More on the Moor

I hang Post-It notes of words and their definitions on the bookshelf that sits on my desk at work.  If I come across an unfamiliar word in my reading, I record it and post it there so I can continually but casually read and reread its definition - memorizing almost subconsciously.  I also post words that I think convey a particular idea well or that cause me to explore an issue in a different manner.  They are just triggers, prompts.  Sometimes, they become such an ready part of my vernacular that I take them down; other times, they linger until I use them in some piece of writing.  They remind me of all the beautiful words out there that speak better for me than my everyday speech can manage.  Palimpsest has been hanging from that shelf for quite a long while.  It is one of my favorite words, both for its somehow appropriate mouthiness and for the language-awe it causes me.  How amazing is it that we have a word that conveys the idea of a piece of writing material that has been written on and erased many times over?

My dictionary tells me that it comes from the Greek palimpsestos, which means scraped again.  A secondary definition provided goes beyond the literal: something having diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface.  Rushdie has employed both meanings throughout this great novel.  Vasco Miranda paints over a portrait of Aurora early in the tale, and from there, we continue to delve into and dance around the hidden layers, the visible and the invisible worlds, the multifaceted nature of life and living.  And, of course, all these layers refer back to India.

The city itself, perhaps the whole country, was a palimpsest.  Under World beneath Over World, black market beneath white; when the whole of life was like this, when an invisible reality moved phantomwise beneath a visible fiction, subverting all its meanings, how then could Abraham's career have been any different?  How could any of us have escaped that deadly layering?  How, trapped as we were in the hundred per cent fakery of the real, in fancy-dress, weeping-Arab kitsch of the superficial, could we have penetrated to the full, sensual truth of the lost mother below?  How could we have lived authentic lives?  How could we have failed to be grotesque? (184-185)

Miranda disguised his true feelings (as portrayed in the portrait of Aurora) beneath a fictionalized self-portrait.  Miranda's new work, subtitled The Moor's Last Sigh, puts himself into the role of the last Sultan of Granada.  This is the same role Aurora paints her son into in her later works, the last of which takes the same title.  The other-world she paints into these works she calls "Palimpstine."

She was using Arab Spain to re-imagine India, and this land-sea-scape was her metaphor - idealised? sentimental? probably - of the present, and the future, that she hoped would evolve. (227)

So, which of these palimpsest visions would Rushdie have us accept?  The one that makes a fiction out of reality and results in the grotesque?  Or the one that rejoices in the plural (which certainly resonates with the Hindu traditions) and considers all layers true?

For me, the fascination with the word is born out of a feeling more like the second vision.  The very existence of the word indicates a desire to keep alive the versions of truth that had gone before.  Otherwise, would it not merely be called a piece of paper?  To preserve the awareness of the words that have since been erased is to preserve their truth and their reality.


Format Changes

I've been playing with the formatting of this blog and can't seem to find anything I like.  Blogger seems rather limited, and my abilities to go outside of the automatic offerings are perhaps even more limited.  I'm going to continue to play with it (wait . . . I'm supposed to be reading!) and see what develops.  I would also welcome any suggestions for other blog services that might be better.  In any case, I apologize in advance if things look schizophrenic around here for a few days.



I have recently become enamored of a few choice reading blogs (eveningallafternoon.com and nonsuchbook.typepad.com are my favorites) and have been shamed to realize how infrequently and unthoughtfully I post.  It has been over a week since my last post, (bless me father, for I have sinned) and I am feeling the pressure (the good kind, really) to remedy that situation.  Thankfully, my grades have been submitted, and I have the beauty of a full summer stretched before me.  And though I always read a great deal in the summer, I am issuing myself a real challenge this year: to make strides in the quality and quantity of my reading and my posts here.  Of course, I have to get moved to the new apartment and continue work on the renovations to the new house, but reading comes next.  Well, after the husband, the girl, the boy, and the job, of course.  Actually, I think reading comes before the house.  I won't tell if you won't.

I'm still reading and enjoying Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh.  In particular, I am taken with the gender politics he is pursuing throughout.  His women are so strong; his men so ineffectual; however, you would be remiss to read that imbalance as a feminist manifesto.  The strength of the women is not wholly revered, and the men are not to be ignored.  I've just gotten to the section where he discusses his father's hidden powers, and the picture is quite favorable.  Besides, with a male narrative voice, and the sexual tensions surrounding motherhood and mother India and fantasy, you cannot take this book and its gender roles too much in one direction.  This passage about his mother, Aurora, explains much:
      . . .And we spent our lives living up, down and sideways to her predictions . . . did I mention that she was irresistable?  Listen: she was the light of our lives, the excitement of our imaginations, the beloved of our dreams.  We loved her even as she destroyed us.  She called out of us a love that felt too big for our bodies, as if she had made the feeling and then given it to us to feel - as if it were a work.  If she trampled over us, it was because we lay down willingly beneath her spurred-and-booted feet; if she excoriated us at night, it was on account of our delight at the sweet lashings of her tongue.  It was when I finally realised this that I forgave my father; for we were all her slaves, and she made our servitude feel like Paradise.  Which is, they say, what goddesses do. (172)

This passage could also easily be describing a sort of wild patriotism for a destructive and damaged country.  Rushdie conflates so beautifully his women with his homeland here, and to follow this metaphor to its logical conclusion, you can read the men as the mass of patriots.  Alternately adored and cast out by mother India, Abraham (Moraes' father) is described as "a rather colourless phantom hanging around the edges of tumultuous Aurora's court" (169), but Moraes also asks early on in the telling: "O, father, father, why did you let her do it to you, why were you her daily-nightly butt?  Why were we all?  Did you really still love her so much?  Did we really love her at all in those days, or was it just her long dominance over us, and our passive acceptance of our enslavement, that we mistook for love" (90-91).  Clearly, mother India's Moor is grappling here, and we are to grapple with him.

Lest you think I have pulled this metaphor from the vast echoings of my intellect, I will illuminate the source: Rushdie.  He writes on page 137: 
     Motherness - excuse me if I underline the point - is a big idea in India, maybe our biggest: the land as mother, the mother as land, as the firm ground beneath our feet.  Ladies-O, gents-O: I'm talking major mother country.
He follows this passage with a description of the 1957 film Mother India, which IMDB calls the Indian Gone with the Wind, and later this passage:
     . . .the Indian peasant woman is idealised as bride, mother, and producer of sons; as long-suffering, stoical, loving, redemptive, and conservatively wedded to the maintenance of the social status-quo. But for Bad Birju, cast out from his mother's love, she becomes, as one critic has mentioned, 'that image of an aggressive, treacherous, annihilating mother who haunts the fantasy life of Indian males'.  (139)

The Oedipal stuff actually gets a bit heavy-handed here.  No subtleties for Rushdie in this area.  He uses masterfully the real-life situation of the actress who played "Mother India" marrying the actor who played her son.  Vasco Miranda provides a thoughtfully hilarious rant on the subject where he comments: "Sublimation . . . of mutual parent-child longings, is deep-rooted in the national psyche" (138).  And who can deny the sexual titillation provided by Aurora's decision to breastfeed her only son and her sex-kitten-esque purr: "Yes, drink your fill, my little peacock, my mor" (147).

There has been so little predictability here, and I am grateful for the ever-thought-provoking, ever-engaging Rushdie.  On a side note, a colleague recommended George Saunders to me the other day, so I picked up In Persuasion Nation from the stacks this morning and read the first story, "I CAN SPEAK."  His humor and ability to capture a certain voice in this epistolary short story is deeply promising.  I refuse, however, to check out the book.  I will leave it on my desk and dip in periodically until I finish the Rushdie.