coperta vol. 1 issue 2



coperta vol. 1 issue 2
“The All-Knowing God”. Old Testament and Hellenistic Metaphors
in the Genre of New Testament Apocalyptic
Dystopian Narratives and Humanism. What a Zombie Makeover
Really Looks Like
“The Night Parade”. Experiencing the Folklore-Based Japanese
Imaginary between Wabisabi and the Uncanny
The Pain and Suffering of African Children Reflected in
Uwem Akpan’s Short Stories Say You’re One of Them
La Città Di Gu Cheng: Uno Scenario Apocalittico
Great Metropolitan Creations. The Tectonics of
Discourse in the Postcolonial City
CAESURA 1.2 (2014)
ABSTRACT. Apocalyptic literature has stood apart from other genre especially because of its
emphasis on metaphors, symbolism and cryptic language. At even a cursory look, one will
notice that the book of Revelation made use to the fullest of these data. What scholars would
expect to see less in such genre is the imagery of God as an “all-knowing” searcher of the
hearts and thoughts. In the book of Revelation there are two major texts that employ this
motif. In chapters 2 and 3 God appears as the divinity who “knows” virtually all deeds, attitudes, and in particular, the thoughts of the heart of the seven churches from Asia Minor. Evidently, one would ask whether this language belongs to the classical apocalyptic literature, and
what are the sources that inspired the author of Revelation? The Bible uses a wide spectrum of
verbs and nouns to convey the idea that God has comprehensive knowledge of human
thoughts and actions. These grammatical terms describe physical organs, physiological and
mental or spiritual operations. In this article we will trace the terminology of the concept of
“divine all-knowledge” to three major (possible) sources: the Old Testament, Greek/Hellenistic
and Jewish Hellenistic texts. In particular, we will want to know what was the original context
in which these concepts were used? Second, we will want to ask to what extent the author of
Revelation was influenced by these sources and what was the meaning that he gave to the
notion of “divine all-knowledge”?
KEY WORDS: Apocalypse, New Testament, metaphor, Hellenistic text
The biblical background of Revelation 2-3
The passages that contain the motif of “divine all-knowledge” in the book of
Revelation fall in the category of the seven pronouncements that Jesus
Christ issued to the seven churches of Asia Minor. First, each pronouncement follows a pattern that addresses the following criteria: the name of the
church, the identity and attributes of the speaker (Jesus Christ), the content
of the knowledge of the speaker, a pronouncement on the fate of the
church, and a closing formula of warning (“He who has an ear, let him hear
what the Spirit says…”) (D. Aune, 1997: 119-30).1 What concerns us in par-
AURELIAN BOTICA (PhD) is Assistant Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament
studies at Emanuel University of Oradea, Romania. E-mail: [email protected]
Concerning the literary form of the seven pronouncements, Aune argues that these
sentences follow a pattern of “imperial edicts” typical of Roman culture.
CAESURA 1.2 (2014)
ticular is the aspect of the “content” that describes the “knowledge” of Jesus
about each particular church.
Second, in Revelation 2:23 the author uses the expression “I am he who
searches the mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to
your works.” Concerning the first group of texts, the description of each
church begins with the formula “I know”. In each case the author uses the
verb oida followed by a detailed description of the object of knowledge.
However, in 2:23, the author uses a verb of “searching” that could be traced
to the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament. To clarify the
meaning of each group of texts, we will list the summary forms of the pronouncements introduced by the verbs. We will then analyze the meaning of
the verbs and their larger Scriptural and context.
The Verb oida
Church Recipient
Object of Knowledge
deeds, toil, endurance
tribulation and poverty
dwelling place
deeds, love, faith, service, patience
The verb oida (with variations eido/eidomai) is a word that describes the notion of “knowing” in a very general sense (H. Seesemann in G. Keittel,
1964: 116-19; D. Aune, 1997: 134).2 It occurs in approximately 320 passages in the New Testament and it takes human, angelic and divine subjects. In
this sense, one can “know” someone personally, know about a person or a
situation, or “grasp the meaning” of a unique reality (see oida in W. Bauer
and F. W. Danker, 2013). In our case, the subject of the verb is Jesus Christ,
who addresses each of the seven churches. If in the New Testament the
verb does not suggest (particularly) a unique aspect of the act of “knowing”,
the content of the seven pronouncements does. As is evident from the table
above, what Jesus Christ knows are both visible and invisible realities. This
means that it is not the verb itself, but its subject that gives the verb in these
passages a unique function. We have called this an “all-knowledge” motif,
Particularly, Aune points out that oida expresses a state of knowledge with little or no
reference to how that knowledge was acquired.
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“The All-Knowing God”. Old Testament and Hellenistic Metaphors
not because of the verb itself, but because the subject of the verb assumes
knowledge “of all the affairs upon the earth” (D. Aune, 1997: 143). One will
note that Jesus Christ knows both external realities (deeds and places) and
inward experiences (patience and love).
The New Testament affirms this function of the verb elsewhere, when it
describes Jesus’ “ability to fathom people’s thoughts”.3 As we will argue later, we believe that the New Testament concept of divine “all-knowledge” is
rooted primarily in the witness of the Old Testament. Now, to convey the
act of “divine knowledge” the Old Testament employs other verbs as well.
Most often, the texts use the Hebrew yada with this sense and in a similar
context. One should note, however, that the Greek translators of Hebrew
text chose the verb ginosko, not oida/eido, to render the Hebrew yada (A.
Botica, 2007: 123; ginosko in R. Bultmann quoted in Kittel, 1964: 689-719;
Yada in G. J. Botterweck, 1986: 448-81; yada in Fretheim quoted in Van
Generem, 2001).4
Even though in terms of occurrences ginosko had more frequently the
sense of divine “all-knowledge”, the Old Testament also employed oida with
a similar meaning. In Proverbs 24:12, God, who knows (ginosko) the heart of
all, also “knows” (oida) all things. The author of Job 11:8 has God pointing
to Job that he does not “know” (oida) the “deeper things” that, apparently,
only God can know. Similarly, God “knows” (oida) the “works of transgressors” (Job 11:11) and the “origin of wisdom” (28:23). God is able to weigh
the deeds of Job and thus “know” his “innocence” (31:6). Given this semantic range, we can grasp better the meaning of the verb oida in the seven
pronouncements of Revelations 2-3. That is, God has “all-knowledge” that,
for all purposes, He will use to evaluate both inward and outward realities
in the life of the churches.
The second passage that focuses on the theme of divine “all-knowledge”
is Revelation 2:23. Unlike the seven occurrences that we have just analyzed,
here the text describes the notion of divine “searching” of the “mind and
the heart”. In essence, the concept of “searching” conveys a meaning similar
to that of “knowing”, especially considering the fact that what God searches
is the mind and the heart of humans. Both verbs target the same phenomenon, namely, divine “all-knowledge”.
Oida, A Greek-English Lexicon, for Jesus “knowing” the “thoughts” of the Pharisees (Mat
12:25), their “hypocrisy” (Marc 12:15), what “they were thinking” (Luke 6:8), and the
“grumblings” of the disciples (John 6:61).
Botterweck “relates the aspect of divine knowledge of the thoughts to the realms of cult
(worship) and law (justice).” In this context, the worshipper “calls on God for justice,
based on his knowledge of the heart (Ps 44:21; cf. Job 31:6; Ps 40:10; Jer 12:3). ”For
the idea of God “knowing” realities that are inaccessible to humans, see Deut 8:2; cf.
13:3; Jud 3:4; Ps 139:23.
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In Classical and Hellenistic Greek sources, the verb appears with both
literal and figurative meanings (see ereunao in G. Delling quoted in Kittel,
1964: 655-57). For example, one could “search” possessions or the house for
a certain item. One could also “investigate” a matter, “search out” the
meaning of a statement or “inquire” into a theoretical problem. Plato used
the concept in the context of philosophical examinations. In the figurative
sense, the verb conveys the sense of “searching” a reality that goes beyond
the power of human perception. As early as Pindar (6 th century B.C.), ereunao described the diligent (and apparently futile) search of men to find the
will of the gods. As we have indicated so far, for the most part the verb takes
a human subject and the act of “searching” can be physical, intellectual or
spiritual/religious. We will see later why this aspect has a special significance
to understanding the passage in the book of Revelation.
In the Septuagint, ereunao translates the Hebrew verb hps, which means
to “search out” or “examine” (A. Botica, 2007: 116; for G. H. Matties, “hps”,
quoted in Van Generem, 2001: 252-55). In the Old Testament this verb
works with physical objects (Gen 31:35; 44:12), persons (1Sam 23:23), or
abstract entities like injustice (Ps 64:7) and wisdom (Pro 2:4). Furthermore,
the conceptual range of hps “is flexible enough to include inward elements
like the ‘spirit’ (Ps 77:6) and the ‘innermost chambers.’” Thus Proverbs
20:27, where the subject is the “spirit of man” that plays the role of the
“lamp of the Lord”, searching all his innermost parts. If our analysis of the
usage of ereunao in classical Greek is correct, it follows that the Septuagint
invested the verb with a meaning that did not appear in the Classic or Hellenistic sources. That is, God has the ability to search out realities that remain inaccessible to humans.
And one may draw this conclusion from the data of New Testament as
well. True, the authors of the New Testament used ereunao with the general sense of “searching” the Scriptures or the ministry of the prophets of
the Old Testament (John 7:52; 1Pet 1:11). But ereunao points not only to
human, but to divine searching as well. In addition to Revelation 2:23, one
should note Romans 8:27, where he “who searches hearts knows what is the
mind of the Spirit.” Likewise, in 1Corinthians 2:10, Paul explains that “the
Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.” We may conclude,
then, that Revelation 2:23 reflects the Old Testament understanding of God
as a divine “searcher”; as an “all-knowing” God.
The Wider Background of the Theme of Divine
Knowledge and Searching
The passages that we have analyzed so far describe particular and often
different historical situations. However, the unifying criterion that makes
them critical to our analysis is the fact that “the object of the verbs ‘test-
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“The All-Knowing God”. Old Testament and Hellenistic Metaphors
ing/examining’ is the inward thoughts and intentions” (A. Botica, 2007: 112).
At a closer analysis, it appears that this emphasis on “interiority” forms a
recurring pattern in the Bible. If this is true, then one may ask what is the
significance of this motif in the Bible in general, and how does this phenomenon explain the meaning of the passages from the book of Revelation?
First, some scholars understood the motif as a religious/theological theme
underlying the divine attributes of knowledge, perception, and
omniscience. As we have noted, “this appears to be the case both in
narrative texts like 1Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, as well as in prophetic
and wisdom passages from Jeremiah, Job, and Proverbs” (A. Botica, 2007:
119).5 It is true that in some of these passages one may detect what we will
show later to be a juridical approach to the concept of “divine searching.
However, in the current setting, “they reflect the preoccupations of the
authors with religious/theological and ethical issues outside the cult” (E.
Würthwein, 1957: 165-82; A. Weiser, 1962: 802-09; H.-J. Krauss 1, 1988:
204; E. S. Gerstenberger, 2001: 79). Thus scholars have pointed out
parallels between this motif in the Bible and in the ancient Near Eastern
texts; in particular, texts depicting the solar deities and the “weighing of the
heart” in Egyptian religion (K. van der Toorn, 1998: 434-35; R. Pettazzoni,
1956: 77-88; Gerstenberger, 2001: 515; Currid, 1996: 217 ff; Taylor, 2001:
35 ff; O. Keel, 1978: 184-185; J. H. Hogg, 1911: 59-60).6
Second, the motif of “divine testing” has also been interpreted from a
moral/cultic standpoint, as a prayer-formula to be recited before entering the
temple gate. In this context the worshippers participated in what scholars
call “gate liturgy”, which was “a ritual intended to prevent one from
approaching the holy in gross impurity” (Keel, 1978: 183, and Ps. 11:4-5, 7
(“His eyes see, his eyelids test…”).
Third, and in close proximity to point number two, another avenue of
interpretation has emerged from the practice of the “cultic ordeal”. In
essence, the Temple “may have served as a judicial forum for cases that
could not be adjudicated at the level of the local courts” (thus Deut 17:8, “If
a matter of justice is too difficult for you”) (A. Botica, 2007: 110). A number
of scholars have argued that “the process also included an oath” (cf. 1Ki
For 1Sam 16:7; 1Ki 8:38-40; 1Chr 28:9; 29:17-18; 2Chr 6:30, and second, Jer 11:20;
12:3; 17:9; 20:12; Job 7:17-18; 13:9; Prov 15:11; 16:2; 17:3; 20:27; 21:2; 24:12.
Van der Toorn characterizes the ANE solar deities as gods of justice with intimate
knowledge of the inward world of humans. Note also Pettazzoni for texts describing
Anu, Enlil, Ea, Sin, Marduk, and Shamash, also Gerstenberger for Egyptian parallels.
These are sources that describe gods such as Amon, the “searcher of the body, who
opens the hearts”, and Sia, “who knows the inner parts of the body.” Also O. Keel for
the ritual of “haruspicy” in relation to “divine examination” of the heart (Ps 139:2324).
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8:31ff.), which “came in force when the courts had to admit their own
inability to administer justice.” Having the person take the oath meant that
he or she submitted to the searching of God (Phillips, 148; “for the ‘oath’ as
a transfer of jurisdiction to God”, and for the general background of the
ordeal process: Gerstenberger, 2001: 513; Van der Toorn, 1998: 429;
Würthwein, 1957: 165-82).
As Gerstenberger, Krauss, and others noted, the motif of divine
examination served as “an element of the ‘doxology of judgment’, in which ‘a
person unconditionally submits to the procedure of the deity, namely, by
confessing the unsearchable omnipotence of God in a doxological hymn’”
(Krauss 1, 1988: 173; Krauss 2, 1965: 217). This experience could be
interpreted both as a “judgment of the conscience of the sinner and the
‘proclamation of innocence’ for the one falsely accused”, even though
Schmidt restricted this “to the prayer of the person who was accused falsely”
and who now calls for a “legal resolution on his innocence” (for Ps 7:10,
Schimdt, 1934: 13, and Delekat, 1967: 63; for Ps 17:3, Beyerlin, 1970: 106,
102-03, 107, 118). For Schmidt (26), Beyerlin (107), and Krauss (132), the
“sacral process of judgment” consists simply in spending the night in the
temple and receiving the verdict in the morning. As Van der Toorn and
McKane argued, the ordeal was based on the belief that “the party that
survived the test through the night (drinking a mixture of wine and poison)
was deemed innocent.” Nevertheless, even though this scenario may have
some support within the Old Testament traditions, the interpretations
involve a degree of speculation. This is why disagreements still remain (A.
Boica, 2007: 111, and he references to the reviews of Eaton, Hasel, and
Fourth, the connection “between inward morality (as intentions/attitudes)
and societal relations and well-being” has been observed to work in Wisdom
literature as well. For example, Perdue noticed a tendency toward “dualism
between deeds and inward piety/morality”. According to the sages, God
would evaluate the (inward) “disposition of the petitioner” because one can
use “both prayer and sacrifice in deceitful ways” (A. Botica, 2007: 103-104;
Perdue, 1977: 155 ff., 240) 7. We must also note that “inwardness was only
the concern of the sages, but not of the official priests” is not correct. 8 Also,
Perdue noted “that in the view of ancient Israel, not only did sacrifices have to be
brought in the right way, but ‘the intention of the heart of important.’”
Please note the fact that Prov 21:27 uses idioms characteristic of cultic literature (e.g.,
the Hebrew toevah, with reference to homosexual acts [Lev 18:22; 20:13] and zimah
with reference to sexual sins [Lev 18:17;19:29; 20:14]). One should also take into account Ps 15 and 24, "where the admission of the worshipper into the Temple depended on his or her pure heart.” Likewise, to convey the notion of intention in “non-action
cases, the Bible uses not only idioms from cultic texts (e.g., Leviticus), but also from
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“The All-Knowing God”. Old Testament and Hellenistic Metaphors
for Kovaks the author of Proverbs viewed “social responsibility in terms of
dispositions, attitudes, and intentions, not only deeds” (Kovacs, 1978: 179,
182).9 Another author who has probed this phenomenon in Wisdom literature is Fox, who noted that a number of passages in the book of Proverbs
(esp. 3:1-12) “are primarily concerned with shaping attitudes” (Fox, 2002:
154-55, 244; Farmer, 1991: 175, 199).10 In his view, even though the “hope
of the authors is to inculcate right actions”, often time they stressed the
imperative of having rights attitudes, “feelings and mental dispositions,
rather than deeds”. It has been the consensus of these authors that the motif of “divine searching” was based on the premise that “holiness and purity
have an essential inward aspect, accessible only to God” (J. Gammie, 1989:
127ff.; A. Botica, 2007: 104).
Another genre of biblical literature that includes the motif of divine examination is Prophetic Literature. Primarily, scholars have traced this topic
to the writings of Jeremiah. As we have shown elsewhere, the prophet understood the human heart as the “medium of inward offenses (4:14-18; 9:7;
12:2). It was in this context that he argued for the necessity of “divine examination” of the thoughts of the heart (11:20; 12:3; 17:9; 20:12) (see J.
Holladay, 1986, 1989; R. Caroll, 1986: 280ff; W. McKane, 1986: 253ff; P.
Kelley, 1991:177; F. Huey, 1993: 137; J. Walton in Logos Library System).
In this sense, Lundbom noted in prophetic literature the view that Yahweh
alone “is able to look into the human heart, plumb its depths, test it, and
come up with an equitable judgment regarding it”, see J. Lundbom, 1999:
788). In his view this was not a “concern with theodicy, but a classic prophetic call to judgment.” In other words, it expressed the condemnation
against those “who falsely claim to speak for Yahweh.” Evidently other prophetic books shared Jeremiah’s view of divine examination. Perhaps the
(human) reason why Jeremiah depicted God in this posture, more than the
other prophets, was his unique experience. Jeremiah not only had a long
criminal law” There are many terms employed in Wisdom, Poetic, and Prophetic literature that could be used both in the legal/religious and the moral/ethical contexts.
Kovacs applied this argument to situations that described everyday “religious and
cultic issues”. As such, “right intentionality constitutes the sine qua non of prayer and
sacrifice” (cf. Prov 15:8; 21:27).
It is true that such attitudes will “inevitably lead to actions, but for the present the
author of Proverbs focuses on attitudes and moral character.” In this sense, Fox reveals
the case of the “Strange Woman” who is “of hidden mind, of a concealed nature”. In
other words, she is the opposite of a “pious frame of mind.” It is this attitude, then,
that makes her all the more dangerous, “when her thoughts and intentions are evil.”
Farmer, too, has argued that in the book of Proverbs, morality is defined “not only in
terms of actions, but of intentions as well.” More specifically, the “test of righteousness
or wickedness applies to the inward life, as the Lord judges intentions as well as
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prophetic ministry, but a turbulent one as well. Of all the references that he
makes about divine examination, most of them arise out of Jeremiah’s concern that the people who persecute him, and who sinned against God, will
escape unpunished.
Divine Searching/All-knowledge and the Human Heart
Now, to understand the phenomenon of divine “all-knowledge” better, one
must consider not only the verbs of “knowing” and “searching”, but also the
objects of the verbs: specifically, the organs or internal functions of human
beings. We have noted so for that the idea of God searching the heart has a
rich background in the literature of Old Testament. This is so because the
human “heart” is arguably one of the most important theological concepts
the Bible (see A. Botica, 2007: 117-19; I. Nowell quoted in H. Luckman and
L. Kulzer, 1999: 17; Robinson in A. S. Peake, 1925: 362-64).11 The term
appears often in verses that describe the act of “searching” or “examining”.
The reason for this examination is that the heart engages in malice, injustice, hypocritical worship and evil thoughts. The evil thoughts of the heart
pose problems not only to human relationships, but also to the relationship
between humans and God. Note the following situations:
“If I had thought evil in my heart, the Lord would not listen to my prayer” (Ps
“They speak words of peace to their friends, but have malice in their heart” (Ps
“‘Eat and drink’ (he says to you) but his heart is not with you” (Prov 23:7)
“They honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me” (29:13)
“The intention of the thoughts of the heart is only evil” (Gen 6:5; 8:21)
Based on the witness of these passages, we may conclude that in the Old
Testament the heart functions both as a biological organ and a spiritual/emotional/volitive/intellectual apparatus. The heart is able to conceive plans
and intentions, but it is also scrutinized by God (A. Botica, 2007: 117-21; R.
North, 1993: 577-97 identifies the “brain” and the “nerve functions” with
Botica notices Fabry’s classification of “lev” from an anthropological perspective, where
the heart is “strong” (Isa 46:12), “powerful” (Ezek 2:4), and “faint” (Ps 61:3), to the noetic: “understanding” (1Ki 3:12), “knowing” (Prov 14:10), “wise” (Prov 16:23), “pondering” (Prov 15:28), “senseless” (Prov 15:21), emotional: “cheerful” (Prov 17:22), “rejoicing” (Ps 105:3), “trembling” (Job 37:1), “fearful” (Isa 35:4), “dreading” (1Sam 28:5),
and ethical: “good” (Eccl 9:7), “evil” (Prov 26:23), “be haughty” (Prov 18:12), “be false”
(Hos 10:2), “go after idols” (Ez 20:16; Job 31:7); also Nowell's “interesting dimension of
the heart as a source of impurity”; see also his own mention of the “heart” with physical,
psychological, intellectual, ethical, and existential meanings (citing Stolz and Robinson for
the “heart” denoting inner life, emotion, will).
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“The All-Knowing God”. Old Testament and Hellenistic Metaphors
the heart; North, 1995: 33 points out that ancient Israelites had “no word
for brain and did not associate thinking with the head.” Instead, the heart
took on these functions; see also R. Johnson, 1949: 77; Glasson, 1970: 24748; Robinson, “Hebrew Psychology”, in A. S. Peake, 1925: 253). Thus God
tests the kidneys (emotions) and the heart of the person who was accused
falsely (Jer 11:20; cf. 12:3; 17:9; 20:12). He also searches, tests and weighs the
heart of the worshipper (Ps 7:10; cf. 17:3; 26:2; 139:1, 23; Prov 21:2; cf.
15:11; 16:2; 17:3; 20:27) and knows the secrets of the heart in general (Ps
44:22; cf. Job 7:17-18).
Evidently, a number of scholars have asked whether it is proper to emphasize the preoccupation of the Old Testament with the thoughts of the
heart. This question reflects the belief that, for some, the Old Testament
deals with legal and practical concerns more than with inner spirituality and
introspection. We have argued elsewhere that reading the Old Testament
from a materialistic perspective alone is both unjust to its cultural/religious
ethos and incorrect from the perspective of a sound methodology. The Old
Testament lists a wide spectrum of cases as it deals both with legal and spiritual matters.
In some of these, both the act and the intention formed the basis for judgment
or praise. In others, the act was linked to the intention, but the basis for judgment or praise was primarily the intention. In yet other cases, whether on the
human-divine level (piety), the level of social interactions (ethics), or—as was the case
more than once—the mixed cases of ethics and piety—only the intent/inward predisposition, not the physical act (which could be praise-worthy), was held liable or
was praised. We have…demonstrated that more often than not it was the factor
of “divine calculation”, not the human court, which made this evaluation critical.
One may say that the Bible portrays God, above all, as intently preoccupied with
the inward life of human beings. It appears that the question of the appraisal of
intent in the absence of the expressed physical action (its praiseworthiness or
blameworthiness) becomes more a theological problem, and less a legal one (A.
Botica, 2007: 174).
One of the examples that embody this dualism comes from Psalm 24:2-4:
Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is
false and does not swear deceitfully.
One will notice that the Psalmist takes into account both the “hands” and
the “heart” of the worshippers. This is not untypical for the Bible. As a
number of scholars have argued, the expression “clean hands and a pure
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heart” points to the “totality of moral/religious life” (E. Otto, 1994: 98ff; B.
Gemser, 1968: 78-95; W. Kaiser, 1986: 8).12 Granted, this passage describes
a cultic situation. We have indicated, however, that the Old Testament
considers the criterion of inwardness not only from a religious/cultic
perspective, but also from a legal, social and inter-personal one (R. E.
Clements, 1996: 220-21, who points to the perspective of the authors of
Proverbs, for whom harboring “evil intentions” has adverse social
The Greco-Roman and the Jewish Hellenistic Background to the
Theme of Divine All-knowledge
So far we have argued for a biblical religious and linguistic background for
the motif of divine “all-knowledge”. This does not mean that this theme
appears only in biblical sources. As we have argued elsewhere, scholars
“have shown this motif to be applied throughout early and late GraecoRoman literature” (A. Botica, 2007: 308; Pettazzoni, 1956: 145-177; G.
Nickelsburg, 1991: 132; W. Lane, 1991: 103; J. Fitzmeyer, 1991: 311-12,
519; J. Fergusson, 1970: 195). As early as Hesiod, the Greeks believed that
there “is a virgin Justice, the daughter of Zeus… and whenever anyone
hurts her with lying slander she sits beside her father Zeus, the son of Kronos, and tells him of men’s wicked heart” (OP 256-264/Theogonia 902). Aristophanes described Palas Athene as a deity who can take body form and
watch (episkopeo) over human beings (Eq. 1173). Seneca too pointed out that
“nothing is shut off from the sight of God. He is witness of our souls and he
comes in the midst of our thoughts” (Ep. 83.1-2).
But there exist differences between the biblical and the Greco-Roman
sources as well. Unlike the Old Testament, the Greek and Roman authors
referred to a plurality of gods as divine beings who are watching over the
world and who can penetrate even the secrets of the human heart (A.
Botica, 2007: 308).13 Among the lists of “all-knowing” deities one finds Zeus,
as Argos Panoptes (“multiple eyes”), and also “the personification of Boreas,
A similar concept to Otto's points to Psalm 78:72 as well. Note similarly the phrase “the
words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart” in Ps 19:15, and we referred to
Kaiser “for the dualism between deeds and intentions, which can be shown to operate
in the prophets (condemnation of “outward acts of piety”), in the cultic life, as well as
in individual cases like that of David (Ps 51:17; 1Sam 16:7).”
In this sense note Botica's references (2007) to Arrian, Disc. 1.14; Seneca, Ep. 83.1-2;
87.21; De Prov. 5.10; 16.4.7; Epictetus, Disc. 2.8.15, 24; 2.14,11; Herodotus 1.124;
Philostratus, Apoll. Tyan. I. P. 4.; Hesiod, Erga 238, 251ff.; 267; Theog. 546, 550, 561;
Homer, Odyss. 4.379; 11.109; 12.323; 13.214; 14.487; 20.7; Iliad 19.258; M. Aurelius,
Med. 12.2; Phil, Aer. Frag. 91; Plautus 2.2.310 (Latin); S. Emp., Mat. 9.54; Sophocles,
Oed. Tyr. 498; Antig. 184; Xenophanes, Frg. 24; Aristophanes, Eq. 1173; Plato, Laws
901D; 905A; 717D; Xenophon, Anab. 2.5-7; Plutarch, Mor. 166D.
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“The All-Knowing God”. Old Testament and Hellenistic Metaphors
Aer, Aither, Helios, Apollo, and Selene, and Jupiter, Semo Sancus, and
Janus in the Roman pantheon” (Pettazzoni, 1956: 145-77).
