The Other Sides of Silence

I’ve begun trying to organize my ideas about In the Eye of the Sun. At this point I’m finding that the questions and confusions in my head about the novel’s relationship to Middlemarch are increasing rather settling into some kind of order. I’m hopeful, of course, that this mental chaos, while disconcerting this close to my conference deadline, is evidence of the interest and complexity of the interpretive project I’ve undertaken, as well as of the wider range of ideas I’ve brought to my latest re-reading of Soueif’s novel thanks to my excursions into postcolonial theory, modern Egyptian history, the story of Cairo University, and other materials directly by or about Ahdaf Soueif. I often reassure my thesis students that things inevitably get messy for a while, especially in the ‘discovery’ phase, when you are moving past the provisional hypotheses of your research proposal and actually looking at how the pieces you’ve assembled relate to each other and finding out the ‘unknown unknowns’ (a much-derided phrase I’ve always felt some sympathy for, despite its source, as one of the great challenges of research is precisely that you don’t always know what you don’t know until your work is well underway).

In any case, one thing I do know at this point is that time constraints–not just for the writing of the conference paper, but also for its presentation–mean I couldn’t address all the potential angles that have occurred to me even if I did sort them all out. So my main task in the next couple of days is setting the limits for this version of the paper, which I hope over the summer to develop into the fuller, more wide-ranging form envisaged in the proposal I submitted. I’m thinking right now of focusing quite specifically on the novel’s most overt gesture towards Middlemarch, which is its epigraph, taken from the famous ‘squirrel’s heartbeat’ passage in Chapter 20:

…and we do not expect people to be moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling for all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die on that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

There are a number of passages in In the Eye of the Sun which (on my reading, anyway) invoke a “roar … on the other side of silence,” but it is not easy to see just how they engage with this moment in Eliot’s novel–whether, for instance, they reflect, extend, or critique it. Here is one such passage, for example, from Part VI of Soueif’s novel. It is 1971 and the protagonist, Asya al-Ulama, is with her friends studying for their exam in 20th century poetry. One of the company is Bassam, a Palestinian; thinking about his experience of “living under occupation” leads Asya to a wider meditation on “all those bruised people: Palestinians, Armenians, Kurds, and of course the Jews themselves,” and then on “all the things that are happening right now … as they sit here studying for their poetry exam:”

secret deals being arranged in government departments, counterdeals in secret service meetings, ignorant armies moving silently by night,* people being thrown out of their houses, babies being tortured, people being tortured–this is the point where Asya’s mind starts to do a loop. People being tortured. Right now. As we sit here. Tortured. And what do we do? We go on studying for our exams. . . . But what else is to be done? What can be done? Can you get up right now and rush off to some prison — assuming you know where one is — and hammer at the door? … No. No, well, of course not, that’s stupid — and yet how can you just go on sitting here while someone somewhere is having live wires pushed up his rectum, his teeth pulled out of his head, her vagina stuffed with hungry rats, or having to watch her baby’s head being smashed against the —

Asya jumps up. She always jumps up when she gets to this bit. Now she goes out on the balcony and stands holding on to the stone balustrade and breathing fast and looking at the lights of the Officer’s Club. She daren’t look up at the sky because the darkness and the stars will make her think of how the earth is a tiny ball spinning round and round in space, and space is something she cannot even being to imagine.

When these panics come over her, Asya copes by trying not to think. It is easy to see not just the comfort but the necessity of being, as Eliot concludes even the best of us is, “well wadded with stupidity.”

Both passages turn on the possibility of being overwhelmed by too full an awareness of suffering in the world. But the specifics of that suffering seem very different. Dorothea is sad in Chapter XX because she has married the wrong man, because the “new real future which replaces the imaginary” for her is such a disappointment. The narrator acknowledges that her situation is commonplace and that to see it as a tragedy requires a recalibration of “tragic” to accommodate something so unexceptional. Much of the moral pressure of Middlemarch is precisely in this direction: towards extending our sympathies to those suffering through the petty trials of “ordinary human life.” The novel, we might say, encourages us to listen for the squirrel’s heartbeat, to risk casting off some of that protective padding (constituted largely of egotism), as Dorothea, in her sorrow, is just beginning to do:

We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves: Dorothea had early begun to emerge from that stupidity, but yet it had been easier to her to imagine how she would devote herself to Mr Casaubon, and become wise and strong in his strength and wisdom, than to conceive with that distinctness that is no longer reflection but feeling — an idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like the solidity of objects — that he had an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference.**

On the other side of silence in Middlemarch, then, we have a vast accumulation of “equivalent centre[s] of self,” and the roar we hear (if, unlike Mr Brooke, we go “too far”) is a cacophony of personal feelings.

In contrast, in In the Eye of the Sun we hear “men from the Muslim Brotherhood [who have been] pumped up, blown full of water,” and then jumped on and exploded–screams of literal, physical (not metaphorical, moral, or spiritual) pain. Such acts are, indeed, unthinkable, and yet they are part of the everyday reality of Asya’s world: not of her everyday experience, of course, but part of the news she reads, the stories and rumours that circulate among her friends and family, the fears and motivations of people she knows. It is possible to find Dorothea’s “faintness of heart” at learning of Mr Casaubon’s deficiencies trivial by comparison to the sufferings enumerated in Asya’s versions of “Hamlet-like raving” about “all the trouble of all the people in the world” (Middlemarch Chapter 77)–and if In the Eye of the Sun were a different novel overall, I think this contrast might propel me towards a reading of it as critical of Middlemarch, taking the passage from Chapter XX as its epigraph in an ironic spirit (at best) and trying to show up the political inadequacy of its highly “self”-centered morality. I don’t think this is how the epigraph is in fact refracted through Soueif’s novel, though. My task for work tomorrow (if our ritual departmental “May Marks Meeting” allows) will be trying to explain why… I think it has something to do with the interplay of personal and political in both cases (both exemplify what Jerome Beatty calls “history by indirection”), and with the specific relationship of Dorothea and Asya to their husbands (within story space) and to the form of their novels.

(Trying to put even this much into something clear enough to post has been very helpful: I feel that I have, at least provisionally, cleaned up a little of the mess.)

*I just caught the echo of “Dover Beach” here, another tempting bit of intertextuality. That’s what I mean by things getting messier.
**Middlemarch is such a wonderful book.

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