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Shape-changing in Hell: Metamorphosis and Katabasis in Rushdie’s The  Ground Beneath Her Feet


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1On the evening before the start of hostilities in Iraq in March 2003, an American soldier sat in the sand, reading Dante’s Inferno in an English translation by Robert Pinsky. What should we make of such an image, broadcast nationwide on the British TV News (BBC, 10/03/03)? Should we be reassured that the military are engaging with serious literature at such a time? Or disturbed that a soldier might be thinking of Iraq as a region of damned souls? I took it as a sign, singular but chilling, of the shaping influence of a katabatic imagination at work in both the conception and the implementation of this conflict. What do I mean by a katabatic imagination? Katabasis is the ancient Greek term for the story of a descent into Hell and return, made by a living human being (see Clark, Catabasis 32). Dante was not the first, but he was certainly the most influential writer to turn the katabatic narrative into a quest for selfhood. In The Poetics of Conversion, Freccero argues that Dante’s Commedia may be regarded as “the first […] novel of the self” (58). From Dante to the present day, the katabatic imagination views the underworld as a crucible for the forging of a “true” self (see Falconer, Hell in Contemporary Literature).

2In modern times, two katabatic narratives have been influential in shaping Anglo-American ideas about the West’s relation to Africa and the Orient: Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now. Both texts constitute ironic revisions of Dante, in which the descent to Hell uncovers not divine justice, but human injustice. All the same, as in Dante, in both these texts the descent leads to genuine self-discovery and revelation. Conrad’s novella follows the journey of a Dantean pilgrim up the Congo River, in search of the Satanic Kurtz. In darkest Africa, Marlow discovers the corrupt heart of Europe; in other words, he finds himself, or his other self, the “thing of darkness” he acknowledges as his. Coppola’s film transposes Conrad’s African journey to the American Vietnam war. The Dantean descent-to-self narrative shifts context from economic to military imperialism. But the film traverses the same arc towards revelation as Conrad’s novella. Thus, deep in the heart of Cambodian territory, Captain Willard discovers hypocrisy at the heart of America.

  • 1  Achebe writes that Conrad represents “Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African (...)

3The striking thing about both these texts is that, however overtly critical they are of Western imperialism, they can still be and often are interpreted as pro-Western, pro-war texts. On the critical side, Chinua Achebe and Edward Said have both famously denounced Conrad’s novella as racist and imperialist (Achebe, “An Image” 257; Said, Orientalism 200)1.And conversely, in sympathy with that very imperialism, US Marine Corps soldiers watched Apocalypse Now and other Vietnam war films for three days before the start of the 1991 Gulf war. As Anthony Swofford, a lance corporal in a US Marine Corps platoon stationed in the Gulf, recalls,

we send a few guys downtown to rent all of the war movies they can get their hands on. For three days we sit in our rec room and drink beer and watch all of those damned movies. We concentrate on the Vietnam films because it's the most recent war, and we rewind and review famous scenes - Robert Duvall and his helicopter gunships in Apocalypse Now; Willem Dafoe getting shot by a friendly and left on the battlefield in Platoon; Matthew Modine talking trash to a streetwalker in Full Metal Jacket. There is talk that many Vietnam films are anti-war, that the message is war is inhumane and look what happens when you train young American men to fight and kill. But, actually, Vietnam war films are all pro-war, no matter what Kubrick or Coppola or Stone intended. Mr and Mrs Johnson in Omaha or San Francisco will watch the films and weep and decide war is inhumane and terrible, but Corporal Johnson at Camp Pendleton and Sergeant Johnson at Travis Air Force Base and Lance Corporal Swofford at Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base watch the same films and are excited by them, because they celebrate the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. (“The Sniper’s Tale,” extracted from Jarhead, The Guardian 15/03/03)

4And yet Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now are both explicitly anti-imperialist texts. Their pro-imperial reception illustrates Spivak’s point that “no perspective critical of imperialism can turn the Other into a self, because the project of imperialism has always already historically refracted what might have been the absolute Other into a domesticated Other that consolidates the imperialist self.” (Spivak, quoted by Parry, “Current Theories” 38) Because they exclusively address the problem of Western subjectivity, Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now can always be recuperated into the project of constructing Western selfhood against non-Western Otherness.

