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Family Through Fiction

Very early in his writing career, Salman Rushdie declared himself a literary descendant of Herman Melville, but he did not elucidate the lineage.With The Enchantress of Florence, Rushdie makes plain Melville’s influence on him. The Enchantress of Florence clearly echoes Moby-Dick and other Melville works in its themes, its concerns, its imagery and its style. Even where Rushdie’s novel diverges drastically from his forebear’s fiction – namely in making female characters central rather than marginal – Melville’s legacy asserts itself.In 1982, soon after the publication of his second novel, Midnight’s Children, Rushdie presented a talk in which he names the “parents” that he, as an “inescapably international” writer and “literary migrant,” has the pleasurable freedom to choose for himself. In the piece from which Imaginary Homelands (1991) takes its title, Rushdie points to Melville among others in the “polyglot family tree” against which he measures himself. He does not elaborate, and in essays collected in his second volume of nonfiction, Step across This Line (2002), he makes only passing references to Melville. He lists Moby-Dick among initially derided masterpieces. He mentions “Bartleby the Scrivener,” but does so when discussing the influence of Italo Calvino, not Melville, on his work.

Like a Melville novel, The Enchantress of Florence (2008) involves a story-telling seafarer, “a yellow-haired liar from foreign parts” in a multi-colored trickster’s coat, whose identity and name are uncertain. Rushdie’s character “crossed the world to leave one story behind and to tell another.” Of the stowaway who travels from Italy to the capital of the Mughal empire in order to tell his tale to Akbar the Great, Rushdie writes: “This was his way: to move toward his goal indirectly, with many detours and divagations.” He could be describing the narrator of Moby-Dick (1851), who crossed the ocean before telling of his journey.

The novels have more than itinerant talkers in common. Both share what novelist E.L. Doctorow calls “technical effrontery,” an audacious disregard for narrative economy. The “good abiding humor of language” that Doctorow notices in Moby-Dick shines in Rushdie’s gleeful linguistic pyrotechnics. Doctorow groups Melville among “those writers who make their language visible, who draw attention to it in the act of writing and don’t let us forget it,” and Rushdie undoubtedly belongs among these “song-and-dance men, the strutting dandies of literature.” Melville and Rushdie stack fact on fact, fabrication on fabrication, image on image, in elaborate constructions that use fable and allusion, myth and history. Melville built his story from the scraps of the destroyed whale ship Essex, along with much other raw material, and Rushdie includes Niccolò Machiavelli and relatives of the Vespucci after which America is named, but neither attempts anything like a straight historical novel.

Storytelling amounts to magic in Rushdie’s work. Not only do real and imaginary characters interact; the border between the two realms blurs. For instance, the emperor Akbar imagines a wife whose company he prefers to his actually existing ones, who grow jealous. Somehow her absence does not interfere with her presence. When Akbar remembers the fictionalized account of an English queen’s letter that the storyteller he calls a charlatan convincingly told him, he recalls “that witchcraft requires no potions, familiar spirits, or magic wands. Language upon a silvered tongue affords enchantment enough.” Rushdie could be taking cues from Melville, who in The Confidence-Man (1857) says the cosmopolitan man has a way of speaking that is “sort of magical” and has “the power of persuasive fascination.” At the conclusion of one of the many stories told in the novel (a digression in the same way the episode involving the Elizabeth’s epistle is, but no less indispensable for that), the cosmopolitan leaves “his companion at a loss to determine where exactly the fictitious character had been dropped, and the real one, if any, resumed.”

Much like the “mysterious imposter” of Melville’s The Confidence-Man, characters in Rushdie’s novel frequently have multiple monikers. The stranger who recounts the story of a forgotten ancestor of Akbar’s goes by Mogor dell’Amore (the Mughal of Love) and Niccolò Vespucci (combining elements of historical figures who factor in Rushdie’s novel). The woman who enchants the city of the Medicis (and the Machiavellis), and whose tale also enchants Akbar’s subjects, is known as Princess Qara Köz and the Lady Black Eyes.

When considering whether to believe the traveler’s tale of the alluring princess whom he claims as his mother, Akbar confronts dilemmas that Melville dramatizes in his novels. Akbar realizes that to accept the “foreigner” into his family would imply that others could become part of its as well: “it would be a further step in the creation of a culture of inclusion … in which all races, tribes, clans, faiths, and nations would become part of the one grand Mughal synthesis, the one grand syncretization of the earth, its sciences, its arts, its loves, its differences its problems, it philosophies, its sports, its whims.” This society Akbar envisions resembles that on Melville’s fictional ships in Moby-Dick and The Confidence Man. When describing those aboard both, Melville refers to a nationally and racially mixed group in the 1790 French National Assembly. “An Anacharsis Clootz [sic] deputation from all the isles of the sea, and all the ends of the earth,” accompany Ahab on the Pequod. In the sort of frenzied list-making that is also a feature of Rushdie’s work, Melville delineates at length the variety of individuals on the Fidèle. In summary, he calls the passengers “a piebald parliament, an Anacharsis Cloots [sic] congress of all kinds of that multiform pilgrim species, man.” However, like a skeptic in The Confidence-Man, Akbar has doubts about this multicultural utopia and the person whose stories suggest it. “To fall for a smooth-talking stranger about whom nothing was known save what he himself proffered as the incomplete, chronologically problematic take of himself? For to give him official standing would be, in effect, to say that the truth no longer mattered if his tale was just a clever lie.” (In Imaginary Homelands, Rushdie himself challenges Melville’s assertion that the United States was a nation “predestinated at creation.”) A century and a half after Melville, finding the truth through clever lies remains the trick.

