The Rise of the Simurg
The Huge Scenic Background / Attar's Valley / 4 Points
Grimus: Simurg with the Letters All Mixed Up
The Scenic Background
If this world is not to our taste, well, at all events there is Heaven, Hell, Annihilation -- one or other of those large things, that huge scenic background of stars, fires, blue or black air. All heroic endeavour, and all that is known as art, assumes that there is such a background, just as all practical endeavour, when the world is to our taste, assumes that the world is all. But in the twilight of the double vision a spiritual muddledom is set up for which no high-sounding words can be found; we can neither act nor refrain from action, we can neither ignore nor respect Infinity. (E.M. Forster, A Passage to India, 212)
It's not quite true that all that's known as art assumes the existence of things such as Heaven, Hell, and Annihilation. Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that confirming, questioning, and denying this "huge scenic background" has preoccupied artists from the days of Gilgamesh to those of Thus Spake Zarathustra.
Rushdie's early novels in particular are full of this huge scenic background and of the confusion or muddledom which comes from being caught between the cosmic scene and the earthly scene. The title of his first novel, 'Grimus,' is itself an anagram of a mythical bird, the 'Simurg,' who is rumoured to reside on the cosmic Mountain of Qaf, and who is the object of the Sufi mystical quest dramatized in The Conference of the Birds, an 11th Century poem by the Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar. This, however, is only the tip of the iceberg. We are, after all, dealing with a writer who was born into a liberal Muslim family and did his Masters in Islamic History. Rushdie knows all about The Arabian Nights and about writers such as Khayyam, Rumi, and Mahfouz. He was also born in Mumbai, where Hinduism is dominant, and hence he's very familiar with the Hindu gods and the Hindu classics, and with less well-known works such as Somadeva's Kathāsaritsāgara or The Ocean of the Streams of Stories. Finally, his family was fluent in English, and he was educated in England -- at Rugby and Cambridge -- where writers such as Snorri, Dante, Shakespeare, Eliot, and Bulgakov are part of the cultural and literary landscape.
The otherworldy paradigms Rushdie borrows from the cultures of East and West sometimes fuse, and sometimes clash or disintegrate. His first novel, Grimus, is the most spectacular case of Eliot-style fusion or syncretism. A brief look at this novel allows us to see how deeply diverse otherworldly paradigms are integrated with each other in his texts. It also allows us to see the importance of Attar's Sufi paradigm of the birds which fly over the vales of mysticism to the peak of Mount Qaf.
Written in 1975, Grimus presents a consistent fusion of four otherworldly paradigms, drawn from a) Attar, b) Dante, c) Norse myth, and d) Hinduism -- all of which can be seen in terms of 1) cosmic landscapes, 2) mythical figures, and 3) mystical experiences:
1) Cosmic landscapes: a) Attar: Flapping Eagle and Virgil are the metaphorical 'birds' who 'fly' over the seven valleys of Attar's mysticism to the top of Mount Qaf (which becomes Mount Calf in the novel, since it's a dystopian golden calf of sorts); b) Dante: the protagonist journeys into an Inferno, up a Mountain of Purgatory (Mount Calf), past a Blessed Rose (the Rose), and into an ineffable Paradise; c) Norse: Loki (Deggle) journeys to do battle with Odin (Grimus) and thus precipitates the cataclysm of Ragnarök (the implosion of the Mountain of Calf); d) Hinduism: the love-making of Shiva and Parvati (Eagle and Media) on top of Mount Kailasa (Mount Calf) shakes the universe and dissolves the novel.
2) Mythical figures: a) Attar: the bird-soul (Eagle) flies to the mythical Simurg, helped by the wise bird-guide, the Hoopoe (Virgil); b) Dante: the pilgrim Dante (Eagle) is guided through the lower realms by Virgil (Virgil) and is then guided through the upper realms by Beatrice (Media); c) Norse: the powerful yet coercive god Odin (Grimus) tries to control the main agent of chaos, Loki (Deggle); and d) Hinduism: the tantric, cosmos-shaking union of Shiva (Eagle) and Parvati (Media) dissolves the divine mountain and ends the novel.
3) Mystical experiences: a) Attar: Flapping Eagle journeys past iconoclasm to mystical annihilation; b) Dante: Dante's final vision of the Rose is ineffable, beyond words (likewise, Grimus' mechanical Rose must be destroyed), c) Norse: the catastrophe of Ragnarök is foreseen by Odin (Grimus), and humanity is resurrected on the island of Gimle (this rebirth is suggested by the union of Flapping Eagle and Media), and d) Hinduism: Shiva simultaneously destroys and creates (again, suggested by the union of Eagle and his consort Media, who takes the role of both Parvati and Shakti).
