‘s characters are related more to "their universal humanity" than to their racial or ethnic identity (Basu 1994, 152This kind of representation of racial and ethnic difference escapes the grip of the Western discourse, which largely defines people on the basis of their nationality, race, ethnicity or religion.
Consequently, although the typical postcolonial subvertion of power-relationships that are connected with racial difference, for instance, does raise the position of marginalized peoples, it still happens in the discursive framework constructed by the West.
But the characters in Ghosh‘s novels pay scant attention to ethnic or racial differences. Ghosh transcends the Western (and postcolonial) discourse of ‗otherness‘ and difference by delineating his characters in a universal, human, context that transcends the boundaries between nationalities and religions.