However, a more direct intermediary between the Old Testament and
the New Testament motif of divine “all-knowledge” is Second Temple Jewish
literature. The impact that the Old Testament exerted on all subsequent
Jewish literature was felt in the way Palestinian and Hellenistic Jews
employed the motif of the “All-Knowing” God. For example, Josephus
described God as the “inspector and governor of our actions” (Ag. Ap. 294).
He “is present to all the actions of their lives”, and sees not only the actions
that are done, “but clearly knows those their thoughts also, whence those
actions do arise” (Ant 6.263). Josephus also refers to God being “conscious
of every secret action of the human heart” (Ant 9:3) and, as a heavenly
Judge, He “sees all things and is present everywhere” (War 1.630). Similar
sentiments were echoed in the intertestamental literature of 1-3 Maccabees,
where God appears as “all-seeing” God and Lord (pantepoteis, 2Mac 7:35;
9:5, and epopteis Teos, 3Mac 2:21). He is able to “sees all things” (ta panta
eforontos, in 2Mac 12:22; 2Mac 15:2). As we have pointed out, the theme of
the “divine examination” of human deeds and thoughts is found in a wide
variety of Second Temple literary works (A. Botica, 2007: 308).14
We will conclude our study with a review of Philo of Alexandria (approx.
20 B.C.E.—50 A.D.), perhaps the author who, outside of the Old and New
Testament, exerted the most profound influence upon the theology of
divine “all-knowledge”. Philo was a Jewish thinker trained in the classics,
and who also enjoyed the respect of his Greek philosophical peers (for the
influence of Greek thought on Philo, and especially on the importance of
inward spirituality, see Botica, 2007: 297, and E. Brehier, 1908: 250ff.,
295ff.; T. Billings, 1919, 1979: 72-87; W. Goodenough, 120ff., with the
focus on “inner virtue” and “its relation to the external practice”; H.
Wolfson, 1947: 1.266-67, with the “duties of the heart” and “the intellectual
aspect of virtue”; J. Danielou, 1958: 191ff., for the role of “virtues in Philo
and for the general turn inward”; Y. Amir, 1983: 18, for “the spiritual/noetic
world as the real world”; P. Gagnon, 1993: 684-85, on “the imprints
received on the soul or mind when one thinks virtuous or evil thoughts
[Leg. 1.18 [61-62]); W. Merritt, 1993: 96ff., on “interiorization as a wider
phenomenon”; M. Alexandre, 1995: 17-46). Alexandria at that time had
become the cultural capital of the Western Empire. Hosting a rather large
See Botica (2007) for Wis 1:6-9; 3:1, 5-6; 3:13; 6:3; 7:17, 23-24; Sir 16:21; 23:19-20;
42:18; Aristeas 133; T Jud 20:5; 1Enoch 9:5, 11; 84:3; 2 Enoch 45:3; 52:13-15; 53:2-3; 66;
3 Enoch 11:1-3; 45:3ff.; Sus 42; 2 Esd 16:55; 16:6; 4 Ez 16:54ff., 61; 2 Bar 48:39; 83:1; T.
Jud 20:1ff.; T. Zeb 5:2; T. Naph 2:6ff.; T. Gad 5:3ff.; T. Jos 2:6; T. Ben 6:7ff.; T. Isaac
4:21; Ps. Phoc. 51-52; Psa. Sol. 14:8; 17:25; Hel. Syn. Pr. 2:3-4, 7; 9:4-6; Odes Sol. 16:8-9;
Menander (Frag. Ps-Greek Poets [Clem., Strom. 5.14.119, 2; 5.14.121, 1-3]).
CAESURA 1.2 (2014)
Jewish population, Alexandria was often shaken by conflicts between the
Greeks, who despised most foreigners, and the Jews, many of whom had
chosen to segregate in their own ghettos. In order to appeal to the
philosophical sensitivities of the Alexandrinians, Philo asserted that Moses
was the greatest philosopher who had ever lived. Even more so, he
interpreted the Law of Moses using the method of allegory: emphasizing the
spiritual/philosophical dimension, and minimizing the physical/literary
nature of a story or biography. In doing so, Philo hoped that he would
make the Greek audience more sensitive toward Jewish faith, and persuade
Jews not to abandon their ancestral traditions.
What concerns us here is not so much the allegorical method itself, as is
one of the beliefs that Philo emphasized again and again. Namely, that God
discerns not only the deeds of men and women, but also their intentions, motives and hidden thoughts.15 The table below lists two dimensions of interpretation. In the left column Philo describes how people experience and evaluate
reality. In the second column, Philo describes how God sees, searches and
evaluate the hidden reality of the soul. For the full version of the table, that
includes the Greek text as well, see Botica, 2007: 301-302.
The “human”
criterion for moral
“words spoken openly
and deeds done openly are known to all.”
Thinking that “the
eye of God sees
nothing but the outer
world through the
cooperation of the
Men enter the temples
only after bathing and
The “divine” criterion for moral
“No merely created being is capable of
discerning the hidden thought and motive
Only God can do so..., the motives being
judged by the all-penetrating eye of
God... who alone can see the soul naked...”
“they do not know that He surveys the
unseen even before the seen, for He himself
is His own light… our souls are a region
open to His invisible entrance.”
But they “shall never escape the eye of
Him who sees into the recesses of the mind
Deus. 9
For this concept in Philo see Botica, 2007: 287, and references to D. Winston, 1979:
104; A. Dihle, 1985: 90-98. We pointed to the same motif in Philo and the connection
with Hellenistic Judaism and the New Testament, in J. Moffat, 1924: 53-56; W. Attridge, 1989: 134-36; P. Ellingworth, 1993: 260-65; C. Koester, 2001: 274-75; D. Aune,
1997: 206.
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“The All-Knowing God”. Old Testament and Hellenistic Metaphors
“The words [of
Balaam] that were
spoken were noble
The physical
appearance of Joshua
What appears as the
“noble birth” of Cain
Men “admire virtue so
far as outward
appearance goes”
“Men can arbitrate on
open matters” (in
Num 5:12-31)
“We inquire into what
is manifest”
and treads its inmost shrine.”
“For already God has pierced into the
recesses of our soul and what is invisible
to others is clear as daylight to His
But God, “who looks upon what is
stored up in the soul, saw, with the Eye
that alone has power to discern them,
the things that are out of sight of created beings, and on the ground of these
passed the sentence of condemnation.”
“God, who surveys the invisible soul
and to whom alone it is given to discern
the secrets of the mind, to choose on his
merits the man most fitted to command…”
“…handing them over to the divine
tribunal only… First, because arrogance is
a vice of the soul and the soul is invisible
save only to God.”
Cain “who displayed in his soul an ignobleness, which God, the Overseer of human
affairs, saw and abhorred.”
“God the surveyor, since He alone can
scan the soul.”
Deus. 29
Virt. 57
Virt. 200
Abr. 104
“…the Eternal, ‘who surveys all things
and hears all things’ even when no
word is spoken, He who ever sees into
the recesses of the mind, Whom I call
witness to my conscience, which affirms
that that was no false reconciliation.”
“but God on the hidden also, since He
alone can see clearly the soul.”
Ios. 265
cf. Mos.
“but He penetrates noiselessly into the
recesses of the soul, sees our thoughts,…
inspects our motives in their naked reality and at once distinguishes the counterfeit from the genuine.”
Prov. 36
(cf. 54)
CAESURA 1.2 (2014)
“Men look at the
quantity of gifts”
“they judge by visible
“but God looks at the truth of the soul
turning aside from arrogance and flattery.”
“It is an atheistic belief not to hold that
the divine eye penetrates all things and
sees all things at one time, not only
what is visible but also what is in recesses,
depths and abysses.”
“He judges by the invisible thoughts of the
foolish man’s view of
“divine Logos… enters his soul and examines and searches him.”
“what is visible”
QG 1.61
QG 1.69
QG 2.11
QG 4.62
Several conclusions are now in order regarding the contribution of Philo to
this debate. First, judging by the number of citations, it is evident that Philo
was influenced by the Old Testament. In this sense, he merely inherited the
view that God penetrates and judges the thoughts of the heart. Second,
judging purely by the terminology that he employed and the style that he
adopted, one must conclude that Philo was thoroughly immersed in Greek
philosophy. He cited freely from Homer, Plato and Stoic thinkers. His level
of expressivity in Greek has been regarded by classic scholars as one of the
most profound and technical of his age.
Arguably Philo was the Hellenistic Jewish author who offered the most
profound view of God as the all-knowing deity who searches the heart.
Philo likewise was a Jew who commented on the Greek Old Testament. He
did not pioneer the allegorical method, nor did he invent most of the
religious Greek terminology that would later be used by the early Christian
thinkers. Yet, through his writings, Philo demonstrated that Jewish
thinking of the Old Testament was now fertilizing the Hellenistic soil in
which the early Christian church was born. Philo also became one of the
most important sources for the Patristic thought the 3 rd and 4th centuries.
We hope to have shown that, when John wrote the book of Revelation,
there had already been circulating in Asia Minor a rich tradition of spiritualizing the physical cult of the Old Testament. First, if our analysis of the
Old Testament is correct, we will have established at least one major source
for the Johannine concept of God as One who penetrates the deepest recesses of the soul. This means that apocalyptic thinking in the late first century AD was nourished by the texts of the Old Testament. Second, we have
also established that Greek thinking envisioned God as an Overseer who
CAESURA 1.2 (2014)
“The All-Knowing God”. Old Testament and Hellenistic Metaphors
sees and judges the thoughts of the heart. The writings of Philo evidently
attest to the phenomenon of Jewish Hellenism and the influence of the
West upon Oriental religious thought. Indeed, no one will contest that the
writings of the New Testament embody the final confluence of the Greek
and Jewish visions of God and the world. The scenario of Revelation 2-3
presents God as the all-knowing deity who can penetrate into the deepest
mysteries of the human heart. The objects of searching are, for the most
part, the seven churches of Asia Minor (chapters 2-3), even though the text
of 2:20, 23 may address specifically the situation of one individual: Jezebel,
a false prophetess and teacher in the church at Thyatira. Based on our
analysis, we conclude that the Johannine image of God as searching and
testing the thoughts of the heart is deeply rooted in the worldview of the Old
Testament and mediated through Hellenistic thinking and terminology.
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CAESURA 1.2 (2014)
ABSTRACT. This paper involves an analysis of the zombie narrative sub-genre and its engagement with the philosophical paradigm of humanism. The goal is to show that contemporary zombie narratives disagree with the validity of humanism as valid prescription of anthropological ethics. This has been accomplished by examining recent works in psychological,
theological, philosophical, and aesthetic studies on the literary theory of the zombie sub-genre.
Upon such examinations, it is made apparent that this sub-genre offers an ontological commentary on the state of man that is in stark contrast to humanism’s portrayal of man’s goodness. Subsequently, this project discloses the paradigmatic differences between some zombie
narratives and humanism; the former convey mankind as depraved, in a way commensurate
with the Christian worldview, while the latter highlights man’s self sufficiency regarding his
volitional desire to correct the dystopian context in which he would be placed. Through analyzing the anthropological implications within zombie narratives, this research will highlight
the philosophical value of that sub-genre, as well as use this specific dystopian medium to
communicate that humanism as an inefficient paradigm for helping man thrive in an apocalyptic zombie narrative.
KEY WORDS: zombie, humanism, literature, philosophy, dystopian
In his short story Dream of a Ridiculous Man Fyodor Dostoevsky depicts a
disillusioned man who is suffering from depression, and tells of his journey
from this world to another. As he attempts suicide, he is plucked from his
home and taken into space by an ethereal being, with the intention of
bringing the man to his home world. Upon the protagonist’s arrival, he
discovers that this new world is perfect; it is as if it were an Eden that was
left unstained as no sin had ever breached its borders. Through a series of
events, he indirectly teaches the blissful race how to lie, which then quickly
degrades their society. As the man looks around in horror at his corruption,
he soon awakes in his home having not committed suicide, and with a new
vigor for life, vows to live and do well (Dostoevsky, 2003). 1 In short, this
JORDAN RYAN GOINGS (ThM) is affiliated to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. His main research interests cover theological aesthetics
and philosophy, with a concentration in Continental theorists, German Idealism, and
Russian Existentialism. E-mail: [email protected]
Although Dostoevsky ends this story with his protagonist repenting, desiring to then
live in hope and virtue, the overall tone of this work is bleak. This tone serves as a
CAESURA 1.2 (2014)
work, as is the case with many of Dostoevsky’s works, concisely communicates man’s inability to innately make sense of his disordered world.
Over the past few decades a prominent genre within fiction has evolved
into a global phenomenon: dystopian literature. With young adult fiction
bestsellers like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series and Veronica
Roth’s Divergent trilogy, the post-apocalyptic dystopianism is becoming
more and more accessible. Whether it’s Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or
Stephen King’s The Stand, this genre has often praised the valor of their
protagonists, and lauded mankind’s goodness for its resilience to see them
through such bleak storylines. However, there is a sub-genre within this
dystopian family that is not portraying mankind in that light: the zombie
Ever since director George A. Romero’s foundational work Night of the Living Dead was released in 1986, the dystopian-horror genre began to develop
one of their most distinguishable and prolific sub-genres. This undeniably
popular narrative has seen exponential growth over the past two and a half
decades, and is currently reaching mainstream status with a myriad of
evolving nuances. In other words, just as The Hunger Games series has its
following, shows like The Walking Dead have their own massive fan-base.2 As
most literary genres follow their own distinct guidelines and customs, making them autonomous from one another, the same can be seen to occur
within their subsequent sub-genres. Essentially, the issue is that not all zombie stories agree about the state of mankind; standing on the philosophical
foundation of humanism, the majority believe that man is capable of restoring and reestablishing society in the wakes of a zombie dystopia. However,
there are some that not only take a different angle, but that starkly disagree
with the pretense of humanism’s validity in such a future.
Throughout this analysis I will engage three of the most prominent
zombie narratives so as to highlight that in the context of a zombie dystopia
the innate goodness and self sufficiency that humanism professes are not
viable, and that such a future will only show mankind as it truly is: broken.
This will be accomplished by first fencing the context of what a “zombie
narrative” is so as to clearly identify a philosophical and aesthetic herme-
symbol of man’s immediate nature, and that without some divine, supernatural intercession, man will remain a hindered and in a bleak state. The other being—as identified as not truly human—serves as means for the man to be enlightened from without,
so as to not give credit to the man.
On November 17, 2014 The Washington Post recorded that the television series The
Walking Dead had higher ratings than NBC’s Sunday Night Football for the third straight
week (The Washington Post,
CAESURA 1.2 (2014)
Dystopian Narratives and Humanism
neutic. Secondly, as the Renaissance/Humanism era can be ambiguous, I
will frame the context in which humanism will be applied in the final section. Thirdly and finally, this argument will conclude with an assessment of
three distinct zombie narratives, disclosing their implications about mankind and humanism: I Am Legend, The Walking Dead, and 28 Days Later. At
the conclusion of this analysis it will be apparent that the zombie medium
can serve the contemporary culture well by making it aware of humanism’s
deficiencies, in that it lacks the viability to sustain mankind in such a postapocalyptic context.
The Zombie Paradigm(s)
It should first be noted that the zombie sub-genre is not as much about the
gore as it is anthropology, sociology, and philosophy. In his book Gospel of
the Living Dead Kim Paffenroth argues that George A. Romero’s foundational zombie stories are in the same vein as Poe and O’ Conner, in that his
horror and gore are not arbitrarily applied. Regarding Romero and like
authors, Paffenroth writes, “…shocking violence and depravity are used to
disorient and reorient the audience, disturbing them in order to make some
unsettling point, usually a sociological, anthropological, or theological one”
(Paffenroth, 2006: 2).3 Although they are typically narratives containing
notable amounts of gore and depravity, the zombie genre can often speak
to the same profundity that philosophical and theological works often engage.
Before moving to the distinctions between contemporary styles, it is necessary to note that this sub-genre has become an eclectic niche that is accumulating a large cult following. However, as alluded to above, not all narratives within a genre share the same guidelines. Pedagogically speaking,
some have taken to the genre simply because it has given them the opportunity to be redefined.4 J. R. R. Tolkien assessed this misguided appropriation in stating that this level of fascination is a misapplication to “restrict…
Paffenroth elaborates on this by writing that “although Romero is said to eschew the
idea that his movies have meaning or significance, they are widely acknowledged, by
reputable critics and not just fans, to be thoughtful and serious examinations of ideas,
not just exercises in shock and nausea” (see page 2).
A simple internet search for the phrase “end of the world peppers” will disclose blogs,
TV shows, and random sites dedicated to actual stories of people focusing all of their
free time to preparing for the apocalypse—whether zombie, virus, or biblical themed.
In a close association, the term “G.O.O.D. bag”, which is an acronym for “Get out of
Dodge, has become something of trend as well. The idea is to pack a bag that would
contain everything necessary to survive, and then carry it with you as often as possible—mostly left in a car—so that if the need arises, the owner would be able to leave
their immediate scenario, as he or she perceived it to be culminating to an apocalyptic
CAESURA 1.2 (2014)
imagination to ‘the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency
of reality’” (Tolkien, 2006: 161).5 Ultimately, this seems to be because many
zombie narratives use the zombie outbreak as a deus ex machina that allows
the characters an ontological tabula rasa of sorts, thus enabling them with an
opportunity to rewrite their entire self-narrative. This is partially the work
of most fictional stories; it is, however, a very prominent attribute for the
fantasy genre.
George A. Romero’s Legacy
As mentioned above, Romero’s original work, Night of the Living Dead, has
been the source for many subsequent renditions of zombie narratives, and
remains a staple for assessing zombie lore. However, this is not so say that
he shares the same sentiments about the value of his work. Paffenroth
makes note that “Although Romero is said to eschew the idea that his movies have meaning or significance, they are widely acknowledged, by reputable critics and not just fans, to be thoughtful and serious examinations of
ideas, not just exercises in shock and nausea” (Paffenroth, 2006: 2).This is
not to imply that Romero’s motive negates the inferences that his audience
can draw from his works. Nevertheless, Romero did establish a lasting narrative sub-genre and a new fantasy syntax that cannot be eliminated from
the future engagement and hermeneutics of said sub-genre. Umberto Eco
balances this well explaining that “By helping create a language,” which I
argue Romero prolifically has done, “literature creates a sense of identity
and community” (Eco, 2002: 3). Eco proceeds,
Literary works encourage freedom of interpretation, because they offer us a discourse that has many layers of reading and place before us the ambiguities of
language and of real life. But in order to play this game, which allows every generation to read literary works in a different way, we must be moved by a profound respect for what I have called elsewhere the intention of the text (Eco,
2002: 3).
In other words, as an aesthetic medium is created or added upon, there
should be a balance of expecting the work in question to be interpreted
with some nuances, while still appreciating the context of its origin. It is for
this reason that no matter how philosophical or intentional a zombie narra5
In his article “Discussion: Kirk on Empirical Physicalism”, Philip Goff analyzes this
level of fantasy by stating that “To say that zombies are coherent is to say something
about what it is coherent for us to suppose is possible, rather than to say something about
genuine possibility” (Goff, 2007: 122-129). Many of the inconsistencies behind an overly fantastical engagement with narratives and para-social relationships can be deduced
to find some similarity with what Goff and Tolkien are addressing.
CAESURA 1.2 (2014)
Dystopian Narratives and Humanism
tive is analyzed for paradigm building standards, George A. Romero should
necessarily be in the assessment, if anything for the sole reason that most
subsequent zombie stories rely on his works.
Novel, Graphic Novel, and Television/Film
As alluded to above, the zombie sub-genre is a relatively new narrative,
primarily spanning just two and a half decades. However, the lore that it is
rooted in is not new. For this reason, I have chosen to limit the references
to just three sources, each representing a popular aesthetic medium in today’s culture. The references are Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, which
was a novel written in 1954, fourteen years before Romero’s Night of the
Living Dead; Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s ongoing series The Walking
Dead, which can be accessed in both the graphic novel and television mediums; and Danny Boyle’s 2002 film 28 Days Later.
These three unique storylines share the same common thread about
humanity: mankind is not fully capable to save himself. It is important to
note, though, that The Walking Dead is the only one of these three that deals
with the Romero-imagined zombie. That is not to say that the others are out
of place. Most critics, whether begrudgingly or not, situates each of these
storylines under the zombie sub-genre due to their undeniably strong similarities, tones, and syntax.6 It is for those reasons that I have chosen them
for this argument.
The aesthetic value of the zombie narrative is that in a classical appropriation, it highlights the ugliness of life, which is to say the absence of
beauty, so as to create a distinction of and want for a reinstatement of beauty. Paffenroth asserts that “Zombie movies—or, at least, good ones—seem
by their very nature to offer social critique and a critical, moralizing look at
human beings” (Paffenroth, 2006: 2). Though bleak and desolate, this subgenre brings the viewer into a post-apocalyptic world that leaves them in
want; in an Aristotelian aesthetic, the tragedy of this narrative causes the
viewer to hope in restoration. Within this style of dystopian form, but very
prominently within these three specifically, the zombie threat serves as a
flood that eradicates all of mankind’s works and accomplishments, thus
leaving the humans with nothing but themselves. In his book Windows to the
World Leland Ryken argues that “We are the heirs of a permissive culture,
and for a critic actually to come out and assert that a given book is immoral
The 2014 documentary Doc of the Dead addresses this issue by bringing attention to the
science-fiction behind what distinguishes a being “undead” and “reanimated” as opposed to simply “altered”. As will be discussed in the last section, I Am Legend and 28
Days Later depict a threat of either vampires (the former) or chemically altered, adrenaline-overdosed humans (the latter).
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is extremely rare” (Ryken, 2000: 156). I would invert this and argue that for
a contemporary mainstream narrative to claim a minority stance against
such prevalent humanistic prescriptions like that of man’s innate goodness
and ability is equally noteworthy.
The three mediums chosen depict how this threat speaks to the fears of
mankind’s soul. The first carries the reader along in a formal narrative,
letting them live the story as it unfolds; the second, whether in comic book
form or television episode, portrays snapshots of the calamity, though with
enough opacity to hinder the viewer’s omniscience over the situation; and
the third, through following just one man, gives a full, vivid depiction of
mankind’s vulnerability and weakness. Many other stories could have been
selected, but for the purpose of illustrating how the zombie narrative engages the prominent philosophy of humanism that many contemporary
theories base themselves within, these three speak the most concisely.
An Understanding of Humanism
The immediate issue for any scholar that is engaging the idea of humanism
is to read into the context of its use, past all of the terms ambiguities and
vagueness, and ultimately define it for the purpose at hand. In short, the
term “humanism” is found in several contexts (e.g. art, philosophy, religion,
science, etc.). As Alan Lacey identifies, it has “many different connotations,
which depend largely on what it is being contrasted with” (Lacey, 1995:
375). He carries on to imply its importance in such popular fields of study
ranging from the Renaissance to Darwinian evolution theories. For the
purpose of this analysis, however, my use of humanism will be limited to the
understanding of theological and anthropological ontology.
An Overview of Terms
As alluded to, humanism finds itself almost inseparable from the Renaissance era due to the shared prescription they both offered for mankind: to
thrive. However, the primary concern at this point is to recognize a vital
dichotomy that was developing within European humanism early in the
sixteenth century. This distinction will establish the differences between
classical humanism and northern humanism. Classical humanism receives
its name from the care and appreciation that its proponents had in retrieving, preserving, and being instructed by the classical works of Rome and
Greece. Northern humanism, which was more reactionary to the classically
minded humanists in the south, was rooted in the preservation of biblical
and religious beliefs, recognizing the importance of and remaining under
the original languages of the Bible (Cairns, 1996). Where the latter
worldview would later give rise to Protestantism, it is the former that is of
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greater importance here. Philosophically speaking, classical humanism
would later give rise to the ego.
The differentiations within humanism do not end with this original
schism, however. Like most philosophical paradigms and constructs, as long
as the thought continues, so does the inevitability of nuances. One such
nuance is identified by Stephen R. L. Clark as post-Christian humanism,
which is a perspective that recognizes that each “human being is a uniquely
valuable individual to accord liberty and welfare-rights so as to cooperate in
the progressive enterprise of deifying Humanity” (Clark, 2003: 21). Clark’s
formulation is the precise nuance implied here in this paper; humanism for
all intents and purposes is the promotion of each man to a place of absolute
value ability, with the ends of each being a pertinent exponent in adding to
the progression of mankind. Throughout the history and progression of
humanism, especially in the context of the Renaissance, the acknowledgment of each man’s uniqueness becomes more of a lynchpin that holds the
humanistic paradigm in order. History’s newfound interest in and appreciation of man’s uniqueness gave rise to a new manner of philosophical endeavors: the self.
Philosophical Influence
It is nothing new to discover a philosopher approach the study of a person’s
“uniqueness”, attempting to deduce what constitutes such a state. Such a
project does not necessarily establish them as a bastion of post-Christian
humanism. For example, John Locke famously wrote one of the first exhaustive works on individual cognition, epistemology, and psychological
growth in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, yet, he subjected
much of his paradigms and findings to the authority of the Bible, and even
faith, keeping him outside of the realm of such humanism and even staunch
rationalism (see Copleston, 1994; Williams, 2000). In other words, using the
faculties that the thinking man has in order to further formulate speculative
philosophies and thoughts does not necessarily validate one’s adoption of
post-Christian humanism.
The error of this specific nuance lies within its trajectory away from accountability under an objective order and truth, and instead toward autonomy and subjectivity. As Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche, to name a few, remained fascinated with the self, although their systems did attempt to supplement categories for an external object, often referred to as the thing-inand-of-itself, the most confirmable truth for them was the affirmation of the
id and the ego (i.e. the self). To juxtapose this self-heavy outlook, twentieth
century Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin applied what he found agreeable
within them to a socially-dependent paradigm he began to formulate. One
of Bakhtin’s definitive arguments against the dominance of an absolute
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authorial control was not from some historical, philosophical, or governmental analysis, but was from studying Dostoevsky. In his work Problems of
Dostoevsky’s Poetics he used the literary role of a protagonist/narrator to explain
Dostoevsky’s novel is dialogic. It is constructed not as the whole of a single consciousness, absorbing other consciousnesses as objects into itself, but as a whole
formed by the interaction of several consciousnesses, none of which entirely becomes an object for the other; this interaction provides no support for the viewer
who would objectify an entire event according to some ordinary monologic category (thematically, lyrically and cognitively)—and this consequently makes the
viewer also a participant (Bakhtin, 1984: 18).
Literary scholar M. H. Abrams takes up the task of clarifying Bakhtin’s
philosophical-literary hybrid paradigm, and argues it as
To Bakhtin, a literary work is not... a text whose meanings are produced by the
play of impersonal linguistic or economic or cultural forces, but a site for the dialogic interaction of multiple voices, or modes of discourse, each of which is not
merely a verbal but a social phenomenon, and as such is the product of manifold
determinants of class, social group, and speech community (Abrams, 1993: 231).
Bakhtin proceeds to explain this importance outside of literature by claiming that, “The idea lives not in one person’s isolated individual consciousness—if it remains there only, it degenerates and dies” (Bakhtin, 1984: 8788). Bakhtin’s philosophy recognizes the importance of being able to identify the self, yet it also recognizes the limitations of the previously mentioned
philosopher’s, and specifically post-Christian humanism. A culmination of
this theory can be found in Bakhtin’s essay Art and Answerability, which implies that the individual’s thought is unique and relevant, but its purpose is
to be brought out and given to society for the goal of aiding and refining it
(Bakhtin, 1990: 1-3).