Rushdie’s first five novels might even be seen in terms of Attar’s Conference of the Birds (1177) -- especially in terms of Attar’s concept of the valleys of mysticism. As readers, we go from the top of one side of the valley (his first novel, Grimus), down into the depths of the valley (Midnight's Children, Shame, and The Satanic Verses), and then back up the other side (Haroun and the Sea of Stories).
At the top of one side of the valley -- Grimus, published in 1975 -- we find the Simurg in all its iconoclastic glory. That is, we find it not only broken on the altar of man’s idolatry, but also exploded into a general annihilation. In Midnight’s Children (1981) we drop from this peak of mystical annihilation, and fall precipitously into the Fallen World: we fall from the Eden of Kashmir into a divided world and into the degradation of Attar’s 11th century ideal of Conference (which is used by Rushdie to stand against the idea of subcontinental Partition) and into the degradation of democracy (Indira Gandhi’s suspension of parliament during the Emergency). By the end of the novel there only remain vague hints of Attar’s unity to save us from the bleakness of history. In Shame (1983), we fall yet further into the valley, so deep that the lofty ideals of Attar are all but crushed beneath the weight of lust, violence, and militarism. While it would seem there's no where to go but up, we fall yet further, into the deep abyss that is The Satanic Verses (1988). Here, the forces of the deep are unleashed, snuffing out the eclecticism of Sufyan and the mystical mountain peaks of Alleluia. The fifth novel, however is a glorious return to the unifying ideals of Attar: in Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1991), Rushdie returns us to the peaks, the dark forces vanquished, the journey at once finished and just beginning.
While in his early fiction Rushdie pokes enormous holes in what Forster calls the huge scenic background of stars, fires, blue or black air, this background remains there nevertheless. It insinuates itself into the concerns of his characters, and is crucial to the structures and meanings of his narratives. This fits with what Rushdie calls, in an interview with Eleanor Wachtel, a type of fiction “which doesn’t prejudge whether your characters are right or wrong,” “a form in which the idea of the miraculous can coexist with observable, everyday reality” (“Salman Rushdie” in Writers & Company; In Conversation with CBC Radio’s Eleanor Wachtel, 149).
Grimus: Simurg with the Letters All Mixed Up
Rushdie’s attempt to explore the huge scenic background of stars, fires, blue or black air begins in 1975 with the publication of his first novel Grimus. Rushdie entered the novel in the Gollancz science-fiction contest. It didn’t win, possibly because it focuses more on other worlds of poetry and myth than on the types of worlds we find in Star Wars or Star Trek. While the novel contains intergalactic journeys and a race of extraterrestrial stone frogs, its setting is a strange fusion of four cosmographies, its journey structure derives mainly from Dantean and Sufi itineraries, and its characters have heavy mythological and mystical associations.
In Grimus, Rushdie conflates four otherworldly schemas, the most important being that of Attar’s Conference of the Birds, a long poem written in the Sufi idiom of twelfth-century Persia. Attar’s flight of 30 birds toward mystical unity and annihilation on Mount Qaf supplies the model for Flapping Eagle’s journey up the Mountain of Calf, which is a false or Golden Calf version of the sacred mountain. Eagle climbs beyond the imperfect Calf to Attar’s Impossible Qaf, a mountain which symbolizes the obliteration of the self and a union of disparate realities. Rushdie conflates Attar’s union and annihilation on Mount Qaf with the following scenarios: Dante and Beatrice’s trajectory from the Mountain of Purgatory to the spheres of Heaven; Shiva and Parvati’s near-cataclysmic intercourse on Mount Kailasa; and the Norse apocalypse of Ragnarok, after which Gimle rises from the sea. The novel contains other such conflations, all of which underscore ideals of iconoclasm, multidimensionality, and the infinite trajectory of the soul. While Grimus is skeptical and Kafkaesque in many ways, it is also intensely idealistic—not far from Eliot’s modernist fusions in Four Quartets, or from Whitman in Song of Myself when he says to his cosmic spirit,
And I said to my spirit When we become the enfolders of those orbs, and the pleasure and knowledge of every thing in them, shall we be fill'd and satisfied then? / And my spirit said No, we but level that lift to pass and continue beyond. (Section 46)
Mysticism and secularism complement one another in Grimus: Rushdie suggests that if dimensions must have controlling Objects, then such Objects generally ought to remain hidden or they'll be subject to selfish manipulation. In the novel, the Rose is such a divine object, which makes sense since the rose is a symbol of love and union in both Christian and Islamic tradition. The rose is a particularly powerful metaphor in Dante (the Blessed Rose brings together the most devoted souls at the end of Paradiso) and in Sufism (where it represents love, the loving soul, and God). As intimated in Virgil’s diary (with a tip of the hat to Nietzsche), the Rose initially appears to be hidden, inactive, or dead -- a status symbolized by the dead bird of paradise and by the Rose’s location in the forest next to the cemetery. Virgil brings the Rose from the cemetery into the world and he uses it to fly to the far-off (but mystically near) planet of the dervish-like Spiral Dancers. Later, he uses the esoteric knowledge he finds on that planet to free Eagle from Khallit and Mallit, who represent dichotomous, dogmatic thinking.
