Eleni Coundouriotis. Materialism, the Uncanny, and History in Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie

5970b20ae6249538b6fded92d593e5d1.jpg (3840×2160)

“Unreality is the only weapon with which reality can be smashed, so that it may subsequently be reconstructed.”

—Salman Rushdie, from “The Location of Brazil” in Imaginary Homelands, 122.


Can “unreality” be construed as a problem of history? Salman Rushdie proposes that historical conditions can be changed by an act of violent misrepresentation. Unreality—the not real—destroys; it unravels a given set of representations while it sets in motion a new act of representation. The unreal is productive; it generates new historical conditions.

Rushdie’s Shame and Toni Morrison’s Beloved are novels which present two monstrous (unreal) women—Sufiya and Beloved—as the transformative agents of history. In both novels, the unreal is a manifestation of the repressed. The other side of history reveals itself in a violent disruption which recasts history as a series of incommensurable actions which cannot be accommodated in narratives of causality. Both novels, moreover, create incongruous and competing historical spaces: they refer to a recognizable place, community, or nation by means of its fictive, uncanny re-rendering which claims, through the fiction, to be historical. Sufiya’s violent outbursts in Shame recreate the landscape of the nation in a manner which remains incommensurate with the actual nation of Pakistan. The fictional Peccavistan has its only reality in the novel and the historical claim of the novel is that Peccavistan is the truth about Pakistan. Readings of Beloved reenact the remembrance of slavery that the novel sets in motion and rehearse in its proper chronology Sethe’s biography culminating in her reunion with the ghost of her daughter and the communal cleansing of the shame of her murder. Yet the novel also achieves a very different historical focus, evident in Morrison’s concluding remarks on communal forgetfulness —(274–5): the unreal space of 124 Bluestone Rd., the actuality of Beloved’s ghost are incommensurate with the hard, unbearable reality of Sethe’s sufferings as a slave, her escape from slavery, and the price paid (as Sethe asserts) for her escape. But this incommensurability (the fantasy of forgiveness, reunion, and even denial) speaks in itself of a different and more urgent historical problem, the consequences of slavery.1 Addressing the novel’s present, the difficult space and time of the uncanny events at 124, we discover a different historiographical project which addresses the construction of identity after slavery.

But why Rushdie and Morrison? What can we gain through this kind of comparative reading? Discussions of postcolonial and ethnic literatures have taken place largely as separate academic discourses even when thematically and historically these works are very closely linked.2 While Rushdie has a prominent place in the canon of postcolonial writers, his status as an ethnic writer in Britain has been overlooked. Shame, although a novel about Pakistan, is explicitly contextualized within the narrator’s autobiographical explanations of his experience as an emigre in London. The history of Pakistan (a place remembered from the other side of an absolute historical divide not unlike Morrison’s distance from a place like Sweet Home) is explored to explain the emigre’s identity in London in the 1980s. Remembrance is about constructing identity in a present marked by dislocation.3 While the comparison to Morrison helps us relocate Rushdie as an ethnic writer, the themes of postcolonial discourse help refocus the discussion of Morrison on history after slavery. Indeed by drawing into the discussion Sula, a novel which anticipates many of the problems of historical memory that Morrison explored at length in Beloved and which proffers a heroine who is similar to Rushdie’s heroine, Sufiya, the repression of historical memory emerges as a theme central to postcolonial and ethnic literatures.