How Zombies Disclose the Errors of Humanism
As mentioned earlier, I have chosen three zombie narratives whose messages speak in direct opposition to post-Christian humanism: I Am Legend, The
Walking Dead, and 28 Days Later. This last section is dedicated to analyzing
each narrative’s story, aesthetic, and message, juxtaposing that message to
post-Christian humanism. In doing so, the approval that many apocalyptic
narratives attempt to ascribe to humanism as being a satisfactory societyrebuilding paradigm will be questioned. In the process of reviewing these
three works, the zombie dystopian narrative will be proven to offer a valid
evaluation of mankind’s ontological state and inabilities within certain contexts. Despite offering a minority view of today’s culture, these works are by
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no means rogue stories overwhelmed by the need to exemplify contranormative nuance. Their medium, the fictional world, and tone are still the
I Am Legend: Man Cannot Win
The most important pre-Romero narrative to define the current zombie
lore era is actually not a book about zombies, but of conscientious vampires.
G. A. Waller claimed that “…by far the most important antecedent for
Night of the Living Dead is I am Legend. On various occasions Romero has
acknowledged that the original idea for his film was inspired by Richard
Matheson’s novel, and the resemblance between the two works is striking”
(Waller, 1986). In his essay Raising the Dead Kyle Bishop notes that from the
desolate world, to the nightly routines of fortifying a house, Matheson’s
tone can be found throughout Romero’s works (Bishop, 2006: 196).7 Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend has seen many Hollywood renditions,
and although some have come close, none quite capture the weight of dystopian monotony as his novel accomplished. The character, Robert Neville,
is a common man who is the last human left on a vampiric zombie infested
earth. Staving off a rising loss hope and perspective, the story progresses
with Neville facing a lifetime of solitude in front of him. Recognizing that
the antagonists can only come out at night, he chooses to eradicate them as
he can during the day, as well as learn different skills like chemistry and
anatomy by researching at the library. Discovering the cause of the disease,
he begins to find hope as he starts learning from them. Despite all of Neville’s efforts, since Matheson’s antagonists have full awareness, they are
able execute their own plan, which results in the capture of Neville, and the
conclusion of the story.
Aesthetically speaking, although the backdrop, the actions, and the conclusion are all bleak, Matheson’s telling is captivating, as it highlights the
blunt honesty of what an existence like Neville’s would be like. Matheson’s
roads feel long and bare, the stench of decaying bodies seems pungent, and
the long drives to the library, and lonely nights at home model the daily life
of the reader’s existence. The subtle narration of the protagonist’s thoughts
concisely speaks to the psychology of the reader. Mattheson most clearly
Despite this essay’s disinterest in the technicalities of things like what fans desire and
ontological laws of nature within fantasy, it should be noted that some literary theorists
have considered the popular shift from vampires to zombies. Angela Tenga and Elizabeth Zimmermann are two such researchers who acknowledged that the transformation of the vampires of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954), the film’s inspiration, into flesh-eating “ghouls” was an early sign that vampires were becoming less
frightening (Tenga and Zimmermann, 2013: 78).
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accomplishes this by his antagonists. It can be understandably argued that
since these creatures are cognizant, they are not properly zombies. 8 However, Neville’s discoveries led him to the knowledge that the bacteria does
reanimate the dead, thus giving rise to the undead—a staple trait of zombie
lore. Regardless, the use of conscientious monsters allows for them to communicate with the protagonist, inevitably leading to an old best friend as
well as his dead wife attempting to connect with him, engaging Neville’s
loneliness. Much of Matheson’s artistry in this work is his use of one’s loneliness and the many ways that society engages it.
The message of society’s impact on a person is a major theme in I Am
Legend. The cognition of the antagonists seems perfectly intact, which carries immense meaning. If post-Christian humanism is to offer society a
Greco-Roman appreciation of citizenship, believing that mankind desires
goodness for the whole of his context, Matheson’s representation of societal
ethos is almost the opposite. The vampire-like zombies spoke nothing but
deceit regarding the desire to get Neville out of the house, despite the psychological toll and breakdown it may have caused in the protagonist. Furthermore, if the reader were to look at Neville himself, and the painstaking
legend he established by way of teaching himself centuries of science in the
short matter of time that he had, he or she might be tempted to agree with
post-Christian humanism and profess that Neville’s legendary status was his
selflessness and persistence for the societal whole. However, it should be
noted that the observation made is in praise of a character’s motive, implying Neville’s pathos; such a perspective does not address the efficacy of the
post-Christian humanism’s ethos. In other words, Neville failed. With all of
his work, patience, and loss, he was unable to accomplish the sole objective
that everything was attributing toward.
The Walking Dead: Man is Corrupt
It is difficult in the present culture to discuss zombie lore without mentioning AMC’s The Walking Dead. However, before the popular television show
gathered the viewers that has placed it above Sunday Night Football in rat8
Regarding the zombie/human distinction, some have argued that a premise built upon
the physicalist notion that consciousness is an ontological necessity of humanity be
mandatory. As Brian Jonathan Garrett argued in his essay Causal Essentialism versus the
Zombie Worlds, “The ‘existence’ or possibility of Zombie worlds violates the physicalist
demand that consciousness logically supervene upon the physical. On the assumption
that the logical supervenience of consciousness upon the physical is, indeed, a necessary entailment of physicalism, the existence of zombie worlds implies the falsity of
physicalism” (Garrett, 2009: 93). However, a distinction should be made between his
essay and the one here: the zombie epidemic portrayed in the narratives called upon in
this essay serves as a stage to perpetuate a need to act within the immediate, like Neville, regardless of his wife or friend’s psychological dispositions.
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ings, it was graphic novel. Both mediums offer the recipient a strong commentary on ethics, sociology, and psychology, therefore, both will be applied as the medium lends itself. The purpose for its being chosen is not
because of its success, but because it is far less objective than the other two
stories chosen here. This is in part due to the fact that the story, in both
mediums, is still being written, therefore there is no clear purpose or end
for the reader to recognize the characters working toward. This enables the
story to carry on in the same likeness of I Am Legend and 28 Days Later, in
that these zombie narratives truly are about the characters first and foremost. However, another reason for the open-ended narrative can largely be
ascribed to the nature of one of the story’s primary tones: the unknown.
Although this story’s group of survivors evolves as some die and others
are discovered, the group inevitably is at a loss of what to do. An immediate
inference can be made that this is due to the unprecedented nature of such
a societal context. As governments and religious strongholds, schools and
police stations, hospitals and grocery stores are all no longer functioning,
the world’s survivors are shown to be left with no order, and with no order,
there is no accountability. This gives way for the characters in The Walking
Dead to ultimately do whatever they desire. Furthermore, despite the fact
that this genre as a whole portrays the zombie threat as a definable entity in
and of itself—in that it is a hoard of viscerally charged villainous consumers—for the purpose of approaching The Walking Dead, it is more appropriate to use Andrew Bailey’s use of the “philosophical zombie”, to which he
argues is ideally the same as a human being, though just lacking in “phenomenal states” (Bailey, 2006: 481). This distinction is important as The
Walking Dead highlights the individuality of the autonomous survivor, freed
to be whatever he or she desires, while juxtaposed with the hoard of similarity, represented by the zombies.
Given that this story is the most “group” oriented narrative of the three
chosen for this essay, it is important to note that it depicts the most blatant
struggles of man’s desire to exemplify a specific autonomous image—
contingent upon whatever context is at hand for the character. Subsequently, The Walking Dead portrays mankind as a force that will do whatever it
must in order to accomplish said individuality and uniqueness, so much so
that the character at hand will lie, kill, and cheat whomever they need to in
order to attain it. In other words, although their appearance looks well kept
(at times), the character’s souls and psyche are shown to be compromised
and in decay like the zombies external features. Tenga and Zimmermann
illustrate this point by recalling a scene in a nursing home that portrays the
elderly survivors as almost identical with the zombies, further attesting to
the theme of mankind not being any better than the villainous dead antagonists (Tenga and Zimmermann, 2013: 79).
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The immediate issue that The Walking Dead speaks to within postChristian humanism is the selfishness that attends the desire to be unique
and autonomous. The desired context is to be an individual who is free to
thrive and be known. However, in order to achieve that, the person’s
worldview remains within the I-for-myself, as Bakhtin notes, which is to say
that the individual’s pedagogy begins and ends with himself (Bakhtin, 1990:
1-3). If this is true, then the intentionality to be whatever is needed for the
betterment of society would not be instinctive, but acquired and learned. If
then there is no desire to conform, but only the opposite—complete autonomy—then the individual would have to be instructed by something outside
of himself. Concordantly, if order and organized governments (legal, religious, educational) are absent, then the primary influence upon the self is
going to be others, who are simply exemplifying the very same thing: individuality. Thus, within a truly dystopian context wherein there is no ordered governments of any kind, after self preservation, autonomous
uniqueness is the only thing left to strive for through, and it is perpetuated
through the inevitability of a fellow individual segregating himself from the
community for their his or her own personal advancement, not the groups.
28 Days Later: Man is Worse
The last narrative to address is Danny Boyle’s film 28 Days Later. Although
this assessment will be more brief than the other two, this movie communicates some of the most accessible illustrations and formulations of mankind’s
nature. The story’s protagonist is a character named Jim, who awakens in
the middle of a hospital, unaware that just outside is a dilapidated London
infested with zombies. As the narrative unfolds, Jim becomes friends with a
woman and a girl along the way, who become part of his company as they
search for answers. The wandering culminates to them stumbling upon a
military base that is actually a depraved group of soldiers presenting the
facade of order, reminiscent of some community from The Walking Dead.
The story ends with Jim barbarously killing most of the soldiers with his
bare hands in order to save the women. As the story concludes, 28 Days
Later actually offers hopeful resolution as the zombies are shown decaying
from malnutrition, and a plane spots the three survivors.
However, despite the optimistic ending, and prominent theme in the
film is Jim’s struggle to remain mild-mannered. Aesthetically speaking, this
begins with the first sequence, as the camera pans out to show Jim naked,
waking up on a hospital table. From the beginning the audience is able to
infer Jim to be the quintessential tabula rasa, or blank slate, in that he has no
knowledge of the world, is awaking to reality, and—carrying on with the
rebirth symbolism—is naked and pure. At first Jim might appear bland and
empty, having nothing to really add to other survivors’ parties or conversa-
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tions. However, as the story progresses, with each travesty the protagonists
face, Jim’s reluctance begins to wane, and he begins to step into a notable
identity. This is worth mentioning here because in the story’s climax, Jim
appears animalistic when killing the soldiers, thus leaving behind what
semblance of naivety and purity he once had.
The post-Christian humanist would argue that his passion for the good
of the two women is what assuaged his passivity, and therein prompted the
need for immediate action. However, given the bookends of the movie—the
birth and death(s) scenes—it is difficult, and even careless as an aesthetician,
to not take note of his lack of clothes. As the story communicates his experientially driven epistemology, with Jim creating his identity along the way,
the most stark event is the climax where he appears mentally unstable and
fueled by adrenaline (which is explained in the movie as being the cause for
turning humans into zombies). Subsequently, this event shows Jim not killing zombies, but humans. Furthermore, during this entire sequence Jim is
shirtless, which is an acknowledgment of his being naked in the beginning;
this is Jim’s second birth—one into a loosening of all shame and inhibitions.
In short, the protagonist, though seemingly sane and stable in the end,
seems to digress to such a low level of depravity that he not only resembles
the zombies of this film, but seems to even concern the two women for a
brief moment.
Although 28 Days Later does offer some theories about society, the story
primarily follows one specific man’s encounter with the dystopian world,
and communicates how he ultimately handles it. Tenga and Zimmermann
identify a very common theme within this movie and others by addressing
that the origin of the zombie outbreak, and by extension, the downfall of
civilization, is human error (Tenga and Zimmermann, 2013: 79). Jim,
though portrayed to have been a device for redemption, encapsulated how
temperamental mankind can be. Moreover, if science created the zombie
apocalypse in this story, the military showed the desire for unaccountable
depravity, and Jim represented the fragility of the individual, this narrative
represents mankind as not only incapable of solving such a dystopian context, and inclined to evil, but also disposed to be worse than the zombie
antagonists. This is because the most agreed upon faculty separating the
survivors from zombies in this sub-genre is cognition. Therefore, if Jim was
able to apply rational thought to his options and choices, and still chose to
act as he did, he communicated that mankind is capable of volitionally accepting and applying the methods of zombies.
In summation, the zombie sub-genre serves its recipients as another medium for engaging profound ideas and concepts. Subsequently, there are
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some that offer a stark contrast to the proposed innate goodness of mankind that humanism, specifically post-Christian humanism, would have its
audience subscribe to. More pointedly, though, because of literature like I
Am Legend, The Walking Dead, and 28 Days Later, a recipient is made aware of
certain ontological truth claims that they might not have ever considered,
thus calling him or her into a conversation about who they are outside of
literature. As Dostoevsky’s Dream of a Ridiculous Man implies, it is a good
thing to pursue virtue, kindness, and the betterment of one’s neighbor; it is
foolish, however, to believe mankind to innately be virtuous, kind, and selflessly seeking the betterment of the other, and not the cause of dystopian
level brokenness.
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ABSTRACT. Unlike the relatively uncomplicated aesthetics permeating the cultural history of
the western world, tied up since Greek Antiquity and the advent of Christianity with such
ethical categories as the good and the pure, Japanese aesthetics are intricately distinct, as both
the lifeblood and the reflection of the various cultural ripples to have swept across the Land of
the Rising Sun. The author sets out on a foray into a most central category of Japanese aesthetics, the elusive wabisabi, which he argues is not too removed, particularly in some of its aspects
captured in folkloric and folkloric-derived modern works, from the more western category of
the uncanny. After certain theoretical considerations connecting the main lines of western and
eastern art philosophy to compare and contrast wabisabi and the uncanny, the paper focuses on
specific iconic examples of uncanny characters in Japanese mythology, e.g. such liminal creatures as the mischievous and bizarre youkai. This is to point out the elements rendering them
wabisabi and just what cognitive and artistic effects their twinned aesthetics instills into the
collective consciousness. Last but not least, the author investigates the productivity of such
characters into modern media, particularly in the pop culture phenomena of manga and anime,
where indeed Japanese folklore continues to not only survive but thrive by reinventing itself
for each coming age and medium, so as to thrill and inspire new generations with flights of
fancy concealing truths fundamental to the human experience.
KEY WORDS: aesthetics, alterity, anime/manga, Japanese folklore, liminality, uncanny, wabisabi, youkai
In his 2001 book on traditional Japanese aesthetics and art, Antanas Andrijauskas makes the apt claim that:
The evolution of aesthetic thought in the Land of the Rising Sun gave birth to a
world of unique categories, to distinctive principles of aesthetic understanding
and art appreciation. In no other country on earth have aesthetic feeling and artistic values been able to take such firm root in everyday life. […] One of the
most distinctive features of Japanese culture and aesthetic consciousness is that
those areas of human creative expression which remain marginal in other cul-
CĂLIN LUPIȚU (PhD) holds his degree in Intercultural Humanities from Jacobs
University in Bremen, Germany. His research interests include: world mythology and
its reinvention in postmodern media; spirituality, liminality and alterity; the monstrous
and theuncanny; labyrinthine spaces, proper and of the mind; layers of (intertextual)
symbolism. E-mail: [email protected]
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tures acquire extreme importance in Japan and become the focus of intense aesthetic reflection and artistic creation (Andrijauskas, 2001: 9.1).
Indeed, isolated for much of its history via its geopolitical circumstances,
Japan has developed its unique culture, often paradoxical in many of its
aesthetic and cognitive aspects to the untrained eye of an outsider—even
after, or perhaps also due to, the eventual absorption of foreign influences
beginning with the Meiji Reformation in the nineteenth century.
A historical melting pot of primarily such religions as Shinto, Buddhism,
Confucianism, and local tribal animism (e.g. of the Ainu people), Japanese
culture blends order and chaos in its spirituality and aesthetics, none too
surprising in a human society having flourished on a precarious volcanic
archipelago continually swept by earthquakes, typhoons and tsunamis. As
such, the major concepts of Japanese aesthetics revolve around harmony
and natural simplicity, of which perhaps the best-known is the wabisabi.
Broadly speaking, wabisabi may be related to finding beauty in what is
apparently flawed or incomplete and certainly perishable and fleeting. Yet,
unlike the more Western concept of the grotesque, wabisabi, believed to
have been developed in correlation with the tenets of Zen Buddhism and
closely related to the ritualised practice of the tea ceremony, focuses on the
“direct, intuitive insight into transcendental truth beyond all intellectual
conception” (Leonard Koren, 2008: 76). It may thus also be said to be the
beauty found in most things humble or unconventional. It is the enlightening realisation and reminder of everything being ultimately impermanent
and imperfect, introduced through harmonious displays of natural patterns
punctuated with flight-of-fancy syncopes and/or through intimate, unpretentious designs (e.g. katachi, meaning “art”, but also “form” and “design”)
pointing to a purposeful sense of living (Andrijauskas, 2001: 9.5).
While Japanese aesthetics does not natively (or indeed, naively) incorporate such a strict binary division as between “beautiful” and “ugly”, it employs multiple overlapping categories, cognitive as well as semantic, to describe the transcendental experience of the artistic and natural sublime.
Wabisabi itself originates as a combination of two such categories, namely
wabi (restrained or hidden beauty) and sabi (patina, or the feel of ancient or
classical artifacts). Many others also closely relate to it: makoto (genuineness),
aware (enchantment), okashi (quaint or playful charm, or childlike humour),
yugen (the mystery of beauty), shibui (aristocratic distinction through simplicity, or unassuming elegance), miyabi (tranquility), hosomi (fragility, subtleness), karumi (lightness), sobi (grandeur, presence commanding respect), mei
(purity, noble spirit), etc. (Andrijauskas, 2001: 9.11).
The above categories are never far from the dialectical outlook of Taoism, and their interplay of nuances bespeaks the traditional belief in their
underlying bi, the most abstract and transcendent concept of beauty otherCAESURA 1.2 (2014)
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wise very similar to Western aestheticism ideals. It is understood as “the
eternal essence hidden in all the phenomena of existence”, and, as Ueda
concludes, “beauty preserves its universal meaning as a principle of life and
art” (Ueda, 1967: 53). Bi permeates the very fabric of the Cosmos, from the
most unnoticed to the most captivating of circumstances, and is said to be
embedded in all natural and human phenomena—a universal constant of
sorts, whose constancy is reflected by its very tendency to acquire new forms
with each age or generation.
It then becomes self-evident why the traditions of Japanese aesthetics do
not conceptualise art and artists as change crafters or re-creators of the
world, but merely as reflectors of the bi already in place since the beginning
of time: “Thus, man cannot create that which already exists, he can only
discern” (Andrijauskas, 2001: 9.3). Nevertheless, despite certain similarities
of the ineffable and primordial character of cosmic beauty, the Japanese bi
is different from the regulated hierarchical vision of the Cosmos entertained
by medieval and Renaissance Europeans especially because the bi is seen as
in constant flux, cloaked by material reality. Furthermore, traditional Japanese aesthetes rather reject any external attempts to systemise and rigidly
categorise that concept of primeval beauty, as they “distrust the power of
analytic reason”, as the same Andrijauskas (2001: 9.4) notes, stating their
belief that the instruments of reason are limited for dealing with such profoundly subjective and intuitive matters as the impact of art and beauty.
Firmly rooted in the nation’s cultural identity, Japanese aesthetics always
pays tribute, despite its kaleidoscope of renewed imagery, to traditional
values. Changes may come and go, but the Japanese collective consciousness continues to remain in awe of nature, enthralled by its multifaceted
and ever-shifting beauty. Accordingly, there have been two main orientations of depicting that beauty competing and alternating, but also inspiring
one another, throughout the history of Japanese art and aesthetics, namely
the Confucian-derived tendency towards ornate and colourful realism, as
seen, for instance, in the socially documenting ukiyo-e; and the Zen-leaning
tendency for minimalism and stylization, wherein the crafted backdrop
serves as a guide for the meditating mind, as typically seen in calligraphy
(zenga) and intellectual painting (bunjinga).
The above elements of Japanese aesthetics are organically bound with
the collective creativity of the archipelago nation, manifested especially in
their folk beliefs and mythology, whether ancient or of more recent fabrication. Ever since Lafcadio Hearn’s turn-of-the-twentieth-century popularisation of Japanese mythology and aesthetics through the Kwaidan story collection, the Western public started seeing that the “unfamiliar Japan” was also
in fact the uncanny Japan, its unique olden aesthetics feeling particularly
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avant-garde in a cultural space that was only beginning to come to terms
with its own rich legacy of the uncanny.
In the Western world, the experience of the uncanny, while as primeval
and as intuitive as anywhere else in its basic social-psychological forms, only
found its artistic voice in the past two centuries, in close connection with the
rise of the Gothic, horror, science-fiction and fantasy genres of literature
and cinema. In previous works, the author has pursued various aspects of
human liminality, alterity and the experience of the uncanny (most often
related to the cognitive and aesthetic categories of the grotesque and the
monstrous) to argue that, particularly during times of shifting socioeconomic paradigms, fictional explorations of the uncanny help societies
negotiate and even exorcise their fears regarding those shifts in paradigm,
while discovering underlying truths about the set-up of their own cultural
and geopolitical identity.
Japanese folklore is certainly no exception, as its troubled history—
especially the Warring States (Sengoku) period taking up much of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—provides myriads of cultural and geopolitical opportunities for the accumulation of a wealth of uncanny myths and
superstitions often involving deception and cruelty, but also various moments of fleeting bittersweet beauty. Such myths are rife with various types
of supernatural beings ranging from the more mischievous animal
shapeshifters (especially foxes, cats and raccoon dogs) to the benevolent,
neutral or even human-hostile nature-guarding deities of variable forms
and abilities. In between the two lies an ever-growing plethora of bizarre
creatures generally assimilated in the West to “ghosts” or “goblins”, the
youkai, mysterious supernatural entities whose name bears such connotations as “attraction”, “suspicious” and “mystery” and whose most representative ability is shapeshifting (especially in order to blend in with humans). They are not to be mistaken with the yuurei, the Japanese ghosts of
the dead, especially when restless, nor with the mononoke, vindictive spirits
held responsible for various calamities, especially wars and diseases (the
original phrase they are named after, mono no ke, literally points to a disease
or an affliction, ke, caused by a certain, usually unknown or unknowable,
“thing”, the mono).
Most of such creatures readily lend themselves to metaphorical use by
authors past and present, while their encapsulated sense of the uncanny
attests to the intricate mix of their ideological (including artistic) and sociopolitical circumstances. One of the most unique categories of such youkai are
the tsukumogami (the deities, kami, of various tools), usually held to signify
various household items that, on their one hundredth anniversary, gain
sentient life and may often play pranks on their (previous) owners, also
depending on the state of abuse and neglect the specific item had incurred
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in its previous existence as a mere tool. It was thus common for various
propitiation ceremonies to be held for such items as pre-emptive measures.
The example of the tsukumogami is excellent for illustrating both the uncanny underpinning most Japanese mythical characters and the idiosyncratic roots of their wabisabi appeal. To begin with, such creatures appear harmlessly inanimate, while always bearing the ominous potential for an illdefined much more, and, most unnervingly, the potential for inanimateturned-animate (semi-)sentience, which, from golems to zombies, has
plagued mankind across most ages and cultures. Worse, this is coupled with
the looming threat of privacy violation (life-threatening given the repressive
nature of socialising in feudal Japan), particularly because many such items
are, or used to be, everyday items very close to their human owner’s living
space and body, from sandals and umbrellas to futon cushions and musical
instruments. This threat, while weakened by the shorter life span of the
average Japanese at the time, is nevertheless compounded by its transcending character, becoming a multi-generational curse if the potentially exposed secrets were of such nature as to still hold meaning after the old-age
death of those involved. On the other hand, while the one hundred years
required for the supernatural upgrade of the tsukumogami (paralleled by the
same requirement for the various animal shapeshifters, or obake) would
have been a number too magically remote as to inspire genuine terror by
itself, it reveals the deep-seated belief of the Japanese in both the unbroken
continuity with the past (i.e., things may change, even radically, in appearance, but their essence remains interconnected) and the Shinto-Confucian
mélange of the universe being both perfectly harmonised and teleologically
individualised, with a certain kind of “soul”, tama, alternatively viewed as a
life seed or an egg, given to all things.
Much of the history of Japan took place in a feudal setting, wherein, with
the notable exception of forging high-quality steel weapons (restricted to
the samurai class), citizens existed in a liminal space and a liminal state, in
which, also encouraged by religious and ideological beliefs, they sought to
live in harmony with nature. As such, most of them, especially the agrarian
class, would have been keenly aware of the sublime aspects of nature,
(somewhat) bountiful and fearful, to be revered and reckoned with. It
comes as no surprise, then, that they would fear the “natural wiles” of certain animals, from spiders and snakes to cats and foxes, which they would
exaggerate, in both fear and respect, to trickster and godly proportions.
Unlike man and his short life span, nature—especially the large trees of the
thick forests—was perceived as enduring (an impression shared with the
household items, particularly in an age long before planned commercial
obsolescence, where tools and even clothes would be passed down to one’s
offspring for as long as they still served their purpose), and very likely also
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as family in the grand design of things. They would leave offerings of food
and the occasional incense to shrines dedicated to the woodland guardians
as gratitude for their crops or alternatively attempt to appease their (capricious) wrath. Given the geographical circumstances of the Japanese islands
and the arbitrary cruelty of many feudal lords not above claiming a serf’s
life for any perceived offence, especially to their honour, most of the agrarian
population, uneducated in the stoic ways of the Buddha nor sharing the
Confucian views of the bureaucratic scholars, only perceived as having recourse to their non-human neighbours of the fields and forests. This is why,
while many trickster animals are seen as naturally mischievous, they are
often depicted in a sympathetic way, as older siblings to whom largely everything is permitted or forgiven, with the tacit understanding of their not
having been driven, even to mortal injury of humans, by malice (although
“rogue” nature guardians were not unheard of) but only sport and circumstance—and why myths of humans befriending and even marrying such
shapeshifters were also upliftingly commonplace.
Hardly surprisingly, youkai also appear as moralising allegories in multiple stories sharing the Western fairy tales’ cautionary messages. Paradoxically for a culture so self-professedly in awe of balance and harmony, Japanese life was, for the most part of the population, as previously stated, very
rough and arbitrary, hence a likely high number of psycho-somatic afflictions that would have required hardly a long stretch of the imagination to
be considered acts of “possessed” humans. But youkai were not considered
ghosts proper, and many had corporeal or semi-corporeal presences, many
of the former considered as having originated as humans. Men and (especially) women animated by unnaturally high intensities of envy, rage, bloodlust, greed, gluttony, etc., were thought to be liable of actual body warping
by that specific negative passion, which effectively turned them into variously bizarre humanoids—either missing body elements (e.g. faces or mouths),
having extra ones (e.g. limbs, eyes, tails) or having ones with unnatural
physiology (e.g. cleft tongues, living hair, insatiable mouths)—and drove
home the Buddhist monks’ message of temperance and self-restraint.
