«The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh by Tuomas Huttunen Anglicana ...»
they flattened themselves against the walls; the trunks seemed to be hanging like paintings on the walls. Those empty corners filled up with remembered forms, with the ghosts who had been handed down to me by time: the ghost of the nine-year-old Tridib, sitting on a camp bed, just as I was, his small face intent, listening to the bombs; (---) the ghost of the eight-year-old Ila, sitting with me under that vast table in Raibajar. They were all around me, we were together at last, not ghosts at all: the ghostliness was merely the absence of time and distance - for that is all that a ghost is, a presence displaced in time. (The Shadow Lines 183) Different versions of the same space, those of imaginary London in 1939, Raibajar in the early 1960s and actual London in the late 1970s, are united and mixed simultaneously in the narrator‘s perception of the cellar. His experience of the cellar includes all these dimensions. The actual three-dimensional material world loses a dimension (―one of their dimensions seemed to dissolve‖) and its place is taken by the dimension of the imaginary past (―those empty corners filled up with remembered forms‖).
According to Jameson‘s model, a typically modernist problematics of the dissociation of essence and appearance is solved in The Shadow Lines through the construction of a typically postmodern spatial vision. Realities that ―stem from different zones of time or from unrelated compartments of the social and material universe‖ (Jameson 1991, 373) have been united and a ―mode of perception‖ has been achieved, which seems ―to operate by way of the simultaneous preservation of […] incompatibles, a kind of incommensurability-vision that does not pull the eyes back to focus but provisionally entertains the tension of their multiple coordinates.‖ (Jameson 1991, 372). These ―multiple coordinates‖ of the cellar are the imaginary and the actual, and the past and the present.
The Shadow Lines does not reinforce the Western notion of an individual subject or consciousness through which the world is realized. In addition to the level of individual subjectivity, there seems to be a longing for an ethical inter-subjective space transcending the boundaries of separate subjectivities. As Meenakshi Mukherjee has observed, although the narrator appears to be a "lucid reflector", he also functions as an "agentive site" for other lives (and for other spatial versions, for that
The transparency of the unnamed and undescribed narrator lets different persons, events, places luminously enter his story, and find new configuration there; or, altering the metaphor, it is possible to see the narrator‘s consciousness as a porous space that absorbs other lives and other experiences until they leak into each other to reveal a pattern. (Mukherjee 2000, 140) The novel does not engage in typically postmodern epistemological problematics, although, as shown above, in some respects it can be said to make use of postmodern narrative technique to ethically transcend the modernist condition of alienation between essence and appearance in the Jamesonian sense. It is precisely this openness to ‖unrelated compartments of the social and material universe‖(Jameson 313), referred to already in the introduction in connection with Radhakrishnan and Black, that constitutes the ethical dimension of this narrative.
In relation to space, then, The Shadow Lines is occupied with the transcending of differences and the establishing of connections between various representational models and epistemologies. As should be obvious by now, the insights by Radhakrishnan on the intertwined usage of space and imagination in the novel (see introduction) are quite correct.
Places have to be imagined for them to become real. The contradiction between actual and imaginary in the novel can surely be seen as a typical instance of both discursive and epistemological alienation characteristic of the colonial/postcolonial condition. But the juxtaposition and final merging of various 'knowledges' of London in the narration aspires to more than mere description of the dispersed colonial identity. This many-layered representation tries to overcome the discursive power politics whereby the narrative version of official historiography takes precedence over personal memories, or according to which actual sense-perception is more truthful than imaginary constructions. But the novel is not an attempt to effect a reversal of these binaries. It is more an instance of the ethical provincialization of these monolithic, or universal, representations and epistemologies, in order to reveal other realities and ways of realizing the world eclipsed by them.
Accordingly, the narrative gives us the London of nationalist history, and of actual present sense-perception, but also the London of personal imagination and an imaginary past that was constructed mainly in the Calcutta of the 1960s. The result of mixing these various narrative strands is a representation of London that brings together the nationalist version and London as it appears to subjects of the Commonwealth, whether seen in person or through the imagination. The novel represents the invention of new narrative forms resulting from the discrepancy in social and geographical locations of the actual object and the circumstances for its realization anticipated by Jameson (1991, 411). Whether seen predominantly as the product of postcoloniality or globalization (which are linked as cultural processes), the novel seems to present a feasible way of narrating the contemporary cosmopolitan experience of space.
The various spatial dimensions (whether real or imaginary) are interwoven into a narrative structure which maintains ethically informed connections between these different dimensions. As I argue in the article on the novel (IV.2.), there is an ethical openness in the encounter and intermixing of these spaces. They are not left as separate islands, or merely juxtaposed to gain the effect of highlighting their differences. The differences between various imaginary and real spatial dimensions are related as an obvious part of their ‗being‘, while the actual goal is to transcend these differences without discarding the idiosyncratic features of different dimensions. The next major work by Ghosh, In an Antique Land, also relies on juxtaposing temporal and spatial dimensions, albeit in a manner different from that put forward in The Shadow Lines. The aim in this narrative with multiple time-lines and geographical locations is to bring forth both the common features and differences between the various times and places it presents.
II.3. In an Antique Land
In his third book length volume, In an Antique Land (1992), Ghosh connects the sciences of historiography, ethnography and philology with the representational strategies of fiction. At the same instant, he also compiles meta-scientific dimensions by tracking the journey of the mediaeval documents the narrator is researching from Cairo to various museums in the West during 1800s (meta-history). He also offers self-reflexive comments by the narrator on his relationship with the villagers he is supposed to be ‗studying‘ (meta-ethnography).
