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Identities in Change - Identity Lost, Identity Regained in VS Naipaul\'s The Enigma of Arrival and Salman Rushdie\'s The Ground Beneath Her Feet
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by [emee ]

2007-09-09  |     | 

In one of his latest books, Philosophie des images, Jean-Jacques Wunenburger approaches memory as source of generating images. He states that memory is not only a deposit of conserved images or abstract information. Memory is a logic activity which implies an organisation of both concrete and abstract images with the aim of a future re-usage. Thus, in the process of memory, image comes and re-organises the knowledge of the past, being not a passive authority which only re-calls but an active one which re-creates. (WUNENBURGER, pp. 281-282). Consequently, our inner life is continually re-constructed with everyday after construction, and our identity is a long chain of images constructed and then re-constructed. The Australian philosopher Derek Parfitt sustains that memory makes us conscious of our existence in time, as it creates a psychological connectedness – the maintenance of psychological connections that we experience every day. (PARFIT, pp. 100-121) Nevertheless, we are only physically identical to the ones we were a year ago, as the experiences we meet change sometimes our behaviour and way of thinking completely, due to this active possibility of memory to keep images alive, in continuous movement. We started our paper with these words on memory as the two novels to be analysed are, in a way, a product of memory. V.S. Naipaul wrote The Enigma of Arrival out of the memory of his encounter with Great Britain, relying on biographic resources, while with Rushdie, Rai, the narrator of The Ground beneath Her Feet creates his narration out of memory, giving birth to characters and stories through memory. In fact, memory plays a very important role in the postcolonial novels as it is the factor which activates all the time the experiences lived by the migrant writers, being also a link to the memory of time and a possibility of recreating history as in Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Thus, Rai, at the beginning of the novel, writes the following: “In this telling, therefore, nothing will be spared. Vina, I must betray you so that I can let you go. Begin.” (RUSHDIE, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, p. 22) On the other hand, Naipaul’s narrator, when recalling things, admits exactly this power of memory to live on its own, and be selective in reproducing images:

My memory retains nothing of the hot room in daylight, nothing of the room in which I awakened. Perhaps, then, some embarrassment obliterated the memory. Less than twenty-four hours out of my place, the humiliations had begun to bank up: to my own developed sense of the self was now added another self of the self, a rawness of nerves and sensibility against which from now on for many years all my impressions, even the most exalted, were to be set. (NAIPAUL, The Enigma of Arrival, pp.105-106)

In fact, memory is one of the most defining aspects of identity and the proof of the continuation of identities in time. While with The Enigma of Arrival memory is self – centred from the narrator and is the trigger-off of his identity, with Rushdie memory is the generating factor of all the identities in the novel, having a re-creative power in The Ground beneath Her Feet. Memory works, thus, back and forth, and rememorizes, giving shapes and colours to identities or, vice versa, as in The Enigma of Arrival, where it activates the principle of defence, either covering certain memories in oblivion or, in other cases, by recreation.
Memory is one dimension of identity or alterity, but a limited dimension while art is a dimension of the identity of the human spirit that bares no barriers or limits. The migrant identity is liberated from limits as it lost the connection with what form and limits mean. However, he/she is in search of limits, i.e. of an identity defined after all by a limited shape. This credo seems to be present in Ormus’s music, which is the music of the migrant: “Isn’t Ormus Cama the boy who sings about frontiers […], about going to the edge and crossing over?” (RUSHDIE, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, p. 415) The identity of a migrant generally has artistic dimensions as he or she dedicates himself or herself to the symbols that seem closer and those are those which appeal to the human spirit. Identities in both novels mentioned are identities of migrants. With Rushdie, the triangle characters are migrants from India to the West, and with Naipaul, the narrator without a name (i.e. without a conventional identity) but in which we can identify the author, migrates from Trinidad to the East. Behind all these characters lie two forms of art: music and, respectively, painting. The title of Naipaul’s novel The Enigma of Arrival is taken ad litteram from the surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico’s painting. Before transmitting the message of its representation, the painting is first a symbol in itself through the function it has, that of representing, of creating a double of a reality it mirrors. On the other hand, Giorgio de Chirico’s painting is a painting of illusioned limits; it presents two identities, one who just arrived and another one who discovers the mystery of the seashore, comprising the mystery of a journey, but also the mystery of one’s journey to the Other. Hence, the painting contains the dimensions of identity and alterity and the mystery one lives in the presence of the Other. The arrival is the ultimate end of a journey and Naipaul’s book is a book of a double journey: one is that of a Trinidadian to the East, to become a writer and the other is that of an uprooted person who is striving to find his roots in a land constructed by then only with illusions. The novel The Enigma of Arrival is a representation in frame, it is the personal meaning and experience of the mystery that man carries everywhere where he should go:

I felt that in an indirect, poetical way the title referred to something in my own experience; […]. What was interesting about the painting itself, “The Enigma of Arrival”, was that – again because of the title – it changed in my memory. The original (or the reproduction in the “Little Library of Art” booklet) was always a surprise. A classical scene, Mediterranean, ancient - Roman – or so I saw it. A wharf; in the background, beyond walls and gateways (like cut-outs), there is the top of the mast of an antique vessel; on an otherwise deserted street in the foreground there are two figures, both muffled, one perhaps the person who has arrived, the other perhaps a native of the port. The scene is of desolation and mystery: it speaks of the mystery of the arrival. It spoke to me of that, as it had spoken to Apollinaire. (NAIPAUL, The Enigma of Arrival, pp. 91-92)

The narrator, who starts his writing from this painting, manifests the need of getting out of himself and transferring to another reality that the painting brings. It is the need that the status of the migrant, which comprises both solitude and unsettlement, urges within with the aim of finding another identity in a limited space to make his home. It is the desolation and the mystery that spoke to the narrator from the painting and which identified with the solitude expressed all over the novel. The narrator’s identity is in this way shaped and coloured by the enigma of the arrival he himself experienced and recreated in his memory times and times again.
On the other hand, in The Ground beneath Her Feet the artistic dimension which gives life to the novel is music, yet not to the everyday music, but to the music of all times which, again, carries the mythical powers of Orpheus to the modern Vina and Ormus, the two main musical voices of the novel. Vina, the feminine identity of the novel and around whom everything lives and exists, tells a Mexican legend of music:

Once upon a time the winged serpent Quetzalcoatl ruled the air and the waters, while the god of war ruled the land. Theirs were rich days, full of battles and the exercise of power, but there was no music, and they both longed for a decent tune. The god of war was powerless to change the situation, but the winged serpent was not. He flew away towards the house of the sun, which was the home of music. He passed a number of planets, and from each of them he heard musical sounds, but there were no musicians to be found. At last he came to the house of the sun, where the musicians lived. The anger of the sun at the serpent’s invasion was a terrible thing to witness, but Quetzalcoatl was not afraid, and unleashed the mighty storms that were his personal specialty. The storms were so fearsome that even the house of the sun began to shake, and the musicians were scared and fled in all directions. And some of them fell to earth, and so, thanks to the winged serpent, we have music. (RUSHDIE,The Ground Beneath Her Feet, pp. 101-102)

This is the legend that Vina tells and in which she identifies herself with the winged serpent while Ormus, her lover, is music. According to the Dictionary of Symbols, in all civilisations music was considered to be the harmony of the cosmos, and man could take part to this harmony only through music. In all civilisations, the most intense actions of personal or social life took place in a musical background because it is music that created the communication with the divine spheres. (HESSE, Game with the Glass Beads, p. 328). Hermann Hesse in his Game with the Glass Beads also offers an account of the role and meaning of music, underlining the same harmonious dimension that is to be found in Rushdie’s The Ground beneath Her Feet. Hesse recalls a Chinese legend regarding the divine origin of music, as it was born out of the great One, the generator that makes the great two poles move: the pole of light and the pole of darkness. (6, p. 37) Again music is given a mythical valence, its symbol making reference to the dual principles of the world: Yin and Yang. Vina and Ormus are in fact the light and the darkness of the music they create, and they can only accomplish their destiny through the music they sing together. Two alterities make the one and great identity which generates calm, order and happiness. Music also permits the two identities to get out of time and space, it is the channel to the vertical worlds the novel comprises. However, the direct mythical dimension the two identities make reference to is the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. According to Rachel Falconer,

[…] every major character is given an Orphic side: Ormus (most obviously), because as a rock star he is the modern music god; Rai , because he is also in love with Vina (the novel’s Eurydice), and because her narration raises her memory from the dead; Vina because she rescues Ormus from silence and death several times; and, Mira, because after Vina’s death, she is the one who saves Ormus from despair and inspires his greatest ever music. The multiplication of Orphic identity in no way dissipates the focus on Ormus as faithful lover and god of sound. (FALCONER, Rachel, Bouncing down to the Underworld: Classical Katabasis in “The Ground Beneath Her Feet, p. 480).