There are many aquatic types of youkai, as well as aerial types, both relatable, as in many other cultures, to the “alien and/or hostile ecosystem yields
alien creatures” impression intuitive to the majority of the population,
agrarian and landlocked, or otherwise very familiar to the drowning or
infectious potential of various water bodies (perhaps how the link between
water and ghostly portals first appeared) to which the more vulnerableperceived social categories of children and women were most liable. On the
other hand, danger was plenty on land just as well, with some of the most
notorious youkai, the Oni and the Tengu, prowling it as their habitats, not
unlike the rogues and bandits their mythical depictions may well echo. The
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traditional figure of the Oni is similar to other brutish giants in folklores
around the world, e.g. cyclopes or trolls, except for its distinctive tiger-skin
loincloth, likely depicted as an indication of the Japanese club-wielding
cyclops’ ferocity outperforming even that of the feline man-eater. But while
the Oni have largely stayed a two-dimensional hulking menace, the Tengu
have undergone extensive diversification and moral reconversion. Thought
to have originated (as Tiangou) in China in the form of an eclipse-time
moon-eating meteoric dog, the Tengu entered Japanese folklore in the form
of a kite, hawk, crow or similar rapacious birds and evolved to increasingly
anthropomorphic forms (even though full-crow Tengu are still known), the
zenith of its evolution seeing only its iconic long nose (phallic within rural
settings) kept as a reminder of its previous avian forms, although they are
said to still be able to fly and use various wind-and-feather attacks. Moreover, while they were initially thought of as mere petty demons of war “patroning” mountain bandits, they rose to prominence due to their association
with various orders of martial monks, to the point where medieval scrolls
end up exclusively depicting them in the traditional full garb of such monks
and propelling them to Buddhism-upholding fame, which is how Tengu are
now perceived as rather protective (if still fairly dangerous) minor deities
and even misconstrued as founders of several ninja clans.
After the social and technological reforms of the second half of the nineteenth century, many previously unchanged aspects of Japanese society had
to be replaced almost overnight, which also impacted folklore, as for instance not all of the next generation, no longer dwelling in the countryside,
could still relate, or certainly not in the same way, to the agrarian terrors
and worshipped hopes of their ancestors. Living in harmony with a world
of beings they could not see, nor truly understand or accept as reasonable,
from animal shapeshifters to animated tools, simply faded out of city life for
the better part of the following century. Meanwhile, the raging World Wars
were devastatingly more scarring than any folkloric youkai. And yet, when
prosperity started returning to Japan and it struggled to forge a new (international) identity for itself, the appeal of the “old world” and its values
also made its comeback, complete with its unique aesthetics and its enchanting tales of freakish critters.
Proving once more that their connection to the values of their past is
precious to them, the Japanese audience did not let the traditional appeal
of ghost and youkai stories fade away even in modern settings, where they
have regained prominence in literature and cinema, especially the genres
catering to teenagers and young adults. In fact, one may surmise that Japanese folklore would be virtually unknown in the West outside of specific
East-Asian folklorists’ research groups were it not for Japan’s arguably most
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popular cultural export nowadays, its iconic comics and animation films and
series, best known as, respectively, manga and anime.
Naturally, not all manga and anime are based on youkai tales, but those
that are continue the trend of blending the old youkai with new ones of their
creators’ imagination, pioneered in the post-Sengoku stories of the Edo period, when artists had finally risen to individual fame and, depending on
their success, had moved into the Capital to enjoy some degree of freedom
to illustrate concepts as their imagination warranted, including with what-if
youkai. Perhaps the most influential early post-war manga series making
youkai dark comedies available again to children was Shigeru Mizuki’s
GeGeGe no Kitarou, adapted after the early twentieth-century folk story
Hakaba no Kitarou (“Kitarou of the Graveyard”). Remade into several anime
series of varyingly lighter tones, it chronicles the adventures of eponymous
youkai boy Kitarou, (re)born in a grave, as he struggles to maintain a tentative balance between his youkai entourage and the human friends he tries to
make. The series, in both media, has a distinctive rough animation style,
befitting its parodic-dark tone, and features several recurrent characters.
Most of them are classical-inspired youkai, such as the protagonist’s anthropomorphised eyeball for a father, a female friend based on trickster cats of
folklore, and several others based on more obscure legends from the entire
country (the sand-throwing hag, the toddler able to increase his body mass
to crush those around, the living wall blocking and confusing travellers,
etc.), and the on/off antagonist Ratman, well over the age of three hundred
and loosely based on animal shapeshifters but not directly connected to any
particular legend but rather invented as a base-humour foil for the main
character, given his stench attributes.
Nurarihyon is another character making occasional appearances in the
Kitarou manga, where he is only a minor character, although post-medieval
folklore introduces the original character of the same name as the head of
the legendary “Hundred-Demon Nightly Parade”, itself a legend developed
after a painting of the same name. A seemingly very powerful and rather
benign youkai, though a consummate master of deception, it receives a more
central role, which thus contributes to expanding his mythology in the new
media, in the 2007 manga (and 2010 anime) by Hiroshi Shiibashi, Nurarihyon
no Mago (literally “Nurarihyon’s Grandson”, distributed as “Nura: Rise of
the Youkai Clan”), where the old youkai plays grandfather mentor to a
three-quarter human, one-quarter youkai young man, in charge of leading
their clan of youkai, not unlike a Yakuza alliance of Families, towards a future of prosperity. The series again places great stock on the dual nature of
youkai not being exclusive, but circumstantial, villains, i.e. capable of greatness when under proper leadership, as Nura, the young protagonist (Nurarihyon III), seeks to achieve. The series is also relevant to our investigation
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due to the interesting relationship between beauty (charm), power and fear:
in a world of spectres, fear is the main capital and rebuilding energy, and
thus, any would-be leader of the youkai must learn to first gain an imposing
presence over all of his retinue, so they may bow to him in awe (afraid and
charmed, the aesthetics of the sublime uncanny!) and trust and swear
(around the ceremonial bowl of sake) to be his vassal. Young Nura, while
hardly imposing in his human identity as a feeble teenager, nevertheless
gradually strives to better himself and earn the trust of those around him,
effectively subverting the “charm by power” protocols with his own “charm
by trust” approach, allowing him to use a new set of abilities, only usable by
part-human entities, which work not on the beauty of fear but on the beauty of empathy and camaraderie.
Another iconic series that connects the aesthetics of the uncanny and of
the wabisabi based on Japanese folklore is Rumiko Takahashi’s cult favourite
of the late 1990s (the manga) and early 2000s (the anime), Inuyasha (Sengoku
Otogizoushi Inuyasha, “Inuyasha: A Feudal Fairy Tale”). With great detail
paid to traditions, social organisation, scenery and garments, this selfproclaimed fairy tale skillfully rekindles modern interest in the Japanese
medieval atmosphere in a profound interplay of action, romance and comedy. Protagonists Kagome and Inuyasha reconcile the future and the past,
respectively, as well as modern objective thought with the parallel/timedisplaced dimension that is Inuyasha’s reality, i.e. Kagome’s ancient past
(via her shrine-sacerdotal lineage represented by her grandfather), a mythical past for most of her contemporaries but which she incredulously sees
realised when she takes the plot-starting accidental journey back into the
Sengoku era. Beyond the visually obvious, the aesthetics of the series is constructed on the same folkloric principle of staying in a harmonious flux of
rhythms and contraries. Inuyasha himself is a hanyou, a half-youkai, with
teenage-specific issues of (not) belonging anywhere between the two worlds,
of the youkai, who spurn him, and of the humans, who fear him, and further
struggling with reconciling the two aspects of himself into a fully functioning “halfling”, a slave neither to the rabid bloodlust of his canine heritage,
nor to the (comparative) helplessness of being a mere human on full moons.
His physical prowess (he carries the greatest sword of all characters, made
of a gigantic fang) but weakness of spirit (impulsive, prone to depression,
jealous and insecure with women, especially after the staged betrayal in his
past) are balanced by Kagome’s strong heart. The undersung but very inspirational female protagonist of the series, Kagome has great determination, by which she pursues him and accepts to be by his side in patience and
support, though knowing his heart cannot fully choose her yet, but also a
great capacity for empathy and self-sacrifice in continuing the fight against
archvillain Naraku in the past, away from her entire world up to that point,
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and as the only member of their team to be lacking any physical superhuman abilities—yet deeply empowered by the light of her kindness. The villains of the series are also highly intricate beings based on wabisabi aesthetics. For instance, Inuyasha’s eternal rival, the aristocratic full-youkai Sesshomaru, intent on claiming his father’s legacy for himself alone, is coldhearted and sociopathically honourable, characterised by most he encounters as having “an imposing presence” and cold aloof elegance and beauty.
An excellent swordfighter even after losing his arm in combat with
Inuyasha, Sesshomaru has to “bear the shame” of having inherited a nonlethal blade (a reviving sword), one which he learns was given to him by his
father specifically so he may learn to forgive and to heal, not just destroy, a
journey he very slowly embarks on after saving the human child Rin, who
becomes his travel companion and occasional liaison with Inuyasha. The
archvillain of the series, a minor thief who, jealous of Inuyasha’s happiness
and frustrated with his own weakness, sacrifices himself to become the future demon Naraku (literally “hell[-hole]”), a master manipulator literally
made up of a multitude of minor youkai, whose personal quest is to remove
the very last shreds of humanity in him (his heart) and reach absolute power via the sacred diamond all of them are looking for. For all his wickedness, he is thoroughly explained and believable, as well as necessary for the
development of all the other characters, being both a (Buddhist-consistent,
and thus folklore-consistent) cautionary symbol against the dehumanising
pitfalls of jealousy and greed, but also embodying the wabisabi aspects of
multilayered realities, of having to check underneath the illusions of the
flesh in order to reach the truth.
The above are merely three examples of a vast array of human creativity
lending itself to further academic insight upon further investigation, at the
fertile crossroads between the aesthetic and cognitive dimensions of the
uncanny and the wabisabi. Researching the creative trove of supernatural
creatures dreamt up by Japanese folklore once more confirms the author’s
argument that the multilayered aesthetics evidenced by such apparitions, in
the East as well as in the West, bear witness to both the fantasies and the
fears of the given historical periods of their conception. While some are
little more than whimsical, many others provide mirrors—albeit twisted—
for our own reflections on our flaws and weaknesses, being thus both cautionary and inspiring on our progress for self- and community-oriented
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Andrijauskas, Artanas. (2001). Traditional Japanese Aesthetics and Art. Vilnius:
Vaga. Retrieved from Accessed on Oct. 10, 2014.
Foster, Michael Dylan. (2009). Pandemonium and parade: Japanese monsters and
the culture of yōkai. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Hearn, Lafcadio. (2005). Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. North
Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing.
Iwasaka, Michilo, and Barre Toelken. (1994). Ghosts and the Japanese: Cultural Experiences in Japanese Death Legends. Logan, UT: Utah State University
Koren, Leonard. (2008). Wabi-sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers.
Point Reyes, CA: Imperfect Publishing. Retrieved from Accessed on Oct. 9, 2014.
Lillehoj, Elizabeth. (1995). “Transfiguration: Man-made Objects as Demons
in Japanese Scrolls.” Asian Folklore Studies 54: 7-34.
Phillip, Neil. (2000). Annotated Myths & Legends. London: Covent Garden
Tyler, Royall. (2002). Japanese Tales. Pantheon Fairy Tale & Folklore Library. New York, NY: Random House.
Ueda, Makoto. (1967). Literary and Art Theories in Japan. Cleveland, OH:
Western Reserve University.
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ABSTRACT. Nigerian-born priest Uwem Akpan conveys the reader into gruesome chaos and
fear in his collection of five long stories set in war-torn Africa. Stories of abused and battered
children are legion, but only few cut as close to the bone as the collection of 5 stories by Uwem
Akpan. Told from the perspective of young children, Akpan’s collection leads the reader into
heart-piercing brutality of the children’s lives in Africa. Some of them being gritty to the point
of causing distress, each story is an account of children awakening to unbelievable horrors and
realities of African plight. Evil is dominant in the lives of African children: human society is
chaos, and children are sucked down into the heartbreaking scenes just as being sucked down
into the maelstrom. When evil comes through the door in the form of human tribal enemies,
children become awakened to their plight. The first story, An Ex-mas Feast, looks at a povertystricken family that must depend on their young daughter’s income to survive. In Luxurious
Hearses Jubril, a teenage Muslim flees the violence in northern Nigeria. The children in Fattening for Gabon are being prepared for sale into slavery by their uncle. In What Language Is That?
two little Ethiopian girls are best friends until parents say they cannot speak to each other
anymore because one is Muslim and the other is Christian. The final story, My Parent’s Bedroom,
describes the violence between the Rwandan Hutus and Tutsis as seen through the eyes of a
young girl who has mixed parentage. Akpan’s prose is beautiful and his stories are insightful
and revealing and harrowing because all the horror is seen through the eyes of children. This
article attempts to depict gruesome experiences of the children in the stories and their process
of getting cognizant for escaping from their plight within horrific African scenes.
KEY WORDS: children suffering, pain, estrangement, human degradation, perils of poverty
Say You’re One of Them takes the reader inside Nigeria, Benin, Kenya,
Rwanda and Ethiopia displaying in the prose the harsh consequences for
children sucked up into war-torn Africa. Christians clash with Muslims,
parents succumb to Aids, and gruesome events follow through the “wideeyed gaze” of the children caught in the middle. Uwem Akpan, a Nigerian
Catholic priest is expected to utilize some religious characters in the collection of 5 stories, Say You’re One of Them. Although Akpan is an experienced
priest who knows the dark side of African tragedies, readers find no preach*
YILDIRAY CEVIK (PhD) is Assistant Professor at the English Language and American
Studies Department within International Balkan University in Skopje, Macedonia.
Email: [email protected]
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ing in the stories. As a man of faith, which never gets away from a man of
common sense, Akpan appears with a difference as it is stated in an interview conducted by New York Times:
Since it is not something I can put away, my faith is important to me. I hope I
am able to reveal the compassion of God in the faces of the people I write about.
I think fiction has a way of doing this without being doctrinaire about it”
Uwem Akpan wrote five stories depicting about African children in different countries suffering major problems. As to the purpose of writing stories,
Akpan states that “the people in Nigeria don’t know what’s going on in
Rwanda and the Rwandans don’t know what’s going on in Nigeria. You can
live in Nigeria or Benin and not fully understand the evils of human trafficking.” He apparently wrote them not only for the Americans or Europeans but also to enlighten the Africans by making them awakened to their
own plight. He also wants to feature how children might react within the
social, familial and political turmoil of the African scene, providing the accounts that take no place in newspapers. When asked why he writes only
about children, Father Uwem’s answer was simple; “I was inspired to write
by the people who sit around my village, and shared palm wine after Sunday mass, by the Bible, and by humans and the endurance of the poor”
( He aims at presenting the brutal subject through the
bewildered, resolutely chipper voice of children.
“An Ex-mas Feast”
The first story in the collection, embedded with tension in Kenya where
street children are great in number as an increasing problem, features how
vital the meaning of family is in the lives of children. Told in the first person narration, the story embodies a child protagonist Jinga who, in the end,
feels obligated to abandon his family due to inter-familial relations. Jinga
has to raise education money for his schooling. His desire to go to school is
very keen as he puts on school uniform many times a day. His older sister
Maisha goes out the streets as a prostitute just to earn some money for her
brother’s education. His younger sister Naema also feels she has to chip in
school expenses, so she imitates Maisha. Jinga feels guilty in the employment of his sisters for his sake and contemplates taking revenge on the
white tourists so that the exploitation of the sisters in this way should come
to an end. Jinga awakens to Maisha’s degradation and, thus, outbursts the
idea of school however; his father (Baba) expresses his eagerness for his
schooling (Akpan, 2009: 13). At this point we realize the dilemma the father
lives through as he seems not to do his best to alleviate brutal situation
when he is offered opportunity to earn more wages by sweeping the
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The Pain and Suffering of African Children
church. Akpan highlights the sordid condition by featuring father’s insistence to manage Jinga and abuse Maisha’s service as a prostitute.
Akpan reveals the sordid and gruesome condition of the families without
“mockery, ridicule or condemnation” (Kearney, 2011: 92). For instance,
Mama shockingly consults to the use of glue sniffing to keep the children
not hungry before the bed, which is brutal ridicule of the drastic conditions;
however, Akpan develops Mama’s image within the family by making her
read a psalm from the Bible acknowledging the significance of Christmas
(Kearney, 2011: 92). In this an awareness of spirituality comes to the foreground as result of degradation of Maisha. Akpan wants to convey the idea
that no matter how backward the living conditions may be, innately rooted
awareness to human plight exists in inter-familial relations. Illustration of
such a forcible awareness brings the glimpses of hope to children’s vindication in Africa.
A kind of Christmas feast in the story is a possibility only by the food that
Maisha provides through her degradation. When she has to leave ‘Ex-mas
feast’ early without experiencing the celebration, inter-familial awareness
arouses. As a result, Jinga resorts to “glue sniffing” (Akpan, 2009: 7) again
and destroys the school books, which can be interpreted as an exit from the
entanglements of disempowering family conditions. It is ironical however
self-sacrificial Maisha is towards education, Jinga gets that amount selfsacrificial of the situation he has caused in the family. In this way, Jinga
becomes all the more resolute that his family is breaking up for his insistence to go to school (Akpan, 2009: 22). Symbolically, however, Jinga proudly declares that the street family stayed together until the “Ex-mas season”
(Akpan, 2009: 6). Jinga’s departure enables him to get the education without imposing his dream on the sister’s abuse. Nevertheless, his independent
life in the streets doesn’t guarantee him to receive the desired education.
“Fattening for Gabon”
Benin is famous for child-traffickers who approach parents with the promises that their children will make money and they will continue with their
education. Children are smuggled into Nigeria and abused for quarry
work. Much pressure is exerted on children to stop their fleeing. Although
Benin and Nigeria have increased the maximum sentence for child trafficking, it is hard to persuade people to testify against the traffickers.
Fattening for Gabon, a novella, takes place in Benin where Kotchikpa and
Yewa (aged ten and five) are sent to live with their uncle Fofo Kpee. The
children were advised to stay obedient to their uncle (Akpan, 2009: 42),
who was already involved in illegal smuggling activities, and who also takes
the opportunity to sell the children to be utilized in drug trafficking. Akpan
uses Kotchikpa as the first person narrator to emphasize the children’s
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large scale delusion about the prospects through Fofo’s plans and their
realization of their actual victimization. In the course of the novella, the
children’s awareness of the uncle’s venality and their vulnerability is underlined by scenes of their being locked up in darkness (Akpan, 2009: 38).
Akpan brilliantly conveys the children’s exhilaration at their fancied prospects through the inclusion of skilled facilitators “godparents”, who further
reinforce the state of deprivation (Akpan, 2009: 59) through engaging the
children into appalling and treacherous activities that serve for child trafficking. Akpan is careful to depict the children as in no way stupid; when
Fofo tries to justify the need to tell people that the ‘godparents’ are the
children’s relatives, Yewa asserts: “You lie, Fofo. You lie” (Akpan, 2009: 55).
In the intermediate stage of the story, Akpan convinces us that children’s
sense of modesty has been attacked when Fofo wants them to touch his genitals, which foreshadows the kind of sexual abuse they will be subjected to
later in Gabon. The plan made by the “Big Guy” to transfer the children to
Gabon is foiled when Fofo is badly hurt through an assault and dies. The
children are locked again in the darkness; subsequently, Kotchikpa manages to escape through the padlocked window (Akpan, 2009: 131). However,
Yewa cannot jump out. The story ends with his running away but feeling
that he will never escape from the anguished wailing. One cannot be sure
that Kotchikpa will find refuge in his parents’ village, and Yewa has little
chance of escaping enslavement.
“My Parents’ Bedroom”
Akpan’s story My Parents’ Bedroom takes place in Rwanda in 1994 when the
genocide between Hutus and Tutsis froze the human blood in gruesome
violence. The dilemma of the story is reinforced when family members become the target of genocide as chilling acts of human slaughter and when
parents from each family justify the violent actions in the presence of UN
soldiers just in the close vicinity. As Richard Halloway states, “the human
herd, when collectively aroused, is the most ferocious beast on the planet
(Richard Halloway, 2009: 33). Akpan’s story justifies this view when husband and wife become ethnic enemies in the same bedroom in front of their
own children. The justification is reinforced when immediate relatives of
the parents in the story rush into the house to kill the wife and set the house
in a fire. The child protagonist of the story, Monique, describes his parents
as such:
My mother is a Tutsi woman. She has high cheekbones, a narrow nose, a sweet
mouth, slim fingers, big eyes, and a lean frame. Her skin is so light that you can
see the blue veins on the back of her hands… I look like Maman, and when I
grow up I’ll be as tall as she is. Papa looks like most Hutus, very black. He has a
round face, a wide nose, and brown eyes. His lips are as full as a banana. He is a
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The Pain and Suffering of African Children
jolly man who can make you laugh till you cry. Jean looks like him (Akpan, 2009:
The history of the problem between the Tutsis and the Hutus goes back to
1956 when the Hutus felt threatened by the fact that the Tutsis, better educated and privileged class, were protected under the administration. When
the plane of the president crashed on land in 1990, the attack by the Tutsi
rebels triggered the civil war which lasted 3 years. The Hutus were persuaded to exterminate the race of the Tutsis for the egalitarian rights in the
administration. In hundred days, eight hundred thousand people from
both sides were killed according to UN reports. In the face of this figure,
Akpan opens the “Pandora’s Box” and directs the sensitive questions “why
does God permit evil to flourish in the world” (Kearney, 2011: 96)? This
question becomes all the more intriguing to comprehend how a priest who
has always affirmed the existence of benevolent providence can ask the
question originating from the accumulated information of hellish tragedies
in some African countries and then reflected into the stories. Akpan still
asserts that the divine benevolence is possible to affirm on the grounds of its
acceptance by various ethnic groups composed around common humanity
(Kearney, 2011: 96). Monique is repeatedly advised by her mother to “say
you’re one of them” (Akpan, 2009: 327) as if she were trying to encourage
the little child to protect herself and her brother Jean from ethnic prejudice. The side of ethnicity doesn’t matter for Maman as long as any ethnicity of the children would satisfy her questioners. Within this dialogue, Akpan
encourages the recognition of the common humanity of other ethnic
groups not only for escaping the ethnic cleansing but also for promoting
the common “humane” way between the ethnicities.
This story, like the other in the collection, can be interpreted as children’s awakening to the realities of the African plight. It is the one in which
the explicit use of Catholic images is more predominant. Akpan gives the
detailed description of the self-glowing home altar crucifix self-glowing
(Akpan, 2009: 327) that draws Monique’s interest to possess upon Maman
advice to forsake it and save it for the coming generations. The dialogue
between the mother and daughter about the significance of the crucifix
short before the bloodthirsty human herd pour into the house and torture
Monique for the location of the mother. When the Hutus arrive and the
man called Wizard smashes the crucifix on the wall breaking it into pieces,
Monique rushes and hides the broken part of the crucifix for her dear life
(Akpan, 2009: 353). Akpan uses the broken piece as a symbol of still divine
benevolence to stick to as an awakening, the only thing to do in the man
slaughter. As Kearney remarks in his article the glowing crucifix can be seen
as the only remaining hope in her awakening so that the remaining parts
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hint at “possible future for her as a reconciler for the people” (Kearney,
2009: 96).
By the similar token Maman who awaits her death from her husband’s
hands is the ironic version of the conventional representation of mother as
the Mother of Sorrows. Monique asks her father to forgive Maman for her
activities the previous night (Akpan, 2009: 348). This innocent request displays the level of evil to which Papa has been driven through the trap of
ethnic genocide. The two children can’t escape witnessing the horrific sight
(Akpan, 2009:349), which in the end further consolidates Monique’s resolution to stay awakened and alive in the land of agitations. The ending of the
story might pose some optimism for children’s freedom and survival in a
hatred ridden adult society. However, “Saying you’re one of them” to the
questioners might not well suffice for their security. Monique’s determination “not to be afraid” (Akpan, 2009: 336) as Maman has insisted is needed
even if these actual children’s lives are in peril. Through Monique Akpan
injects the spirit of divine benevolence at work (Kearney, 2011: 97).
Under the spell of the promise Monique will take care of her brother
Jean, and so she escapes into the unreal and the unknown in order to protect her mental sanity against the violent collapse of the family (Knapp,
2009: 9). Monique also gets awakened holding tight onto the translucent
crucifix and by doing so onto her family’s values. She is awakened to the
plight of the Rwandan gruesome conflicts by staying alive at all costs. “I
must be strong, we don’t want to die” (Akpan, 2009: 345), she says as is
acknowledging and hoping “that evil is but a temporary manifestation of a
still hidden good (Arendt, On Violence, 56, quoted in Knapp, 2009: 9).
“What Language Is It?”
Uwem Akpan’s mind must have been busy with the Ethiopian conflicts, so
he included this story about Ethiopian families. The clashes between Christians and Muslims began in October 2006 at Denbi. Orthodox Christians
celebrated the annual Meskel festival involving the burning of a giant cross.
Not the cross itself but the location of the festival triggered the clashes as
Muslims who claimed that the burning took place on Muslim land. The
focus of the story is around two young girls: Muslim girl Selam and the
unnamed narrator who is Christian and whose name is designated “Best
Friend” (Akpan, 2009: 178). The two girls get on well despite religious differences. Akpan includes the scenes where the discussion about eating pork
by Muslims is handled between the girls and the Christian family appreciates the “open-mindedness” and “sincerity” of the Muslim family (Akpan,
2009: 178). Akpan works on the ironic point that jealousy can possibly sever
the relations, but the religious differences are not likely to.
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Where there have been clashes in town both fathers have seemingly decided over the issues of whether continuing the friendship between the girls
(Akpan, 2009: 180). The girls are warned not to go to the same school (Akpan, 2009: 182) and cut off their friendships, which is hard to comprehend
for them. Even after the parents take shifts not to let the girls see each other
from the balconies (Akpan, 2009: 181), the Christian girl under the effect of
her dream can no longer resist going on the balcony and waiting for her
friend to appear at the window. Fortunately, on the final afternoon when
one appears on her balcony, Selam also shows up and they both start to
mime their hugs, “hugzee” (Akpan, 2009: 185). At first they can’t figure out
how to find common gestures for the silent distant communication. Selam
imitates “Best Friend’s” embracing and kissing an imaginary person. In this
way, while the story ends, Akpan celebrates the innocence of friendship
between the two children in an environment where hatred for ethnic differences and religious prejudices come to apex. It is through the two girls’
loyalty Akpan can find the medium to glorify fidelity and rejection of artificial discriminates. As Knapp states in his article, “Being free from their parents’ authority the two girls fight the enforced control of their intercultural
communication” (Knapp, 2009: 7) by regaining the control of awareness of
the strong ties between them and again by awakening to the need to disregard the parental surveillance. Thus, secretly mimicking each other on the
balconies, they set up reach awakening that an artificially designed language of mutual understanding can do well even without words.
