An Inaccessible Circumference
Other Worlds - Cosmology, Mythology, & Mysticism in the Sundarbans - Fusion & Clash
Let it suffice now for me to repeat the classic dictum: The Library is a sphere whose exact centre is any one of its hexagons and whose circumference is inaccessible. (Borges, “The Library of Babel”)
The early novels of Rushdie are, to put it mildly, very complicated. In them, readers find an overwhelming variety of allusions — from popular Hollywood and Bollywood references to arcane points of Hindu and Islamic theology. It's not surprising that most readers have a hard time understanding him.
While it’s fairly easy to follow Rushdie’s politics and history, it’s more difficult to follow his religion and mythology. On the political level, we can correlate the plots with dates and places, and Rushdie makes it clear how he feels about secularism, dictatorship, and the unreliability of historical accounts. Even when he gives his political figures names like the Widow (in Midnight's Children), Razorguts (in Shame) and the Cultmaster (in The Satanic Verses), it's pretty easy to see that he’s referring to Indira Gandhi, Zia ul-Haq and Ayatollah Khomeini. Yet things get trickier when it comes to his other worlds, that is, to his references to cosmology, mythology and mysticism. Here, his allusions are more diverse than his political ones. Here, he brings in Dante and Norse myth, Hindu gods, Sufi mystics, a 20th century Russian novel featuring Satan (The Master and Margarita), etc.
Figures and things such as Shiva, Ragnarök or Sufi annihilation are seldom defined and rarely explained. Readers are left guessing, without an adequate base to build their own interpretations. This is where this website should come in handy, for it supplies background information as well as arguments about how otherworldly motifs work with or against each other, fusing or clashing to shape character, plot and theme. It also suggests that Rushdie’s notorious iconoclasm — his brutal assault on tradition and his exploration of the taboo — is mitigated by his secular idealism and by his subtle homage to mystical ideals of the past. Rushdie presents us with alienated selves in a chaotic universe, yet he also hints at a mystical ideal of unity, a secular salvation that strives to exist beyond dogma or ideology.
Cosmology, Mythology, & Mysticism in the Sundarbans
Often, Rushdie's finest points are his most obscure. Often, these points owe as much to cosmology as to geography, as much to mythology as to politics, as much to mysticism as to the plight of the postmodern self. Take, for instance, Saleem’s boat trip into the Sundarbans Jungle in Midnight's Children, during which he travels from the horror of the Bangladesh War into the eerie mangrove swamps southeast of Calcutta. Rushdie presents us with a historical situation, and places his protagonist in the middle of it: Saleem is a soldier in the Pakistani Army, desperate to escape the historical moment. Yet Rushdie doesn't keep his narrative on the realistic historical level. He also includes elements from cosmology, mythology and mysticism, using these to push home his points about war and those who are indoctrinated to fight it.
The wall of trees on the edge of the Sundarbans becomes the gate to a strange world, not unlike the afterlife. The wall becomes a permeable border leading from this world of destruction to the next world of the afterlife. Saleem glides his boat through this wall into a jungle hell reminiscent of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, a purgatory like that in Dante’s Comedy, as well as an afterlife inhabited by nymphs who are neither quite Muslim houris (promised to the faithful) nor Hindu apsaras (seductive dancers).
One needs to know that in this episode Rushdie is writing about the 1971 war in Bangladesh, and that Saleem is a postmodern anti-hero who travels amid multiple layers of metafiction. Yet one also needs to know about cosmic paradigms, mystical journeys, and mythic (or religious) figures such as apsaras and houris.
Please note that throughout this study I use the word mythic in a neutral way, much as Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty argues in Other People's Myths.
For Saleem has been brainwashed by Pakistani generals who tell him that if he fights the secessionist Bengalis he’ll enjoy eternal bliss with four beautiful houri-girls in Heaven. In following these promises, Saleem literally and figuratively becomes a dog of war for the generals. Since Rushdie despises militarism and fundamentalism — and especially any combination of the two — he devises a spirit-devouring punishment for his wayward hero: instead of swimming in bliss with houri nymphs in Heaven, Saleem dissolves into a meaningless emptiness which seems to be the work of apsara-like sirens in Hell. This is a particularly nasty result for Saleem, since his greatest fear is meaninglessness and dissolution. The worldly or political moral — those who kill by the sacred sword die by the sacred sword — is closely tied to the cosmic settings (Heaven and Hell) and to mythic figures (houris and apsaras).