Thus, the myth of Orpheus could be extended to several characters, so much the more that music is in fact what keeps everyone alive and in touch with passion. Even love is impossible without music. Vina and Ormus, the Yin and Yang, told the world:

Love is the relationship between levels of reality./Love produces harmony and is the ruler of the arts. As artists we seek to achieve, in our art, a state of love./Love is the attempt to impose order on chaos, meaning on absurdity.[…] Songs are love’s enchantments. They are everyday magic. / […] Songs enchant away our pain.” (RUSHDIE, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, p. 465)

This means that, after all, love and music are harmony and perfection. What the characters look for in the novel is exactly that lost identity in time and space, an identity they can be recuperated only through music: “The music was their real lovemaking.” (RUSHDIE,The Ground Beneath Her Feet, p. 466) Music is the one dimension that man has always cherished and what is most interesting about the characters in the novel is the plurality of cultural identities they designate. The contemporary extension of music is given by another music personality Ormus figures: the rock star Elvis Presley. The reference is direct, though names are switched on purpose:

But of course there were imported American magazines, and Ormus could have seen pictures of Jesse Parker (perhaps alongside the sinister figure of «Colonel», Tom Presley his manager) in Photoplay or Movie Screen. And that was also the year of Treat Me Tender, Jesse’s first movie, which played at the New Empire cinema, certified for adults only.” (RUSHDIE, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, p. 107)

Moreover, Elvis Presley had a still-born twin brother named Jesse Garon Presley, and Ormus’s brother’s name is Gayo, a name similar in sounding to Garon. We deal here with the image of the double, a symbol frequent all along the novel. First, we meet the image of the twin brother, which, according to Jean-Jaques Wunenburger, poses, at level of identity, feelings of both restlessness and fascination, as twins bring to reality what theoretically exists only as image, the double, the mimesis. (14, p. 133) The double also signifies the alterity in every being, the extremis one could reach, the potential in every being: “In Gayo, Ormus found the Other into which he dreamed of metamorphosing, the dark self that first fuelled his heart.” (RUSHDIE,The Ground Beneath Her Feet, pp. 107-108) With Rushdie, identities multiply in symbols with every page and references become more meaningful. The double is met again when Vina’s identity and role is taken by Mira, the singer similar in voice and appearance with her, the one who replaces her both for Ormus and Rai. Rai, on the other hand, is, in a way, Ormus’ alter-ego or alter identity, so he is another double, but the human side of Ormus as well as Mira is the human side of Vina’s identity. Rai, whose name means Prince, Desire or Hope is the Ormus’s side he could never achieve and that explains the attraction between Vina and him.
If Rushdie uses the double to represent the identity mimesis (WUNENBURGER, 134), Naipaul, through the doublet of the painting and the shadowy-like identities represented there, shows the power of illusion. Wunenburger also stated the fact that the painting image is just the face of the illusion, the result of knowledge or, at most, of a convention. ( WUNENBURGER, p. 132) Even convention is, after all, a rather relative concept that permits illusion to mix with reality or reality to mix with illusion. Naipaul, inspired by the painting The Enigma of Arrival, tends to represent the new world in terms of illusion or unreality such as the Roman world he imagines: “The idea of living in my imagination in that classical Roman world was attractive to me. A beautiful clear, dangerous world, far removed from the setting in which I had found myself.” (NAIPAUL, The Enigma of Arrival, p. 92) After all, the narrator’s tendency to extend his existence more to unreality is a modality of defence against the illusion he had created about Great Britain before coming there. His representation of England was a fake, a world known only by mimesis, that proved to be different and that made him feel solitude deeply:

So I was used to living in a world where signs were without meaning, or without the meaning intended by their makers. It was a piece of the abstract, arbitrary nature of my education, like my ability to “study” French or Russian cinema without seeing a film, an ability which was, as I have said, like a man trying to get to know a city from its street map alone.” (NAIPAUL, The Enigma of Arrival, pp. 120-121)