“Luxurious Hearses”
Akpan might have taken the context for the story from the clashes that occurred in 2000 over the introduction of Sharia Islamic law in Northern
Nigeria. Jubril, the protagonist, was born a Catholic, but left alone at two
when his Muslim mother fled North to protect her children from the
spreading conflicts. He has been brought up as a Muslim, and his identity is
shaped by devotion to Islam. His brother Yusuf has denied to reunion with
his Catholic father and later stoned to death for his opposition to Islam.
When the religious riots break out, Jubril is forced to flee unsure whether
his mother is alive or not.
Jubril takes a bus trip in which the long story becomes a revelation of his
attempts to come to terms with the identity he will have to assume in the
south. He is not the first person narrator because Akpan includes a variety
of different voices to enable us to understand the hysterical context of
Jubril’s journey. First of these voices is that of a tribal chief who captures
Jubril’s seat without a ticket. We learn that he has been removed by the new
government. He insists that there should be no mention of Muslim or Islam
on the bus. He keeps trying to assert his authority, and washes his hands of
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the boy once Jubril reveals his Muslim identity by showing his amputated
Other voices unfold on the bus ride. Madam Aniema, an ardent Catholic
lady, asks Jubril to deny that he is a Muslim. Colonel Usenetok, who is a
half-witted soldier, seems to contend with child soldiers. Emela represents
the aggressive type of Christian who claims to be filled with the Spirit of
God. During all those exchanges, Jubril experiences a reflective process. He
remembers the incident in which Muslim friends treated him as a traitor
when the riots broke out. He was saved by an older Muslim who gave secret
shelter to persecuted Christians (Akpan, 2009: 210). Remembering how he
was hidden under Muslim prayer mats with Christians who helped him,
Jubril realizes heroic people—the generous Southern Christians, and gives
a lesson that his nation would rise above all types of divisiveness (Akpan,
2009: 256).
Akpan’s religious awareness is that Jubril considers himself as returning
to Islam. However, his psychological suffering becomes a physical torture
when he and Usenatok are dragged out of the bus and have their throats
slit. Akpan here acknowledges Jubril’s total commitment as an achievement
of spiritual awareness, maintaining the irony of this story as well.
The children protagonists of the stories are the victims of the “inter/intraethnic” (Knapp, 2009: 7) divisions and they strife for survival and recognition in different African countries under diversified pressures. Traumas are
connected with forced migrations and escapes lead to a common ground for
awakening to the tragedies in the African scenery. As Knapp verifies, “by
breaking with and undermining violence and injustice of the present web of
relationships”, these children develop a common way out as much as possible in their capacities. They act outside the perceived norms of obligation
and break with inherent violence that leads to only sufferings. The protagonists do not escape into forgiveness which may continue the adult way of
approaching the gruesome deadlocks of man’s slaughter. Further, they
open up new possibilities for the future as in Jinga’s case, escaping and
pressing for the education he desires without turning into “a social parasite
feasting on sisters’ exploitation, and the Christian and Muslim girls to explore “the sounds of unspoken words”. As in the case of Monique, these
protagonists re-establish the trans-cultural bonds within her promises to
stay alive at all costs. Children’s brevity to explore new horizons in adult
war-torn world is actually a search for a new home. By sharing the resilience and genius of children depicted through the eyes of suffering children
Akpan leaves adults no alternative but feel guilty about the world they have
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The Pain and Suffering of African Children
created. So, his stories can be interpreted as an opportunity to see the world
differently in pristine-eyes and to condemn the violence in the adult world.
Akpan, Uwem. (2009). Say You’re One of Them. New York, NY: Back Bay
Books/ Little, Brown.
Arendt, Hannah. (1968). The Origins of Totalitarianism. Orlando, FL: Harcourt.
Harper, Graeme. (1997). “As If By Magic: World Creation in Postcolonial
Children’s Literature.” Ariel 28.1 (1997): 39-52.
Hollooway, Richard. (2009). Between the Monster and the Saint: Reflections on
the Human Condition. Edinburgh: Canongate.
Kearney, John. (2001). “Say You’re One of Them: Uwem Akpan’s Collection of Short Stories.” English Studies in Africa 54.2 (2011): 88-102.
Knapp, Adrian. (2009). “Three Children’s Critical Perspectives on Aspects
of the Contempoarary East African Social ‘Web of Relationships’: Uwem
Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them”. Postcolonial Text 5.3 (2009):1-14.
McGrath, Charles. (2008). “Channeling the Voices of Africa’s Lost Children.” Review of Say You’re One of Them. The New York Time. 3 July
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ABSTRACT. Gu Cheng (1956-1993), contemporary Chinese poet, was one of the most important authors of the Chinese literary scene in the second half of the twentieth century. In
exile since 1989, having publicly expressed disagreement with the intervention of the Government of the People’s Republic of China at Tiananmen incident on June 4, 1989, he decided to
live in Auckland, New Zealand, together with his wife and son. This article examines two cycles
of poems composed by the author: Gui jin cheng 鬼 进城 (The spirit enters the city) written in
1992 and Cheng 城 (City) composed between 1992 and 1993 just before the tragic end of his
life. A disturbing vision of his native city, Beijing, is what the poet gives us through the lines of
the poems of the cycle Cheng. The capital of China, appears to be destroyed by the people and
history and bears the marks of the violence of the of the recent Tian’anmen incident. What the
author shows us, with this poetic journey through Beijing, are the ruins of an ancient splendour. He tries to rebuild the old city of his childhood through his poetry. However, this effort
is so titanic that Gu Cheng abandons his initial intentions and the cycle remains unfinished.
Very similar to Cheng, both for the structure and for the subjects covered, is the second cycle of
poems called Gui jing cheng. The similarity between the two works is suggested even by the
titles. This article attempts to explain why both collections can be read as the author’s descriptions of his torn inner self, of his identity divided between the two worlds (East and West)
where he lived.
KEY WORDS: Gu Cheng, Chinese poetry, city, spirit, Beijing
Il termine “apocalittico” fa riferimento a qualcosa che implica distruzione
totale o terribile violenza, proprio ciò che ritriviamo nel ciclo di poesie
Cheng 城 (Città), scritto dal poeta cinese Gu Cheng (1956-1993) prima della
sua tragica morte. È interessante notare come l’autore anticipi questi temi in
un precedente ciclo di poesie dal titolo Gui jin cheng 鬼进城 (Lo spirito entra
in città). Di ciò tratta questo articolo.
Cheng (Città)1 è l’ultimo ciclo poetico composto da Gu Cheng, al quale
egli ha lavorato dal 1992 al 1993, durante i suoi soggiorni in Germania e in
Nuova Zelanda. Esso descrive Pechino, città natale dell’autore (Kubin,
1999). In esso, in un’identificazione con la patria lontana, Gu Cheng
tratteggia qualcosa che assomiglia ad un ultimo autoritratto poetico.
ANNA SIMONA MARGARITO (PhD) studied Chinese Literature at the University of
Salento, Italy, and her ongoing research in the field is presently focused on the urban
poetry of Chinese expatriate writer Gu Cheng. E-mail: [email protected]
In seguito, si farà riferimento a questa raccolta come Cheng o come “ciclo”.
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Gu Cheng è stato una delle personalità di spicco del panorama letterario
cinese del secolo scorso, in quanto uno tra i maggiori esponenti della
corrente poetica della “poesia oscura”. Questa corrente, che si colloca nella
seconda metà del XX secolo, dimostra più elementi in comune con la
precedente tradizione letteraria europea che non con quella cinese.
Tamburello (1998) fa notare che l’influenza della cultura occidentale “opera
a livello contenutistico e solo conseguentemente stimola un mutamento
formale della lingua stessa. L’entità di questo mutamento è però opera
interamente originale dei poeti cinesi che conoscono e lavorano solamente
con la propria lingua”.
Per meglio definire l’accezione in cui l’aggettivo “oscura” viene usato in
riferimento a questa corrente poetica, è illuminante quanto lo stesso Gu
Cheng spiega in proposito:
[...] il termine si riferisce ad una poesia che è simbolica e suggestiva, con concetti
profondi, impressioni stratificate, ed una coscienza dell’inconscio, ecc. C’è
sicuramente un senso in tutto questo, ma, se ci si limita a queste idee, non credo
si riesca a cogliere la caratteristica fondamentale di questo nuovo tipo di poesia.
La caratteristica fondante è il suo realismo. Essa parte dal realismo oggettivo, ma
vira verso un realismo soggettivo; muove da una reazione passiva ad una
creazione attiva (Allen, 2005: 182).
Si potrebbe sottolineare che proprio quel “realismo soggettivo” di cui egli
parla, risulta essere la principale caratteristica di buona parte della
produzione poetica di Gu Cheng e, in particolare, del ciclo Cheng, che
mescola elementi reali e ricordi del poeta.
Gu comincia a comporre le prime poesie già a partire dall’età di sei anni.
Nel 1987, avendo acquisito una certa fama, comincia a viaggiare all’estero.
Dal 1988 al 1989, si trasferisce ad Auckland con la moglie ed il figlio,
lavorando inizialmente per la locale università. Qui, il 4 giugno 1989,
insieme all’amico e poeta Yang Lian, organizza una lettura di protesta
contro l’azione repressiva del governo cinese. Questa presa di posizione
segna per entrambi l’inizio dell’esilio.
Nel 1990, arriva dalla Cina, Li Ying (alias Ying’er), la ragazza di cui Gu
Cheng si era innamorato mentre si trovava ancora a Pechino. La donna
decide, d’accordo la coppia, di andare a vivere con il poeta e la moglie.
Qualche anno più tardi, dal 1992 al 1993, Gu Cheng si reca in Germania
con la moglie per ragioni di lavoro, mentre Li Ying, rimasta in Nuova
Zelanda, fugge con un altro uomo. È a questo punto che, nel 1992 2, l’autore
La datazione della poesia Houhai, nella versione inviata a Kubin, è del 1991, questo
lascia supporre dei dubbi sulla datazione esatta dell’inizio della stesura del ciclo (see
Kubin, 1999).
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La Città di Gu Cheng
inizia la stesura del ciclo Cheng. Circa un anno dopo, ritorna sull’isola di
Waiheke con la moglie dove, l’8 ottobre 1993, muoiono entrambi
tragicamente per mano del poeta.
Alla luce di questi dati biografici, i temi del ciclo Cheng appaiono
particolarmente significativi. Negli ultimi anni della sua vita, il poeta che,
pur essendosi stabilito all’estero da alcuni anni, continua a rifiutare di
imparare una lingua straniera, si rinchiude con la moglie e l’amante in un
universo personale creato sul modello del romanzo classico Sogno della
camera rossa 3 . Egli pertanto non riesce, né vuole, spezzare il cordone
ombelicale che lo lega alla sua patria, alla sua città natale ed alla sua identità
profondamente cinese (Li, 1999: 61-75).
Tre sono i temi principali del ciclo indicati dallo stesso autore e
individuati già da Wolfgang Kubin, amico molto più che traduttore e critico
del poeta: la perdita di Pechino, la città che rivive solo nei ricordi del poeta,
la meta a cui egli non può più tornare; la perdita della sua amante che egli
non potrà riavere perché lei ha deciso di fuggire con un altro uomo; e
infine, gli eventi del 4 giugno 1989, come si evince dal sottotitolo, Liusi (4
giugno), apposto nella versione inviata a Kubin (1999).
Le 52 poesie, di cui si compone il ciclo, sono precedute da una breve
prefazione (in realtà, una lettera scritta alla sorella), in cui l’autore
argomenta la sentita necessità di scrivere il Cheng.
Ecco un estratto di quanto l’autore scrive nella prefazione al Cheng:
Arrivato in Germania, questa somigliava alla Pechino della mia infanzia.
C’era la neve, c’erano anche rami secchi di alberi che oscillavano nel
vento, io avevo la vaga sensazione che, camminando lungo la strada che
si trova sotto la finestra, sarei arrivato a casa, avrei potuto vedere
Xizhimen, quei raggi di luce desolati del crepuscolo spandendosi
illuminavano i giganteschi profili dei parapetti e delle fortificazioni... In
sogno, sì, torno spesso a Pechino, ed anche se quella attuale non le
Honglou meng (Sogno della Camera Rossa) fu scritto da Cao Xueqin (1715-1764) ed ebbe
immensa popolarità. L’autore, che incluse molti elementi biografici, descrive la vita
della famiglia Jia e dei suoi servitori. Nel testo si riscontra un forte contrasto tra la vita
spensierata che Jia Baoyu, il protagonista, conduce nel Giardino della Grande
Contemplazione, insieme a cugine e sorelle, e gli intrighi ideati in altri luoghi della
proprietà. A tal proposito Idema e Haft (2000) spiegano: “Uno degli intrecci principali
segue le contrastanti relazioni di Jia Baoyu con due cugine che sono una l’esatto
opposto dell’altra: la malaticcia, lamentosa Lin Dayu e la robusta, estroversa Xue
Baochai. Dopo una lunga serie di avventurose complicazioni, Jia Baoyu si dispone
infine a sposare Lin Dayu- o così crede. Una volta nella camera nuziale, scopre che la
sposa è invece Xue Baochai. Lin Dayu muore subito dopo. Avuto un figlio e superato
gli esami, Jia Baoyu dice addio al mondo e diventa discepolo di un maestro taoista e si
fa monaco buddhista” (Idema e Haft, 2000: 255-256).
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somiglia, è il luogo dove io, in accordo con i princìpi del cielo e del cuore,
desidero andare. Attualmente il lago Taiping o Zhonghuamen, non ci
sono più, non ci sono neanche i mattoni e la polvere che salivano nel
mezzo del cielo limpido, le strade costruite in pendenza, gli alberi di
giuggiole selvatiche, ma io ci cammino ancora sopra, e vedo la vita
precedente e quella che verrà […] Di questa raccolta di poesie intitolata
Cheng, ho completato solo una metà, ci sono ancora molte porte della
città che non sono state riparate. […] Io non lo so, solo che ogni giorno
canto un verso di una canzone popolare vietnamita: ah, povera mia città
natale… (10 Aprile 1992, see Gu, 1995: 856)
L’autore, nell’anticipare che il ciclo, rimasto incompleto, contiene insieme
elementi reali ed irreali, riesce a creare ciò che Samuel T. Coleridge
definirebbe come una “volontaria sospensione dell’incredulità” (Marinoni
Mingazzini e Salmoiraghi, 1992: 501) inducendo a considerare come reali,
eventi che non lo sono, o posti che non esistono più ma vivono nei ricordi
dell’autore (come, per esempio, i luoghi a cui sono intitolate molte delle
poesie del ciclo), ed azioni che si svolgono solamente nelle poesie, grazie
esclusivamente alla vivida immaginazione del poeta.
La vecchia città delle memorie di Gu si sovrappone all’immagine più
recente di Pechino ed entrambe si mescolano con l’immagine della
Germania dove l’autore risiede. Il risultato è un’immagine illusoria che
riconduce il poeta nella sua capitale, in una visione che dura 52 poesie.
A questo proposito, Kubin (1999: 259) fa notare che il viaggio in questa
città irreale non è altro che un viaggio introspettivo, tanto che il titolo del
ciclo è chiaramente un gioco di parole con il nome stesso del poeta, Cheng
城, il cui significato in cinese è proprio quello di “città”. Un tema ulteriore è
quello dell’identità e dell’individualità dell’uomo Gu Cheng, così come si
viene a delineare nell’intero ciclo, un ultimo e quanto mai singolare
autoritratto spirituale. Gu Cheng è, a questo punto della sua vita, un uomo
che sente forte la sua identità culturale e le sue radici. Dall’esilio, egli sente
il richiamo ed il ricordo della sua Pechino così tanto da impegnarsi
nell’impresa titanica di ricostruire la sua città natale nell’unico modo che gli
è congeniale e possibile, cercando, cioè, di xiuhao 修 好 “riparare” i
cambiamenti operati dalla storia, dal progresso e dall’uomo, ricostruendo la
sua città in poesia con le sue parole.
Alla fine del ciclo e della sua vita egli non può che prendere atto di aver
oramai perso la sua battaglia contro il mondo, contro la storia ed il
progresso. Non ha più la sua patria, non ha più la sua amante, vive in una
società dalla quale si tiene volutamente lontano, porta le ferite infertegli
dalla storia e dalla vita, proprio come la sua città, ma, soprattutto, ne è
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La Città di Gu Cheng
pienamente consapevole. È questo lo scenario di desolazione e distruzione
che il ciclo Cheng lascia intravedere.
In psicanalisi, un oggetto del desiderio ha la funzione di mascherare il
vuoto che soggiace alla pulsione (Agosti, 1972: 14). Pechino, per l’autore,
svolge questa funzione, e il perché del vuoto che soggiace alla pulsione è
intuibile: la sua città natale è ormai perduta, in primo luogo, perché il poeta
non può più tornarci e, poi, perché, se pure vi tornasse fisicamente, vi
troverebbe solo le rovine di ciò che un tempo era la ‘città perfetta’: un luogo
concepito e costruito in accordo con i princìpi, che regolano cielo e terra,
secondo la tradizione geomantica cinese. Dalla Storia e dai suoi stessi
uomini Pechino, così come la si legge dalle poesie, è stata distrutta poco a
poco. È diventata teatro di scontri e atrocità tanto da portarne i segni,
ancora chiaramente distinguibili qua e là nei componimenti, dove il poeta li
annota. Queste poesie portano i segni di uno scenario di lotta: vi è l’esercito,
figurano fori di pallottole, ferite, e non ultimo, vi è il riferimento a
personaggi della scena politica del fatidico 4 giugno 1989 ed inoltre il verbo
si 死 (morire) è tra i più ricorrenti nel ciclo.
Nella prefazione del Cheng, Gu dice di voler “riparare” (Gu, 1972: 14) i
luoghi della sua città natale ed ideale, quasi per riportarla al suo originario
splendore, tuttavia nei versi così “costruiti”, egli riesce solo a rimetterne in
piedi rovine e frammenti, apparentemente scoordinati, in un ciclo che
rimane, forse non per caso, incompiuto.
Perduta, come la vecchia Pechino, è anche l’amante del poeta fuggita
con un altro uomo. Vorrebbe riaverla, ma ciò non può più accadere nella
realtà, pertanto egli la ‘colloca’ in un luogo poetico dal quale non potrà più
fuggire. È l’autore stesso a descrivere il ciclo come la storia di una ragazza
deceduta che, nell’ipotesi avanzata da Kubin (1999: 23), sarebbe proprio Li
Ying. L’amante si intravede tra le poesie, è tra le figure che popolano la
“città” e, come tutti gli altri abitanti di questo non luogo, non viene descritta
né caratterizzata in modo particolare.
Nel ciclo, inoltre, stando anche alle indicazioni dell’autore, si racconta
dell’incidente di Tian’anmen, un trauma che ha colpito un’intera
generazione, ma che Gu vive molto dolorosamente per due ragioni
principali: in primo luogo, per aver vissuto in passato, in prima persona,
l’esperienza del confino nella provincia dello Shandong dal 1969 al 1974 (Li,
1999: 405), durante la Rivoluzione Culturale; ma, soprattutto, perché la
storica declamazione di protesta, organizzata insieme all’amico e poeta Yang
Lian, contro l’azione repressiva del governo cinese, segna l’inizio del suo
esilio e la traumatica separazione dalla Cina. Nel ciclo tutto ciò si mescola e
unisce alle vicende personali di Gu Cheng, come lui stesso le narra.
Egli conduce in una città che è materialmente costruita di suoi ricordi.
Pechino è riletta e riscritta dal poeta in questa chiave, così che ogni luogo è
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solo un pretesto, uno spunto e non è più importante di per se stesso, ma
acquista rilevanza e sostanza all’interno dell’immensa geografia della città,
diventando degno di poesia solo perché è stato palcoscenico della vita del
poeta oppure meta dei suoi ricordi.
Nel saggio Ghost enters the city (Lupke, 2008: 123-143), Yibing Huang
sottolinea la metamorfosi che ha interessato il giovane Gu Cheng, quello
che veniva definito il “poeta delle fiabe”, a seguito delle numerose
vicissitudini che hanno contrassegnato la sua vita e dopo i molti viaggi, è
stato trasformato in un uomo completamente diverso, distrutto, rovinato. È
proprio così che egli si dipinge, con la metafora della vecchia città, che egli
descrive per sé e per i lettori nel suo ultimo ciclo. Come si deduce dal titolo,
un’allusione dietro la quale si cela il suo nome (Kubin, 1999: 23), il tema
principale e, quindi, il protagonista dell’opera è l’autore stesso: l’uomo
prima ancora del poeta.
Diversi studiosi hanno messo in evidenza quanto sia mutata, nel corso
della vita dell’autore, la sua concezione della natura e, quindi, anche la
rappresentazione poetica che ne fa. In un’intervista del dicembre 1992
(Zhang-Kubin, 1999: 335), rispondendo a domande su quali testi lo
avessero influenzato di più all’inizio della sua produzione poetica, Gu
Cheng aveva risposto: Jean Henry Fabre 4.
Quando la famiglia viene confinata in campagna (1969-1974), Gu
immagina un mondo naturale completamente diverso da quello con il quale
dovrà poi, suo malgrado, confrontarsi e che lo deluderà fortemente.
L’universo descritto da Gu Cheng nelle poesie del periodo precedente al
confino, è un mondo naturale, popolato da piccole creature, viste dagli
occhi di un bambino che scopre il mondo, che cerca di capirne i meccanismi
e le regole con curiosità infinita. La realtà del confino cancella ogni sogno e
ogni ingenua fantasiosa concezione della bellezza e della benevolenza della
natura, tanto che al rientro dal confino, il poeta afferma: “Addio, Jean
Henry Fabre!” (Crippen, 2005: 153).
Nel saggio dedicato all’analisi del ruolo della natura nella poesia e nella
prosa di Gu Cheng (Li, 1999: 179-197), Li Xia fa risalire l’affinità del poeta
con il mondo naturale alla sua infanzia, e considera la sua mistica “unità”
con il mondo naturale e la concezione della perfezione della natura, tra gli
aspetti più importanti della poetica dell’autore (Li, 1999: 182-183). Da essi
egli ha sempre tratto ispirazione, mentre, al contrario, riceve un forte senso
disagio dall’ambiente urbano, nel quale si sente disorientato. La “città”
diventa in Gu Cheng metafora dell’alienazione dell’uomo da se stesso e dal
mondo naturale. Nel romanzo postumo Ying’er, egli accosta la città a
Famoso entomologo francese, Jean henry Fabre venne insignito del Premio Nobel nel
1910 proprio per i suoi studi sugli insetti.
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La Città di Gu Cheng
riflessioni negative o ironiche (Li, 1999: 186). Li Xia rileva, inoltre, come il
poeta mantenga sempre la natura come elemento da cui trarre sicurezza e
bellezza, anche quando cerca di fare i conti con le traumatiche esperienze
del suo passato (Li, 1999), e sottolinea come, nel romanzo, la placida
tranquillità che l’autore ritrova nella natura si trasformi in una “visone
apocalittica di rifiuto universale e morte” (Li, 1999: 191). Questa radicale e
significativa trasformazione può essere ravvisata nel Cheng, la cui mutata
rappresentazione della natura è indice di questo totale rifiuto.
La Natura che, per Gu, era bellezza e perfezione, unica alternativa
all’alienante mondo della città, nel ciclo non rappresenta alcunché di
idilliaco o di rassicurante. In 17, si legge (Gu, 1995: 866):
Passa per la veranda sul dorso della tigre schiaccia la vespa nella miniera
Oh la scimmia oh la scimmia schiaccia la vespa
Passa per la veranda nella miniera
La tigre schiaccia la vespa sul suo dorso
Gli animali, nel componimento, uccidono, corrono, muoiono, e tutto ciò
avviene al di fuori del contesto che sarebbe loro proprio. Teatro delle loro
azioni sono, infatti, una miniera di carbone ed una veranda. Anche la
natura è stata corrotta ed è diventata “altro”, ed è ulteriore motivo di
Prendiamo ad esempio il caso della parola hua (fiore/ferite) (Gu, 1995:
866) presente, tra i molti altri casi, anche in Nanchizi 南 池子 (Laghetto a sud)
e Xinjie kou 新街口 (Ingresso della Via nuova). La parola significa “fiore”, ma,
allo stesso tempo, richiama alla mente del lettore qualcos’altro. Questo
“altro” può essere o un significato meno frequente dello stesso carattere che,
nel gergo militare, significa “ferite”, o un carattere omofono, ma non
omografo, il cui significato, inserito nel contesto, avrebbe comunque senso.
Nemmeno i fiori sono associati alla serenità. Gu Cheng, in una nota (Li,
1999: 33) relativa a Jiantie 剪贴 (Ritagliare), spiega che le immagini floreali,
così come le unghie, sono riferimenti alla Campagna dei cento fiori. I fiori,
tradizionalmente utilizzati come riferimenti sessuali, non sono considerati
come elementi naturali. Infatti, nelle poesie si trasformano in “cani” famelici
dalle grandi bocche (Laghetto a sud, versi 6 e 7), o impallidiscono (Tempio
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della pagoda bianca, strofa 3, verso 9). Tornano a ricoprire il loro ruolo di
elementi della natura solamente quando posti su una tomba. Anche in
questo caso, però, hanno qualcosa di strano perché diventano “grandi
alberi” (Xianglai jie 象来街 Via dell’arrivo degli elefanti, strofa 5, verso 5).
L’erba è fatta di vetro (Changping 昌平 Changping, verso 15) e capelli
crescono dentro a noci di cocco (Hufang qiao 虎坊桥 Ponte del vicolo della tigre,
strofa 2, verso 8). Anche la natura, sempre rifugio per Gu Cheng, riparo
sicuro dalla società capitalista, nel ciclo Cheng sembra aver perso questo
ruolo, e gli elementi naturali presenti non sono per nulla idilliaci. Crolla
un’ennesima certezza e, per l’autore, viene meno un’altra consolazione.
Così come la Natura, anche la città della sua infanzia, il cuore della Cina,
è stata trasformata dalla storia e dai suoi stessi abitanti, ed è diventata un
mero mercato (Kubin, 1999: 262). È una città governata da logiche che la
rendono irriconoscibile ed incomprensibile e, per queste ragioni, invivibile
per Gu Cheng. È stata svuotata di tutto, soprattutto dei sentimenti, ciò che
resta sono vestigia di un passato in rovina che dimostra ancora lustro e
splendore, ma che non ha più alcun valore se non quello di mercato. In
Donghuamen 东华门 Porta della Cina orientale, versi 1 e 2, si legge: yuanzi li you
name duo pianyi dongxi/ zui pianyi de shi ni (nel cortile ci sono tante cose
economiche/la più economica sei tu) (Gu, 1995: 858). Anche le mogli sono
in vendita, infatti, i matrimoni si combinano con annunci pubblicati sui
Gu Cheng ha sempre ricercato la vita, l’amore e la fama, ma è anche
stato pervaso da un profondo senso di terrore, e dal bisogno di sfuggire gli
altri. Egli cerca rifugio dal crudele mondo reale vivendo isolato in un
mondo di poesia. Ha scelto di rimanere in disparte, lontano dall’ansia della
società moderna, impedendo, allo stesso tempo, alla sua personalità di
svilupparsi armonicamente. Pertanto, secondo Wang, per Gu, scrivere
poesie diventa una vera terapia che ha la funzione di scongiurare e calmare
le sue ansie interiori. Così, crea una barriera illusoria ed un universo
personale che gli servono per trincerarsi dalla realtà nella sua casa sull’isola
di Waiheke (Wang, 1999: 77-95). Questo microcosmo dall’equilibrio
precario va, però, in frantumi, collidendo con la realtà, nel 1993. La fuga
dell’amante, in questo particolare quadro, è solo una concausa e nemmeno
la fondamentale (Wang, 1999).
