«The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh by Tuomas Huttunen Anglicana ...»
Throughout Ghosh‘s work there is an interest in the nature of language and the ways in which it moulds and determines our ways of comprehending and experiencing things. The notion of subject is constructed in representation through discursive connections with other people and the world. The identity that comes through in Ghosh‘s texts is not, then, a solid and detached essentialist entity in the modernist manner. Neither is it its own origin. It is closer to the fluid and changing discursive construction in the postmodern sense. Consequently, identity is a fiction. But, contrary to the modernist definition of fictive as the opposite of real and truthful, the identity in Ghosh‘s writings is not an unreal fiction. Paradoxically, it is real just because it is both politically discursive and ethically imaginary. This is so because discourse and language construct the world for us, and we have to combine the passive reception of this construction by actively inventing our own versions. By this means we can arrive at a truth that is equally discursive and ethical. And despite its discursive component, this identity is not merely an itinerant knot in the universe of discursive fragments: this ‗essentialized‘ subaltern subject does have real material and ethico-political viability through the historical trajectory that is imaginatively narrated into existence simultaneously with it.
Concerning the ideologies stemming from modernism and the Enlightenment, Ghosh promotes humanism and syncretism, but, as was seen above, is opposed to most other discursive constructions pertaining to modernity. He is also quite vehemently opposed to nationalism, precisely as a political entity. Ghosh, then, has an eclectic relationship to both postmodernism and liberal humanism. He endorses the postmodernist views on the nature of discourses and the ways in which reality is constructed by them. But his concept of the subject is both modernist and postmodernist: it is discursively constructed and can sometimes be realized as an agentive site, or a meeting place of various outside discourses. But his subjects are not two-dimensional. They do have a socio-cultural location and a historical trajectory which essentialise them in the modernist manner. And they are essentialized in view of certain political purpose. Then again his subjects are not self-generated individual detached observers of outside reality in the modernist sense, but they exist only in close relationship and connection with others as active agents, instead of appearing as passive observers.
II.4. The Calcutta Chromosome
The fourth novel by Ghosh, The Calcutta Chromosome (1996), returns to the problematics of scientific, philosophical and colonial knowledge production that were first taken up in The Circle of Reason. Like his previous work, In an Antique Land, this deconstruction of colonial medical history is a generic mixture, blending techniques from science fiction, the thriller, detective novel, ghost stories and historiography. The narrative takes as its starting point Ronald Ross‘s 1898 discovery of the role of mosquitoes in the spreading of malaria. The hegemonic version of Ross‘s research and achievements provided by colonial medical history (the ‗political‘, the hegemonic discourse) is narrated through his diary and the stories of Murugan, an American scientist who has studied Ross‘s career. This version is deconstructed through another version featuring a group of illiterate coolies manoeuvring Ross‘s research. This group worships the Goddess of Silence, embodied by the character of Mangala in the late 1890s story-line. They act according to the principles of silence and secrecy, and represent the ethical drive in the narrative, interrupting and deconstructing the hegemonic version of colonial medical history. Their way of going about things avoids becoming defined by colonial scientific knowledge production strategies. This way neither they, nor anything they do, can be ‗known‘, i.e., it cannot be appropriated into scientific or other discourses. The work of this group is directed at the transferring of personality traits from one person to another in a kind of joined effort of Western science and the transmigration of souls. The temporal dimensions of the narrative comprise past, present and future. The social scale is varied. The Calcuttan social hierarchy of the 1990s, for instance, is narrated from bottom to the top, with meticulous descriptions of the households and living conditions of the different social classes. The reader is also given a glimpse of the multicultural New York of the future and, of course, the colonial past of India with the illiterate coolies and colonial administrators and scientists is depicted in detail.
In a sense, the novel presents questions concerning religion and the epistemological nature of god/goddess as counterparts of science, its methodologies and the idea of rational knowledge.
The question of discursive knowledge has been addressed as ―the spirit of knowingness‖ from an ethical viewpoint by Cora
Diamond, who writes of the feeling of mystery in our lives:
There is far more to things, to life, than what we know or understand. Such a feeling is tied to a rejection of the spirit of knowingness often found in
moral and social theorizing, a spirit which may recognize the existence of phenomena not yet satisfactorily explained or dealt with, but which is reductive in its idea of our relation to the world, and in what it takes understanding and knowledge to be, a spirit that is often ‗restless‘ in its supposed wisdom, eager to re-order human lives in accordance with its rational plans. (Diamond 1998, 51-52, orig. emphasis) This reads almost like a description of the character of Ronald Ross as he is depicted in the novel. It is also reminiscent of Farley, who happens to see Mangala‘s ritual with the syphilitics in process, but dismisses it as quackery because he cannot do otherwise within his discursive scientific frame. Farley‘s conscience demands that he reveal to those people that they are being fooled by Mangala, ―to expose the falsehoods that she and her minions had concocted to deceive those simple people. It was his duty, he knew, to tell them that mankind knew no cure for their condition‖ (The Calcutta Chromosome 149). The idea that Mangala could be ahead of science, indeed that anything but science could ever find a cure for syphilis, is beyond Farley‘s rational worldview, which is largely directed by the spirit of knowingness, as delineated by Diamond above.
In her study on the human urge for transcendence into a god, Martha Nussbaum (1990, 365-391) reminds us that the life of a god would be decidedly non-human. The ancient Greek gods, for instance, do not share the distinctive characteristics of the human life. They do not have the ―forms of dependency and neediness that lead humans to reach out for others‖ (1990, 373-4).