5This same self-absorption seems to me to have influenced US and UK relations with the Arab world in 2003, with disastrous consequences. In a Guardian editorial, the playwright David Hare argued that since there was no consistent and coherent reason for invading Iraq, George W. Bush must have decided on invasion for no reason, just to show he could (“Don’t look for a reason” 21). But although there was—shockingly, no clear casus belli, there were deeply embedded cultural reasons for the use of “overwhelming” military force in Iraq. In my view, we were steered to war under the influence of a myth which had been gaining ground with Prime Minister Blair and the Bush administration since September, 2001. The myth is katabatic, and it goes like this: unexpectedly, you find yourself in a dark wood, rendered off balance by trauma or loss, in need of reassurance about who you are and what you stand for. You are divinely guided into a region of darkness, of violence and deprivation, of chaos and moral ambiguity. You are tempted into sympathy with what you find; but your mission is to cut through the chaos, to confront the absolute, unambiguous evil which lies at its centre. Only by confronting that evil will you regain your sense of self. Indeed only by fulfilling this heroic quest will your true self emerge, the self destined for you by God and History. Out of confusion and violence, you will bring clarity and justice. Thus in discovering your self, you will also fulfil your epic telos, your national and global destiny.

6In view of the evidence suggesting that Western narratives about Africa or the Orient really address problems of Western identity alone, Frantz Fanon argues that the “native intellectual” should reject such discourse altogether. Fanon argues in The Wretched of the Earth that too often in the past,

The native intellectual accepted the cogency of […] [Western] ideas and deep down in his brain you could always find a vigilant sentinel ready to defend the Greco-Roman pedestal. Now it so happens that during the struggle for liberation, at the moment that the native intellectual comes into touch again with his people, this artificial sentinel is turned into dust. All the Mediterranean values,—the triumph of the human individual of clarity and of beauty—become lifeless, colourless knick-knacks… those values which seemed to uplift the soul are revealed as worthless, simply because they have nothing to do with the concrete conflict in which the people is engaged. (38-9)

7I cite this passage from Fanon because it offers one way of escaping the Mediterranean myth of katabasis which has so powerfully shaped relations between the nations of West and East, north and south. The writer I am discussing today chooses a different route, however: not rejection of Greco-Roman myth and Western ideas, but accommodation and hybridization.

8In The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Salman Rushdie goes one step further than Homi Bhabha in asserting the power of the colonized over the discourse of the colonizer. Bhabha interprets mimicry, and the appropriation of the colonizer’s discourse, as “a form of defensive warfare”: “When the words of the master become the site of hybridity—the warlike sign of the native—then we may not only read between the lines, but even seek to change the often coercive reality that they so lucidly contain.” (“Signs” 104). But Rushdie provocatively imagines an Indian Parsi boy as the “secret originator” of that most quintessentially Western, American discourse: rock music (Ground Beneath 89, 95-96). The boy, Ormus Cama, is a mythological hybrid fusing the Greek musician Orpheus with the Hindu god of love, Kama (who is rescued from the underworld by his wife, Rati, goddess of music). Rushdie’s outrageous conceit is that Ormus knows the lyrics of Elvis and Bob Dylan before he hears their music performed; the music already belongs to him, and emanates from his own psychic underworld.

9On a broader scale too, Rushdie employs a Greco-Roman katabatic myth, that of Orpheus and Eurydice, to describe the migration westward of his three Indian protagonists, two musicians (Ormus and Vina) and a photographer (Rai). In the first chapter, Rai recalls Virgil’s account of Orpheus story (21-2), as it appears in Georgics (4.315-566). Virgil’s innovation is to place the myth inside a frame-story about a beekeeper named Aristaeus, who is said to have caused the death of Eurydice by pursuing her through a forest with the intention of raping her. The angry ghost of Orpheus has blighted his hive in revenge, and Aristaeus must first hear the story and then make amends for his former violence. Rushdie’s innovation, in turn, is to narrate the story through Aristaeus; the pair of star-crossed lovers are thus transformed into a love-triangle, with edgy jealousies, biased and contradictory points of view, unspoken and unfulfilled desires.

10When the Indian-Greek-American singer Vina Apsara abandons Bombay for America, Ormus follows her, both because she is his Eurydice, and because America exerts a powerful centripetal force on him (Ground Beneath 100). He wants to be where the music is, “the music of the city, of the present, which crossed all frontiers, which belonged equally to everyone.” (96) Despite his conviction that the music actually comes from him (95), and despite the ability of rock music to cross all frontiers, Ormus feels he has to be at the source of production to fulfil his potential as a musician.