Unlike Virgil, Grimus does not have impeccable Classical credentials; his name suggests a grimace and is a negative anagram of Simurg, the bird who is at once thirty birds (si murg in Persian) and who leads Attar’s bird-souls to God (just as Virgil leads Dante through Hell, up the Mountain of Purgatory, and toward God). While Virgil uses the Rose for spiritual flight and liberation, Grimus makes it an instrument of his ego. In so doing, he reduces religion to manipulation, and he turns reality into a game that reduces the lives of others to fictions and to entities that have no free will. Grimus’ detachment from the people he manipulates remains a degradation of Attar’s notion that the universe is irrelevant once one reaches mystical union with God. In Attar, the thirty birds find mystical annihilation after their conference; they don't reconvene in the form of a grimacing authority. Or, as Virgil puts it, “If there were no god, we should have to invent one [and] since there is a Grimus, he must be destroyed” (G 101).
Grimus prefigures other Rushdie characters -- the Widow, Dawood, the Imam, the Cultmaster, etc. -- who think that believing in a Higher Truth can translate into controlling others and implementing their own Plan for this world. Such characters are in no way limited to Rushdie’s earlier fiction -- as we see in Shalimar’s Talib the Afghan, who would fit in well in Khmer Rouge Cambodia, except of course that he would himself be killed for his beliefs. He tells Shalimar, “God spits on entertainment. I would also order the execution of dentists, professors, sportsmen and whores” (272). In Enchantress we meet “the necromancer of Stamboul, the long-hatted long-bearded Sufi mystic of the Bektashi order, adept in the mesmeric arts and the building of [coercive] memory palaces, working at the behest of a certain newly minted Pasha” (187). We also meet Shah Ismail, who shouts out “I am very God, Very God, Very God!,” and boasts “in the words of the Sufi saint Shaykh Zahid,” “I will break the polo sticks of my adversaries.” As the narrator comments, “Modesty, generosity, kindness: these were not his most renowned characteristics” (213). Rushdie’s point here seems to be that if these are the men speaking in the name of Sufism, then it would be better not to speak of it at all.
Eagle’s refusal to use the Rose in Grimus’ coercive and self-aggrandizing manner suggests that an inter-dimensional God-like power either shouldn’t exist or shouldn’t be accessible to finite beings. Rushdie may be speculating about a universe without a personal God when Eagle asks an assembly of Gorfs (Frogs, anagrammatically) if it's possible to conceptualize a dimension without an Object. Because the Gorfs think structurally, they can't imagine a dimension without an ordering or contextualizing mechanism such as the Rose. Dota (Toad), however, concedes “that he could conceive of a Dimension-dweller devising such a Concept” (G 251). Having no Object, or having a hidden, unattainable, transcendent Object (a Supra-dimension or transcendent God), suggests the possibility of living in dimensions that aren't liable to being manipulated from above or outside. This seems to be the only God Rushdie can countenance, and this iconoclastic deity may lie behind his numerous parodies of an anthropomorphic God -- from the comic phantasm of Aadam’s anger in Midnight's Children to the bumbling myopic “Guy Upstairs” in the Verses.
The infinite dimensionality Rushdie explores in Grimus also crops up fifteen years later in Haroun and the Sea of Stories. The hero of the story, Haroun, sees in the currents of the moon Kahani (Hindi for “Story”) “a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity.” He sees “all the stories that had ever been told” as well as those “that were still in the process of being invented.” The Ocean “was in fact the biggest library in the universe” (H 72). Rushdie borrows this ‘Ocean of the Streams of Story’ from the 11th Century Kashmiri Hindu writer Somadeva; the conflation of the topographies of Somadeva and Attar suggest a positive blend of Hindu and Islamic paradigms. Both Grimus and Haroun posit infinite dimensions or permutations and both depict a scenario in which the protagonist defeats a megalomaniac who tries to impose a specific pattern on what is otherwise a metamorphic, multidimensional “setting.” Eagle takes this victory furthest, for while Haroun and company restore the flow of story-streams into the Ocean, Eagle, as Shiva, becomes Somadeva’s Ocean that contains an infinity of potential stories.
Next: Intro 3: The Return of the Simurg