A comparative study on the theme of fascination with and repulsion from Otherness in Song of Kali by Dan Simmons and in the City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre
In this chapter, I examine similarities and differences between The City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre (1985) and Song of Kali by Dan Simmons (1985) with regard to the themes of the Western journalistic observer of the Oriental Other, and the fascination-repulsion that inspires the Occidental spatial imaginary of Calcutta. By comparing and contrasting these two popular novels, both describing white men's journey into the space of the Other, the chapter seeks to achieve a two-fold objective: (a) to provide insight into the authors with respect to alterity (otherness), and (b) to examine the discursive practices of these novels in terms of contrasting spatial metaphors of Calcutta as "The City of Dreadful Night" or "The City of Joy." The chapter further argues that these spatial metaphors are redolent of what Peter Stallybrass and Allon White (1986) refer to as the "phobic enchantment" (p. 124) of the Occidental social imaginary for the poverty, squalor and the horror of the Third World.
Otherness & Self
Peter Stallybrass and Allon White (1986) describe a sociological dynamic by which a sense of subjective superiority of a dominant social class is constructed through a process of abjection. In the aesthetic domain, "high culture" is constituted by identifying what counts as "low culture," then disparaging and rejecting it. In a similar manner, otherness can extend to racial, erotic, legal, health, and economic domains: an (often unmarked) sense of "whiteness" is derivative of identifying non-white, "people of color" against which to form the distinction, sexual "normality" is defined against sexual deviance, the innocent are defined against the criminal, able-bodied in relation to the disabled, the rich against the poor. In the era of French and British colonization of Asia and the Near East, the Western self was defined against the "inferior," "childlike," "impoverished, "depraved" Oriental Other (Said, 1979).
In short, the subjective self can bolster its own social status by identifying a contrasting group as "non-self" and then rejecting them as "other." The self is always implicitly defined against the other, just as a perpetrator is defined in relation to a victim: without a pair of actors to inhabit both irreducible elements of the "penal couple," there can be no crime (Mendelsohn, 1956, p. 26).
Stallybrass and White contend that social and aesthetic categories can be ranked along certain evaluative lines: high and low, self and other, good and evil. These basic divisions apply to concrete symbolic domains such as the human body or geographical space, but also to more abstract domains, such as social relationships and psychology (1986, p. 276). Although these evaluative hierarchies of self and other can admit of gradations, the starkest contrast is between the high and the low, the most exalted and the basest. Stallybrass and White contend that sublime literature, with lofty moral ends, deploys debasement and degradation to provide a point of contrast differentiating heroes from villains (Stallybrass & White, 1986, p. 277).
The producers of high cultural forms position themselves as arbiters of the dominant value system, defining what constitutes the "low" in contrast to their own privileged position. Furthermore, this social interactionist model of hierarchical distinctions does not claim that all social actors are equal in their capacity to fill a central or marginalized role. As David Spurr (1993) commented on Western surveillance of the Oriental Other, "the gaze upon which the journalist so faithfully relies for knowledge marks an exclusion as well as a privilege: the privilege of inspecting, examining, of looking at, by its nature excludes the journalist from the human reality constituted as the object of observation" (p. 13). Through the act of observing and reporting, members of the dominant group tacitly assume the power to define the terms of the relationships in the hierarchy of symbolic social distinctions.
Both the Dan Simmons (1985) in his horror novel Song of Kali and Dominique Lapierre (1985) in his journalistic novel The City of Joy belong to this Orientalist tradition of presenting the Other as spectacle. The authors describe the journeys of white men into the space of the Oriental Other, which is framed as a quest or a challenge within self-imposed constraints. The main storytelling preoccupation for both the novels is alterity and other space. Calcutta becomes a realm of social symbols in which to stage the shifting, transformative dynamics of Western vs. Other. For Simmons, the protagonist Robert Luczak's sense of self is violated by the perfectly evil embodiment the radical Other in the form of the goddess Kali, the main antagonist or villain to Luczak. Lapierre, in contrast, imagines an ideally good and noble Other in the Indian peasant/slum-dweller Hasari Pal, who contrasts with the saintly Polish priest Stephan Kovalski -- two outsiders who venture into the slums of Calcutta from different starting points and for different ends.
Simmons's protagonist, Robert C. Luczak, is depicted as an educated, white male member of the American creative class. Luczak is employed as a journalist by Harper's magazine. He is self-conscious about his privileged position, and is socially aware enough to ironically distance himself from Waspy pretensions. Luczak describes himself as a "Chicago pollack" who is married to an "Indian princess" (p. 4).
The pretext for Luczak's trip to India is to write a piece for Harper's on M. Das, a celebrated Indian poet who is poised to have a new collection of his writings published in the United States. In an introductory scene, Luczak appeals to Indian high culture to defend a stanza from one of Das' poems from charges of vulgarity leveled by his editor, Abe. Commenting on Das' submission for publication, Abe reads to Luczak, "according to the translator's copy [the stanza] means, 'Maddened by lust, Kama and Rati fuck like dogs.' Sweet. It has a distinctive lilt to it, Bobby. Sort of early Robert Frost-ish." Luczak defends the artistic merit of the poem with an affectation of cultural sensitivity to Hindu civilization, admiring how the poet blurs the boundaries between low folk art and the high Vedic literature, "It's part of a traditional Bengali song... Notice how Das has embedded the rhythm of it in the general passage. He shifts from classical Vedic form to folk-Bengali and then back to Vedic" (p. 8). Later in the narrative, Luczak turns less generous in his judgment of Indian culture.
Luczak journeys into Calcutta as a journalist assigned to do an article on a contemporary literary figure for an upper-middle class American audience. He feels entitled to take from Indian society what he finds of value -- a beautiful wife, a lovely daughter, the rights to publish a work of literary value -- but is free to visit the country for a short stay in a high-end hotel, then leave when he has had enough adventure. In contrast, Lapierre's two main protagonists, Hasari Pal and Stephan Kovalski, are drawn to Calcutta precisely because of the harsh economic realities that Simmons' protagonist finds most disturbing: the Indian peasant Hasari out of financial need and the Polish priest Kovalski out of religious idealism.
Lapierre's Indian protagonist, Hasari Pal, confronts his own version of the low-other as he undergoes a transformation from a proud, rural peasant farmer to a lowly rickshaw puller, beholden to mob bosses who exploit his labor. Although the narrative of the novel gives considerable space to following the history of the Pal family from their perspective, the political viewpoint of Lapierre avoids subaltern critique. Hasari and his family endure repeated demotions in their status and sense of self as they establish themselves in the "City of Joy." For example, within a short time after the family's arrival in the city, Hasari finds he lacks the funds even to buy bananas to feed his family. Hasari's wife suggests they send their young daughter to beg in front of the train station. Hasari rejects this as a supreme humiliation, saying, "we are peasants, not beggars" (p. 25).
The Hasaris resist the abhorrent idea of broaching the peasant/beggar distinction for several days, before the threat of hunger forces the parents to send their children to beg from rich travelers as they exit their taxis. In Lapierre's world, this first act of humiliation and the many to follow, these losses of boundaries between self and other, are portrayed as fortifications of the human spirit, a purging away of pride as a means of entry into the joyous mass of suffering humanity. For in Lapierre's world, whatever Hasari becomes, he will be of no less intrinsic value, and he will be cared for by the surrounding community. "In these slums people actually put love and mutual support into practice. They knew how to be tolerant of all creeds and castes, how to give respect to a stranger, how to show charity toward beggars, cripples, lepers, and even the insane. Here the weak were helped, not trampled upon.…