Il periodo, lungo poco più di un decennio, che va dalla morte di Mao
(1976) al 4 giugno (1989), lasciava supporre che qualcosa di nuovo e
rivoluzionario stesse per verificarsi nel panorama cinese, e non solo dal
punto di vista letterario. Ma se il 1989, a livello mondiale, aveva decretato la
fine di molti regimi comunisti (in Europa cade il Muro di Berlino), in Cina
il PCC riusciva a mantenere saldo il suo potere. Forse, la scelta della
Germania come luogo da accostare a Pechino, era un modo per Gu Cheng
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La Città di Gu Cheng
di sottolineare, implicitamente e per contrasto, i due diversi esiti di uno
stesso processo storico di democratizzazione di cui le due capitali erano
divenute il simbolo. Inoltre, i fatti del 4 giugno rivestono non poca rilevanza
nella vita del poeta se egli ne fa uno dei tre temi principali, insieme alla
patria perduta, e alla perdita di una delle due donne che amava (ne porterà
una con sé tragicamente nella morte), dell’ultimo ciclo di poesie al quale
lavora prima del suicidio, offrendo un ritratto tanto sincero quanto
doloroso e disarmante di se stesso.
Pechino, per Gu Cheng, diventa metafora di se stesso, della sua
interiorità lacerata, ferita e non salvata, segnata dai traumi infertigli dalla
storia, e la poesia diventa uno strumento di lotta, di affermazione della sua
identità e dei suoi ideali. La sua patria aveva confinato il suo spirito di poeta,
dall’infanzia sino all’adolescenza, ad allevare maiali (mansione affidatagli
durante il periodo di confino) in una natura che egli aveva supposto
idilliaca, ma che si era rivelata, poi, al contrario, dura ed inclemente. La
lotta per la democrazia gli era costata l’esilio e l’allontanamento dalla sua
stessa patria. Non c’era stato un altro “altrove”, nessun locus amoenus al
mondo, che fosse riuscito a dargli pace. Nemmeno la Nuova Zelanda, dove
pure il poeta acquista una casa e tenta, insieme alle sue donne, di creare il
suo paradiso su un modello della classicità cinese (Li, 1999: 61).
Kubin racconta che Gu Cheng “era come posseduto dalla Cina e proprio
in virtù della sua assenza dalla sua terra natia egli parlava solo di cose che
appartenevano al passato” (Kubin, 1999: 255).
Alla fine della raccolta, ma già all’inizio della stesura, la città del poeta
(quindi, non la vera Pechino ma, per metafora, l’autore stesso) ha perso la
sua lotta contro il mondo, Golia ha definitivamente sconfitto Davide, e il
giovane autore, consapevole di ciò, si pone, come prima di lui aveva fatto
Lu Xun, in una posizione antitetica rispetto alla Cina. Come scrive Edoarda
Masi, nell’introduzione a Fuga sulla luna, in una posizione “non [...] più di
eterodossia all’interno del contesto globale di una civiltà ma di
rovesciamento: l’intera civiltà cinese era messa sotto accusa” (Masi, 1973). Si
legge nelle poesie del Cheng, una denuncia, forse più che un’accusa, dei
presupposti di questa nuova Cina, dei risultati delle scelte di governo, dei
risvolti economici, delle vicende storiche e politiche del periodo. Una
denuncia implicitamente affermata attraverso gli esiti di questi fattori sul
piano della vita personale del poeta. Il fine della scrittura poetica di Gu
Cheng è, allora, lo stesso che Masi individua per Lu Xun: “esporre la
malattia e attrarre l’attenzione su di essa, affinché fosse curata” (Masi, 1973,
introduzione) e si può intuire anche come questa “riflessione sia una via per
recare nuovo tormento a se stesso, oltre che al lettore” (Masi, 1973,
introduzione). La stesura del ciclo, come pure la scrittura poetica, diventa
per Gu, oltre che un ultimo disperato sforzo catartico, anche un tentativo
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rivoluzionario di denuncia nei confronti della Cina moderna, e una specie
di testimonianza personale del prezzo al quale questa modernità è stata
ottenuta: un novello Lu Xun che attacca la “nuova” Cina che si riconferma
un’insaziabile “mangiatrice di uomini”.
C’è un altro parallelo che suggerisce un accostamento tematico tra questi
due autori. Lu Xun visse in un momento storico di particolare fervore
rivoluzionario che ebbe come primo risultato il Movimento del 4 maggio
1919. In quell’occasione, la volontà della Cina di ottenere un
riconoscimento a livello internazionale, segnò l’inizio di una serie di
cambiamenti per mezzo dei quali il Paese si discostò dalla sua pesante
tradizione, diventando una nazione moderna. Il processo di
modernizzazione e democratizzazione in Cina, lega come un sottile fil rouge
il Movimento del 4 maggio 1919 agli eventi che giungono fino al 4 giugno
1989. Quella modernità che, forse non è esattamente quella che Lu Xun e
la sua generazione agognavano ed auspicavano, è ormai stata conquistata.
La Cina ha ottenuto un posto di primo piano nello scacchiere
internazionale, eppure, leggendo il Cheng, si ha la sensazione che la vecchia
“mangiatrice di uomini” non abbia mai placato la sua fame, continuando a
mietere vittime ancora nel 1989 come già nel 1919.
Nell’ultimo ciclo, Gu Cheng manifesta nella sua Tian’anmen intima con
l’unico strumento di lotta di cui può disporre pienamente: la forza della sua
poesia. Questa piazza, nei 52 componimenti, non viene mai esplicitamente
menzionata seppure se ne si intuisce l’aura e la vicinanza. Xidan, Houhai e
altri dei luoghi che danno il titolo ad alcune delle poesie, si trovano nelle
sue immediate vicinanze. L’assenza di questo luogo, serve all’autore per
accrescerne la ‘risonanza semantica’. La tecnica usata funziona per il lettore
nel modo così descritto da Jacques Lacan:
Potremmo trovarvi un riferimento a ciò che la tradizione indù insegna intorno al
dhvani, in quanto vi distingue la proprietà della parola di far intendere quello
che non dice. E lo illustra con una storiella la cui ingenuità, che sembra di regola
in simili esempi, mostra abbastanza humour da indurci a penetrare la verità che
nasconde... Una ragazza, si dice, aspetta il suo innamorato sulla riva di un fiume,
e vede un bramino che vi si incammina. Va verso di lui ed esclama in tono di
amabilissima accoglienza: “Che fortuna oggi! Il cane che su questa riva vi
spaventava con i suoi latrati non ci sarà più, è stato appena divorato da un leone
che gira per i paraggi…” L’assenza del leone può dunque avere gli stessi effetti
del suo balzo che, quand’è presente, esso fa una sola volta (Lacan, 1972: 147).
La mancanza accresce la nostalgia nel poeta, e la nostalgia per la sua casa e
per la sua Cina sono caratteristiche della poesia di Gu Cheng.
Nello stesso periodo del Cheng, Gu lavora anche a un’altra raccolta, Gui
jin cheng 鬼进城 (Lo spirito entra in città), che include otto poesie, ciascuna, ad
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La Città di Gu Cheng
eccezione dell’ultima, intitolata a un giorno della settimana e preceduta da
cinque versi introduttivi.
Nell’articolo Ghosts in the city the Auckland exile of Yang Lian and Gu Cheng,
Hilary Chung (2012) descrive lo stretto rapporto contenutistico tra il Lo
spirito entra in città e Ying’er, l’unico romanzo scritto da Gu Cheng.
Chung fa poi notare che Lo spirito entra in città anticipa, per alcuni aspetti,
il Cheng, come se l’ossessività di alcune tematiche della sua esistenza
penetrasse inevitabilmente nelle sue opere. La prima analogia suggerita, è
che, entrambe, le opere trattano della perdita dell’amante. Un ulteriore
richiamo è nel titolo, nel quale si ritrova lo stesso gioco semantico in
riferimento al carattere cheng 城 (città) che è anche nome dell’autore. Questi
pochi indizi indicano una complementarietà tra le due opere.
La città in cui il fantasma entra, già dalla poesia intitolata Xingqi san 星期
三 (Mercoledì), secondo Chung, è Berlino, cioè lo stesso luogo in cui Gu
compone l’opera per quanto, alcuni dettagli, potrebbero far pensare, come
si vedrà, a una proiezione di Pechino, tuttavia, non esplicitata, essendo per
Gu Cheng oramai solo una realtà interiore.
L’altro punto di contatto è che Gu Cheng dipinge la città, in entrambe le
opere, attraverso i suoi ricordi. Nelle otto poesie non ci sono indizi specifici
che indichino una connotazione europea della città in cui arriva il fantasma,
colpiscono invece dei precisi richiami alla “cinesità”. Ciò si esplicita nella
presenza di immagini relative alla cultura e alla civiltà cinesi. Ad esempio, il
poeta menziona il figlio dell’imperatore che riceve abiti e oggetti d’uso
quotidiano invernali (Huangzi kaishi shou ta dongtian de yiwu). In Mercoledì
(Gu, 1995: 844) ed, ancora, in Xingqi er 星期二 (Martedì), si trova un
“aquilone” (fengzheng), oggetto inventato in Cina intorno al 400 a.C.
(Bernardini e Blundo, 2010: 30).
Riconducibili all’infanzia del poeta, trascorsa a Pechino, sono anche le
immagini di “pioppi”, “stelle” e “ciminiere” che Gu Cheng inserisce e
condensa nei due versi finali del penultimo componimento, intitolato Xingqi
ri 星期日 (Domenica), che recita:
Lontano stanno le stelle e ancora più lontano
Ci sono altre stelle è passato tanto tempo
Lui sa solamente che sopra le ciminiere c’è un diafano pioppo.
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Questi pochi versi richiamano tre componimenti giovanili di Gu Cheng:
Xingyue de laiyou 星月的来由 (L’origine della luna e delle stelle), Yancong 烟囱
(Camini)5, pure del 1968, e Songshu 松树(Pioppo)6 datata 1964. L’antologia
del poeta, curata dal padre, comincia proprio dal 1964 (Gu, 1995: 1-7) e, a
partire dalla prima pagina, riporta, nell’ordine, i seguenti componimenti:
Pigne, Pioppo, Crepuscolo, Camini, L’origine della luna e delle stelle. Le tre poesie
figurano in sequenza interrotte solo da Crepuscolo, che è un componimento
in quattro versi sulla caducità della vita umana, evidenziata per contrasto
con il carattere immutabile di alcuni fenomeni naturali, quali il sorgere e il
tramontare del sole, e che, quindi, assume un forte valore simbolico. Il
richiamo lessicale nel ciclo del 1992, potrebbe non essere casuale, ma, anche
ammettendo un’eventuale predilezione da parte dell’autore per le tre
immagini nell’arco di tutta la sua vasta produzione, potrebbe far pensare
che la scelta di una simile ‘agglomerazione’ non sia solo legata al gusto
personale, ma che, piuttosto, si sia realizzata per una questione di valenza e
di significato a livello connotativo, più che denotativo.
Pur rilevando dei dubbi sulla reale datazione dei primissimi
componimenti di Gu Cheng, avanzati da studiosi che farebbero riferimento
a delle “manomissioni” (Stafutti, 1998: 16-28), si può ritenere che le tre
poesie siano state scritte prima del 1969, l’anno in cui il poeta venne
allontanato da Pechino e mandato, con il padre, nello Shandong.
La deduzione si poggia su elementi di carattere contenutistico. È stato
evidenziato in Gu Cheng un cambiamento della sua concezione della
Natura in concomitanza con l’esperienza del confino. Per due dei
componimenti, il soggetto è riferito alla natura ed è trattato in modo
positivo e giocoso, molto simile alla modalità riscontrata in Fabre. A
proposito di Camini, che Stafutti traduce con Ciminiere, la studiosa racconta:
Nel corso del mio soggiorno pechinese, ho ricevuto dalle mani di una persona
molto prossima al poeta, [...] la copia di un lavoro teatrale manoscritto [...] con il
titolo forse provvisorio, di Gu Cheng he hei yanjing (Gu Cheng e gli occhi neri). Il
testo offre una ricostruzione della vita del poeta, dall’infanzia fino ai giorni del
tragico epilogo. [...] In una delle scene iniziali, la quinta, intitolata Chengdie shang
(Sugli spalti) viene offerta una cornice alla nascita di una delle primissime poesie
di Gu Cheng, peraltro assai felice, Ciminiere (1968): ragazzi delle Guardi Rosse
sono impegnati a trascinare via grandi blocchi dal muro di cinta della città5
Camini: I camini come giganti che si ergono sulla pianura,/ Guardano la terra
interamente disseminata di luci,/ Fumano senza sosta sigarette,/ Pensano a non si sa
quali faccende.
Pioppo: Ho perso un braccio,/ Ho aperto un occhio.
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La Città di Gu Cheng
allusione alla distruzione degli ultimi tratti delle antiche mura avvenuta negli
anni della rivoluzione culturale. Uno stormo di uccelli attraversa il cielo, un
bimbo siede sugli spalti e osserva le ciminiere. Poi prende un quaderno e inizia a
scrivere. Una guardia rossa lo apostrofa in malo modo: “Che cosa scrivi?” “Una
poesia.” “Che diavolo di poesia?! Fa’ vedere…” È il testo di Ciminiere. La guardia
rossa si arrabbia e prende a urlare: “Che cosa vuoi dire con questa poesia?” “Non
lo so, non lo so neanch’io…” La scena si chiude qui (Stafutti, 1998: 22-23).
Questa datazione induce a pensare che l’ambientazione dei componimenti e
delle scene che li hanno ispirati sia la città di Pechino, il luogo dell’infanzia
del poeta. Forse anche in questo ciclo, come nel Cheng, si potrebbe supporre
una commistione tra i due luoghi abitati dal poeta.
A Pechino e ad una data precisa, riportano anche alcuni elementi in
Xingqi wu 星期五 (Venerdì) dove si legge (Gu, 1995: 846):
Cinque cavalli cinque soldati
ritornano dal generale
Una scacchiera piatta piatta una scacchiera cinque eserciti
(Comunque muova lui non ha speranze)
Wu ge ma wu ge bing
Wang hui zou jiang
Ping pingping ping wu ge jun
(Ta zenme zou dou mei xiwang le)
In questi versi, si nota un abile gioco di allitterazioni e di richiami, che
produce musicalità. Risalta la ripetizione di ping al verso tre richiamato da
bing al verso 1. Ed ancora di “Wuge” ai versi 1 e 3 e, altrove, la consonanza
di “w”, in posizione iniziale nei versi 1 e 2 e quasi in fine dei versi 3 e 4. Se
le assonanze sono, di solito, un mezzo discreto per attrarre l’attenzione del
lettore su elementi significativi, in questo caso, gli elementi più in risalto
risulterebbero: Wu ge (cinque), e i due caratteri omofoni ma non omografi
ping (scacchiera/piatta) e, per l’allitterazione di “w”, anche xiwang (speranza).
Questi elementi risuonano nei brevi versi in maniera quasi ossessiva.
Riprendendo un commento di Gu Cheng, a proposito di un componimento
incluso nel Cheng, il ping (bottiglia) è omofono del carattere ping del nome di
Deng Xiaoping (Kubin, 1999: 34). Forse Gu Cheng, nel componimento
Venerdì, ricorre ancora una volta a questo stesso espediente, utilizzando
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dapprima un carattere omofono ma non omografo, ping (scacchiera), e poi,
svelando il trucco, facendo comparire lo stesso carattere contenuto nel
nome di Deng. Questo richiamo non sembrerebbe casuale. Altro elemento
che potrebbe ricondurre a Tian’anmen, è la presenza, nei due versi
precedenti, di termini utilizzati nel linguaggio militare: esercito, generale,
soldati. Più enigmatico pare il riferimento al numero “cinque”. Ci sono due
numeri proibiti in Cina che, in rete, per esempio, vengono oscurati se
digitati insieme e nella successione 6-4. I due numeri sono la data del 4
giugno che in cinese, si esprime con la sequenza liu si 6/4 in base alla
consuetudine cinese di esprimere le date ovvero: mese, giorno. Il numero 5
completa la serie sei, quattro. Gu potrebbe, quindi, suggerire, senza
adoperare parole che, in Cina, erano scomode allora come lo sono adesso, e
che sarebbero risultate ancora più scomode se uscite dalla sua penna.
Ricordando l’esempio di Lacan e della tigre, a proposito dell’omissione del
nome di Piazza Tian’anmen nel Cheng, si potrebbe pensare che, qui, l’autore
usi lo stesso espediente facendo pesare e notare l’omissione.
Inoltre, ne Lo spirito entra in città ricorre l’idea della “morte” che diventa
motivo dominante suggerito sin dal titolo. Gui 鬼, in Cina, sono gli spiriti
degli uomini dopo la morte, spiega Claude Larre:
Tutto quanto si muove e si manifesta in Cielo, in Terra e nella società degli
uomini e nel loro corteo, costituito da Diecimila esseri dell’Universo, appartiene
agli Spiriti. Gli Shen sono gli Spiriti propri del Cielo e delle costellazioni. I Qi
sono gli Spiriti differenziati della Terra: Spiriti dei Monti e dei Mari, dei Fiumi e
dei Laghi, delle Pianure e delle Paludi e, più in generale, di tutte le
conformazioni del suolo. Si chiamano Gui gli spiriti degli uomini dopo la morte...
Gli Shen sono nobili e attivi come il Cielo, i Qi sono comuni e docili come la terra,
i Gui sono in movimento come la vita degli uomini finché non trovano un luogo
di riposo... Gli spiriti degli uomini, durante il tempo della vita quaggiù sono di
due tipi:alcuni provengono dal Cielo, altri dalla Terra. Gli Shen venuti dal Cielo,
per tutto il tempo che risiedono in un essere vivente, cambiano nome e statuto e
ne formano le anime Hun. Gli elementi essenziali che provengono dalla Terra,
per il periodo in cui abitano in un uomo vivente, formano le anime Po... Gli Hun,
le anime superiori degli uomini viventi, sono gli animatori del flusso della vita e
si contrappongono ai Po, anime inferiori, la cui funzione è quella di presiedere
alla vita vegetativa [...] Occorre tracciare un percorso coerente che permetta di
collegare tra loro i diversi Spiriti: gli Shen si ritrovano in un individuo come Hun;
gli Hun si congiungono ai Po per garantire l’animazione completa di questo
individuo. Alla morte, i Po si dissolvono e tornano alla Terra da cui provengono,
gli Hun scappano e cercano di ritornare al Cielo “fissandosi” sulla discendenza
degli antenati. Li si aiuta con dei sacrifici riservati al culto degli antenati. I Gui
segnano il ritorno degli Hun e dei Po quando non riescono a trovare il loro luogo
di riposo (Larre, 2009: 48).
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La Città di Gu Cheng
La morte è uno dei temi centrali di questo ciclo. Chung sottolinea come in
Domenica, essa venga contemplata direttamente, e come il poeta parli come
se fosse già morto. Insieme alla morte, nel ciclo figurano anche richiami a
scene di violenza evidenti già in Mercoledì, la stessa poesia in cui il fantasma
fa il suo ingresso in quella “città”.
In entrambi i cicli, ricorre l’immagine del “fiore”, in entrambi viene
riproposta l’immagine degli scacchi (presente anche nel Cheng), e la
tipologia di violenza che vi si ritrova, si configura come una costante di tutta
la produzione poetica di Gu Cheng nel periodo 1989-1993:
[Venerdì] comincia con una rivisitazione di una precedente intimazione di
violenza, nella quale il fantasma, lui e la persona sono portate in una tesa
vicinanza “spinge” (tuī) viene richiamato dal “indietreggia” (tuì). La
trasformazione surreale delle focacce, non più parte di ogni quotidiana
normalità drammatizza la precarietà dell’esistenza. L’azione di leggere ad alta
voce ne diventa la rappresentazione in cui l’autore prende il centro del palco, e
si trasforma in un gioco di scacchi impossibile da vincere. [...] “Egli” e il fantasma
continuano la loro alternanza in Sabato dove gli eserciti della scacchiera si
trasformano [...] “egli” diventa la vittima della violenza, richiamando Martedì
(Chung, 2012).
Seguono, nell’analisi di Chung, i richiami alla fine della storia d’amore con
Li Ying, centro dell’attenzione del poeta, mentre il “rosso”, colore simbolo
della rivoluzione e dell’amore, risulta dalla trasformazione di un iniziale
colore verde che, nell’analisi proposta è il colore dell’esercito, ma anche dei
boccioli prima che diventino fiori. Sempre in Sabato, la città nella quale si
avventura il fantasma, appare distrutta, così come distrutta è la città del
ciclo Cheng.
Nell’epilogo de Lo spirito entra in città, il fantasma sceglie di non diventare
un uomo. Il componimento conclusivo si intitola Qingming shijie 清明时节
(La Festa dei morti). Chung mette in evidenza come la relazione tra antenati e
vivi venga interrotta perché i riti non vengono celebrati e lo spirito si ritrova
solo, senza famiglia, nel limbo tra vita e morte. Scrive Larre: “Il culto serve
a favorire l’ascesa delle anime Hun al Cielo, tramite la dissoluzione
completa delle anime Po, a spegnere i Gui” (Larre, 2009: 49).
Gu comunica, quindi, al lettore di sentirsi come uno spirito Gui, errante
per il mondo, ma in esilio da esso. Non c’è nessuno che possa o voglia
aiutarlo a sopravvivere, poiché i riti in onore degli antenati erano finalizzati
a garantire la sopravvivenza delle anime.
Sin da questo ciclo, così come l’autore ribadirà nel Cheng, si delinea con
chiarezza il quadro che il poeta dipinge di sé. Uno scenario segnato da
immagini di violenza, solitudine, isolamento e morte. Gu Cheng dipinge un
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autoritratto interiore utilizzando l’unica tecnica rappresentativa che gli è
propria: la poesia. Ancora una volta l’epilogo del ciclo non lascia speranze.
Chung (2012) afferma che l’autore (che è insieme “egli” e lo “spirito” nel
poema), è esiliato dalla sua patria, dal suo “regno” personale, dopo la fuga
della giovane amante, dalla vita stessa verso la quale intermediario era la
moglie, Xie Ye, la quale parlava inglese, guidava, aveva imparato a usare il
computer, col quale trascriveva i componimenti del marito. Anche la “città”
interiore, surrogato che aveva cercato invano di creare come alternativa a
quella “città” che era sua e dalla quale si era allontanato dopo il 4 giugno
1989, era stata, seppure non ancora completamente distrutta ne Lo spirito
entra in città, almeno stravolta. Così lo spirito che si aggira in essa è
tristemente destinato, e sceglie da sè di non reincarnarsi e, senza i dovuti
sacrifici da parte dei vivi, di andare incontro ad una tragica fine. Così come
tragico e volontario sarà l’epilogo della vita dell’autore l’8 ottobre 1993.
L’accostamento tra i due cicli permette di evidenziare, pur se su scala
diversa, alcuni elementi che l’autore ripropone in entrambi: il tema della
perdita dell’amata che sancisce il fallimento del “regno delle sorelle” sul
modello del Sogno della camera rossa e diventa espressione della mancanza di
un luogo che possa costituire o ricostituire, per Gu Cheng, una “città”, un
luogo in cui tornare alla vita (aspetto che nel Cheng prenderà la più precisa
connotazione della perdita di Pechino). Soprattutto, ricorre in entrambi i
cicli (ma si tratta di una costante in tutta la produzione che va dal 1989 al
1993), il riferimento a violenza e morte che, insieme ai riferimenti politici,
riporta il pensiero agli scontri del 4 giugno e non ad altri eventi per alcune
ragioni principali: in primo luogo, il richiamo all’esercito e al colore verde
delle divise militari (che si fonde poi con l’immagine floreale, legata sì
all’amore, ma anche al concetto di “ferita”); quindi, Tian’anmen. Gli scontri
e la relativa protesta attuata da Gu Cheng, hanno segnato l’inizio dell’esilio
e, pertanto, la reale perdita della patria e della “casa”, intesa come luogo
degli affetti, come ‘focolare’, come luogo dell’infanzia al quale ogni cinese è
legato, oltre che culturalmente, anche ritualmente come è stato evidenziato
dall’accenno al legame simbiotico col passato che il culto degli antenati
simboleggia. Lo spirito sceglie di non reincarnarsi così come Gu sceglie di
non rientrare in patria, dopo il 4 giugno, e dopo la protesta organizzata con
Yang Lian.
La patria viene rifiutata dal poeta anche in questo ciclo così come già
aveva fatto nella vita reale, e la consapevolezza dell’incapacità di
sopravvivere senza queste “radici”, è comunicata qui molto più chiaramente
che nel Cheng. L’immagine complessiva che si ricava delle due opere è
quella di un’irreversibile, violenta e totale distruzione interiore: uno
scenario apocalittico che rivela l’incapacità dell’autore di vivere nella Cina
moderna così come nel moderno Occidente. Il suo talento letterario, come
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La Città di Gu Cheng
una condanna, lo obbliga a dare forma di poesia a questa sua
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Allen, Joseph R. (2005). Sea of dreams, the selected writings of Gu Cheng. New
York, NY: A New Directions Book.
Bernardini Gabriella, Tullia Anna Maria Blundo. (2010). Flying About. Milano: Hoepli.
Chung, Hilary. (2012). “Ghosts in the city the Auckland exile of Yang Lian
and Gu Cheng.” Ka Mate Ka Ora. New Zealand electronic poetry centre
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Crippen, Aaron. (2005). Nameless Flowers. New York, NY: George Braziller.
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店 Shanghai Sanlian shudian.
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interviews, recollections and unpublished material of Gu Cheng, twentiewthcentury Chinese poet, the poetics of death, 21-34. Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press.
Kubin, Wolfgang. (1999). “Fragments: Remembering Gu Cheng and Xie
Ye.” In Xia Li, ed., Essays, interviews, recollections and unpublished material
of Gu Cheng, twentiewth-century Chinese poet, the poetics of death, 247-270.
Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press.
Lacan, Jacques. (1972). La cosa Freudiana. Torino: Einaudi.
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Li, Xia. (1999). “Gu Cheng’s Ying’er: A Journey to the West.” In X. Li, ed.,
Essays, interviews, recollections and unpublished material of Gu Cheng, twentiewth-century Chinese poet, the poetics of death, 61-75. Lampeter: The Edwin
Mellen Press.
Li, Xia. (1999). “All my flowers are dream flowers: the role of nature in Gu
Cheng’s poetry an prose.” In X. Li, ed., Essays, interviews, recollections and
unpublished material of Gu Cheng, twentiewth-century Chinese poet, the poetics of
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Marinoni Mingazzini Rosa, Lucia Salmoiraghi. (1992). A mirror of the times.
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Tamburello, Giuseppa, ed. (1998). Canto. Milano: Libri Schweiwiller.
