There is No Whale

Kristen Bankers '05


The modern world lacks not only hiding places, but certainties.  There is no consensus about reality between, for example, the nations of the North and of the South.  What President Reagan says is happening in Central America differs so radically from, say, the Sandanista version that there is almost no common ground.  It becomes necessary to take sides, to say whether or not one thinks of Nicaragua as the United States' "front yard."  It seems to me imperative that literature enter such arguments, because what is being disputed is nothing less than what is the case, what is truth and what untruth.  If writers leave the business of making pictures of the world to politicians, it will be one of history's great and most abject abdications.  ("Outside the Whale" 137) 

In his essay "Outside the Whale," India's Salman Rushdie reaffirms what many other authors have asserted: literature is intrinsically connected to politics, both national and international.  The bond between the two cannot be denied; it must, in fact, be recognized.  Rushdie believes that authors are responsible for being attentive to the social and political context of their time; writers are obliged to write with the intention of portraying an accurate and insightful picture of their national culture.  Authors should not-cannot-keep out of the political arena in which they live.

Rushdie's essay "Outside the Whale" is a response to George Orwell's essay "Inside the Whale."  Orwell created a so-called "whale" mechanism with the intention of allowing authors to keep out of politics.  This approach is one that Rushdie disdains: "Sit it out he recommends; we writers will be safe inside the whale, until the storm dies down" (Rushdie 134).  Contrary to Orwell, Rushdie argues that "there is no whale" in which authors can hide.  Furthermore, if there were in fact a "whale," it would be wrong for an author to seek its sanctuary (136).  Writers, especially those from countries once dominated by colonial powers and now seeking to rebuild their repute as nations, must take a stand in political arguments.  There can be no "whale," no hiding place for an author.

Rushdie's argument is threefold.  First, he claims that no "consensus about reality" can ever be reached among all people.  The views of people from drastically different world situations cannot be reconciled into one definition of "reality," "right or wrong," or "truth or untruth."  This claim leads to the second part of Rushdie's argument: the need "to take sides" in matters of world politics and relationships.  Doing so includes choosing a position in literature as well-the third part of Rushdie's contention.  

Together, these three features create a powerful statement about the importance of literature in the political sphere.  Rushdie says that a politician has a vested interest when creating for the public a world picture, as does a writer.  Both paint pictures of their country or worlds: the politician through his words and actions; the writer, through literature.  But these two people could not differ more in their motives and interests.  Politicians wish to present only world views that benefit their own political interests and those of their party or country.  If they succeed, the result is personal gain.  Writers, on the other hand, though they may generate some personal esteem through creating a positive view of their country, do not choose their views with personal recognition as the primary motivating factor.  As a result, the writer must not allow the politician to be the primary agent through whom the world perceives a country's actions or dealings.  Instead, writers are obligated to present accurate and insightful pictures.  Rushdie contends that "politics and literature, like sport and politics, do mix, are inextricably mixed, and that mixture has its consequences" (137).  Writers faced with this issue, however, find themselves in a precarious situation: do they ignore their responsibility of taking a political stand, or do they risk mixing politics and literature, thereby suffering the consequences? 






There can hiding place for an author.


Rushdie is one who chose to mix politics and literature.  In doing so, he risked his personal career as a writer.  Through novels such as Midnight's Children and The Satanic Verses and essays such as "Outside the Whale," Rushdie attempts to "make pictures of the world" that are accurate, truthful, and insightful.  He does so because, as he claims, "what is being disputed is nothing less than what is the case, what is the truth and what untruth," this being a matter of the utmost importance (137).  For example, if a person were to learn about India purely through accounts given by British and American authors, news reporters, and the general population, the resulting portrait of India would be grossly inaccurate, or, at the very least, incomplete and unjust.  But if one reads the work of authors such as Rushdie, who take a position on politics and world relations, a more accurate depiction ensues.  Although there can be no entirely objective piece of literature, the most objective view people can get is through reading literature written by someone from the country being portrayed.  Had a British author tried to write the story of Midnight's Children, he would have failed utterly.  Rushdie's use of Indian words, customs, and history, and the manner in which he creates a very personal story linking these aspects truly makes the story enlightening and insightful for readers around the world. Reading about a place, a history, an experience from the point of view of a person who has been directly involved and affected by that place, history, and experience can completely change a reader's perspective.


Like Rushdie, Jamaica Kincaid also uses literature as a political tool.  Although Kincaid's writing is not overtly political, her point of view, matter-of-fact style, and insight into the lives of those whom the world often disregards creates a truthful experience.  She makes the reader politically aware of everyday life on the Caribbean island she considers home, a place that the world's superpowers regard merely as a tourist resort. In her book, A Small Place, Kincaid spends approximately eighty pages addressing the American or European tourist.  She says, "since you are a tourist, the thought of what it might be like for someone who had to live day in, day out in a place that suffers constantly from drought, and so has to watch carefully every drop of fresh water used . . . must never cross your mind" (4).  Kincaid writes to make the reader uncomfortable:  

Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this.  Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour.  But some natives-most natives in the world-cannot go anywhere.  They are too poor . . . so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.  (19)

Reading this claim, people who have been on a Caribbean cruise immediately recall their trip and realize how little truth they experienced in their week on sunny Antigua.  Kincaid's eighty-page address brings the reader to genuine political awareness: its readers begin to understand the severity of the lives of natives in the Caribbean islands.  The result is a more truthful understanding of the world they have encountered. 

Rushdie and Kincaid are only two of many authors today who write with the intent of bringing political and social awareness to their readers.  As Rushdie asserts in his essay, "there is no whale" in which an author can hide.  Those who are commissioned to shape a nation's identity-that nation's writers of literature-must not allow politicians to be the sole shapers of world views.  His judgment is stark: "If writers leave the business of making pictures of the world to politicians, it will be one of history's great and most abject abdications" (137).

Works Cited

Kincaid, Jamaica.  A Small Place.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988.

Rushdie, Salman.  Midnight's Children.  New York: Penguin Books, 1980.  "Outside the Whale."  Granta  Fall
       1984: 125-138.