Because Beloved has an actual historical source (the life of Margaret Garner), readers have not hesitated to read Morrison’s narrative experiments as a historiographical project. Both Shame and Beloved resort to the uncanny to do history and the comparison is particularly useful because it can help us recognize the historiographical intent of the earlier Morrison novel, Sula. Like Sufiya, Sula is marginal to the historical contextualization of the novel. Historical context is elaborated in Sula as the background for the experiences of the protagonist but seems fundamentally disconnected from these experiences. Sula sets up a divided historical space: the unrealities and psychological complexities of Sula’s experience that produce uncanny effects on the one hand, and actual history, the realm of wars and political change on the other. These function as markers of realism in the novel. While Sufiya, like Beloved, represents the return of the repressed, unlike Beloved (and like Sula) she is in no direct way anchored to historical fact but is instead Rushdie’s vehicle for a fictive enactment of what is left out of history. Beloved, however ghostly, is anchored in the real life of Margaret Garner, and Morrison’s historical novel is legitimated as history through its connection to a real life character. In Sula and Shame the historicity which interests the authors relies less on a mimetic correspondence to verifiable events. The result is that to read Sula historically can help refocus a reading of Beloved on the possibilities of African-American history after slavery: how do you create historical space and possibility when the present is completely overshadowed by the past, whether it is your own memory or a cultural memory? How do you remember and still invent a future and possibilities for your people?4



According to Tzvetan Todorov, the fantastic is a function of the reader’s hesitation between two distinct possibilities offered but not resolved by the narrative: either there is a plausible explanation for events that appear supernatural, or there is no explanation. “The fantastic occupies the duration of this uncertainty,” Todorov argues (25). Furthermore, he distinguishes the marvellous and the uncanny from the fantastic; in the marvellous, the reader learns and must accept the “fact” that the events are indeed supernatural. In the uncanny, strangeness is distanced in the past. Shame conforms to Todorov’s definition of the marvellous, but Beloved, where explanations are provided but events retain their unfamiliar quality all the same, remains uncanny. 5

If the function of the fantastic (as defined by Todorov) hinges on prolonging the reader’s uncertainty, then the fantastic cannot readily engage with problems of historical knowledge. The fantastic explores the reader’s experience as a reader and not the reader’s experience of the empirical world. By contrast, Todorov’s definitions of the marvellous and the uncanny offer two distinct possibilities of historiographic emplotment:


the marvellous corresponds to an unknown phenomenon, never seen as yet, still to come—hence to a future; in the uncanny, on the other hand, we refer the inexplicable to known facts, to a previous experience, and thereby to the past. (42)


The identification of the marvellous with the future and the uncanny with the past corresponds to the different orientations of Shame and Beloved respectively. Rushdie posits Shame as a historical novel about the future; he uses the Hegiran calendar and thus dates the events in Peccavistan after the events in London.6 The reader of course recognizes the outlines of recent Pakistani history in the fictional Peccavistan, but Sufiya’s violent vengeance is posited as an unrealized possibility. Beloved on the other hand manifests herself as a realized impossibility. Although the ghost mediates historical consciousness and remembrance in the novel, it remains unassimilable, strange, despite the explanation.

In Shame, Sufiya symbolizes the effectiveness of historical determinations on individuals. Yet her violence also speaks to the limits of such determinations. Like the excess that Beloved represents according to Caroline Rody (93, 109), Sufiya transgresses the historical determinants of her circumstances. Her real meaning lies in the excessive gestures of her violence. While her idiocy has come about as a result of harms done to her and registered on her person (actions which are explicitly historicized and located by Rushdie), Sufiya is not a mere tabula rasa to be written over but an agent who reacts to the harms done to her. Rushdie describes Sufiya’s agency in a paradoxical sentence:


What seems certain is that Sufiya Zinobia, for so long burdened with being a miracle-gone-wrong, a family’s shame made flesh, had discovered in the labyrinths of her unconscious self the hidden path that links sharam to—violence … (150–1)


Sufiya, “a family’s shame made flesh” and thus not her own person, is capable however of making discoveries in her unconscious. Sufiya’s unconscious is the location of the other side of history, the location of the repressed. Rendered conscious in this fashion by Rushdie, Sufiya is not only a receptor of actions done to her but an agent in her own right. Rushdie transforms Sufiya into a symbol of resistance to historical determinations.7 Her bursts of violence—her unreality in fact—have a magical transformative power which can release (at least fictively) a momentum toward revolutionary change.8

