Pomp and Intertext

Cultural Commentary by Erica Eller

Tag: Arundhati Roy

She (also) brought us “The End of Imagination”

This year brought us Arundhati Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which I have not yet read. She soared to the top of any publisher’s chart in the wake of her first novel, God of the Small Things, and then “disappeared” (for some) into her role as an activist, non-fiction commentator on politics. When people craved the artist, she narrated the facts. We should be grateful! I just finished reading her collected essays, The End of Imagination published in 2016 by Haymarket Books. What I’m about to write is rough–culled from memory–because I don’t have the time to go searching through my kindle for quotes or anecdotes found in the book. Then again, I never promised polished, perfect analysis on this site.

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What a soreness it is to see how deeply entrenched we are in the same themes she wrote about starting nearly twenty years ago–nuclear arms races, displacement via multinational investments in hydroelectric power and dams that devastated the Indian landscape, crisis market economics, the Afghanistan War, and the longstanding impact of the Patriot Act and the War on Terrorism following 9/11. She honors Noam Chomsky in these pages and questions her role as an author with a deeply committed spirit of activism that does not look away. She distinguishes the importance of her role as a fiction and a writer of non-fiction, which she bemoans for falling into the category of activist-writing. Labels haunt her because her work, as any work of a brilliant author would, constantly defies them.

I found this collection profound and impassioned–urgent. How have we sustained this treacherous urgency for so long without apparent headway or resolution? Reading these essays lifted any veil that clouded my vision about the curse of neoliberalism. Where can I possibly start?

I felt relieved of some ignorance after reading this book. I have read North American tales of neoliberalism brought to us by Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky. I have read European theoretical critiques brought to us by Guy Debord, Tikkun, Franco Berardi, Zizek, Serres, Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari, but these didn’t draw me in like Roy’s pages. The approach is different. Testimonies and pure blasphemy, not theories, are narrated to us as a comprehensive story in Roy’s text. Her wit ascends proportionately to the horror. She paints a picture of liberal ignorance, freedoms being stripped away, the gloss of democracy that maintains perpetual warfare, and so on and so forth.

When she questions her role as an artist, she is questioning a thousand-year-old caste system. These are lived injustices, that she gives testament to–not by accident, but by an investment in opening herself up to the social wounds at her disposal. She does not suppress them for her own benefit. She is not one to hide her head in the nearest hole or gloss over the havoc wreaked upon individual lives for the sake of her educated audience. Her writing stings and sings. She acknowledges her implication in injustice while with such a candid outcry and binds herself to the cause of poor people and the environment by unraveling tight knots of hypocrisy.

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She reminds us that nowhere on paper can we find the economic benefits that hydroelectric building projects bestowed upon India. She is waving the non-existent reports in the thin-air and counting up the lives of the displaced–all from the lower strata of society–now virtually disappeared as an interest group. Resettlement promises were not kept and the losses merely place those people who depended on their small farming for survival–on lands now immersed by a reservoir–in perpetual limbo without relief.

Now, if you’re following the news, these hydroelectric dams are guaranteed to investors in Brazil, causing very similar indigenous strife for the sake of very dubious benefits to society, considering their guaranteed deforestation and pollution of the rain forest and its watersheds. The social benefits of the developmental-craze sweeping across “developing countries” has proven false–again and again. The same goes for Turkey, where I currently live, with its debt-driven megaprojects.

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Roy reveals the hypocrisy of Nelson Mandela to remind us that market economy politics is not a sacred sphere. Even our saints could not withstand its pressures. It is a rigged, delusional battle of unjust promises to wealthy investors backed by militaristic regimes. The apartheid continues under the false guise of a democratic market economy (an oxymoron).

The insistence of her words gave my own vision of dissent new life. I found it acceptable after reading this book to call myself an anti-American. To articulate the precise moments when the government and its henchmen conflate its policies with romantic ideals to relieve itself of accusation. To recall that secretary of state Madeleine Albright could write off Iraqi children as collateral damage, a simple calculation error, and brush it aside as a necessary part of the process. So often, I don’t know how to speak about these things, let alone how to demand justice. She offers up her own voice on behalf of others. She is generous in that regard. She wants us to take her passion and let it ignite our own.

What are the crimes she cries out against? Crimes of globalization, i.e., that the global market economy is simply a more efficient, updated form of imperialism. Guarantees for investments can wreak havoc by displacing millions of poor citizens with the click of a mouse. Instability and crisis are not merely symptoms, but strategic tools in this system of distraction. The military is the backbone to the economy. Things we’ve heard before–but she reminds us that we need to pay attention, for the power to resist lies in public outcry.

She reminds us that the Taliban was in part a U.S. invention because Afghanistan had been primed and stoked to become more zealous in its religious opposition of communist Russia, as a ploy by the U.S. This was back in the 1970s. She articulates with ease how weapons are sold to both sides of an argument by the U.S. These are not details to overlook and write off as coincidental marginalia. Her book gives a vision of what it means to connect the dots, and to dedicate oneself to caring, to speaking out about what interpretation tells us.

