Afghanistan, America’s Identity Crisis, and Columbus, the Fool

Afghanistan.  “What do we know about the country we pretend to protect?” Bulaj asks us.  I think it’s become “un-American” to ask such a question (since I find that so many Americans are blind with fierce and unquestionable “patriotism,” or what grotesquely parades as such) in a country attacked by these orientalized others.  I remember when American planes dropped food for the Afghani people after our other planes crashed into the Twin Towers, and the Afghani people burned the food:  a direct resistance to our American “help.”  I see this same idea now in the way American women and feminists long to rescue the oppressed veiled woman.  What do we know (as a country) about her?  Nothing, I’ve discovered.  This class has shown me this truth, which isn’t so devastating if we remember that (was it Plato?)  it is liberating to know nothing–the veiled woman is not in need of rescuing.  This is not to say that horrible, nightmarish things don’t happen to women overseas, as they do here in the United States; women are beaten, women are oppressed, women are circumcised, women are silenced, and the pain of women is dismissed and marginalized.  Women, second class citizens just as gays and lesbians (as we learned) are reduced to non-people in every part of the world, in some way.  So, to answer Bulaj’s loaded question:  nothing, everything, what the news tells us, what our personal politics dictate; we create our own western realities, and I would argue that many of our minds simply lack room for the truth.

As I said, before this class, I found the veil intimidating.  Again, I’m so glad that I was introduced to the veiled woman in an environment free from bias, exploitation, and judgment.  Rather, she came to me slowly, in her own time, allowing me to absorb her human-ness and reject the eroticized, westernized image of her hiding coyly, seductively from behind the fabric which separates her from both the male and the colonial gaze.  My point is this:  the veiled woman transitioned from a distant, inaccessible idea to a fully formed woman with strengths and convictions, thanks to this course and my willingness to greet her.

From Rushdie’s West collection, I chose to read the short story “Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella of Spain Consummate Their Relationship (Santa Fé AD 1492).”  I mean, whatta title!  The opening line is terribly romantic:  “Columbus, a foreigner, follows Queen Isabella for an eternity without entirely giving up hope” (107).  To my relief and amusement, Columbus is described as a bit of a clown, “raffish,” and lurid.  Rushdie is simply hysterical:  “He wants to tie the Queen’s favour to his helmet, like a knight in a romance.  (He owns no helmet.)” (107).  Rushdie is eloquent and poetic as he introduces this comical simile.  Columbus desires something in which to anchor the Queen’s affection, yet he is lacking, Rushdie must tell us.

Queen Isabella of Spain

chrisColumbus

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ha!

The commentary and questions we find here in italics are puzzling at first glance.  Is this our inner monologue, our surrogate, or an unseen, omniscient character or narrator?

Everything about Columbus is embarrassingly excessive, like a child:  “His clothes are excessively colourful and he drinks, also, to excess . . . Columbus crashes around outside the cathedral, waving a wineskin.  He is a one-man debauch” (108-109).  As the Queen (the collected and the pursued) celebrates a victory in a centered, devout fashion, Columbus is a sloppy drunk, staggering quite literally outside of the religious space occupied by Isabella.

One paragraph here simply reads, “‘Consummation’” (109), echoing Columbus’s words to the Queen early on in this story.  Creepy.  We see this twice more before our story concludes.  If this Columbus was with us today, he would be a celebrity on TMZ, videotaped giving a nutsy, half-ass interview outside some douche bag night club.  This modern person would not be “othered” in the way Rushdie’s Columbus is; people would flock to him to consume the spectacle of madness and self-destruction rather than dismiss him as a low-life.

Queen Isabella is almost molded, here, to be a succubus of sorts.  She is sadistic; this much we know.  She is sensuous and gladly, almost eagerly, exploits her sex appeal to gain pleasure and satisfaction at Columbus’s misery.  In fact, “[s]he is a tyrant, who numbers among her possessions a private menagerie of four hundred and nineteen fools, some grotesquely malformed, others as beauteous as the dawn” (111), which is further confirmation that Isabella is so powerful that she owns people for her own amusement.  In her defense, at least she makes no excuses for this type of ownership or enslavement, while typical colonizers insist that their actions are for the benefit or improvement of a people.

Rushdie manages to take hold of a concept so tired and mundane by now in our careers as students and treks as humans, Columbus’s belief that the world was not flat (most people at this time did, in fact, believe/know this!), and transform it into fluent prose–one possibility is that the Queen “understands his dream of a world beyond the world’s end, and is moved by it, so profoundly that it spooks her, and she turns first towards it, then away” (111).  Say what?  did Rushdie really just sensualize Columbus?  geography?  the shape of the world?  Yes, he did.  Queen Isabella approaches Columbus (here, an idiot) and his theory as though, together, they are a lover; she pushes, she pulls; she plays and hides, she’s beautiful and cruel.  Oh my.