Beyond the message that the status of the migrant sends, there is also the truth that Naipaul ultimately states: the personal world a person creates a world constructed by/on illusions. Most of the things we know we know through mimesis, through books, images, gossip or rumour. But it is only those who feel the acuteness of the illusion who dare utter the truth. Julia Kristeva in Étrangeres à nous-mêmes evokes the destiny of the foreigner, of the migrant that Naipaul’s character embodies:

N’appartenir â aucun lieu, aucun temps, aucun amour. L’origine perdue, l’enracinement impossible, la mémoire plongeante, le présent, en suspens. L’espace de l’étranger est un train en marche, un avion en vol, la transition même qui exclut l’arrêt. De repères, point. Son temps ? Celui d’une résurrection qui se souvient de la mort et d’avant, mais manque la gloire d’être au-delà : juste l’impression d’un sursis, d’avoir échappé. (KRISTEVA, Étrangers à nous-mèmès, pp.17-18)

Albeit the two novels are the written products of two writers who experienced migration at personal level, the two worlds they promote are different. While Rushdie makes his characters descend and ascend from one world to another by means of mythical devices, Naipaul creates a world of shadows and illusions. His characters either have no name (for example, the narrator, who could be presumed to be the author himself but only by taking the book as biography) or, even if they have a name, their identity is shadowy. For example, at the beginning of The Enigma of Arrival, the narrator creates a crescendo curiosity regarding Jack and his garden. Jack seems to be the representative identity of the land the narrator settles in, though the attachment we understand from the words is only the attachment a very lonely being could manifest for somebody he/she knows nothing of. Jack, in spite of the reader’s expectations, dies without actually performing any action important for the narrator’s life. On the other hand, we can understand the symbol of the name, Jack being an exponential British name, an element not from immediate reality but from the reality of illusions the narrator had created before coming to England. Everything he speaks about is about or related to Jack: “I had seen Jack as solid, rooted in his earth. But I had also seen him as something from the past, a remnant, something that would be swept away before my camera would get the pictures. ( NAIPAUL, The Enigma of Arrival, p. 87) In the scenery the narrator meets he can only identify with the part in himself that spoke to the new location, to the new unhomely home, using Homi Bhabha’s attribute. The narrator tries a transgression of identity but what he actually accomplishes is an extreme feeling of alterity that the illusion produces. Helen Hayward defines Naipaul’s solitude as follows:

His solitude mirrors that of the writer, but the inarticulate solitary exists in a harmonious relation to the natural worlds to which the articulate and the self-conscious writer can only aspire, and which infuses the solitary figure with mystery and humble grandeur. (HAYWARD, The Enigma of V.S. Naipaul, p. 57)