11Thus begin the various migrations of Ormus, Vina and the photographer-narrator Rai, from the periphery of the world that is Bombay, to the dark centre which is New York: home of musicians, profiteers, and myth-makers. The Ground Beneath thus reverses the conventional direction of self-questing adventure narratives which, as Rushdie argues in Imaginary Homelands, is “by and large a movement that originates in the rich parts of the planet and heads for the poor.” (224) Toward the end of The Ground Beneath, Rai admits that “The old idea of the periphery and the center, of music as a ticket from the sticks to the bright lights” might have faded by the 1990s (532). But what remains current is the idea that crossing frontiers radically changes the self. And for these three characters, growing up in the fifties and sixties, the westward centripetal pull is important. New York really is their centre, as well as their Hell. It is their centre, because in New York Vina and Rai found the rock band, VTO, which will make them famous (VTO stands for Vina To Ormus, among other things, 8). It is their Hell because the music comes from pain and “suspended absence” (371), not the fulfilment of desire; because Vina can’t be faithful, and Ormus can’t be promiscuous, they have agreed to live apart for ten years and then marry. This “devil’s contract” is Rushdie’s version of the bargain Orpheus struck with Hades, that he can have his wife, but not in the present tense.

12At the same time that the three protagonists are drawn westward, America is being drawn to the East. Paradoxically, it is the intersection of opposing quests for selfhood that makes the VTO band so successful. Rushdie thus re-angles American history to accommodate his Indian descent heroes. It is just after the Vietnam war:

In this bereft moment, rudderless America is unusually open to the paradoxes of Ormus’s songs; open, in fact, to paradox itself, and its non-identical twin ambiguity too. The U.S. Army (and its rock songs) went into one East and came out with a bloody nose. Now Ormus’s music arrived like an affirmation from another East to enter the musical heart of Americanness, to flow into the river of dreams. (378)

13This second East does not function as the demonic Other by whose rejection the self is constituted; on the contrary, West and East flow together to form an ambiguous, paradoxical identity. Press this idea further, and you find that Rushdie is refashioning America in the image of 1950s Bombay, his lost Paradise, “impure old Bombay where West, East, North and South had always been scrambled, like codes, like eggs” (95-6).

14So Rushdie reverses the expected spatial co-ordinates of the infernal journey by sending his Eastern characters in search of a “West that’s exotic, fabulous, unreal.” (260). The novel’s central conceit that rock music originated in Bombay may be outrageous, but locating the start of the infernal journey in the East is historically defensible. The two oldest katabatic narratives extant are the Sumerian cyclical epic poems of c. 3500-2500 BC, recounting the descents of Inanna (or Ishtar), Queen of Heaven, and Gilgamesh, King of Uruk c. 2700-2500 BC. That Hesiod and Homer knew versions of these Mesopotamian myths is widely accepted among classical scholars; in a sense, then, the music of the underworld did infiltrate the West from the East.

15Rushdie also multiplies the contenders for selfhood so that one person’s journey collides with another’s, producing strange alliances and explosive mismatches. Every character in this book is a little Orphic, in that they all lose their heart’s desire, and they all search an underworld for a new sense of self. That the female protagonist, Vina, rescues Ormus from a coma in a symbolic descent to Hell, might be interpreted as a feminization of the Orpheus myth. But as she is only musically successful when singing Ormus’s lyrics, Vina is hardly convincing as a feminized Orpheus; still less does she attempt to reclaim the position of lost Eurydice. Rather, Vina’s characterization harkens back to Inanna/Ishtar, Demeter, Aphrodite/Venus, the Egyptian pharaoh Queen Hatshepsut, and Rati (and more), all goddesses who descend to rescue men. Vina is already deified in life, and in a chapter that remarkably anticipates the fate of Princess Diana (“Vina Divina”), her death grotesquely amplifies the process of deification. Unlike the male protagonists of the novel, then, Vina is more divine than semi-. Consequently she has a greater presence and stature than Ormus or Rai; but by the same token, despite her allegedly bewitching voice, her discourse lacks human interiority and persuasiveness. Offsetting this, Rushdie makes all his characters aware of their potential mythological analogues; he involves them in the process of creating those correspondences, as well as his readers. Myth is not an externally imposed symbolic structure, but rather an image of the world each character participates in creating dialogically. Most emphatically, Rushdie redirects our attention from Dante’s model of descent (which, for example, dominates in Rushdie’s early novel, Grimus) to that of Orpheus. It remains here to explore some of the implications of applying the Orphic model to narratives of coming-to-self through migration.