Page 113 lists the reasons Isabella is a goddess figure:  “She overwhelms . . . All her dreams are prophecies . . . The earth adores her footfall.  Its shadows flee before the brilliance of her eyes.  Her face is a lush peninsula set in a sea of hair.”  However, this series of dreamy images is disrupted by “Her legs.  Her legs are not so great.”  Rushdie!  Again, whose voice is this?  If we believe these observations belong to Columbus himself, then perhaps this last sentiment portrays a man attempting to talk himself out of love?  lust?  desire of any kind?  is he dissuading his own grief?

It is not until the end of this story that we understand their consummation is not necessarily one of sex, but the traversing of foreign feet into the unknown by way of the sea, which, really, is unknown and unknowable as well.  The last line of the text is very telling:  “Yes.  I’ll come” (119).  The double meaning is obvious enough:  Columbus agrees to see Isabella in his dream, where she is desperately calling for his presence, just as Columbus’s fantasy may also involve ejaculation–not simply of semen, but of his unrequited desires, his wildly conceived ideas of grandiose discovery, the reason the unforgiving sea separates him from what can never be known; its salty waters are what consummate this intricate, wayward relationship, and in it, we find ourselves.

I laughed my way through this short story.  The dichotomy between Isabella’s Columbus and the “American hero” we all know is startlingly funny.  Rushdie is apparently a master of the short story, which renders me a fan, for sure.  I collect tarot cards, and I can’t help but imagine a deck based upon historical fact and myth:  “The Tower” would be the World Trade Center; “The Hanged Man” would be Christ; “The Empress” would be Princess Diana, and; “The Fool” would most certainly be Columbus.

the fool
There he is, on the edge, just like Columbus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The magic realism is used beautifully within this short story, as Rushdie blends myth and imagination with historical fact.  Is this related to the genre of “historical fiction?”

abe lincoln

queen victoria

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m thinking of the recent upsurge in this type of narrative–Abraham Lincoln:  Vampire Hunter and Queen Victoria:  Demon Hunter.  Nice.

From the East collection, I read “Good Advice is Rarer Than Rubies,” which seemed slow-paced in comparison.  Miss Rehana is a progressive paradigm of the modern woman who chooses her career and womanhood/personhood over romance or marriage.  Like Isabella, her beauty is what captures the attention of men.  In fact, the young woman’s smile is the last thing Muhammad Ali, the advice-giver, sees as the story concludes:  “Her last smile, which he watched from the compound until the bus concealed it in a dust-cloud, was the happiest thing he had ever seen in his long, hot, hard, unloving life” (Sorry, I can’t reference page numbers–I forgot my book at my apartment, and I’m reading this online!  Fail!).

I suppose this story is one of irony?  I always seem to exercise a complete lack of understanding in this department.  I guess I’m with Alanis on this one.

alanis

 

 

 

 

 

Miss Rehana takes the old man’s advice, but not in the way he or the reader expect.  Rather than using Muhammad Ali’s advice to obtain her papers to travel to England (where we assume her quality of life will be much better–eurocentrism, anyone?), she instead commits the very acts Ali warns her to avoid.  As a result, she turns out to be someone unexpected–a single woman who loves her job, rather than a smitten, domestic slave who yearns to break the shackles of hot, dusty, oppressive India.  She’s happy as a nanny, and she boards a bus to prove this.  Even just this image we’re left with is so significant:  Miss Rehana (an engaged Indian woman) is on the move, moving away from her would-be husband, and Ali (a man, and a fraud) is watching, joyfully conflicted, as he beams.  Also, notice that the narrator identifies her as Miss Rehana, rather than offering to us a first name.

Rushdie writes, “[a] hawker shouted at the passengers, trying to sell them love stories and green medicines, both of which cured unhappiness,” which is symptomatic of the rampant misery which may be present within arranged marriages (or marriage in general, or maybe life in general).  We know that stories and medicine don’t remedy unhappiness, but they certainly comfort the desperate, and we know that, thankfully, Miss Rehana will never be in need of sappy stories or bitter medicine.

Dirlik flippantly tells us that postcolonialism begins “[w]hen Third World intellectuals have arrived in First World academe” (561).  Doesn’t this seem a bit oxymoronic if we insert here our westernized colonial gaze?  The third world doesn’t produce intellectuals; all it produces is poverty, disease, and hunger, right?  This snarky commentary also points to the fact that a particular discipline may only receive due validation once it’s acknowledged by the First World academy.

Dirlik writes, “Since postcolonial criticism has focused on the postcolonial subject to the exclusion of an account of the world outside of the subject, the global condition implied by postcoloniality appears at best as a projection onto the world of postcolonial subjectivity and epistemology” (567).  “Postcolonial subjectivity” is not a concept I had considered before; is it possible that we’re so weighed down by our sympathetic positioning as Western scholars that we rob ourselves by negating all which fails to intersect with the colonial psyche or subject?–which is exactly what we seek to combat.  Huh.