Wang, Yuechuan. (1999). “A perspective on the suicide of Chinese poets in
1990s.” In Xia Li, ed., Essays, interviews, recollections and unpublished material of Gu Cheng, twentiewth-century Chinese poet, the poetics of death, 77-95.
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Zhang-Kubin, Suizi. (1999). “‘The aimless I’- An interview with Gu Cheng.”
In Xia Li, ed., Essays, interviews, recollections and unpublished material of Gu
Cheng, twentiewth-century Chinese poet, the poetics of death, 335-340. Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press.
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ABSTRACT. This study proposes to view the postcolonial city as a fugitive, manifold, heterogeneous, impermanent and textualised site, interwoven with the metaphorically and literally
tectonic forces of cultural discourse (of political, historical, personal or literary origin), which
can be found in a constant process of collision, bringing about dichotomised displacements,
palimpsestic fusions and emergences of hybrid or protean forms. The paper’s perspective
builds heavily on the tradition of post-structuralist thought as it problematizes the arbitrariness
of cultural belief-systems, showing: how the city and self mould each other changing both
cityscapes and personalities; how English is accepted, rejected or appropriated under the
influence of a postmodern urban environment marked by colonialism; how the clash between
the styles of discourse in the East and West perpetuate or create new traditions; how corruption, cultural imperialism and sensationalism might lead, in turn, to war, cultural dominance,
contradiction or globalization, protean forms and polyphony; and how migrants create fictions
to connect with their pasts and future. Within this approach, special concern is given to hybridity’s modes of operation and to their role in shaping both place and identity. Interactions
between urban experience and personal destiny are analysed through the prism of the postmodern, postcolonial novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie, chosen for its
representative status within these currents, and for its adherence to the norms of historiographic metafiction and postcolonial life-writing, allowing insight into the political exploration
of conceptions of subjectivity, history and modes of writing through the personal perspective of
the migrant.
KEY WORDS: postcolonial city, tectonics of discourse, hybridity, third space, fictionalised
At the present moment, the modern and postmodern city’s mode of existence has come to be characterized by sociology, human geography and architectural theory as fugitive, manifold, heterogeneous, impermanent and
textualised. The unknowability and avant-garde behaviour of the city has
prompted many to consider it as a sovereign semiotic system or as a text,
and, probably competing only with film, literature has quickly taken on the
task of transposing the city’s shifting infrastructure onto the platforms of
TIMEA VENTER (MA) studies comparative literature at Babeș-Bolyai University in
Cluj-Napoca, Romania, and is affiliated with the Centre for the Study of Religion within Emanuel University of Oradea. Her research interests include post-structuralist and
post-colonial theory, narratology, postmodernism, magical realism and hypertextuality. E-mail: [email protected]
CAESURA 1.2 (2014)
poetry and narrative. The metropolis looms especially large in the novel,
which has generously given space and new modes of expression for all places or urban encounter, having held with the city through all of its different
stages of development and regional happenings. From the days of the industrially blooming and inhumanely menacing London of Dickens, the
spectacle of Paris and the neurosis of Saint Petersburg, the city has come a
long way through the eclectic streetscapes of Woolf and Joyce, to arrive at
the simulacrum-London of Barnes and the magically-real, postcolonial
realm of Rushdie. Such a route is so epic in proportions and styles that exploring it would exceed beyond hope the limits of the present study. However, for the understanding of the most recent, globalized and post-colonial
form of the metamorphosing metropolis, some emphasis will be placed on
the continuity between the modern and postmodern idea of freedom in
urban space and its production of hybrid forms that cross the frontiers of
established dichotomies of culture and identity. For this aspect has continued to be cherished and rethought through the works of Baudelaire, Döblin and Wilde, up to the present of Saramago, Calvino or Murakami, proposing and questioning new, both liberating and conflicting practices of
living together in the megalopolis of the many.
This study proposes to view the postcolonial city as a site interwoven
with the metaphorically and literally tectonic forces of cultural discourses (of
political, historical, personal or literary origin), which can be found in a
constant process of collision bringing about dichotomised displacements,
palimpsestic fusions and emergences of hybrid or protean forms. The paper’s perspective builds heavily on the tradition of post-structuralist
thought, bearing in mind the arbitrariness of all cultural belief-systems and
maintaining the idea that their structure as well as their legitimacy, along
with their “right to the real”, may always be called to question. In accordance with such an angle to urban discourses, special concern shall be given
to hybridity’s modes of operation and to their role in shaping both place
and identity.
After laying down the foundations for an analysis of the fugitive “word
city” of postmodern becoming, and for the tectonics of its functioning, resulting collisions will be analysed through the prism of the postmodern,
postcolonial novel of Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet1. The
choice for this work over so many others stems, first of all, from its welldefined stance within the current. What is presented as a general trend in
The Empire Writes Back describes this book as well:
Abbreviated in references as TGBHF.
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Great Metropolitan Creations
the postmodern projects of deconstructing Master narratives, unsettling binaries
and admitting marginalised knowledges, follow closely the objectives of the postcolonial critical project. Similarly, these various perspectives are conjoined in
their attention to the relationship between discourse and power, the socially constituted and fragmented subject and the unruly politics of signification—the
workings of irony, parody, mimicry (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin, 2002: 117).
In addition, the novel’s adherence to the norms of historiographic metafiction and postcolonial life-writing signals that it allows for the political exploration of conceptions of subjectivity, history and modes of writing through
the personal perspective of the migrant, making it eligible for the study of
the interactions between urban experience and personal destiny.
In the book’s first half we encounter the destinies of the Cama and Merchant families, unfolding upon the changing grounds of post-independence
Bombay, while in the second part we can follow the three main characters,
Rai, Vina and Ormus, as they flee Bombay to manifold Manhattan, seeking
self, love, success and home through different forms of art (song, photography and literature). Their experience is indicative of the migrants’ way of
life in the modern and postmodern metropolis, otherwise there would have
been no point to writing either the novel, or this analysis. However, we
must always bear in mind the subjectivity of an author and the uniqueness
of personal perspective. As Rushdie has explained in Shame, “My story, my
fictional country exists, like myself, at a slight angle to reality” (1984: 29).
Placing the migrant’s situation outright on the level of a general human
condition might signal an inclination towards the very (grand) narratives
one wishes to subvert—therefore, we must always bear in mind the arbitrary
literary perspective of the well-to-do Indian immigrant, brought up and
educated in the liberal, postmodernist Western tradition, and from that, of
one particular “specimen”, too.
The division of topics is thematically structured around the collisions
produced by the tectonics of city and identity over the tectonics of mentality, of the vernacular, of politics and of fiction. It shall be discussed how conflicts evolve inside each area, resulting in displacements and hybridizations
that seem to resolve or perpetuate the clash between opposing forces. Thus,
it will be shown how the city and self mould each other changing both cityscapes and personalities, how English is accepted, rejected or appropriated
under the influence of a postmodern urban environment marked by colonialism, how the clash between the styles of discourse in the East and West
perpetuate or create new traditions, how corruption, cultural imperialism
and sensationalism might lead, in turn, to war, cultural dominance, contradiction or to globalization, protean forms and polyphony, and how migrants create fictions to connect with their pasts and future. In the novel,
creating fictions of one kind or another, along with writing, is posited as a
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legitimate way of access to the multiplicity of experience: the narrator Rai
chooses interpretation over silence, digging freely into people and the real.
But it is important not to forget that such “imaginary homelands” are but
erratic constructs, and we might easily find that “our world is no more than
a vision in some other accidental individual’s damaged eye” (TGBHF, 437).
Premises for Discussing the City
Taking a look at studies of urban environment from the areas of sociology,
human geography and literature, we can find certain common conceptions
about the modern and postmodern city that show how the legacy of modernity’s radical changes to the structure of urban experience has evolved
within the contemporary metropolis. As a first characteristic of the city’s
mode of existence, its unknowability remains a key aspect. According to
Fritzsche, this feature generally reflects the modern impermanence of identity and the undermining of “grand designs and meanings” (1998: 44). The
modern novel of the city, as Joyce’s Ulysses, can be mapped, charted and
documented. Yet, it eludes fixity by its anachronisms, willed or unwilled
incongruences and the mingling of fictional and real-world material. In this
genre, as Fritzsche notes, “the [accommodation] of the city’s disharmony…
discontinuity, dissociation, and unpredictability steadily overruled the orderings of plot and narrative” (1998: 37). However, Joyce’s textual displacements prove more eclectic and avant-garde in style than Rushdie’s,
since the latter explores the mysteries of city life through elaborately developed stories and ideas. We find, just as in the case of Leopold Bloom, that
for Rai, the city “by showing me everything it told me nothing”, it “was expressionistic, it screamed at you, but it wore a domino mask.”
Furthermore, urban reality is manifold, as the same place can mean different sites for different people. Just as the Dublin of the Citizen (the nationalist), Bloom (the outsider) and Stephen (the would-be exile) can never
be the same, Ameer’s (the modernising architect), Darius’ (pro-empire) or
Vina’s (the migrant) Bombay can significantly diverge.
In addition, the urban environment is the realm of heterogeneity.
Barthes defines the city centre as “the privileged place where the other is
and where we ourselves are the other, as the place where we play the other”, as a “ludic space” of meeting (Barthes, 1971/2005: 171). According to
Doreen Massey, in postmodernity “we recognise space as the product of
interrelations, as constituted through interactions, from the immensity of
the global to the intimately tiny” (Massey, 2008: 9). In this manner, Rushdie’s “impure old Bombay” accommodates eastern and western thought, a
variety of languages and religions, discourses and ideas, demonstrating the
incongruity of postmodernist experience just as modernist literary experimentations build on the “fast-paced industrial city” (Fritzsche, 1998: 9). But
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the postmodern city is the global city, characterised by “Late Capitalism’s
accumulative ways; such as spectacular sites of consumption, architectural
pastiche, gentrified neighbourhoods and manufacturing sites reinvented as
tourist destinations” (Jacobs, 2002: .31). Such a site, as often as it welcomes
multiplicity, is wrecked by the differences it accommodates, leading, for
example, to segregation based on racial or economic markers in the West,
as well as political and ethnic conflicts pinpointed by Rushdie on numerous
occasions in The Ground Beneath Her Feet and other works.
Along with being unknowable and heterogeneous, the modern and
postmodern city bears the mark of impermanence. Fritzsche talks about
Berlin’s (and other modern cities’) “changing physiognomy, its tables of
contrasts, and its loss of coherence” being the result of the oversaturated
universe and fast-paced changes of its architecture and infrastructure, and
political and media discourses (Fritzsche, 1998: 189). Similarly, summing up
the debate over postmodern space, Doreen Massey defines it as something
“always under construction”. The Ground Beneath Her Feet demonstrates that
permanence is just an illusion, affirming that “Bombay forgets its history
with each sunset and rewrites itself anew with the coming of the dawn”—the
uncertainties caused by the process of its modernization mean that “the
ground itself seemed uncertain, the land, the physical land, seemed to cry
out for reconstruction, and before you took a step you had to test the earth
to see if it would bear your weight” (TGBHF, 62). The “grandeur of Rome”,
of Empire, will fade, making way for a gigantic building site of residences
and identities.
The city is, in like manner, good at blurring the boundaries between fiction and reality. In Fritzsche’s view, at the heyday of the modern era the
popularity of newspapers has come to create a “word city”, “a fabrication
that overlaid, sensationalised, and falsified the actual city” (1998: 10). Play
with such word-cities is easily observable in Joyce’s novel through “Aeolus”,
“Cyclops”, “Eumaeus” and other chapters. One can navigate the city quite
in the way one reads a newspaper, and in Barthes’ view, the city can be
pursued as a text: “when we move about a city, we are all in the situation of
the reader of the 100,000 million poems of Quenean, where one can find a
different poem by changing a single line; unawares, we are somewhat like
this avant-garde reader when we are in a city” (Barthes, 1971/2005: 170).
Fritzsche calls it “an act of rereading and re-writing”, as texts and paths
overlap and collide (1998: 173). The modern flaneour is he “who doesn’t
walk in straight lines”—Rai and Ormus try this in Bombay and London,
looking for “the real” but finding only ungraspable diversity. This palimpsestic structure and interactivity figure in The Ground Beneath Her Feet in the
way Ameer reconstructs the “syntax” of the metropolis, erasing earlier
forms, and in the way Rai writes about the literary melange that is Bombay,
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insde the register of intertextuality. Here stories and storeys are linked inextricably as new villas rewrite history—the vocabulary of urbanism and literature get mixed up as we read of stories with “No Entry” signs building
judgements and lives. For Doreen Massey, stories of space unite “the history, change, movement of things” in an area, space being defined as “a simultaneity of stories-so-far” (2008: 12). In Rushdie’s Bombay, “the stories
jostled you in the street, you stepped over their sleeping forms on the sidewalks or in the doorways”—it is a “metropolis of many narratives that converged briefly and then separated for ever, discovering their different
dooms in that crows of stories” (TGBHF, 52).
In The Ground Beneath Her Feet, the postmodern metropolis, as space defined by “simultaneity of stories-so-far”, contains some utterly erased, depersonalized and ahistorical zones, which appear mainly around the character of Ormus Cama. In Marc Auge’s theory, expressed in Non-places. Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (1995), this contrast can be explained using the notions of anthropological place and non-space. In anthropological place a ‘concrete and symbolic construction of space’ occurs; it
is a place, in short, of identity, of relations and of history, and could be
summed up with the equation: land=society=nation=culture=religion. Its
territory is geometric in that it can be mapped and centralities are created
within it (buildings, squares, town centres, plus figures of political power).
Moreover, social interactions are constant in this environment—it is the
place of the metropolis in all its unknowable, ever-changing heterogeneity,
in short. ‘Non-place’, on the other hand, is a term that refers to the places
we so often encounter in postmodernity: hospitals, transit points, airports,
supermarkets, refugee camps and hotels, theme parks, temporary abodes,
highways and the like. These places do not tend towards the symbolic, as
anthropological places do, and are solitary: no communities or human
bonds are formed in non-places. They are, in a sense, settings one would
not remember distinctly and attach great personal significance to: they cannot be defined as concerned with identity, or as being relational or historical.
Neither exists in pure form, as Vivvy and Ameer Merchant are capable
of transforming their chance meeting at the maternity hospital into an epic
beginning of family history. Ormus is an inhabitant of both realms (and a
link between the “real” world of the fiction and its Underworld)—he is a
negotiator and metaphor for both Bombay and Manhattan life, a global
icon of pop-mythology, as well as a solitary figure hidden in his hotel suite
of “white hectares”, in “unworldly cleanliness and order and barrenness”
(TGBHF, 516). After losing Vina, he completely gives himself up to this
nothingness, occupying only transitory spaces like hotel rooms, limousines
and stadium environments. The erased locations might serve to reflect his
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despair in the face of lost love, being the befitting territories of his voluntarily segregated inner self. His white hell might retain an illusion of continuity through homogeneity against the hurtful transientness of human life
(TGBHF, 559). The novel demonstrates that all those who give up on
change and hope end up in a similar inferno, as is the case of Darius, Persis,
Vivvy and Cyrus (inhabiting the non-space of a prison). Ormus is assassinated by the supposedly dead Vina (killed in a non-place, having been swallowed by the earth itself) at the only occasion he chooses to go outside—the
whiteness of snow and emptiness is made to dominate the otherwise busy
New York streets, turning it into a “ghost-town” suitable for Orpheus’ final
The Tectonics of Discourses
Inside such palimpsestic word-cities of unpredictability, multiplicity, heterogeneity and impermanence, forces of tectonic magnitudes operate and
bring about historical, territorial, political and personal collisions, undermining structures and discourses of permanence. Vassilena Parashkekova,
in her study on Rushdie’s cities, outlines the metaphorical and architectural
origins of the term tectonics, along with its processes and effects. The
changing of “geohistorical accumulations” is achieved with a practice of
“counterdiscoursive urban reconfigurations”, subversive, eruptive, mobilizing forces that reveal the gaps, absurdities and contradictions of dominant
discourses (2013: 17). In the universe of the novel, the fight between stability (set up by the normative forces of civilization) and instability (the “wolf of
change”) remains eternal and unresolved, announcing “our inner irreconcilability, the tectonic contradictoriness that has gotten us all and has commenced to rip us to pieces like the unstable earth itself” (TGBHF, 339).
The novel looks beyond the dichotomy between dominant discourses
and the ones that seek to undermine them, demonstrating that their tectonic movements might result in fusions as well as replacements. It shall be
seen how collisions and earthquakes (literal and allegorical) bring about the
blending of the Self and the Other by merging city with identity, by the use
of interlanguage, by introducing the character of the hybrid, by perpetual
metamorphoses, by contamination as a result of cultural imperialism flowing “both ways” and by bridging gaps between universes with the help of
art. The personification of fusion in the character of Vina can be everything
all at once in Ormus’s song: “my ground, my favourite sound, my country
road, my city street, my only love, my sky above and the ground beneath
my feet” (TGBHF, 475).
All manners of discursive worlds are in a state of collision and fusion
with one another, counting in the registers of politics, of media, identity
and art. Even the reality of the real is questioned through a multitude of
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alternative worlds, real and fictional at the same time. It is a realm where
Pierre Menard wrote Don Quijote and the Waltergate Affair is just a novel,
and where the Otherworld of Ormus and America/India coexist with equal
rights. As Rachel Trousdale explains, “real events in our world are transformed into fiction… as our fiction becomes Rai’s world’s truth, so our truth
becomes their fiction, and each world enacts the possible-world scenarios
imagined in the other” (Trousdale, 2010: 153).
The Metropolis and the Self
The city and its inhabitants are inseparably linked through the tectonics of
belonging and drifting away, signalled by the use of language and by other
cultural, historical and fictional discourses. Changes to the city have immediate impact upon the lives of its citizens: “You can’t just keep dividing and
slicing—India-Pakistan, Maharashtra-Gujarat—without the effects being felt
at the level of the family unit, the loving couple, the hidden soul. Everything starts shifting, changing, getting partitioned… People fly off into
space” (TGBHF, 164). These connections are playfully emphasized by the
narrator’s name, Rai, which means prince, but also desire, “a man’s personal inclination, the direction he chose to go in; and will, the force of a man’s character” (TGBHF, 18). The city of Bombay contains shelters built on Olympian
heights of old belvederes filled with family memories like the Camas’
apartment or Rai’s Villa Thracia. Some can even try to “command the wildness of the city”, as Ormus attempts, but the main flow of events in the novel points to the willed or unwilled uprootedness of its characters. They
jump readily or are forced into negotiating the unstable geographical and
discursive grounds of the metropolis and the self. Territory and self intersect as Rai’s morally questionable founding of his reputation is parallel to
the building of Indian independence through corrupted politics: “In this
quaking, unreliable time, I have built my house—morally speaking—upon
shifting Indian sands. Terra infirma” (TGBHF, 244). Further on in the
novel, his efforts of making up for this by throwing himself into war-time
photography are never proven to have given absolution.
Likewise, Vina finds herself in a situation where places constantly collide
with her self-image: “the right place was always the one she wasn’t in… she
could (she did) unaccountably take flight and disappear; and then discover
that the new place she’d reached was just as wrong as the place she’d left”
(TGBHF, 163). Her story is likened to the myth of Troy, full of loss and
perpetual destruction of both home and identity, so that “[Chickaboom] was
her first Troy. Bombay would be her second, and the rest of her life her
third; and wherever she went, there was war” (TGBHF, 110).
Humans and the geographies they inhabit are indicative of each other
on other levels as well. As the historian Vivvy Merchant explains, “see
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where people lived and worked and shopped… and it becomes plain what
they were like” (TGBHF, 80). But beside the historian’s method of speculation over facts pointing to character, the relationship between places and
their dwellers can also be fruitfully explored based on the premise that
people and their city function according to similar rhythms.
In The Ground Beneath Her Feet, conflicts between the growing new Bombay and the shrinking old one are extrapolated and illustrated through
tragi-comically presented human relationships. Ameer and Vivvy Merchant’s marriage begins with their love for Bombay, flourishes on its sustenance and ends with the city’s decline into infrastructural conflict. Their
first meeting at the neutral non-space of the hospital flowers into an understanding based on androgynic correspondences that point to the anthropological, past-and meaning-filled Bombay: both bear the traditional name of
Merchant and both are architects, although they represent two opposing
sides of interest in built environment. As a historian, Vivvy is pulled towards
archaeology and “[prefers] the mustinesses of records offices to the unfathomable messiness of Bombay life” (TGBHF, 32), digging into people
through real and metaphoric sand like his son Rai does though photography and writing. Preoccupied with the conservation of memories and the
perpetuation of the older and locally characteristic eastern art nouveau
style, he collides head on with the postmodernist visions of his wife Ameer,
who is always to be found out at the construction sites, supervising the
building of the “discourse of the future” (“my mother Ameer’s vision of the
“scrapers”, the giant concrete-and-steel exclamations that destroyed forever
the quieter syntax of the old city of Bombay”, 154). She is intent on designing and building skyscrapers, palimpsestically imposing them upon (the
preferably erased) ground Vivvy strives so hard to preserve. Their conflict
brews into a force so powerful as to destroy their relationship completely,
just as Bombay is rocketed towards the height of its boom of transformations. The nonresolvability of this collision is illustrated by the couple’s
fight over the keeping or selling of their own home, in the face of a ruthlessly pushy private urban development project. The tragic outcome of their
separation is just as much a family drama as an open elegy addressed to the
human and infrastructural casualties of urban change.
The novel flaunts numerous characters comparable to Vivvy and Ameer
in their obsession with place. Sir Darius Xerxes Cama is a dignitary of the
“old order”, a “relic of colonialism”, deeply Anglophilic and opposed to any
change to his hometown: “Anyway, Bombay isn’t India. The British built
her and the Parsis have her character. Let them have their independence
elsewhere if they must, but leave us our Bombay under beneficient ParsiBritish rule” (TGBHF, 49). By incorporating English elements into his life
he feels “as if he were entering into his better nature”, and his “thing-
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stuffed” apartment and preoccupations with the systematization of IndoEuropean mythological heritage signal the stability he covets. Any attempt
at change seems to harass him, including the whole idea of an actually existing new generation, embodied in his sons. His resistance to independence is
the same as his resistance to his son’s new music, both linked in the novel to
“ourselves as they might be”. Against the uncertainty of hope and the unknown of the future he sets up the idea of the Empire, the eternal grandeur
of Rome his name is such a boldly self-advertising pun on. Preserving colonialism in an attitude of mimicry is what defines his character, so that his
utterly confused and debasing decline is inevitably concurrent with the decline of English Rule. After the moment of Independence, he is transferred
into his own theorized social class of the outsider: he is rejected both by his
dreamland of England because of the shifting ground he has built his reputation on, and by his homeland Bombay due to the shifting ground of its
Another technique fiction can make use of in order to probe into the relations between people and the territory they inhabit is the metaphor of the
human as a city, and of the city as human (less explored, but it is mentioned
that Bombay is an “old lady” or a daughter to some). Disorientations that
occur are formulated so as to refer to both territory and relationships, signalling a fusion of the two, as in the case of the love of Vina for Ormus:
“Disorientation: loss of the East. And of Ormus Cama, her sun” (TGBHF,
5). As what regards individuals, they are often presented in urban/geographic terms: Darius Cama appears as a “great metropolitan creation of the British” along with Bombay, his corpore getting “stark raving
insano” as Bombay loses its stability, while “beneath V.V. Merchant’s shyness… [there is] the existence of a great soul… a rock upon which, as
[Ameer] afterwards liked blasphemously to boast, she could build her
church” (TGBHF, 33). In the same style, Vivvy regards Ameer as a metropolis, referring to “her fortifications, her esplanades, her traffic-flow, her new
developments, her crime rate” (TGBHF, 100). It is said of Ormus, too, that
“his name, his face, became part of the definition of the city in that departed
heyday” (TGBHF, 181), referring to Bombay, and, at the end, his ashes are
scattered over Manhattan in a ritual that unites him in body with the site of
his spirit’s unfolding. In plus, at the end of the novel Persis becomes the
personification of the sweet memory of India and Bombay, elegiacally
begged by Rai to remain as she once was: “Stay where you are, Persis…
don’t move a muscle. Don’t age, don’t change… I want to think of you this
way: eternal, unchanging, immortal” (TGBHF, 573). The metaphors and
exemplary stories are elaborated under the banner of the previously established premise of the city as a site of continuous change, where shifting
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places mark out the contours of shifting selves within a tectonics problematizing stability and bringing about palimpsestic collisions.
The Use of English
Linguistically calibrated tectonic forces wreak havoc on a use of English
performed according to academic norms or native formulae. The Empire
Writes Back (2002) systematizes such movements by postulating that from
the perspectives of postcolonial discourse, English is not only either directly
adopted or rejected as a whole, but also strategically appropriated through
the techniques of synecdoche, untranslated words, the use of interlanguage,
syntactic fusion, code-switching and vernacular transcription. By this process, presenting new situations and different ways of structuring the world
through the dismantled language of the centre can become a formalized
expression of the need to “[mark] a separation from the site of colonial privilege” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin, 2002: 37-52) and to replace the “syntax of ethnic purity” (Rushdie, 1991: 285) with the “syntax of emancipation”
(Rushdie, 1991: 291).
In the novel, the transcription of Yul Singh’s or Shri Piloo Doodhwala’s
speeches demonstrates the use of all the above-mentioned techniques for
the appropriation of English. Singh modifies conventional syntax in such a
manner that his speech generates an unpredictably flowing and wandering
text. Under the aegis of a personality defined by urgency both in words and
deeds, extra information is added to an otherwise syntactically correct sentence at random points: “I owe everything personally to my own lovely wife
who unfortunately she’s not accompanying me on this trip” (TGBHF, 188)
or “I fly to Bombay to see my sweet old mother who god bless her I’ve now
left out there” (TGBHF, 187). Along with “proper” grammar, punctuation
also often gives his babble the slip. Despite this excess, his communications
prove to be deeply lacunal: direct answers are eluded and intentions remain
hidden as he beats around the bush, so that crucial information and meanings in connection with his persona are difficult to get to both for other
characters and for the reader. Owing to all these, it becomes clear how his
self-proclaimed “clean tongue” is discredited not only by swearwords, but
by a dismantled language. In addition, his name gets to be played with on
the phonetic level: combining “Yul” with the dignified reference to the traditional Sikh addition of “Singh” meaning lion results in the thematically
motivated and sharply ironic label of “you’ll sing”. Bearing this in mind, it
can be argued that the appropriation of English in the case of Yul manifests
twists that leave marks of severe shredding not only on the conqueror’s
language, but also on the authority of the magnate himself. Especially if we
consider that fact that he is not only a representative of old Bombay, but of
corporate America as well.