Both Rushdie and Melville play with the tension between deception and revelation in storytelling’s juggling of appearances and reality. Both concern themselves with what Melville in “Hawthorne and His Mosses” (1850) dubbed the crafty art of truth-telling:

For in this world of lies, Truth is forced to fly like a scared white doe in the woodlands; and only by cunning glimpses will she reveal herself, as in Shakespeare and other masters of the great Art of Telling the Truth, – even though it be covertly, and by snatches.

Rushdie’s Machiavelli “believed that truth was in fact always hidden, that the apparent, the overt, was invariably a kind of lie.” This recalls Ishmael’s frequent musings about the whales’ exposure and concealment: “For as the secrets of the currents in the seas have never yet been divulged, even to the most erudite research; so the hidden ways of the Sperm Whale when beneath the surface remain, in great part unaccountable to his pursuers…”; and “The whale, like all things that are mighty, wears a false brow to the common world”; and “In life, the visible surfaces of the Sperm Whale is not the least among the many marvels he presents.” Melville firmly binds the search for ever-elusive truth to writing when he describes the ink on the body of a harpooner. Queequeg’s tattoos make “a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth,” but he cannot read it, leaving the mortal volume’s mysteries “unsolved to the last.” The line echoes Ishmael’s conclusion that pictures of whales inevitably fail to capture their subjects and that “the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last.”

Melville contrasts the land and the sea when addressing the known and the unknown, and so does Rushdie. When in The Enchantress of Florence Rushdie describes the pleasure Akbar feels “when the subtleties of water replaced the banality of solid ground beneath his feet,” he not only suggests the title of his earlier novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet; he also harkens back to Ishmael, who in Moby-Dick contemplates “the subtleness of the sea.” For Melville, land’s banality includes “safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends, all that’s kind to our mortalities,” while “in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God….” Not coincidentally, when Akbar wishes to hear the traveler talk, he takes him onto one of his boats.

Rushdie does more than borrow Melville’s rejection of the dullness of the port for profound watery depths. He also adapts one of Melville’s most vivid metaphors. The title figure of The Enchantress of Florence functions like the whiteness of whale in Moby-Dick. When the stranger’s story of a princess written out of history spreads through Akbar’s city, residents assign various meanings to her. Rushdie creates a parallel with the indefinite colorlessness of Ahab’s hunted whale, which is simultaneously a “dumb blankness” and “full of meaning.” Doctorow identifies exuberance as Melville’s quintessential characteristic, and with exultant excess redolent of his self-selected ancestor, Rushdie writes:

Plainly Lady Black Eyes was becoming all things to all people, an exemplar, a lover, an antagonist, a muse; in her absence she was being used as one of those vessels into which human beings pour their own preferences, abhorrences, prejudices, idiosyncrasies, secrets, misgivings, and joys, their unrealized selves, their shadows, their innocence and guilt, their doubts and certainties, their most generous and also most grudging response to their passage through the world.

Of the princess could be said what Melville says of the whale: “symbolize whatever grand or gracious thing [s]he will…, no man can deny that in its profoundest idealized significance it calls up a peculiar apparition of the soul.” In Melville’s novel and in Rushdie’s, individuals both find themselves and lose themselves in others’ stories.

In Moby-Dick, Melville associates women with homey security. The novel’s few female characters are described in terms almost identical to those used for boring ports. Aunt Charity, the sister of Captain Bildad who helps to prepare the Pequod for its last expedition, provides “safety, comfort, and consolation” – qualities identified with land. Before they sail with Ahab, Ishmael and Queequeg partake of Mrs. Hussey’s nourishing chowder at the Try Pots inn. While those two women have bit parts in the novel, Ahab’s “young girl-wife” is only mentioned, and the mother of the captain’s child is assigned an exclusively domestic role. Ahab resumed whaling after making a single dent in their “marriage pillow.”