Not only is Beloved also unreal precisely in the same terms—she escapes the determinations of history and is reborn—but she recalls Sula. Like Beloved, Sula is a potential agent of liberation, a person who seems unreal because she is unaffected by the usual determinants. Although more realistically drawn than Beloved, Sula is inescapably uncanny. Her unreality results from her ability to escape her community’s determining influence. Morrison presents Sula as a character who lacks an ego:


She had no center, no speck around which to grow.… She was completely free of ambition, with no affection for money, property or things, no greed, no desire to command attention or compliments—no ego. For that reason she felt no compulsion to verify herself—be consistent with herself. (119)


Through her use of the word “ego,” Morrison seems to invite a psychoanalytic interpretation of Sula. Yet the above can be read also as a historical evaluation of Sula. She is a character whose unreality is a result of her difference from others (118), a miraculous escape (however partial) from the social mores which defined her community. Not bound to be consistent, or to “verify herself” to herself, Sula is curiously unmarked by the community in which she lives. However, Sula is also the other against whom the community of the Bottom defines itself. It is only against Sula’s difference, her monstrosity as a “witch” (150), that the Bottom sustains its sense of community.9 Sula’s otherness echoes Beloved’s. The communal expurgation of Beloved’s ghost comes as a confrontation with the otherness of shame denied through the tendency to forgetfulness.

Drawing from the theoretical contributions on historical materialism by Raymond Williams and Walter Benjamin, I find in the unreality of Rushdie’s and Morrison’s heroines the traces of a concrete materiality. The subversion of causal narratives attempted by Rushdie and Morrison attests to their shared belief that the meaning of the past lies in its uses in the present, a key tenet of historical materialism. Personal experience is recorded in these novels not as a result of history, or deterministic reflection, but as a continuous dialogue with the past which shapes the direction of new narratives. The stress is on the emergence of the new out of a constant engagement with the past.

In his analysis of historical materialism, Raymond Williams argues that despite the effectiveness of incorporative pressures, domination can never be absolute. Domination, by its very selectivity, always leaves out certain areas of experience which can then gather into oppositional forms:


no mode of production and therefore no dominant social order and therefore no dominant culture ever in reality includes or exhausts all human practice, human energy, and human intention. This is not merely a negative proposition, allowing us to account for significant things which happen outside or against the dominant mode. On the contrary it is a fact about the modes of domination, that they select from and consequently exclude the full range of human practice. What they exclude may often be seen as the personal or the private, or as the natural or even the metaphysical. Indeed it is usually in one or other of these terms that the excluded area is expressed, since what the dominant has effectively seized is indeed the ruling definition of the social (Marxism 125, emphasis added)


Williams’s opposition of the personal and the social shows how this division actually serves to disguise the social significance of the realm of personal experience. The novel as a genre has sought to reappropriate the personal as the social.10

The central importance of sexual experience in Sula, for example, demolishes the distinctions between personal and social experience. The World Wars—the history the reader readily recognizes as history in the novel—take place somewhere outside the fictional world that Morrison creates. Yet Morrison clearly treats sex as that realm of experience left over from the overdetermining incursions of the dominant culture. From that space outside the “ruling definition of the social,” sex is at the core of Sula’s disruptive energy; it is where the implications of her lack of selfhood affect the community most deeply. Through her promiscuity, she wreaks havoc on her community. Out of these disruptions rises the only possibility of a conscious community and thus quite explicitly an awareness of the social and historical.

In order to signal the socially disruptive potential of private experience ignored by the social, Rushdie exploits the Victorian literary convention of demonic women (a convention, moreover, which is entirely foreign to his subject matter).11 He exploits Sufiya’s ambiguous status as really supernatural: “Sufiya Zinobia turned out to be, in reality, one of those supernatural beings … about whom we are happy to read in stories…” (216). Sufiya escapes from her safe assignation in the private experience of reading because she is linked to two of the author’s real life experiences in London: his sister’s attack in the London subway and the murder of a young Pakistani girl by her father.