Yet Rushdie doesn’t stop there. He adds further depth and ambiguity to Saleem's journey into the Sundarbans Jungle by including at least three mystical elements. First, he makes subtle references to Attar's mystical journey of birds to the mythical Bird-God, the Simurg (I explain this journey in the next two sections, The Rise of the Simurg and The Return of the Simurg, and in the sections on Grimus): the birds in the treetops sing to God, just as long ago Saleem’s great-grandfather conversed with 30 species of birds before his mystical death, and just as his sister’s hypnotic nightingale voice sung Saleem and his soldiers into battle. Second, Saleem’s canine amnesiac state is likened, ironically, to that of Gautama Buddha. His near-dissolution in the arms of the disrobing nymphs parodies mystical annihilation, be it Buddhist nirvana, Hindu moksha, or Sufi fanah. Third, the magical tidal wave that sweeps Saleem out of the Sundarbans Jungle operates with a vague redemptive logic.
Thus Rushdie not only uses cosmology and mythology to structure his worldly and historical setting, and to drive home his point about the religious advice of generals. He also leaves us with puzzles that can only be appreciated by using the paradoxical logic of mysticism.
Fusion & Clash
This cursory look at the Sundarbans episode in Midnight's Children suggests the richness and complexity of Rushdie's other worlds. In the above instance cosmology is used to construct an afterlife setting into which the hero journeys. Elsewhere cosmology takes other forms and meanings: in Shame and the Verses hellish topographies shift and grow, germinating in the mind and branching out across entire nations; in Grimus the action takes place on a mountain which conforms to Dante’s Purgatory, Attar’s Qaf and Shiva’s Kailasa, all of which dissolve in a strange mystical and sexual climax. To understand such cosmological operations, it helps to be familiar with such things as a divine mountain circled by mystical birds, a cosmic ocean of stories, a mobius Hindu universe of worlds within worlds, Shiva’s cosmic cycles of destruction and creation, the Hebrew Garden of Eden, the Greek Hell guarded by a three-headed dog, etc.
This cosmic diversity is matched by a bewildering mythic diversity. For instance, in Grimus Rushdie superimposes Norse myths about Loki and Odin on top of the cosmic setting of Dante (complete with inferno, purgatory and paradise). In Grimus and Midnight's Children we find different Shivas, the former an ‘erotic ascetic’ whose lovemaking brings about a cycle of destructions and creations, and the latter a whore-murdering general whose brutal copulations bring about overpopulation as well as India’s entry onto the nuclear stage. Rushdie’s use of myth is too diverse to summarize, yet one should note that myth is mostly used metaphorically and often in mutually incompatible ways — that is, when one compares one novel to the next. For instance, in Midnight's Children Vishnu takes the form of a benign blue Jesus and in the Moor that of a belligerent Battering Ram (Ram or Rama is an incarnation of Vishnu).
In Rushdie's fiction we find the strangest of deific transmogrifications: we find djinns in gin bottles and on top of clouds; we find devils both satanic and Promethean; we find goddesses who nourish the nation, tempt believers from a one true God, or cast the world into darkness. As if all these mythic dramas taking place on all these cosmic stages weren’t enough, Rushdie adds mystical meanings to them, perturbing or inspiring readers with visions of a supernatural abyss, demonic possession, Odin’s occult communion with the giant Ash, a yogic swan who lives in two worlds at once, and, most important of all, thirty birds who become one with God.
One of the reasons it’s so hard to get a fix on Rushdie's fiction is that his paradigms fuse or clash depending on the point he’s making at the time. For instance, in Grimus he fuses paradigms to make his point about the free play of dimensions, while in Midnight's Children he sets paradigms on a collision course to make a point about communal tension in the subcontinent (communalism in this context refers to conflict between Hindus and Muslims).
By supplying information on cosmology, mythology, and mysticism, and by presenting arguments about how and why Rushdie uses these, I hope readers will get a better appreciation of Rushdie's creative and challenging fiction.