12 February 2009

Kali, Lovecraft, and Simmons (not Richard or Gene)

For a more straightforward review of Song of Kali, check the 999 Challenge Blog.

As I mentioned before, my first encounter with Kali came when I was learning about Thuggee to write a roleplaying campaign. Since the Illuminatus! Trilogy (which I was drawing on) featured Satanism, I figured I had found my perfect devil stand-in. I knew that drawing an equivalence between Kali and Satan was rather silly, but I figured 90% of 19th century Europeans wouldn't sweat the difference, so if the Satanists turned out to be Kali worshippers, it would make some degree of sense. (At least within the sort of paranoid, over-determined world of conspiracy theories.)

So, the concept that portrayals of Kali and Kali worshippers in the Western media have been a little on the unfair side has never been surprising to me. I'm not faulting Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom here, whatever its shortcomings as a movie. Since Indiana Jones is an homage to 1930s adventure serials, it seems fair that it relies on some rather archaic or incoherent portrayals of India and Hinduism.

In my review of Song of Kali, I mentioned Dan Simmons verging on racism (or Eurocentrism or Orientalism or whatever you want to call it) and felt that deserved a little more explanation. I am, however, going to veer off a little into some thoughts regarding the horror/spiritual nature of the Goddess Kali.

Because what surprised me on my recent read of the novel was that despite the amount of research that Simmons put into the novel (judging by the collection of facts and quotes) he seems to stick with a one-sided, dated portrayal of Kali. Kali is a fairly rich figure, one whose appearance and attributes vary quite a bit depending on the nature of the devotee. (I recommend David Kinsley's work, such as this essay.)

Not that this makes Kali unsuitable as the bogeyman in a horror story. In fact, I rather think there's some similarities between the sort of spiritual reality that Kali implies and some of Lovecraft's fiction. Quoting Kinsley in Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine:

There is an insistence in Hinduism that the world as it appears to us is a show, that there remains hidden from our normal view an aspect of reality that is... shockingly different from our ego-centered way of apprehending it.

The Mahavidyas... are awakeners, visions of the divine that challenge comfortable and comforting fantasies about the way things are in the world.

Based on that quote, I'd say the biggest distinction between the above and the sort of truth presented in Lovecraft's fiction is that the Tantrica believes that it's ultimately positive to see reality as it is, whereas nothing good ever comes in an HPL story from learning the truth. But ultimately, whether you're gazing on Kali or Cthulhu, I would argue, you're going to get a big batch of truth that is going to unsettle you.

Simmons opts for a simpler portrayal, where Kali alone embodies "the dark underside of an essentially benign universe" (emphasis mine) and "the focus and residue of all the atavistic urges and actions which ten thousand years of conscious strivings had hoped to put behind." Kali here doesn't represent uncomfortable but necessary truths (as in Tantra) or even terrifying but unavoidable truths (as she would if she were a Cthulhvian figure) but a straightforward adversary, the personification of everything we would be better off without but sadly can't entirely eradicate. (Towards the end of the novel, the protagonist begins referring to her as "that bitch," which pretty much sums up the reductionist view presented.)

Of course, if it was only the portrayal of Kali, it might be a missed opportunity but hardly racist. However, Simmons seems to use Kali as a stand-in for Indianness, its primitiveness and barbarity. In its horror aspect, the novel sometimes channels Lovecraft, both for its atmospheric settings and in its notion of non-Euclidean spaces. Unfortunately, it also seems to channel Lovecraft's distaste towards teeming hordes of brown people. In setting up the battle lines between good and evil, Simmons makes it clear that Indian culture stands on the wrong side.

Early on, the protagonist contrasts his wife Amrita's memories of India as a place of "cluttered cheapness of everything" with their current home, which is "as clean and open as a Scandinavian designer's dreams, all gleaming bare wood, comfortable modular seating, immaculately white walls, and works of art illuminated by recessed lighting."*

This contrast of the Western, orderly and good with the Indian, chaotic and bad reaches its peak intellectually about halfway through the novel. The protagonist is sitting down for tea with an Indian writer, who browbeats him into accepting that his horror at the poverty and squalor of Calcutta are do to his own Western prejudices. Then, Amrita, who is Indian-born but Western-educated, interrupts by arguing that Indian culture is utterly dysfunctional. Hers is the last argument. The Indian author has no further arguments, at least none that are shown.

One other detail is worth mentioning in why I think the novel presents an unfair picture of India. Simmons starts each chapter with a short epigraph. Most of these are from Indian sources, often describing the horror of Calcutta. But once the worst tragedy takes place and the survivors must move on and find redemption, the epigraphs switch over to Yeats. This coincides with the image of a terrible and degrading India which can only be escaped in the safe and orderly ways of the civilized West.

Alone, one of these elements--the reduction of Kali to bogeyman, the portrayal of Calcutta as fundamentally horrifying, the arguments about Indian culture, the shift of poetic sources--wouldn't make me think that Simmons is working from his own prejudices. But they consistently create an impression of India and Indian culture as backwards and brutal, something to be avoided, as contrasted with the humanistic, orderly ways of the West.

I'm not really looking to castigate Simmons for his politics, just elaborate on an aspect of the novel that made me uncomfortable. I'd be curious to hear from anyone with any thoughts, even if it's just to call me a PC thug.

*I was surprised at the extent to which reading this description of their house brought out my inner Tyler Durden. Was this image of smug first-world wealth meant to make the principals sympathetic, and if so, why did it so make me want to see them taken down a notch?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

PC Thug.