The historical method of these two novelists is a type of historical materialism which can be located theoretically in Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Historical materialism in its classic Marxist sense posits a correspondence between material conditions and human thought and culture which is also operative in the act of writing fiction. Fiction realistically (and in various degrees mimetically) seeks to reflect the world. Yet instead of relying on a simplistic notion of direct correspondence in mimetic representation, historical materialists draw attention to the mediations of, and even deviations from determinism, which locate the meaning of determination in the differences and not the correspondences between reality and its representation.

In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin conceives the function of the historical materialist as the disruption of narrative. He dismisses the usefulness of any narrativization of time as progress or development. Repeatedly resorting to the image of explosions, Benjamin describes the analysis of a historical materialist as an explosion. The historical materialist aims to “blast open the continuum of history” (262). The moment of the blast is both the historian’s return to the past but also a moment which belongs historically to the present of the historian’s writing. Anchored in two moments, the historian writes about the dialectical relationship between two specific situations, a relationship which once elaborated explains less about continuities and development than it does about the simultaneity of the past in the present, the presence of historical memory as a shaping force in everyday experience and the need to render this presence conscious.

To blast continuity, to arrest the flow of time and bring to the fore the actuality of a repressed past which has maintained itself in the present—these are the revolutionary tasks of the historical materialist, and they are carried out significantly first on the level of representations. Here, in fact, Rushdie follows closely on Benjamin’s imagery: his characters blast into history. Bilquis emerges from the explosion of her father’s movie theater naked and placeless, a metaphor for the birth of Pakistan from an abrupt severance of ties with the past. As a result of the explosion, however, Bilquis ends up in the care of a man who as a future leader of this new country will determine history. So while the explosion is a severance of ties to the past, it also places Bilquis in a new position where history holds the promise of the future.

“Thinking,” Benjamin tells us, “involves not only the flow of thoughts but their arrest as well” (262). Balancing the imagery of explosions with the arrest of time, Benjamin describes the task of the historical materialist as the articulation of a repressed history. To quote Benjamin once again:


Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it crystalizes into a monad. A historical materialist approaches a historical subject only where he encounters it as a monad. In this structure he recognizes the sign of a Messianic cessation of happening, or put differently, a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past. He takes cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history—blasting a specific life out of the era or a specific work out of the lifework. (262–3)


Turning to Morrison, the materiality of her uncanny characters can be found in their Benjaminian sense of the arrest of time. Beloved arrives on the scene as an interruption of time which affords the return to the past and retrieval of memory. Her insatiable appetite for listening to stories of the past caters to Sethe’s and Denver’s need to talk and remember, a need which leads the three women eventually to form a carefully demarcated space apart. In the suspended time of this separate space, they can integrate their identity with the collective memory of their family’s and race’s traumatic history. The word, stories, memory emerge out of the dissolution of the normal strictures of coping and keeping up appearances that life goes on, an effort to which Baby Sugs was committed but to which Sethe cannot adhere. The banishment of Paul D. from 124 frees the women from their domestic roles and precipitates the integration of their identities.

Sula also fits Benjamin’s paradigm. Not a fictional character in the traditional sense of an individualized, psychologically layered person, Sula is instead a point of orientation, Benjamin’s “monad.” This entity is organized around the culturally identifiable unit of an individual but functions in the novel as an energy and a prism through which Morrison articulates her historical understanding.

