26 March 2011

Post 364: The Ground Beneath Her Feet

The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie. ISBN: 9780805053081.

I'm quite fond of existentialism for a number of reasons. I like that there is a name for wondering why we are here and what that means and that every person who has asked that question has a completely different answer that for that question. One aspect of existentialism involves the Self and how we both manifest and perceive the Self, and of course how others perceive it. Rushdie makes it sound much less Annoying Undergraduate Philosophy Major though,

"[W]henever someone who knows you disappears, you lose one version of yourself. Yourself as you were seen, as you were judged to be." Page 509-510.

These two sentences contain a fairly complex idea in a very digestible form. It touches on the topic of Self (as an identity and a being) as well as the Other and how the Self is assigned an identity and a being by the Other, which in turn influences the Self.

Yeah, I read a lot of philosophy in college despite being a history major, and this is what it has done to my thought patterns. Boiled down, I like the concept that Rushdie is presenting here because he is stating that you do exist outside of yourself. However, that existence is more of a perception in the sense that the Other has seen you a certain way and has categorized you accordingly. This has interesting implications: it means that you lose bits of your Self as Others fade away, but it also means that those bits of Self were not necessarily accurate. Still, they represented aspects of your personality or moments of interaction with the Other frozen within someone else's Self.

Okay, getting away from the philosophical speak, because it is pretentious and kind of annoying. This concept appeals to me because I have always viewed identity to be fluid. The Amy Campbell that is here today is not the same Amy Campbell that was here ten years ago (thank god), and will be a different Amy Campbell in another ten years. It is the old Heraclitus adage, "You cannot step in the same river twice." He does not mean that you can only step in the Mississippi River once, only that it is not the same river. Even as you stand in the river, it moves around you and becomes a different bit of river and will never be the same river you stepped into again. Just because there are not noticeable or drastic changes, does not mean that the change is completely negligible.

The things that do make that river seem stable are landmarks, banks, borders, and other methods of observing and measuring. This is exactly what other people do for the Self. Underneath the currents we are (or should be) constantly changing, bringing in new water and shifting sand and wearing away rocks, but the Other observes and only sees that we run North to South through such and such acreage. While this may not seem like an important service, it is actually quite valuable.

It solidifies our identity, or aspects of the Self, in our minds. Through the reflections of the Other, we are able to see more clearly exactly which attributes we have. We can instinctively know things about ourselves, but it is through the eyes of the Other that we learn what those things mean and whether or not we can or should change them so as to present an aspect of ourselves that we find more in tune with our Self. When we lose those extra versions, it can be both a good thing and a bad thing. In some ways it frees us to be more than what was perceived, but if it was validating to the Self it can be detrimental to lose them as those validations are often harder to replace than the damaging or false perceptions.

This is such a lengthy and involved novel that it is hard to focus on one thing to write the review about. However, I found Meredith Dias's evaluation of Rushdie's themes in this novel to be very helpful in digesting this epic.
LibsNote: Library copy.


  1. Can I just say how much I enjoy posts like this one. I'm a bit tired of plot summary, what I liked, what I didn't reviews so I try to avoid writing them. I like it when the book introduces a topic that one can 'go off on.' Tangents rule!!

    It's been so long since I read this book that I only remember loving it, not why I loved it. Probably for ideas like this one. You'll see how true it is the longer you live.

  2. Thanks for the kind words CB! It's good to know my blog is filling a niche. I keep my reviews over on Goodreads where they belong, or at least try to. Some of my posts are more reviewy than I'd like.

    I do find myself rethinking why I liked books and occasionally being less or more impressed with certain books after a time. As well as just not remembering exactly why I liked them. It's such a strange feeling to be that disconnected from my past reading, especially since I do so little rereading.


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