16What Rushdie emphasizes about Virgil’s narrative is that it consists of a series of metamorphoses, each precipitated by a calamitous loss: first the dying bees in the frame-narrative, which drive Aristaeus to seek out Proteus (himself the god of metamorphosis) to hear the story, then the chase through the forest which kills Eurydice, which propels Orpheus into Hell where he charms the dead, then Orpheus’s backward look which changes Eurydice from flesh back into spirit, then the grief which turns Orpheus into a famous singer, then the fame which brings him enemies, and finally the dismemberment of the singer which results in the unearthly survival of his song, and the rebirth of the hive. The transformations are part of a process that includes dying and coming into being. Hell does not produce any absolute truths—not an ultimate enemy, nor a perfected, finalized self. By contrast, at the end of Dante’s journey, the pilgrim understands how the whole system of Hell works; he knows why it has to be so, for ever, and crucially, how to leave it behind. But Orpheus achieves no supernatural clairvoyance; he does not transcend death and he does not come to terms with it. The enemy that defeats him is not Hades, but accident and desire (that of Aristaeus, and his own). Accident and desire also kill him in Thrace, so he succumbs to the opposition twice. But as Changez Chamchawala says of his painting collection in The Satanic Verses, “I like these pictures… because the hero is permitted to fail. See how often he has to be rescued from his troubles.” (70) Orpheus’s underground adventure results in the failure of his quest. In resisting his loss, Virgil’s Orpheus “finds out what he’s for,” to adopt Rushdie’s terms (GBF 223; 310); it is from this point that his music begins to make him famous.

17In Rushdie’s fictional cosmos, human beings live precariously poised over calamity— what Rai calls the “Actual,” and Lacan might conceptualise as the Real. When this underground force surfaces, our subjectivities are exploded or dissolved, cracked up or dragged down by existential Scyllae and Charbydes, or by earthquakes that combine centrifugal and centripetal energies. There seems to be no escape from this process. As Rai says, “Certain patterns recur, seem inescapable. Fire, death, uncertainty. The carpet whipped out from under us to reveal a chasm where the floor should have been. Disorientation. Loss of the East.” (313) In Rushdie’s estimation, we are all disoriented to an extent; we have all been subject to calamitous change. The human condition is to be disoriented, in the sense of being oriented towards Dis (Hades) or death. The question is how to respond to trauma and loss: does one submit to metamorphosis or resist? Does one embrace change, or, like Orpheus, remain true to a reality which may now only exist in the mind? Blandly universal as this problem sounds, it is radical in the way it manoeuvres a Western reader into universalising out of an Eastern migrant’s situation, as if we had also lost our East. The novels seems to me to work best on this “as if” basis, that is, by conjuring Western readers into think of themselves as lost Easterners.

18This is also the special dynamic of Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, another katabatic novel in which migrants find themselves anew by plunging into an infernal Western Hell. The two protagonists, Gibreel and Saladin, literally fall from the sky into London, metamorphosing in the process into respectively angelic and demonic versions of Lucifer. The archangel who resists, and the devil who embraces Hell, again provide us with two contrasting models of selfhood, two modes of return from the abyss:

Gibreel […] wished to remain, to a large degree, continuous—that is, joined to and arising from his past […] so that his is still a self which, for our present purposes, we may describe as “true” […] [ellipsis in text] whereas Saladin Chamcha is a creature of selected discontinuities, a willing re-invention; his preferred revolt against history being what makes him, in our chosen idiom, “false.” (427)

19In The Ground Beneath Her Feet, by and large the same positions are occupied by Ormus, a continuous self, and Rai, a self of “selected discontinuities.” Gibreel and Ormus both die in the end; they are eventually stretched too thin by fixing their eyes on the past. And Saladin and Rai are “jackpot boys” in that they find new lovers and hopeful futures (563). The Satanic Verses valorises discontinuity, as perhaps might be expected from a novel narrated sardonically by Shaitan/Satan (the royal “we” in the quotation above). And The Ground Beneath similarly appears to favour metamorphosis over fidelity, and adaptive over continuous selfhood. Rai tells Vina that “Metamorphosis is what supplants our need for the divine.” (461) And it may be that the concept of metamorphic identity can get us beyond that of selfhood fashioned in horrified recoil from the demonic.