Sula’s monstrosity is established in the novel through a number of incidents in which she fails to act appropriately or to act at all and instead watches something happen. Her voyeurism is described in the novel as an arrest of time, and I would argue that incidents of her voyeuristic absorption draw the reader’s attention to historical truths that are revealed by the text. The most shocking example of Sula’s voyeurism is her passive observation of her mother’s death. As Hannah burns, Sula stands by. Late in the novel, Sula provides us with a retrospective account of that event which seems at first to resist interpretation. Sula denies that her passivity had meaning:


“That’s the same sun I looked at when I was twelve, the same pear trees. If I live a hundred years my urine will flow the same way, my armpits and breath will smell the same. My hair will grow from the same holes. I didn’t mean anything. I never meant anything. I stood there watching her burn and was thrilled. I wanted her to keep on jerking like that, to keep on dancing.”


The seemingly endless continuum of time that Sula desires here is a denial of history. The natural world remains the same and unchanging. There are no “events,” no history, in the natural world. But, of course, Hannah did not “keep on jerking like that”; she died. Sula’s dumbness, her denial of meaning, is a recognition of her own and her people’s status as historically marginalized—a marginalization that Morrison, as author, resists. Sula’s desire to suspend time, to disconnect the event from its spectacle—what Johnson called “affective discontinuity” (168)—disturbs us and solicits explanation. It creates a narrative space, her own presence in language, which records a broader cultural sensibility of marginalization that has led to Sula’s monstrosity. Like Sufiya, Sula is defined by her historical placement and her rejection of it.



While the distinctions between fictional and nonfictional historical narratives have gradually been eroded, I would like to propose an examination of the historicity of fictional narratives which reestablishes a meaningful difference between fictional and nonfictional discourses.12 Historians and novelists may both deploy similar narrative techniques, but in most instances they construct their object of knowledge differently. The evocation of place and memory as a function of dislocation is particular to the ways in which fictions address problems of history. The difficulties with memory in Beloved stem from its associations with a place called Sweet Home, which is horrific because of slavery but also inevitably a home lost to Sethe who remembers its physical beauty, for example, with longing. It is a place or landscape from which she has been violently dislocated. Indeed Morrison’s idiosyncratic substitution of rememory for remembrance could be construed as a way to draw attention to the difficulties of remembrance rather than as a sign for its inevitability and force. The “re” in rememory signals a barrier, an acknowledgement of distance and difficulty.13 In Sula where Morrison is more concerned to show the effects of forgetfulnes she describes at the end of Beloved, she invents a place and tells of a culturally specific memory of loss which is operative in that community but has no viable narrative. Her subject is broadly the history of African-American experience from 1919 until 1941. To conclude her novel, Morrison then skips ahead to 1965. The fictional place is demarcated by these historical markers.

Morrison’s need to invent a place in Sula is consonant with the history she tells. It is a history of the loss of a sense of place and thus a history which can be retrieved only through the invention of the place that is lost. Morrison in fact specifically addresses the relation between a notion of place and the viability of a community. At the end of her retrospective account of the Bottom’s disappearance, Morrison’s narrator can ask whether the Bottom was a place or a community:


The black people, for all their new look, seemed awfully anxious to get to the valley, or leave town, and abandon the hills to whoever was interested. It was sad, because the Bottom had been a real place. These young ones kept talking about the community, but they left the hills to the poor, the old, the stubborn—and the rich white folks. Maybe it hadn’t been a community, but it had been a place. Now there weren’t any places left. (166)

Morrison’s story has rendered the Bottom into a community which is no longer dependent on a physical location in space but to its rhetorical location in a narrative of history. By positing the Bottom as a lost place which may never have been a community, Morrison sets up a myth of its dialectical opposite—a myth of real community.14

Shame also illustrates how novelists construct the object of historical knowledge differently from historians. Rushdie assumes we already have a substantial factual knowledge about Pakistani history. His tale does not provide facts but tries to explain how the facts (whose knowledge he shares with his reader) were constructed, in what cultural milieu they developed, and by what ethos they were motivated. Whereas Morrison invents a place but relies on an identifiable historical period, Rushdie barely fictionalizes a real place and invents an anachronistic time frame. He posits the experience of Pakistani emigres as anterior to the political history of the creation of Pakistan. Rushdie dislocates cause and effect from chronology, thematizing memory negatively as the loss of memory. Emigres, the narrator of Shame tells us, are people without a history, people whose ties have been severed by an act of physical dislocation to a new place (64). By positing the past as future, Rushdie demonstrates that historical memory is a constant process of becoming. To reimagine one’s past is also to project one’s future.