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She details how terrorism is used as a blanket term to crush non-aligned ideologies, beliefs, critiques, protests, etc. This manipulative rhetoric was devised by the U.S. and exported to developing countries. She describes how this occurred in India with its armed backlash against Muslims and it fittingly describes the situation in Turkey, where the military coup attempt was followed by an exploitative system of mass-jailings, firings, and etc. to initiate an educational, financial and political restructuring of the country to benefit the wealthy few. All in the name of democracy.

So I read it with my mouth agape in astonishment and I suggest you do the same.

 

 

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Why is Ecology pushed to the Margins of Literary Criticism?

People often push the importance of ecology for literary writers to the margins. While the field of Ecocriticism exists to study this particular intersection, I feel that certain writers warrant their ecological concern to play a more prominent role in the way critics write about them.

Margaret Atwood’s wikipedia entry describes her as a Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, and environmental activist, with “environmental activist” conspicuously listed last. Her various roles are also listed as if her environmental concerns and her literary are discreet parts of her oeuvre, operating independently of one another. However, considering the thematic content of her recent works such as Oryx and Crake and Surfacing and the artistic projects she has developed, it is clear that ecological thought, as a philosophical world-view, motivates her writing in an essential way. Her legacy will be skewed in this regard, in that critics will continue to diminish the essential role that an awareness of nature plays in her literary praxis. The same is true for other authors.

An obvious example of an author whose work fundamentally derives from natural observations is Henry David Thoreau. His literary texts are clearly shaped in both form and content by the experience of living his solitary existence on Walden Pond. What is less known about his legacy as a thinker is that he made a substantial scientific contribution to our understanding of ecological succession. By observing the strange patterns of tree growth after clear cuts took place in which pine trees would grow up after oaks had been cleared, he developed a theory of tree succession in his text, The Succession of Forest Trees. This text gave farmers and later scientists important insights about how seed dispersal is dependent upon the interactions of other organisms such as squirrels who carried seeds. His scientific and literary approach both equally contributed to this breakthrough and this historical episode is being highlighted by theorists of the Nature of Science. However, this scientific contribution is overshadowed by his other literary work in which people often give undue emphasis to the humanistic elements rather than his environmental insights.

Vladimir Nabokov was another naturalist whose etymological insights as a butterfly collector led to a later proven theory of the evolution of blue butterflies. Furthermore, his vast amounts of time spent in nature contributed to his insights about aesthetic mimicry which play prominently throughout some of his most famous works such as Pale Fire. His engagement with nature played a crucial role in his literary production.

Many contemporary authors including Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Leguin, and Arundhati Roy have turned their full attention to using their literary influence as a platform for environmental activism. After Roy’s publication of the critically acclaimed novel, “God of the Small Things, she has written mostly nonfiction that has criticized the Indian government for militarization and the construction of large scale nuclear energy plant and dam. Her political activism essay writing is intrinsically connected to both social and environmental concerns which are both inseparable from the experience of the landless poor in India.

Likewise, Ursula K. Leguin has written essays that defend the central significance of ecology as a concern of the left and Margaret Atwood is also an active member of the Canadian Green Party and an honorary president of the Rare Bird Club division of BirdLife International.

Reading these author’s work alongside other ecologically inspired writers can reveal a cohesive set of literary interests based on natural history and its role in society. Such significance depends on their experiences and observations of the environment.

In most of these cases, environmental activism is fueled by the experience of spending valuable time observing the natural environment, which forms not only the subjective material of the writing, but also an underlying ecologically-aware worldview. Such a view may not be in direct opposition to other economic, political or religious world views, but it often supersedes those concerns. In a Guardian Interview, Margaret Atwood dramatically described the greater significance of natural constraints to those of human rights:

The trouble with politicians [at events like the Copenhagen summit of 2009] is that no one wants to go first, go skinny dipping and take the plunge. Oh, and then you have people arguing about fatuous things like the environment and human rights. Go three days without water and you don’t have any human right. Why? Because you’re dead. Physics and chemistry are things you just can’t negotiate with. These, these are the laws of the physical world.

Margaret Atwood seems to have developed an understanding that the inclusive framework of the natural world should be our primary plane of inquiry, whereas other systems have a tendency to ignore or distract from this already-existing system.

This privilege for ecology need not be antagonistic towards technology or a modern/futuristic society, as Ursula K. Le Guin’s futuristic novels reveal. Instead, she feels that technological advances that are compatible with natural phenomena are this that we, as humankind, should privilege. In her recent essay about Murray Bookchin, who is known for his famous essay, “Ecology and Revolution,” Le Guin describes his urban social and technological perspective the future of the political left, a contribution which surprised the journal editors who published it. I think this surprise derives from an inability to take authors’ environmentalist “side projects” seriously as an essential element of their work.

I don’t personally know much about Murray Bookchin’s ideas yet, but from this article in Jacobin, I learned that his work has had an influence in my current region of the world (Turkey) within the movement to free Kurdistan.

Overall, I believe the only way to fully honor these literary figures through criticism is by conceiving of their legacy as situated within a tradition that bridges natural history, ethics and literature.

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