20This is an idea explored by Marina Warner in Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds. Warner argues that “metamorphic writing” flourishes “in transitional places and at the confluence of traditions and civilizations,” (18) in periods of cross-cultural fertilization and migration. Texts like Ovid’s Metamorphoses dramatize the Pythagorean concept of metempsychosis, in which souls are continually reborn into different physical forms. The self told in such metamorphic writing is typically fluid, hybrid and unfinalized. For Warner, this idea of metamorphic identity is preferable to that which superseded it in Western culture: the Judeo-Christian, and Freudian, concept of a unified, integral self (203). And specifically, it is a more productive model for the relation between colonized and colonizing nations, because it emphasizes the attraction, fascination and pleasure felt on both sides in confronting otherness (20). Only once the Judeo-Christian schema is imposed on the colonial encounter, are the “protean energies of transformation and sexuality … translated into hellish imagery.” (35) Warner finds examples of the Christian demonisation of pagan metamorphosis in, for example, Dante’s Inferno and Sandro Botticelli’s Drawings for Dante.

21An implication of Warner’s study is therefore that metamorphic and katabatic narratives are mutually exclusive, even inimical, ways of telling the self. And certainly there appear to be fundamental oppositions in the two types of journey narrative. The infernal traveller journeys to discover an indissoluble core of identity, and having discovered it, remains transfixed by that singular revelation. The metamorphic traveller recognizes no singularity or finality of experience. Moreover, katabatic journeys are hierarchical in a way that metamorphic ones are not. The revelation at “ground zero” reveals the “true” self, which must then be brought to the surface intact, untouched by further experience. This necessity partly explains why infernal narratives always describe the descent in detail, and the return only in a brief summary, although it is the return that is remarkable and heroic — for as the sibyl says, “facilis descensus Averno: […] sed revocare gradum, […] hoc opus, hic labor est.” / “The descent to Avernus is easy, but to recall one’s steps […] this is the task, this the toil,” (Aeneid 6.126-8) By contrast, the metamorphic journey is endless, the soul constantly pressed into one new form after another. As Ovid’s Pythagoras says at the end of Metamorphoses, “Nor does anything retain its own appearance permanently. Ever-inventive nature continually produces one shape from another” (15, 251-2). And perhaps most importantly, in the context of post-colonial literature, infernal journeys strongly polarize conflicting sets of values. In that process, the other always loses, always remains trapped below. Whereas on metamorphic journeys the traveller becomes fantastical, and merges with otherness, rather than rejecting the other as demonic.

22Rushdie’s protagonists unquestionably undergo a series of metamorphic transformations, rather than any single Dantean conversion to integral selfhood. According to Ted Hughes, Ovid is interested in “passion where it combusts, or levitates, or mutates into an experience of the supernatural” (Tales From Ovid ix-x), a description that applies remarkably well to Rushdie’s fiction. The dialogue with Ovid is audible throughout The Satanic Verses and The Ground Beneath Her Feet. In The Satanic Verses, the schoolmasterly Sufyan expresses the “Question of mutability of the essence of the self” as a choice between the texts of Lucretius and Ovid. Sufyan declares himself in favour of Ovid, although perhaps surprisingly for a modern reader, Lucretius here stands for the idea of a discontinuous self, and Ovid, for a core of continuity amidst all the shifting of material form (276-7). And mutation, whether essential or superficial, is the driving force in The Ground Beneath, which Warner rightly cites as an example of metamorphic writing (Fantastic Metamorphoses 208).

23So is The Ground Beneath Her Feet a metamorphic, rather than a katabatic, novel? When Vina and Ormus complete their “journey to the center of the earth” (373) they do indeed find a transmogrifying “Pleasure Island” rather than a Dantean torture chamber. In this carnivalesque space, genders, races, fictions and histories mutate into each other, producing strange and comically hybrid forms. There are “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” guitarists who think they are from Mars, rock-fans who worship the Divine Mother Goddess-Ma. Lou Reed is there, but he is female; and Vonnegut’s Amos Voight is an artist who owns a studio called Slaughterhouse-22 (376-7). The King of this Pleasure Island in the heart of New York City is Yul Singh, a music producer who turns out to be a Sikh terrorist. He tells Vina that this Hell is both the centre and the edge of the world, a space of ceaseless frontier crossing. This is evidently the place for Ormus, who has already decided what he wants his music to say: “that I don’t have to choose… that I don’t have to be this guy or that guy, the fellow from over there or the fellow from here… I’ll be all of them, I can do that. Here comes everybody, right?” (303) Tim Parks cites these lines as the novel’s core message, that “everything is to be maintained in a fizz of promise, potential, multiplicity and openness.” (12)