Rushdie thus dislocates the historian: he writes in London through the imagery and fiction of the East, a consciousness of place which he tells us is carried as a passive memory by migrants. A migrant’s consciousness testifies to the disruptive presence of the past in our everyday lives. There is no such thing as a past neatly contained in a chronologically other time from our own, but only a presently unfolding sense of the past which is shaped by and also determines in its own turn our experience in the present.

Rushdie gives testimony to this present sense of the past when he names the fictional Pakistan, Peccavistan. This act of naming establishes continuities with the past while also registering the instability of the past which is constantly being rediscovered from shifting moments in the present: My story’s palimpsest-country has, I repeat, no name of its own. The exiled Czech writer Kundera once wrote:


“A name means continuity with the past and people without a name.” But I am dealing with a past that refuses to be suppressed, that is doing battle with the present; so it is perhaps unduly harsh of me to deny my fairyland a title.

There’s an apocryphal story that Napier, after a successful campaign in what is now the south of Pakistan, sent back to England the guilty, one-word message, “Peccavi.” I have Sind. I am tempted to name my looking-glass Pakistan in honour of this bilingual (and fictional, because never really uttered) pun. Let it be Peccavistan. (92–93)


The name “Peccavistan,” as it is used by Rushdie, is an accusation against the imperialist Napier.15 But at the same time, it functions as the heritage (“‘the continuity with the past’”) of the subject peoples. The palimpsest country is a country written over, one which hides and erases one version of its history with another.

 Historical fictions occupy a persistently secondary status in regards to proper histories no matter how far we go in recognizing the fictionality of histories. With Hayden White leading the way, theorists of the narrativity of historical accounts have aimed primarily at persuading us of the fictionality of history.16 Yet the historicity of fictional narratives always remains dubious because of what is perceived as their method of indirection. If historical fictions recount what was, they do so by a circuitous method.17 They posit invented stories as allegories for real circumstances whose facts can be verified by referring outside the fictional text. But the secondary status of historical novels can be theorized in an entirely different way if fictions are viewed as critical investigations of a historical consciousness that is already widely disseminated. Rushdie and Morrison both recognize that their historical novels are parts of larger historical narratives which have been extensively disseminated in their respective cultures.

Thus secondariness is not a result of indirection. It is not the avoidance of fact, or a deliberate casting of truths as metaphors which could presumably also be represented without recourse to such literary devices. I would propose instead that postmodern historical fiction in particular is history’s metalanguage. This secondariness is what Paul Ricoeur calls history’s “second-order discourse,” a discourse which responds to and thus comes after (or second to) an existing narrative but is not lesser than the first. Ricoeur does not distinguish between fiction and history when he refers to second-order discourse. Instead he refers to his own task as a philosopher who wishes to analyze not the narrative method of historians but the ways in which they construct their object of knowledge. Thus his subject matter in The Contribution of French Historiography to the Theory of History is “the second-order discourse of the historian on the nature of historical knowledge” (1).

Ricoeur draws from the structuralist vocabulary of the early Roland Barthes who in Elements of Semiology defines semiology as a metalanguage or second order discourse. A metalanguage is any discourse which sets out to describe (“operate on”) another discourse. Thus semiology, “is a metalanguage, since as a second-order system it takes over a first language (or language-object) which is the system under scrutiny; and this systemobject is signified through the metalanguage of semiology.” Thus in metalanguage, “the signifieds of the second system are constituted by the signs of the first” (Barthes 92).18

Shame dramatizes its own second order discourse. To represent the way meaning is made, Rushdie deploys a metalanguage, an explicatory discourse about his own story. In a novel that is not a simple reflection of its epoch but a highly conscious effort to change the way in which this epoch sees itself, he transforms the peripheral stories of women in a repressive society into the privileged “angle to reality” of the novel. The most privileged of all such moments is the description of Rani’s embroidered shawls. Rani’s embroidered shawls are proof of how “the women seem to have taken over” (189), and by this Rushdie intends that women have taken over the making of meaning in his fiction. They have clearly not taken the world over politically.