I love this.  Dirlik explains that “the end of colonialism presents the colonizer as much as the colonized with a problem of identity” (568), and he, of course, mentions our gallant hero, Christopher Columbus.  Isn’t it funny that even after all the genocide and evidence of Columbus’s blatant racism and discrimination (his lovely letters), America continues to canonize him as a great American hero?  And isn’t it even funnier that those of us who dare to question this glaring hypocrisy are all but thrown in the stocks with tomatoes thrown at us?  Dirlik is absolutely correct–I think America has an identity crisis, and I also think that we don’t like being questioned or challenged.  If one of us does so, we’re labeled “un-American” and told to get out.  The crisis seems to be a very purposeful misunderstanding; those of us who speak up don’t wish to leave or shit on our own rights, but rather to better the America we have.  If we examine ourselves with honesty and helpful, constructive criticism, we can only improve; a child could tell us this.  I guess I haven’t consciously paused to reflect upon what remains of the colonizer, post-colonization, rather than the subjects of the process.

This course has meant so much more to me than I anticipated.  These readings and blog posts have been emotional for me, and I’ll miss our time spent reading and responding to one another’s thoughts.  I also did not expect our personalities to shine through in our writing and our blog posts the way they have.  I was initially suspicious of blogging; in fact, admittedly, I was uncertain that the class would “work” if we all developed our own personal blogs, as opposed to a “class blog.”  Blogging is a much more intimate and useful practice than I foresaw, and I’m glad (and grateful) I allowed myself the time to warm up to it.  I’ve had so much fun and learned more about others and myself than I thought possible in a “distance learning” course.  Thank you to everyone who threw their hearts into this endeavor!  Truly.

brule

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7 Comments Add yours

  1. Once again Jenny it seems like we’re interested in much of the same ideas in this week’s reading. Your use of Dirlik’s identity crisis within the postcolonial colonizer’s (or neo-imperialist’s) worldview ensnares the always fascinating “if you don’t like it then get out” mentality so common from the mouths of the unthinking patriot. I propose that we, recognizing this interesting though troublesome phenomenon, try to counteract it through more measured articulation of opinion. Better yet, let’s try to prepare ourselves for situations where the “get out” argument finds root by finding ways to break the seals of the patriot’s hermetic ideology.

  2. cturn215 says:

    Jenny;
    I love your writing, the way you discuss the concept of the veiled woman with such humanizing, humble, and compassionate rhetoric “she came to me slowly, in her own time.” Lovely!

    I think the sexual connotations in Rushdie’s Columbus/Isabella story also point to a the patriarchal symbolism of imperialism and colonialism. Queen Isabella and Columbus both literally and figuratively give birth to a particular brand of colonialism; Rushdie’s text can perhaps be viewed as their textual progeny.

    Postcolonial theory, I think, is a limiting form of discourse. It often eschews class in favor of race and nationality; oddly enough out of these three categories class is the most fixed and least fluid, as the readings from this semester have taught us.

    1. Sean Weaver says:

      I second Cait!

      Absolutely “lovely” Jenny.

      1. I also really like your writing style, which I think is best exemplified in this post (at least in recent memory). This style should serve you well in PhD work.

  3. lotusgurl says:

    Jordan–yes, the “unthinking patriot” is an excellent phrasing of this problem. However, you and I have argued this issue before (with she who is not named!), and I truly felt like we got nowhere in this discussion. Aside from the readily felt hostility, it seemed like absolutism and a blind idolatry were inserted in place of basic listening skills and humble logic. If the patriot is “unthinking,” do you really think there’s any hope for breaking such a seal?

    Thanks, Cait! I hadn’t thought of it like that–the idea that this consummation had given birth to “a particular brand of colonialism.” I was very much stuck on the idea of the act itself, in its many forms. I think sometimes my thirst for “flowery” language can hinder my own process of thought, as I frequently read texts and both literally and figuratively carry them with me for a while, before I can “shake off” my stupidly happy daze.

  4. clutzclemens says:

    Jenny,
    It is rare that I laugh out loud while grading student work in public, so strong work. The tone of this piece is fantastic. Your intellectual chops are in full force here. You are a force to reckon with. You bring analysis to the reader without making the reader bored or disengaged. You have a way of showing us ways to look at the world through a challenging lens without leaving us feel bereft. You are honest and your integrity and passion shine through. I cannot wait to see what you do next, and I hope when you have something to say, you revisit your blog! You know where to find me when you need me.
    Dr. C

  5. laurentocci says:

    “As I said, before this class, I found the veil intimidating. Again, I’m so glad that I was introduced to the veiled woman in an environment free from bias, exploitation, and judgment. Rather, she came to me slowly, in her own time, allowing me to absorb her human-ness and reject the eroticized, westernized image of her hiding coyly, seductively from behind the fabric which separates her from both the male and the colonial gaze. My point is this: the veiled woman transitioned from a distant, inaccessible idea to a fully formed woman with strengths and convictions, thanks to this course and my willingness to greet her.”

    This paragraph is so beautiful! I agree with you that approaching that subject matter is difficult because so much what has been programmed for us to think about the veil really interrupts our understanding of it. All semester I have been really impressed with your way of understanding veiling. Honestly, it has helped me to read your process of understanding the veil. Thank you!

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