24But while it is undoubtedly the centre and source of metamorphic energy in the novel, “Sam’s Pleasure Island” is not the novel’s destination. By the time he gets to New York, Ormus has already passed beyond this utopian version of Pythagoreanism, that the self can embody the many. Like Orpheus singing in Hades, Ormus’s music now speaks of private loss. In the Quakershaker album,

Ormus with great deliberation abandons the juggling fantasies that come to him naturally and adopts a bare, discordant manner… This is something entirely new in Ormus: this purposive disharmony. This is celibate misery speaking, the Miltonic pain of unconsummated love. Untwisting all the chains that tie/ the hidden soul of harmony. (Ground Beneath 390; italics a quotation from Milton, “L’Allegro” 143-4)

25The theme of loss and death, at the heart of the book, is what renders its metamorphic energies infernal at every shift and turn. Like Virgil’s narrative, Rushdie’s novel begins with a disaster: the death of the heroine, Vina, in an earthquake in Mexico. Rai then recounts her life-story, and that of Ormus, along with his own. The narrative is both an Orphic attempt to raise the beloved from Hell, and an Aristaean attempt to placate the angry dead (and the ghost of Vina might well be angry; by the end of the novel, Rai has fallen in love with a Vina-impersonator, younger than the original, and—happily for Rai, monogamous). So the music and love affair of Vina and Ormus, as well as Rai’s narration, all take shape in response to fatal calamity. Perhaps this is the reason Rushdie quotes Virgil’s account of Orpheus, and remains silent about Ovid’s: because in Virgil’s account, the loss of Eurydice is irreparable. Ovid’s Orpheus recovers from grief to become a shaman, a pederast, and an intradiegetic spinner of fantastic tales in Metamorphoses 10. One could argue, with Pythagoras, that he retains a continuous thread of identity through all these life-changes. But precisely because nothing ever dies in the Pythagorean universe (and Ovid describes him happily reuniting with Eurydice in the underworld), Ovid’s Orpheus seems incapable of experiencing a calamitous, human-scale loss and hence, internal discontinuity, caesura of the self.

  • 2  Cf. Warner’s analysis of the metamorphosis of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa: “unlike Ovid, in a move that i (...)

26The slighting of Ovid, whether intentional or not, underscores a certain reserve toward unalloyed, metamorphic writing in The Ground Beneath. As so often in Rushdie’s fiction, the central ideas are presented dialogically, in conflict with competing world-views. And in The Ground Beneath, while the idea of metamorphosis throws into relief the absurd absolutism of katabasis, so too does the idea of katabasis expose the metamorph as shallow, reckless and amnesiac. The metamorphic world-view shares many of the characteristics of the carnivalesque, and it may be helpful to consider their potential short-falls together. Although Pythagoras is more a mystic than materialist philosopher, his doctrine of metempsychosis is often elided with Heraclitus’ concept of time as unending flux (that you can never step in the same river twice)2. Similarly, for Bakhtin, the presiding genius of carnival is Heraclitus’s “playing boy,” the “youth of antiquity” (Rabelais and His World 82, 147, 435). In carnival, as in metamorphosis, death is not final and therefore not to be feared: “everything descends into the earth and the bodily grave in order to die and to be reborn […]. [Carnival] Time […] kills and gives birth; […] is simultaneously ironic and gay.” (435) As Warner argues for metamorphosis, so carnival has been advanced as an antidote to the Judeo-Christian-Freudian concept of private (or privatized), integral selfhood. Both the grotesque body of carnival, and the protean body of metamorphosis are unfinalized by any external Other or any temporal limit. Emerson and Morson explain, “Taking sheer delight in the Heraclitian flux, carnival understands the human body not as the mortal husk of an individual bound to suffering, and articled to an end, but as the collective great body of the people.” (Mikhail Bakhtin 93)

27But is it really possible, post-Holocaust, to idealize images of mass human degradation and collective, deindividualized death? In his sequel to If This is a Man, Primo Levi attempts a carnivalesque response to the Holocaust. As a Holocaust survivor and a great admirer of Rabelais, there could be few more qualified than Levi to attempt it. The Truce describes Levi’s directionless wandering through Europe and Russia, after his release from Auschwitz and before his return home to Italy. As the title indicates, the narrative recounts a strange in-between time, separating the infernal experience itself from the time of reckoning, which would be precipitated by going home. At the end of The Truce, the autobiographical narrator reflects, “The months just past, although hard, of wandering on the margins of civilization now seemed to us like a truce, a parenthesis of unlimited availability, a providential but unrepeatable gift of fate.” (378) Although sometimes cited as Levi’s Purgatorio, The Truce contains little sense of redemption beyond the granting of a temporary amnesia. In this text, carnival laughter fails to heal; the fantastic outward transformations of a motley cast of characters cannot disguise the fact of their spiritual shipwreck.