The “unspeakable things,” which Rani’s “sorceress’s art” has made visible, have been unspeakable even on the level of the story’s rhetoric. Rushdie resorts to the device of Rani’s shawls in order to tell more fully. As a moment of narrative explication, Rani’s testimony, in fact, not only supplements but contradicts the general impression given by the narrator’s own testimony. In some instances, the additional, incriminatory information which Rani provides about Iskander closely echoes previous passages in the story which seem, in retrospect, to have silenced these particular incriminatory facts. For example, when the narrator explains to us why the people loved Iskander, a mere twelve pages before the description of the first shawl depicting Iskander’s philanderings with the “pink-skinned concubines” (210), the narrator elaborates on Iskander’s vow to give up women, Pinkie in particular. We are told that he transposed that erotic energy onto his political image and projected eros as love for the people:


People could see it in Isky, he was plainly full of the stuff, up to the brim, it spilled out of him and washed them clean.—Where did it come from?—Arjumand knows; so does her mother. It was a diverted torrent. He had built a dam between the river and its destination. Between himself and Pinkie Aurangzeb. (198)


While it is true that Isky gave up Pinkie, “the diverted torrent” had other “destination(s)” not mentioned here. More importantly, however, the reader finds out from the “badminton” shawl that Rani and Arjumand do not “know” the same things. The badminton shawl, like the others, teaches us that “no two sets of memories ever match” (209), something which the above passage obscures because it deliberately asserts the coincidence of both the daughter’s and the mother’s views.

Retrospectively, we understand that Arjumand’s belief in her father’s political image is inadequate while Rani’s superior insight (“you swallowed everything he dished out, … he hid nothing from me,” 210) explains the political lie of Iskander’s cavorting. By her act of representation, Rani changes the personal context of a betrayal of the wife by a husband into a political context. At the time that Iskander was engineering his political rise, Rani was isolated at Mohenjo. At this time we know that “her love for (Iskander) had refused to die, but had become, instead, a thing of quietness and strength … Rani subsided into a sanity which made her a powerful, and later on dangerous, human being” (165). The danger she poses is unlike Sufiya’s, but equally subversive because it proposes a new way of seeing. In her later period of isolation in Mohenjo, Rani creates her shawls and signs them in her maiden name. The realism of her embroidered visions empowers Rani with a clear moral authority over her husband whom she rejects and accuses in her work. In this instance, Rani and more specifically the history which she inscribes in her embroidery are emblematic of the people (absent from the novel itself) and their accusations against Iskander.

Shame is undoubtedly a moral tale. But more than simply stating its moral, Shame explores the ways in which the moral can be legitimized and thus find an audience that will see it. In the instance of the shawls, the narrator describes a supposedly real series of perfectly executed representations. At the same time, he is creating a fiction about such shawls, a fiction in which his reader is necessarily a co-creator. Rushdie dramatizes one of his central beliefs in the way representations are established. To see and recognize is to legitimate.

The virtuosity of the shawls’ execution and their aesthetic brilliance (literally breathtaking) arrest the narrative; they pause time. But this moment of wondrous seeing is also a powerful interpretation of the story itself. Rushdie here subverts the usual mechanism of spectacle and quite clearly politicizes our aesthetic sensibility.19 In fact the thematization of reading as seeing in Shame is largely concerned with demystifying the spectacularization of politics and creating a method of seeing which helps narrativize one’s history.20 Shame’s method is distinctly anti-spectacular.