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A similarly major case of language appropriation can be found in Shri
Piloo Doodhwala’s articulations. The narrator succeeds in transcribing his
accent by disrespecting rules of orthography: “All persons should be having
hop, ewen when their situation is hopliss” (TGBHF, 69). Syntactic inaccuracies figure less than words that got “borne across” rather than translated
(“goodfather”, “what-all”, “magnificentourage”), erratic formulations (“Idea
is good, but … it has prompted one further idea, which is ewen betterer”
(TGBHF, 117) or even code-switching through the insertion of untranslated terms (“sand building like a Shiv-lingam”). Piloo’s language further manifests unconventional use of register through the way he negotiates a trade
of human flesh, speaking of giving up parentage strictly in business terms:
“Monies hawe been paid. Phees, cash, spending on account. There has been
major outlay of phunds, and in consequence one is considerably out of
pocket. Reimbursement is not unreasonably required” (TGBHF, 119). As
Yul Singh, Piloo releases tirades of self-affirming jumbles of superfluous
information, leaving the listener and reader bedazzled as regards his real
intentions. The unsuccessful counter-advertisement he commissions to save
his milk company is a similarly shifting, linguistically unstable construct that
makes a pun on his own name (“PILOO—the Dude with Doodh” –meaning
milk) and is shouted through a “large speech-bubble issuing from his own
leering face” (TGBHF, 115). And the riddle-simulacrum his later “goatghoast” scam creates fit his personality and style all too well. Just like Yul
Singh, Piloo stands on the middle ground between the accommodation of
the conqueror’s and modernity’s high discourse of capitalism and the
phrases and mentality of provincial India’s goat-filled hills.
Goats and references to goat songs figure as key hints throughout the
novel, pointing to the collisions between the high ideals and language of
tragedy in literature and the subversive or disruptive, unintelligible cries of
animals or of uncharted emotions or territories. The Apollonian and the
Dionysian, “measured” and stable language, place and identity versus language and people “gone wild” lie at the core of the infrastructure of the
novel. Ameer Merchant’s subversive word games, puns and rhymes, besides
bringing forth new meanings through unexpected links, create an alternative
route for the emergence of an important side of the novel’s exemplary adherence to minor literature’s linguistic and political manifestations. According to Soren Frank’s elaboration on the Deleuzian idea of presence effects
in minor literature, the songs, visions and word games might draw attention
to the materiality of language (Frank, 2008: 154). This is an aspect that produces intensities that struggle for the “deterritorialization of language”,
forcing some well-established forms of expression and language systems out
of balance (2008: 152). Language may even slip away completely, so that, as
in the case of a conversation between Vina and Rai, the only answers the
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reader gets to questions are mumbled articulations: “Mmhm?”, “Unhnh”,
“Hynhnyhnm” (TGBHF, 345).
Between the total decomposition or rejection of English and meticulous
correctitude, there lies the middle ground of appropriation. This concept is
close to what Bhabha alluded to as “Third Space, which enables other positions to emerge… [giving rise to] a new area of negotiation of meaning and
representation” (1990: 211). What it engenders is best illustrated through
Piloo’s, Yul’s and even Vina’s “interlanguage” (Ashcroft et al., 2002: 65), a
term coined by Nemser and elaborated in The Empire Writes Back as an “approximate system which is cohesive and distinct from both source language
and target language”. Through the strategies of appropriation and through
what is denoted as “fossilization” (“phonological, morphological, and synthetic forms in the speech of the speaker of a second language which do not
conform to target language norms, even after years of instruction”), the
transcription of these characters’ speech designates a place of resistance “in
cross-cultural writing” (Ashcroft et al., 2002: 66).
Vina’s and Molly Schnabel’s speech can be situated at this middle
ground of language-clash. The example of Molly appears in the novel almost independently of plot, as a direct disclosure of the linguistic existence
of a “multinational conglomerate babe” (TGBHF, 511). Her Irish descent
and Indian background enable her to have the knack for parodying the
immigrant’s language, as she stands both as a willing example (she speaks it
on purpose, making an effort) and an unwilling exception (her “original”
English is the “right” one) for its use: “O, baba, what to tell? Wehicle broke
down just close by. I am thinking, can I use the phone and give mechanic a
tinkle? Sorry to inconwenience” (TGBHF, 510). The rebuttal this remark
gets from Rai (“For God’s sake, Molly, this is America. Talk American”,
511), himself an immigrant, is once again ironic, since it calls attention to
the clash between blending in and being true to one’s roots as a migrant.
Vina’s language serves to reveal both her American and her Indian side,
but always from the standpoint of an undecided limbo, an in-between. Her
rejection of India as a child manifests itself through a fight by her “badmouthing everything in sight” (TGBHF, 487). Her anger later turns into an
embrace of Bombay’s “garbage argot”—Mumbai ki kachrapati baat-cheet, the
“polyglot trash-talk” of the mixture of Hindi and Urdu nicknamed “Hugme”, “in which a sentence could begin in one language, swoop through a
second and even a third and then swing back round to the first” (TGBHF,
7). This serves as an indicator of her identity: of memories and her belonging to India (where “Bombayites… were people who spoke five languages
badly and no language well”, 7), just as English stands for America and her
forming and upbringing there. After her final migration to the States, Hugme often signals a gash in the present through which feelings from old
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Bombay might resurface, coming through in difficult (and even final) moments both for her and for Rai.
Additionally, changing what English means is attempted through penetrating the canonical discourse of literature. Subverting traditions is
achieved through a constant play with other works: the result is a universe
of intertextuality so tightly woven as to make it impossible or at least mindbogglingly difficult to separate the present narrative from the texts of its
literary predecessors. We can find numerous bits of Joyce (like making Molly Bloom out of Vina through instances of unpunctuated, song-like, popculture-language and many more), references to Melville, Kafka, Borges
and Tolkien (embossed with internet conspiracy stories borrowed from the
language of fan-fiction that revolves around the language of fantasy literature) and others, among movie bits, lyrics and ads of all sorts (maybe as
further reference to Joyce and his techniques). Presenting the city in this
manner is equal to putting together a literary cocktail:
Imagine, if you will, the elaborately ritualised (yes, and marriage-obsessed) formal society of Jane Austen, grafted on to the stenchy, pullulating London beloved of Dickens, as full of chaos and surprises as a rotting fish is full of writhing
worms; swash & rollick the whole into a Shandy-and-arrack cocktail; colour it
magenta, vermilion, scarlet, lime; sprinkle with crooks & bawds, and you have
something like my fabulous home town (TGBHF, 101).
The varieties of the use of English give rise to what is coined as “english” in
The Empire Writes Back, a term for the cross-cultural multiplicity of creations
that are neither English nor an original Other language, but a collection of
hug-all, personalized discourses located somewhere in the third space of inbetween. Through the perspective of the migrant, in Rushdie’s words, writing in an appropriated English is not to be taken as a “post-colonial anomaly, the bastard child of Empire” (Rushdie & West, 1997: xii), but as a “remaking [of English] for our own purposes”, indicative of the clash of cultural tendencies and identities, marking attempts to “conquer English” precisely as a road to freedom from its constraining grip (Rushdie, 1991: 17).
Between East and West
The impossibility of bridging the discourses of East and West is sadly depicted through the failure of the research project of Darius. He is brought
down not only by the radical racketeering of the mob at the stadium or on
the streets of independence (along with new architectural and leadership
tendencies), but also by the shadow of Nazism spreading itself over his field
of studies. Comparative religions is tainted by the association of its terms
with anti-Semitism:
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when language is stolen and poisoned, the poison works its way backwards
through time and sideways into the reputations of innocent men. The word “Aryan”, which, for Max Müller and his generation, had a purely linguistic meaning, was now in the hands of less academic persons, poisoners, who were speaking of races of men, races of masters and races of servants and other races too
(TGBHF, 44).
The war of cultural dichotomies played on the level of language is likewise
embodied through the conflict of Darius’ sons. They both provide specific
discourses to signal belonging: Ormus takes flight to America and composes
the lyrics and songs of the uprooted East mingling with the West, while
Cyrus (he who strangles music) stays in India and opts for extensive Eastern
learning, stating in the famous letter about his brother that “his self-hating,
deracinated music has long been at the service… of the arrogance of the
West, where the world’s tragedy is repackaged as youth entertainment and
given infectious, foot-trapping beat” (TGBHF, 556). Ironically, the two
brothers are crafted to be alike, as Cyrus provides a mythology of spaces
and tales of his own for followers to grab, being a “serial killer who tempts
his victims with his highly articulate and mesmerizing travellers’ tales of
glittering cities and mountain ranges like devil’s teeth” (TGBHF, 153).
Vina is maybe the most obviously neutral character who stands at the
middle ground between the two powers, always “crossing frontiers”, never
opting for purist forms and behaviours, a “melange, hotchpotch, a bit of
this and a bit of that” (Rushdie, 1991: 395). Her persona might stand as a
realization of Bhabha’s hybrid, occupying a “third space” “which displaces
the histories that constitute it, and sets up new structures of authority, new
political initiatives, which are inadequately understood through received
wisdom” (Bhabha, 1990: 211). Dressed as pop-slut in a “garish pastiche of
the sixties” (Boyagoda, 2008: 38) mixed with the attire of priestess of multiple religions, she embodies the “seizure of the sign… a contestation of the
given symbols of authority” (Bhabha, 1992: 63). She is consciously displaying and advertising herself as both traditional Bombayite and polymer New
Yorker, as a believer in ancient practices and a sexual eccentric at the same
time, “post-racial” and “post-national” in her “global charlatanism” (Boyagoda, 2008: 37). With this “pan-ethnic everywoman” (Boyagoda, 2008:
42), “the process of cultural hybridity gives rise to something different,
something new and unrecognisable, a new area of negotiation of meaning
and representation” (Bhabha, 1990: 211). She serves as a separate universe
of discourse, as after her death “her radical absence is a void or an abyss
into which a tide of meanings can pour… she has become an empty receptacle, an arena of discourse, and we can invent her in our own image”
(TGBHF, 485). She becomes a pagan goddess claimed as a relic by multiple
places, a “patron divinity of the age of uncertainty” and the hopeful phrase
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“Vina significat humanitatem” remains attached to her, along with the blasphemous statement that, like Jesus, “she died that men might learn how to
feel.” Making Vina mean something is a ritual Rai opts for as well, by writing
his memoir along with her biography. Thus, he is taking the unattainable,
inexplicable figure of the woman, in a traditionally gendered approach, as a
method of coping with loss and the “mystery at the heart of meaning”. Forsaken, lonely Ormus does the same in his eccentric search for the one true
Vina, seeking her in vain during his life among thousands of other women,
all of them radically different or plainly fake look-alike.
America is posited as the privileged space for metamorphoses, a land
that, besides signifying the uttermost of Western ideals, provides space for
Vina-like hybridization and multiplicity, letting non-belonging be an “alternative form of community affiliation” (Trousdale, 2010: 144). It is described
in the novel as an “amnesiac culture”, keen on forgetting or rewriting its
past, and as a great home to migrants, because, in Vina’s words, “not belonging, that’s an old American tradition, see? that’s the American way”
(TGBHF, 331).
According to Randy Boyagoda, as a “protean culture” it comes across as
a-historical by overabundance (“the United States by its immigrants has
resulted in such excess that it produces a condition of effective pastlessness
for American society”, 2008: 27) and de-territorialized (“post-national citizens from throughout the global south are the foremost practitioners of
American cultural forms”, 2008: 29). America is seemingly ideal ground for
Rai and his friends, since “[in] America… everyone’s like me, because everyone comes from somewhere else. All those histories, persecutions, massacres, piracies, slaveries” (TGBHF, 252)—the list is long but not exhaustive.
How faulty even this perspective might be is exposed through Vina’s
nightmares of racial hunts, and Rushdie’s political misfortune has proved
that brooding over differences is many migrants’ strong side. But the book
never states that we can find a true land of acceptance anywhere—on the
contrary, it searches to illuminate just on how many levels worldviews and
identities may come into collision: “where the plates of different realities
met, there were shudders and rifts. Chasms opened. A man could lose his
life” (TGBHF, 238).
Like the author’s other works, the book seems fully aware of the dangers
of such holisms as “the nation, the culture or even of the self”, as these are
“most often used to assert cultural or political supremacy and [seek] to
obliterate the relations of difference that constitute the language of history
and culture” (Asad, 1993). But as Boyagoda stresses, here natives mingle
with immigrants creating not only irreconcilable clashes, but, like Vina,
loved for “making herself the exaggerated avatar of [people’s] own jumbled
selves” (TGBHF, 339), products of fusion as well, “emergent, hybrid forms
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of cultural identity” (Asad, 1993). The novel poses here a challenge to “the
humanist assumption of a unified self and an integrated consciousness by
both installing coherent subjectivity and subverting it” (Hutcheon,
1989/2001: xii). Her metamorphoses are a product of a tortured past: as a
child, she has been “literally selfless, her personality smashed, like a mirror,
by the fist of her life”, “a rag-bag of selves”, “floating in a void, denatured,
dehistoried, clawing at the shapelessness, trying to make some sort of mark”
(TGBHF, 121). Later in life, her build-up of palimpsestic identities stands as
the demonstration of great strength through embracing constant change.
Metamorphosis is certainly a common enough practice among the characters by now, so that Rai may be right in asserting that “I have truly become an American, inventing myself anew to make a new world in the company of other altered lives” (TGBHF, 441). “Metamorphosis… is what we
can perform, our human magic” (461). In Boyagoda’s view, other “shapeshifter types” are Mull Standish, who “is a professional… very American
shape-shifter, able to inhabit any persona that advances his financial interests” and Ormus, a “mishmash of self-fiction and fragments of authentic
history” (Boyagoda, 2008: 36). However, as the character of Goddess-Ma
maliciously but rightly enounces, Ormus’ “suppression of race and skin
modalities in the interests of the untenable Western dogma of universals is
in reality a flight from self into the arms of the desired, admired Other”
(TGBHF, 565). His “many selves can be, in song, a single multitude”, yet
what he is really looking for is a woman, a love and place that are never
really possible to find.
But according to Rai, “we’re not all shallow proteans, forever shifting
shape” (TGBHF, 462). In view of what the novel seems to stand for (collisions, hybridity, multiplicity, flight), this statement sounds all too problematic, as does his final choice of putting down roots—in the manner of Candide, tending to his garden of a house and family and American Way of life.
It may be true that metamorphosis can end in a final, acceptable form, but
who can tell that choosing the comforts of stability against the shifting,
menacing “wolf of place and time” does not push one into false certainties?
Maybe Rai can escape that, since he ultimately resides, willingly or unwillingly, at the gate of the unknown, in his home named Orpheum guarded
by the dog Cerberus.
Politics and Media
The tone of political propaganda and power clashes is first introduced
through Darius’ big cricket match, where the discourses of colonialist mentality are loudly protested through the destructive powers of song (“Don’t
be wicket, ban communal cricket.” “Lady Daria, don’t be slack. Make a duck
and off you quack… Lady Donald, make a duck.” TGBHF, 29). As Hutch-
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eon emphasizes, “the linguistic and the political, the rhetorical and the repressive… are the connections postmodernism places in confrontation
with… humanist faith in language and its ability to represent the subject or
“truth”, past or present, historical or fictional” (Hutcheon, 1989/2001: 187).
The transformation of Bombay is tainted by corruption and the contamination of politics gains allegoric dimensions in the apocalyptic equation between moral downfall and earthquakes/catastrophes, both on the local and
the global level. The Emergency, the changing of the city’s name, ethnic
uproars, clashes between East and West, the aggression of globalization and
power-hungry capitalism are (not unrealistically) linked to pollution and
floods. As Maria, a tauntingly named otherworldly character tries to explain: “Underlying all earthquakes is the idea of Fault… The Earth has
many faults, of course… But human Faults cause earthquakes too. What is
coming is a judgement” (TGBHF, 327). The sad question goes like this:
“Suppose the earth just got sick of our greed and cruelty and vanity and
bigotry and incompetence and hate” (TGBHF, 573). “Earthquakes are the
new hegemonic geopolitics”, we find, within the framing of a sarcastic allegory of nuclear power struggles, where damage comes from the enemy and
from internal “corruption, poverty, fanaticism and neglect”. In fact, the
corruption of all cities is moulded into one, and “Groovy Manhattan is
plainly no better than Swinging London” with its “rusting decadence…
shoulder-barging vulgarity… [and] third-world feel (the poverty, the traffic,
the slo-mo dereliction of the winos and the cracked-glass dereliction of too
many of the buildings, the unplanned vistas of urban blight, the ugly street
furniture)” (TGBHF, 387).
The issue of cultural imperialism is delineated through the language and
industry of music, notes and lyrics alike. New York is the new Rome, having
replaced London as the colonial metropolis (Parashkevova, 2013: 14). America
means Might, creating around itself newly “colonised” consumer-serf areas,
a “power so great that it shapes our daily lives even though it barely knows
we exist” (TGBHF, 419-20). Apparently, this also works the other way
around, as the subconscious Las Vegas of Ormus’ mind is fed by the experience of his own mega-cultural city:
the music he heard in his head during the unsinging childhood years, was not of
the West, except in the sense that West was in Bombay from the beginning, impure old Bombay where West, East, North and South had always been scrambled, like codes (TGBHF, 95-6).
Vina and her performances are spiritual food as much as commodity meticulously calculated, their publicizing timed (by shrewd managers like
Standish and Yul Singh) to be offered up for cash, even more so after her
death. But the messages their words convey (especially through their album
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Quaker-shaker) are deemed to be radically political, and their concerts are
banned from India for bearing the potential of causing earthquakes that are
jokingly literal, yet seriously literary. They become the prophets not only of
love but of uprootedness, proclaiming that “everything you thought you
knew: it’s not true. And everything you knew you said, was all in your head”
(TGBHF, 353). Their words slyly seep among the lines of the novel, contaminating and liberatingly shifting the literary register into a mesh of more
conventional bildungsroman-consciousness, presented in the fashion of the
Arabian Nights, seasoned with lyrics, ads and propaganda, with a result not
entirely unlike the discursive kaleidoscope of Ulysses.
Attention is drawn here to the fact that media shifts reality and language
as well as their songs or political propaganda would, and one does not need
to look only to the fineries of Piloo’s politically self-promoting dairy-ad. At
the finale of a cruelly funny and angry outpouring, the novel sums up the
question of where it stands on the dichotomies of sensationalist messages
from the everyday:
Pictures don’t lie! This image has been faked! Free the press! Ban nosy journalists! The novel is dead! Honor is dead! God is dead! Aargh, they’re all alive, and
they’re coming after us! That star is rising! No, she’s falling! We dined at nine!
We dined at eight! You were on time! No, you were late! East is West! Up is
down! Yes is No! In is Out! Lies are Truth! Hate is Love! Two and two makes
five! And everything is for the best, in this best of all possible worlds” (TGBHF,
Many sorts of en vogue shifting realities (taken from television, journalism,
philosophy and other academic areas, horror movies and personal bits) are
pitted against each other through phrases of mainstream discourse, only to
fall flat on the chord of abject dismissal by Voltaire’s sarcastic phrase. Sure,
anything can be enounced for fifteen seconds and Rushdie, as he demonstrates from the start of the book, is familiar even with the berserkeries of
the universe of internet commentary—but shouts get lots among the throng
of howls, and there’s the grotesque beauty of the hybridity of Bakhtinian
polyphony for you.
Worlds of Fiction
The issue of how fiction shapes the city and inhabitant looms large in the
novel, since it highlights the ways in which the arbitrarily created norms of
grammar and discourses linked to politics and the media mould reality to
their liking. The metafictional nature of The Ground Beneath Her Feet manifests itself in a many-layered construction of alternative fictional worlds,
each “heading for collision” with the other, each brought about by a differently motivated force (be it highly personal or broadly political). The tectonCAESURA 1.2 (2014)
ically rifted “tears in the reality” of the novel reproduce the postmodern
trend for uncertainties (“There is nothing to hold on to. Nothing is any
longer, with any certainty, so”, 508), yet they inherently contain the tragicalness that revolves around the search for the meaning of human life and
its finalities (“We, too, are travellers between the worlds… Having embarked, we have no option but to go forward on that soul’s journey in which
we will be shown what is best, and worst, in human nature”, 255). However,
the reality of the real is questioned on numerous accounts, but the legitimacy of the possible, alternative universes is never disputed, and their moral
value never conclusively judged.
The Ground Beneath Her Feet flashes a politics that produces ideology and
schemes that need to be probed to their depths. This process has already
been pinpointed, but other, less subtle ways in which politics weaves fictions
are incorporated into the novel as well. As has been noted, Darius Cama is a
great metropolitan creation of the British just like his beloved Bombay, is a
produce of colonialism and orientalism—both are built with elaborate and
willingly intrusive discourses that have more to do with tales than with
mundane facts. Piloo’s goat farm scam is another sarcastic example of political fiction, highlighting the embedment of the simulacrum into our economic and cultural conceptions of how and what world goes round.
More importantly, the identity of the migrant is at question when we
look at how fictional worlds operate in the novel. According to Nair and
Bhattacharya, the migrant might re-constitute himself through a “neurosis
of personal nemesis”, or chose a return to the past through “the certainties
of nostalgia” (1990: 18). Nostalgia contains, however, less certainties than
would be hoped for, as with Rushdie, “historical moments are sundered to
reveal heterotopic paths not taken”, “alternative histories collide” (Mishra,
2003: 65) in a “disjunctive temporality”, questioning the status of the past
and of its mythologies (Mishra, 2003: 82; 78). As Linda Hutcheon notes,
within historiographic metafiction a photograph or a document “can no
longer pretend to be a transparent means to a past event; it is instead the
textually transformed trace of that past” (Hutcheon, 1989/2001: 87). Tunnels and graveyards in the city are “gaps in the earth through which our
history seeps and is at once lost, and retained in metamorphosed form”
(TGBHF, 54), as Rai puts it. But, as he notes elsewhere, “A kind of India
happens everywhere… everywhere is terrible and wonder-filled and overwhelming if you open your senses to the actual’s pulsating beat… So lead us
not into exotica and deliver us from nostalgia” (TGBHF, 417). Rapid
change effaces the sites of memories, and “the destruction of your childhood home—a villa, a city—is like the death of a parent: an orphaning… A
tombstone city stands upon the graveyard of the lost” (TGBHF, 168). Some
who do not pace with change get turned into stone, as has been mentioned:
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Great Metropolitan Creations
this is how Persis, Vivvy, Darius and Cyrus end, and how Lady Spenta, Ormus, Vina and Rai survive. Leaving home is trying to escape one’s past, an
attempt to leave “Wombay” for a new beginning.
“The neurosis of nemesis” in The Ground Beneath Her Feet begins with the
dream of the elsewhere, of a “There must be somewhere better than this”
expressed through longings for an earthly or otherworldly “paradise”. As
Rushdie puts it, the “imaginary homelands” function in the way his narrator explains in Shame: “I, too, like all migrants, am a fantasist. I build imaginary countries and try to impose them on the ones that exist” (Rushdie,
1984: 87). Most characters yearn for such space in this novel as well: Darius
dreams of the garden of England, Lady Spenta of a place of illumination,
Vivvy longs for the city of the past, Ameer for the city of the future. The
American Dream is articulated through the aspirations of Vina, Ormus and
Rai for the United States of the “Great Attractor”, the “dream America everyone carries around in his head, America the beautiful… [a] country that
never existed but needed to exist” (TGBHF, 419). For them, England is just
a limbo before New York, a disaster area with a “generation lost in space”.
When Ormus walks the streets of London, he is “looking for other Englands, older Englands, making them real…” For him, “to be utterly lost
amidst buildings you recognize, to know nothing about a cityscape of which
you have carried around for years… is a delirious enough experience”
(TGBHF, 289).
After being literally reborn into America, he begins his real cycle of Orphean activity (joining his brothers Gayo, Cyrus and Virus, all connected to
an Otherworld of sorts), faithful to the myth on many levels. His credo is
the following: “Sing against death. Command the wildness of the city…
Cross frontiers. Fly away” (TGBHF, 146). His music is a plug to an Underworld of yet uncreated artwork (a magical, otherworldly metropolis, a “city
of dazzling lights”), where he dives in order to bring back both comfort and
destruction through song, “offering people a promised land or what”:
Our lives are not what we deserve; they are, let us agree, in many painful ways
deficient. Song turns them into something else. Song shows us a world that is
worthy of our yearning, it shows us our selves as they might be, if we were worthy of the world (TGBHF, 19-20),
and “the songs are about the collapse of all walls, boundaries, restraints.
They describe worlds in collision” (TGBHF, 390). His fictionally real universes of heavens and hells add to the confusion of what is real and what is
fancy and how all that will end, making him a nicely fitting descendant of
orphic rituals though his shows:
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incessant images of heaven and hell, both conceived of as places on earth, nuptial motels and flame-grilled-burger bars, video arcades and ballet schools, football crowds and war zones... The fictional universe of the show gave the impression of floating free of the real world, of being a separate reality that made contact with the earth every so often, for a night or two at a time, so that people
could visit it and shake their pretty things (TGBHF, 558).
Moreover, the fantasy of Home (the dream of roots) and the fantasy of the
Away (the mirage of the Journey) are expressed by his music, affirming the
uncertainties of the human condition:
At the frontier of the skin no dogs patrol… Where I end and you begin. Where I
cross from sin to sin. Abandon hope and enter in. And lose my soul. At the frontier of the skin no guards patrol… At the frontier of the skin mad dogs patrol. At
the frontier of the skin. Where they kill to keep you in. Where you must not slip
your skin. Or change your role. You can’t pass out I can’t pass in. You must end
as you begin. Or lose your soul. At the frontier of the skin armed guards patrol
(TGBHF, 55).
But it is suggested that the real hero in Virgil’s story of Orpheus is really
the bee-keeper, here identified as the narrator Rai, or “Umeed Merchant,
photographer, [who] can spontaneously generate new meaning from the
putrefying carcase of what is the case” (TGBHF, 22). Though photography
and literature, he is the main creator of fictions and administrator of time
(because taking a photo is a moral decision of taking a snippet out of space
and time), boasting even that “Our creations can go the distance with Creation; more than that, our imagining—our imagemaking—is an indispensable part of the great work of making real” (p. 466). His palimpsestic photos
capture multiple layers of the universe, both in the supernaturally literal,
and, as has probably been intended, in the figurative sense of capturing and
later showing/exhibiting the multiplicity of experience. With a more or less
successful “knack for invisibility”, he “shimmies”, both as photographer and
narrator, “into [people’s] charmed space”, digging into them and exposing
them by bringing to the surface some of their essence.
Literature is an alternative, worthy space for humans to be transposed
into, a place where belonging can turn into a benefit. Vina, she herself a
creator of her own fictional-composite identity, is immortalised by Rai
through the novel, in a place of words: “maybe she can find a sort of peace
here, on the page, in this underworld of ink and lies, that respite which was
denied her by life”. He then proceeds to state boldly: “So I stand at the gate
of the inferno of language, there’s a barking dog and a ferryman waiting
and a coin under my tongue for the fare” (TGBHF, 21).
For Rai, writing a novel about the mouldability of the real, of time, space
and identity is perhaps also a way of trying to survive through discourse
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Great Metropolitan Creations
and art. Ormus remains through his music and lyrics, Vina is immortalised
by Rai’s memoir and Rai by the photographs he has created. His father
finds comfort in the written histories of the city, Darius does his research in
order to escape shame and account for his outsider status by creating something canonical, and Lady Cama seeks the discourse of religion for inner
peace (but she, too, finally finds it in a garden). And all of them are, as an
author might hope, eternalised by the novel. As the characters produced by
art speak sadly out to the reader or to the viewer of photographs, they articulate a generally applicable human condition: “This is all that will remain
of us: our light in your eye. Our shadows in your images. Our floating
forms, falling through nothingness, after the ground vanishes, the ground
beneath our feet” (TGBHF, 508).
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