They lack many of the limits and defects that are an essential part of human life. They have no diseases, they do not need to exert themselves to get what they want, and no unforeseen trouble comes their way. They have no physical or intellectual restrictions. And, above all, they are immortal. Compared to them, human life is ―a brief, chancy, and in many ways miserable existence‖ (1990, 371). The idea of divinity is equal to the idea of human transcendence into an existence without the constraints of human life. But gods, unlike humans, are not political beings. As Nussbaum observes, this is the feature that separates humans
from gods on the one hand and from animals on the other:
―politics is about using human intelligence to support human neediness; so to be truly political you have to have both elements.
Beasts fail on one count, gods on the other‖ (1990, 373).
Mangala‘s project in The Calcutta Chromosome brings together gods, humans and animals, as well as features a kind of transcendence. The concept of god in the novel is clearly closer to Christ than the Greek gods: Christ, like Mangala, shares the human and godly features, has in a sense lived the nontranscendent life and consequently has understanding of suffering and death. Nussbaum sees this dualism as one of the most important characteristics of Christianity. After the Greek gods, the human dimension of Christianity has ―turned us back to our own world with new attention and concern‖ (1990, 375) In the novel the relationship between the Goddess of Silence and Mangala is characteristically left undefined: it is difficult to say whether Silence is the Goddess and Mangala some kind of high priestess, or whether they are both realizations, or versions, of the same Goddess, sharing godly and human features. Mangala and her congregation are also strongly reminiscent of the concept of God and the notion of religion as defined by Levinas. I shall examine hte novel in relationship with Levinasian philosophy in the article in IV.I.
Although it does not dwell on them, the novel features several religious dualistic doctrines (The Calcutta Chromosome 212). One of them is the Nestorian doctrine that insists on the separateness of the human and divine aspects of Christ. Another dualistic system mentioned in the novel is the Manichean one. As John Thieme observes, in his treatment of dualistic systems like Manicheanism, Ghosh goes beyond the usual scope of postcolonial theory (see eg. Abdul Jan Mohamed) which typically holds that Manicheanism represents Western discourse that constructs binary relationships in which the colonial subject is always the inferior of the two participants. Thieme reminds us that originally Manicheanism was heretic according to the Augustinian theology, which was monistic and denied the separate existence of evil besides the omnipresence of God.
Consequently, Thieme interprets the function of dualistic systems (including Manicheanism) in the novel to be one of ―an Eastern challenge to the exclusiveness of Western discourses that deny the other‘s capacity for utterance‖ (Thieme 2000, 286). This is consistent with silence as religion in the narrative, as well as with the discursive omnipresence of the Western history of science.
These religious doctrines surface in the context of the archaeological excavations conducted by the Hungarian Countess Pongrácz, who has become the follower of the teachings of Valentinus. In the novel the divine and human features of Mangala do not seem to be distinct, and they certainly are not antagonistic: she is represented equally as a god and a human being in the narrative. The narrative also links Mangala and her initiates with an ancient Valentinian cult and its version of cosmology, ―in which the ultimate deities are the Abyss and the Silence, the one being male and the other female, the one representing mind and the other truth‖ (The Calcutta Chromosome 212). Valentinus was the gnostic philosopher from Alexandria who brought dualistic religious beliefs to Rome in the second century A.D.
In addition to questions of ethically transcending the borders between gods and sciences, or religions and scientific methodologies, or silence and knowledge, the novel presents the description of parallel realities and social spaces as a means of forming connections over differing realties and ways of being/living. Parallel realities and space come to the fore for the first time in The Shadow Lines, where different spatial and temporal dimensions intertwine in the narrator‘s mind and narrative. I have already examined the narrator‘s personal concept of city-space in that novel. In The Calcutta Chromosome, space comes through predominantly as social space. On one level, the novel narrates connections across the various class differences of the Calcutta of the 1990s, at the same time providing meticulous descriptions of the various homes, or ‗conditions of inhabitance,‘ of the characters. In the following, I look at these themes of parallel realities and social spaces by way of introduction to the novel. The actual article (IV.4.) concentrates more on the problematic of silence as knowledge and knowledge as silence, as it examines the way in which this novel ethically subverts and dismantles the ways in which modernist discourses have set the world for us.
II.4.1. Parallel realities and social space
In The Calcutta Chromosome, the World Wide Web takes on the function of weaving as the creator of connections. The Web and the railway stations, on which people keep appearing and disappearing, function as crossing points between different, albeit parallel, realities. When in In an Antique Land the researcher (re)constructs the story and identity of the slave Bomma from ancient textual fragments that have been dispersed around the museums of the world, Antar in this later novel is going through the paraphernalia of everyday human life with his computer, Ava. Ava finds a battered ID card that it fails to recognize. This elusive trace leads to Murugan, who in turn has found traces/fragments of the secret group he is trying to find. The problematics of how to narrate what these fragments, or traces, represent in a discourse that by its nature excludes its target of representation is in the background of both novels.
The two networks of railroads and the World Wide Web connect spaces, as well as dimensions of reality. The places where people enter or exit these two systems are railway stations and personal computers (PCs). Both of these networks also ‗host‘ different dimensions of reality, as becomes evident in the writer Phulboni‘s story of the small and empty Renupur station with its siding that runs parallel to the main line, or at the ending of the novel, where a crowd of voices appears from Antar‘s computer to help him into another reality. The significant railway stations in the narrative, in addition to the already mentioned Renupur, are Sealdah Station in Calcutta and Penn Station in New York.
People are seen appearing or disappearing at these stations all through the novel. Railway stations are also places that all kinds of people visit, as is evident from the motley group of regulars in the doughnut shop at Penn Station. As put by Martin Leer, they also function like ―a kind of real-world Internet portals‖ (Leer 2001, 55). And they seem to share some features of Internet chatsites, with people gathering in the cafes, or doughnut shops, to gossip.