The shawls that “said unspeakable things” (210) are doubly important to the story. “An act of accusation on the grandest conceivable scale” (212), the shawls are first a moment of narrative explication from which the reader learns the full extent of Iskander’s corruption. Second, “leaving out nothing” (214), the shawls propose the fiction of a perfect representation. The total representation achieved by Rani’s shawls invites comparison with Rushdie’s own magical realism. Rani is called an “artist” and her embroidery is a “sorceress’s art” (209). In a similar fashion, Morrison presents Sula as an artist:


In a way her strangeness, her naivete, her craving for the other half of her equation was the consequence of an idle imagination. Had she paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings, had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like any artist with no art form, she became dangerous. (121)

Sula’s lack of a form leads to a fundamental doubleness in the novel’s structure whereby Morrison posits Sula as the central organizing consciousness and the narrator as the consciousness from which meaning can be made. This doubleness of muteness and articulateness is clearly at play in the episode of Chicken Little’s death where the actual words exchanged between Sula and Nel about the incident are evidence of an empty, contrived language that operates under the suspicion of external controls. This language in which Nel tells Sula, “you didn’t mean it” —(62–63), is curiously mute and even outright false. Of course this denial of meaning is analogous to Sula’s own denial later in the novel which I have cited already—“I never meant anything.”

While Morrison’s characters in Sula consciously disengage with language and choose to uninhabit it (a function of their historical forgetfulness), her narrator finds language to describe their silence. The extremely rich emotional lives of Morrison’s characters and their complex communication with each other take place outside of language and are then placed in language by Morrison herself. The intensity of this nonverbal communication is established in the scene which precedes Chicken Little’s murder.21 As Sula and Nel lie together in the sand digging their twin holes, Morrison tells us, “Neither one had spoken a word” (59), but their actions were entirely in sync and the meaning of these actions entirely obscured from the reader except that they lead directly into the teasing carelessness which results in Chicken Little’s death. Sula’s action is a defiance of the laws of nature; she spins Chicken Little without regard for the force that the accumulated action creates. Moreover, she does it for the pleasure of the moment and as an assertion that she exists despite the internalization of her own marginalization—that she never meant anything.

By contrast, in Beloved the characters talk obsessively and find their own salvation in recognizing and sharing their stories.22 In a novel which tries to solve the problem of silence marginalizing African-Americans in the period examined in Sula, Morrison performs an archaeology, a historical and fantastic retrieval of the moment in which remembrance and telling could have been most productive. She describes Paul D’s desire to stay with Sethe at the end of the novel in terms of congruent stories: “He wants to put his story next to hers” (273). Paul D pleads with Sethe, “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow” (273). Tomorrow arises as a possibility only in the recognition of a common history, the shared and lost place of Sweet Home. Beloved prepares the ground for becoming.

By being committed to the repressed side of history, both Rushdie and Morrison are interested in the disruption and suspension of narratives of becoming. Their narratives reveal instead certain consciousnesses or sensibilities normally censored or unarticulated at play in an identifiable historical context. Just as Nel’s grief at the end of Sula “had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow” (174), so does postmodern historical fiction construct itself on this image of infinitely expanding circles in which the reader reinhabits a time in the past which he/she remembers— not personally necessarily, but culturally. The novel provides what Rushdie claims repeatedly is a “new angle to reality.”

Fictional historical narratives do not aim only to question historical truths which are established outside of their own discursive parameters. Rushdie and Morrison tell a particular history primarily by establishing the historical validity of their subject matter (an idiot girl, a ghost). If historical knowledge has been questioned by raising the issue of the narrativity of historical accounts, then paradoxically these and other historical fictions reassert the possibility of historical knowledge through their wildly fantastic characters and places.

Сайт материалын пайдалану үшін редакция келісімі керек және гиперсілтеме жасау міндетті ©Білге - Мәдениет пен өнер сайты