In contrast, Rushdie’s women embody dangerous landlessness. Even if by putting the princess in the position of the whale, he makes a woman the objects of men’s imaginations (or, in the case of Jodha, the immaterial spouse conjured by Akbar, creations of them), he at least gets them out of the house. Princess Köz and the Mirror, her only slightly less beautiful near double and servant, take the opposite course of the man who later tells their story, leaving the East and going West. Further, in Sikri as in Florence, it is not only men who project their fears and desires onto her. If Melville’s women are nurturing, when they’re present at all, Rushdie’s female characters are disruptive and destabilizing. When the princess, a descendant of Genghis Kahn, first arrives in Florence, she charms the city: “poets reached for their pens, artists for their brushes, sculptors for their chisels.” The spell does not last: “What a short journey from enchantress to witch. Only yesterday she had been the city’s unofficial patron saint. Now there was a mob gathering at her door.” She enflames detractors upset over that pesky, endless uncertainty over appearance and what lies beneath: “There were still voices that suggested that this new incarnation of the Woman-wizard through whom the occult powers of all women were unleashed was a disguise, and that the true faces of such females were still the fearsome ones of old, the lamia, the crone.”

Beyond metaphors of masks that expose and deceivers who tell truths, religion, or, more precisely, skepticism about religion links Melville and Rushdie. Ishmael, who says he cherishes “the greatest respect toward everybody’s religious obligations, never mind how comical,” mocks and derides religion throughout Moby-Dick. Rushdie’s Akbar similarly voices doubts. Having been told that “in paradise, the words worship and argument mean the same thing,” Akbar establishes the Tent of the New Worship so that questions about religion could be freely debated. “He wanted, for example, to investigate why one should hold fast to a religion not because it was true but because it was the faith of one’s fathers.” He dismisses earthly worship, “the abnegation of the self in the face of the almighty,” as a distraction, preferring argument and the idea that “discord, difference, disobedience, disagreement, irreverence, iconoclasm, impudence, even insolence might be the wellsprings of the good,” though he wonders if such thoughts were “fit for a king.”

Although in his essays Rushdie does not discuss in any detail what he inherited from his chosen parent, he does offer a couple suggestive paragraphs in “Is Nothing Sacred?” He initially presented the defense of literature and of himself (included in Imaginary Homelands) in 1990, one year after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa sanctioning his murder for writing The Satanic Verses calling for the murder of The Satanic Verses’ author. In a passage that suggest Melville as much as Marx, he says: “The elevation of the quest for the Grail over the Grail itself, the acceptance that all that is solid has melted into air, that reality and mortality are not givens but imperfect human constructs, is the point from which fiction begins.” In The Enchantress of Florence, discussion of such questions occurs in a tent instead of a grandiose cathedral to stress the impermanence and incompleteness of human attempts at capturing the truth. Moby-Dick meets the challenge of starting from the point of the provisional with its contrasting attitudes and outlooks of its key characters. “Ahab, gripped by his possession, perishes; Ishmael, a man without strong feelings or powerful affiliations, survives. The self-interested modern man is the sole survivor; those who worship the Whale – for pursuit is a form of worship – perish by the Whale.”

Rushdie and Melville favor the questioners over the worshippers, the doubters over the devout. Rushdie concludes The Enchantress of Florence with Akbar worrying about a dry and dreary future of religious strife. Akbar did not embrace Niccolò Vespucci as his honorary son; instead, he cast him out, making him an Ishmael. Later, the man suspected of deceit (who had himself been deceived about his parentage) disappears, and the lake that made life in Sikri possible – the water on which stories float – dries up.

Rushdie associates the art of literature with love, which he contrasts with faith. In “Is Nothing Sacred?” he expands on the idea in a paragraph worth quoting in full:

Love can lead to devotion, but the devotion of the lover is unlike that of the True Believer in that it is not militant. I may be surprised – even shocked – to find that you do not feel as I do about a given book or work of art or even person; I may very well attempt to change your mind; but I will finally accept that your tastes, your loves, are your business and not mine. The True Believer knows no such restraints. The True Believer knows that he is simply right, and you are wrong. He will seek to convert you, even by force, and if he cannot he will, at the very least, despise you for your unbelief.

While he chose not to, Rushdie could have gone on to quote this paragraph from Moby-Dick:

Now … I have no objection to any person’s religion, be it what it may, so long as that person does not kill or insult any other person, because that other person don’t believe it also. But when a man’s religion becomes really frantic; when it is a positive torment to him; and, in fine, makes this earth of ours an uncomfortable inn to lodge in; then I think it high time to take that individual aside and argue the point with him.

Rushdie calls Moby-Dick “a very modern parable,” and that phrase also applies to The Enchantress of Florence. The two writers enthusiastically pursue the wily, loose fish of truth even as they admire its elusiveness. An animating skepticism, a loving sort of argument, enlivens their books, and reveals a very close family resemblance between their authors.

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John G. Rodwan, Jr.’s essays and reviews have been published by The Mailer Review, The Oregonian, Spot Literary Magazine, California Literary Review, Logos, Slow Trains, Shaking like a Mountain, The Brooklyn Rail, American Writer, Free Inquiry and The Humanist.

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