Out of this loneliness is to be seen a new identity, that of the writer that finds its mirror in the poet’s lines.
Rushdie’s world is yet totally different. His characters live out of their names, their identities being developed out of the theory that one of the defining characteristics of an identity and of creating an alterity is the name, in Sanskrit - nama or naman. The name defines and creates a whole aura around the identity of a character. Either of a Sanskrit origin or of a European origin, in The Ground beneath Her Feet or other novels of Rushdie’s such as Midnight’s Children, names intermingle in people’s lives announcing a beginning and/or an end. It is as Rushdie states in Midnight’s Children: “Our names contain our fates; living as we do in a place where names have not acquired the meaninglessness of the West, and still more than mere sounds, we are also the victims of our titles.” (RUSHDIE, Midnight’s Children, p. 304) For example, Ormus or Ormuszd is the creator God with the Parsi. (3, p180), and the Ormus in the novel, the name bearer, is the creator god of music. Moreover, Vina reaches the full meaning of her name – in Sanskrit Vina designates a music instrument similar to a lute. (Dictionar de teosofie, esoterism, metafizicã, orientalism ºi masonerie, p. 278), only after she gets through the stages of other names, so, through other spheres of life: Nissy and Diana. A name is a symbol in itself also, it creates an image in the mind of both its beholder and of the one who utters it. According to Chevalier’s Dictionary of Symbols the name of a thing is the sound produced by the actions of the moving forces that create it. The Name and the Form (Nama and Rupa) are the essence and the substance of the individual because they determine it. (CHEVALIER and GHEERBRAND, pp. 353-355) So, in order to achieve the accomplishment of the primordial identity, Vina, the central identity of the novel, gives up two identities to meet the most powerful one, that of perfection through music and love, Vina.
In the register of masculine and feminine identities, the two novels differ again. While The Ground beneath Her Feet moves around the principle of life and creation, the feminine identity of Vina and her mimetic identities, Maria or Mira, in The Enigma of Arrival, the feminine entities have no identity of their own. The world in The Enigma of Arrival does not have beautiful, sexual forms, it is a representation of the asexual shadowy figures in de Chirico’s painting. Here the feminine identities are only to be guessed behind some tags of husbands such as Jack’s wife or Mrs. Philips. Femininity, which is supposed to trigger off life not being present in humanly shapes, does not manifest its powers, except in the worlds where it is invoked.
We witness, thus, two ways of perceiving and representing the world and the Other. While with Naipaul, the individual is essentialised to the status of anonymous existence that, however, offers the world in his purest form – “But already I could feel the two sides of myself separating one from the other, the man from the writer.” (NAIPAUL, The Enigma of Arrival, p. 111) - this means that it could be any of us in his place, with Rushdie, we feel the power of the many in one, of the values that man has transmitted from generation to generation, from one individual to another and encompasses within himself the identities of all men ever existing – “There are too many people inside Ormus, a whole band is gathered within his frontiers, playing different instruments, creating different music, and he hasn’t yet discovered how to bring them under control […].”(RUSHDIE,The Ground Beneath Her Feet, p. 328). In fact, Rushdie expresses here what Lyotard stated regarding the existence of the self:

A self does not amount too much, but no self is an island; that is now more complex and mobile than ever before. Young and old, man or woman, rich or poor, a person is always located at «nodal points» of specific communication circuits, however tiny these may be.” (LYOTARD quoted in HUTCHEON, A Poetics of Postmodernism, p. 83)

In other words, the double journey of a text, that of the writer writing it and that of the reader reading it is ultimately reduced to images and the search for identities. With both novels we deal with journeys, journeys to the selves, journeys that offer the world the gatherings of identities and values an individual carries with him or her, journeys which are what Homi Bhabha named by gatherings:

I have lived that moment of the scattering of the people that in other times and other places, in the nations of others, becomes a time of gathering. Gatherings of exiles and émigrés, and refugees, gathering on the edge of «foreign» cultures; gathering at the frontiers; gatherings in the ghettos or cafes, of city centres; gathering in the half-life, half-light of foreign tongues, or in the uncanny fluency of another’s language; gathering the signs of approval and acceptance, degrees, discourses, disciplines; gathering the memories of underdevelopment, of other worlds lived retroactively; gathering the past in a ritual of revival; gathering the present. (BHABHA, Nation and Narration, p. 291)


• BHABHA, Homi, Nation and Narration, London, Routlege, 1990.
• CHEVALIER, Jean and GHEERBRAND, Alain, Dicþionar de simboluri, Bucureºti, Editura Artemis, 2000.
• Dictionar de teosofie, esoterism, metafizicã, orientalism ºi masonerie, Bucureºti, Herald, [s.a.].
• FALCONER, Rachel, Bouncing down to the Underworld: Classical Katabasis in “The Ground Beneath Her Feet”, Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 47, No. Salman Rushdie (Winter, 2001), 467-509.
• HAYWARD, Helen, The Enigma of V.S. Naipaul, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
• HESSE, Herman, Game with the Glass Beads, Penguin, New York, 2000.
• HUTCHEON, Linda, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction, Routledge, New York, London, 1992.
• KRISTEVA, Julia, Étrangers à nous-mèmès , Paris, Gallimard, 1988.
• NAIPAUL, V. S., The Enigma of Arrival, London, Penguin, 1987.
• PARFIT, Derek, Reasons and Persons quoted in Secolul XXI, Alteritate, 1-7/ 2002, Bucureºti, 2002.
• RUSHDIE, Salman Midnight’s Children, Berkshire, Vintage, 1995.
• RUSHDIE, Salman, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, London, Vintage, 2000.
• Secolul 21. Alteritate”, 1 – 7/ 2002.
• WUNENBURGER, Jean-Jacques, Filozofia imaginilor, Iaºi, Polirom, 2004.

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