28But carnival time-space, like morphine, at least temporarily numbs the pain. Levi represents the Soviet Union, through which they wander, as a pre-historic country which “harbours within its heart gigantic vigour, a Homeric capacity for joy and abandon, a primordial vitality, an uncontaminated pagan appetite for carousals, carnivals, massive revelry.” (Truce 260) In this text, Levi goes by the carnival name of “Lapi” (rabbit); he describes what happens to him externally, but rarely makes known his thoughts or fears. The narrative is peopled with comic caricatures lacking interiority. Noah, for example, is “Scheiss-minister of free Auschwitz, Minister of latrines and cesspits;… Noah was a young Pantagruel, as strong as a horse, voracious and lecherous” (203). The Russian “Red House,” where Levi spends several months interned with the other freed Italian prisoners, embodies the gay relativity of the carnival chronotope:

It was a truly singular building, which had grown without order in all directions like volcanic flow; it was difficult to tell whether it was the work of many architects at loggerheads, or of a single one who was mad. The nucleus, [was] now overwhelmed and suffocated by wings and extensions added confusedly later on. (310-11)

29The “organic growth” of this building, and the evidence of layers acquired through time, presents a direct contrast to the spatio-temporal organization of the lager, in every detail obsessively rational and mechanized, and lacking all provision for durée. There is no fence enclosing the Red House, nor “any regularly constituted surveillance” (311). Instead of enclosing space, the Red House invites the traversal of boundaries—endlessly,

[Staircases] were to be found in abundance in the interminable building: emphatic and prolix staircases leading to absurd attics full of dust and rubbish; other narrow irregular staircases […] fragments of warped, forked, anomalous staircases, linking floors of different levels in adjacent buildings. Memorable even among all these, along one of the facades ran a Cyclopean staircase, which climbed fifty feet up from a grass-covered courtyard, by steps three yards wide, and led nowhere. (311)

30This, one feels, might be the wreckage of Rushdie’s “Pleasure Island,” a space with no sense of “from” or “to,” merely pointless border-crossing. Levi welcomes the sense of Heraclitian flux initially, but then grows weary of directionless migration:

in those days we felt that they [Russian peasants] were singularly close to us, blown like us by the wind, dependent like us on the fickleness of a distant, unknown, erratic will, symbolized in the wheels dragging us and them, in the stupid perfection of the circle which has neither beginning nor end. (291)

31The wheels of this lumbering military cart, filled with former prisoners and peasants, might equally symbolize the futility of the cyclic time of carnival or metamorphosis, in a post-Holocaust world.

32What is missing from The Truce as a narrative, in my view, is what is specifically excluded from either a carnivalesque or metamorphic world view: an individual, accountable, finalizable self. Morson and Emerson’s critique of Bakhtin’s theory of carnival is relevant here. They argue that,

individual responsibility entirely disappears from view when the individual is merged into the great body of the feasting people. There is no longer a self, there is only the carnival mask; other people can accomplish what “I” can if they adopt my festive clothes. Carnival as a whole appears to offer a perfect “alibi for being.” (Mikhail Bakhtin 95)

33Their critique recalls the moment in The Truce in which Levi hears that he has finally been given transport home. Arriving in the midst of a theatrical performance, the news alters the way he looks at the farcically masked actors: “under the grotesque appearance, one perceived the heavy breath of a collective dream, of the dream emanating from exile and idleness, when work and troubles have ceased, and nothing acts a screen between a man and himself” (Truce 345). Warner notes with approval that, “Ovid’s moral sense does not direct the reader [of Metamorphoses]; indeed he often seems remarkably indifferent to responsibilities and judgement; didacticism is utterly alien to him” (Fantastic Metamorphoses 39). But as the end of The Truce demonstrates, the assumption of indifference can only function as a shield against trauma temporarily. At home in his own bed, Levi wakes from the following dream:

 I am alone in the centre of a grey and turbid nothing, and now, I know what this thing means, and I also know that I have always known it; I am in the Lager once more, and nothing is true outside the Lager. All the rest was a brief pause, a deception of the senses, a dream; my family, nature in flower, my home. Now this inner dream, this dream of peace, is over, and in the outer dream, which continues, gelid, a well-known voice resounds: […] It is the dawn command of Auschwitz, a foreign word, feared and expected: get up, “Wstaw_ch.” (379-80)

34Here in the last paragraph of The Truce, the cyclic time of carnival and metamorphosis gives way to an infernal sense of reality, in multiple layers, one over another. The experience that feels most real is the one that lies deepest, that is most horrific. To counter this sense of nightmare reality, Levi has to embark on a different kind of journey, a katabatic narrative journey to recover, rather than suppress, memory and identity.

35Rushdie’s novel is a long way from Primo Levi’s autobiographical testimony, in substance and tone as well as historical moment. But in the longer view, we still share Levi’s historical context; we are still in a post-Holocaust, post-disaster world. The way we respond to calamity touches on the same raw nerves, and is likely to produce an excessive, over-determined response unless we remain aware of the connections to the past. Rushdie’s novel does not reject the metamorphic world-view altogether, but in my view he gives the notion of shape-changing a new historical weight, a greater sense of finality and accountability. By the end of the novel, the shallow protean Rai has become as Orphic as he can possibly be. Hours before her death, he tries to convince Vina that metamorphosis is a kind of human scale “revelation” (Ground Beneath 462). He is talking,

not about the ordinary, quotidian changes […] nor even about the adaptive, chameleon natures which have become so common during our migrant century; but about a deeper, more shocking capacity, which kicks in only under extreme pressure. When we are faced with the Immense. At such a hinge moment we can occasionally mutate into another, final form, a form beyond metamorphosis. A new fixed thing. (461)

36This is katabatic conversion in all but name, though conspicuously lacking any reference to absolute truth, evil or transcendent deity. Of the three central protagonists, only Rai survives in the end, and he claims to have discovered a fixed, rooted identity with Mira and her child. But the triple Western migration of Ormus, Vina and Rai illustrates what an infernal journey, and what a metamorphic change of identity, could mean to us in the present context. Metamorphosis can be a means to an end, not a way to escape history altogether; and the end, though final and binding, need not be translated as destiny.

37The Ground Beneath Her Feet is a celebratory, even Rabelaisian novel. It was written just after the fatwa had been lifted from Rushdie. But it has darker shades which might shed light on the present situation in the Middle East. If that solider in Iraq had been reading Rushdie alongside Dante, he might have picked up two useful ideas. One is that no one can anticipate the nature of the revelation that comes from confronting Otherness, whether Dis or Satan or Sadam. And the other is that this adventure in the East is unlikely to bring us clarity or closure, for all the military endeavour to “get the job done.” Whatever change is effected now will initiate a series of transformations, some of which will undoubtedly drift westward, astonishing us in years to come.

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1  Achebe writes that Conrad represents “Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril.” (“An Image of Africa” 257). For a less extreme post-colonial reading, see Burden, Heart of Darkness (78-82).

2  Cf. Warner’s analysis of the metamorphosis of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa: “unlike Ovid, in a move that indeed turns its back on the optimism of the Pythagorean creation myth, we follow the fate of the bug after the change [...] The paean of a Leonardo to the flux and fertile variety of creation, itself swelling with ancient philosophy’s excitement, withers in the grip of twentieth-century despair; and a Judaeo-Christian hierarchy of being, with unclean beasts […] at the very bottom, replaces the Heraclitean vortex.”(114) For a comparison between Pythagorean and Heraclitean philosophies, see Cornford, From Religion to Philosophy, 182-201.

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Rachel FALCONER, « Shape-changing in Hell: Metamorphosis and Katabasis in Rushdie’s The  Ground Beneath Her Feet »E-rea [En ligne], 2.2 | 2004, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2004, consulté le 24 septembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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University of Sheffield
Rachel Falconer is a senior lecturer in English Literature at the University of Sheffield. She has published books on John Milton’s verse, the theory and criticism of Mikhail Bakhtin, and the theme of the descent into Hell in contemporary literature, as well as articles on epic narrative, children’s literature and the contemporary short story. Her current research interests are in the areas of narrative theory and post-1945 British and European fiction.

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