In an Antique Land is a generic mixture weaving together the representative techniques of historiography, ethnography, travelogue and diary-writing. The narrator of the book (I am not sure whether this work can rightfully be referred to as a novel) brings together elements of anthropological field work in Egypt and India, the history of a Hindu slave of a Jewish merchant in the 11th century, and Ghosh‘s personal diary written during the fieldwork. At the same time, the book also functions as a travelogue. In a way, the narrator provides a metaanthropological commentary on anthropological field work with his self-reflexive comments on his own attitudes and feelings when meeting the villagers, and a history of history by following the movements of the medieval documents of the Cairo Geniza from Egypt to the various museums in the West. By constructing these kinds of meta-narratives, Ghosh tries to present the reader with those areas of reality that would be eclipsed by writing that adheres exclusively to one genre or paradigm. The narrative structure of the book is fragmentary, with passages on the medieval slave Bomma and the history of the region alternating with passages on late 20th century Egyptian villages and India.
Through the narrative juxtaposition of the area of the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean of the 11th century with Egyptian villages and the India of the 1980s, Ghosh examines the theme of globalization, or modernization. The heterogeneous trading society of the medieval Mediterranean and Indian Ocean was brought to an end by the Spanish and Portuguese expansion in the 15th century. In the 1980s, Egypt went through an exploitative period of colonialism and became fertile ground for global capital to feed on. In general, both societies can be characterized as multicultural, but there are major differences in the nature of their multiculturalisms. Ghosh presents history as a process in which the world partitioned, giving rise to Western hegemony. In the mediaeval era, it was possible for a Hindu slave to serve a Jewish merchant, who took part in Muslim ceremonies and magic cults. As Doris Bachmann-Medick has observed, this happened in circumstances that enabled syncretistic religiosity and ―a reciprocal influence of religions on one another‖ (10). In the modern multiculturalism managed by global capital with Western economy, science and war-machinery as its representatives, such tolerance is out of the question.
Where The Shadow Lines was immensely popular in the Subcontinent, In an Antique Land with its fashionable merging of narrative models gave Ghosh access to the international literary stage. In the mediaeval trajectory of the narrative, the narrator appears as a historian and in the ‗modern‘ trajectory of 1980s and 1990s as an ethnographer. This work also marks the beginning of his more straightforward critique of colonialism and its continuing impact. As Mondal (2007, 12) observes, the first two novels feature the effects of colonialism in the forms of the relationships between Indians and Britons, or the presence of Partition, as well as in the consequences it has had on a mind formed under the influence of the colonial education system (e.g.
Balaram). But these are implicit critiques in the sense that in these cases, the purpose is more that of balancing the power of colonial discourses by de-centralizing them through the ethical revealing and narrating of the internal dynamics of non-European worlds and realities that have been pushed to the margins of Eurocentric narratives. The idea is more to reveal other histories besides the Eurocenric ones. But In an Antique Land draws attention to today‘s political problems between Hindus and Muslims, or Jews and Arabs, caused by the ruptures brought about by colonialism and the all-invading power of modern knowledge production models.
While my article in section IV on In an Antique Land does not ostensibly adopt Levinasian ethics, the approach adopted in it is nevertheless strictly in line with the theories of the ethical that enter the more recent articles. Towards the end, the article, which as its main theme has the transcending of the partitions created by the monolithic discourses of modernism, reacts to the ambivalence between liberal humanism and post-structuralism evident in this volume, as well as Ghosh‘s writing in general. In the following introductory section, I shall examine the manner in which Ghosh‘s postmodernist narrative constructs the subjectivity of the slave, Bomma, from textual traces, and then ‗strategically‘ essentialises it into a subaltern subject. I do this against the background of Radhakrishnan‘s discussion of postmodernism, essentialism and the postcolonial subaltern subject.
II.3.1. Modernism, postmodernism and the subaltern subject
Postmodernism began to emerge among the English-speaking intellectuals and artists of the Subcontinent in the early 1980s.
Postmodernist ideas stood for an emphasis on difference and selfreflexivity as well as meta-discursive critique of representation as such. Postmodernism was ideologically opposed to grand narratives and the concept of state, which was regarded as a modernist structure in need of dismantling. Thus postmodernism, and specifically the poststructuralist variant of it, became a useful tool for placing the unsuccessful modernist discourses of Indian nationality under scrutiny. It has to be emphasized, however, that India as a postcolonial entity adopted not so much the ideology of postmodernism as its methods, which were largely used for the replacing and de-centering of the influences and totalities of modernism. The Anglophone intellectuals were dealing with a postcolonial situation, and were attempting to form meaningful narrative of themselves by wielding postmodern methods against modernist tenets.
The emphasis on discursive self-reflexivity and a metadiscursive relationship to his own writing that come through in In an Antique Land are among the most apparent postmodernist features of Ghosh‘s work on an ideological level. Representations of the past are an integral part of his oeuvre. In the context of history, his message seems to be that fiction may be as good, if not better, a basis for representing the past as historiography, which is seriously inhibited by its own discursive form and logic.
The same is true of the scientific discourse in general. Science and its sub-branches stemming from the Enlightenment and modernity (with Ghosh, notably history, medicine, anthropology and ethnography) are woven together with fictional representation. Moreover, Ghosh‘s works usually contain metafictional and meta-scientific levels that comment on the nature of discourse in general or on the writing of fictional or scientific text.
In In an Antique Land, he makes this technique an integral part of his argument.
Amitav Ghosh has a close relationship both to the ideology and the writing of the Subaltern Studies group,3 as well as to many of the scholars affiliated with it. He has also published in the group‘s series, Subaltern Studies.4 The many years he spent with other members of the group in St Stephen‘s college in Delhi, as well as the general intellectual climate in the Subcontinent of 1980s are clearly evident in Amitav Ghosh‘s thinking.