The First Bacchante

Lorna Sage

  • The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie
    Cape, 575 pp, £18.00, April 1999, ISBN 0 224 04419 2

The philosopher Plotinus was such a good Idealist that he refused to have a portrait done – why peddle an image of an image? – and argued that the true meaning of the myth of Narcissus was that the poor boy didn’t love himself enough. If Narcissus had recognised whose the reflection in the water was, he’d have lived and grown and changed himself, instead of being the helpless subject of a pretty tale of metamorphosis. Salman Rushdie’s new novel is full of such Neoplatonic jokes (though this isn’t one of them). The Ground beneath Her Feet is vertiginous, perilous, on the edge, because it’s all about pushing beyond the author’s Other-love, and the techniques he has so far perfected for dissolving ‘I’ into ‘we’. Here he is embracing what his enemies have always called his arrogance. He is taking things further, to that excess whose road leads to the palace of wisdom.

It’s a winding road, though, with lots of digressions on the way. This is a novel crammed to bursting with allusions to mythology, particularly the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, she gone before into the underworld, he trying to win her back with music. They are the hero and heroine of a plot about the history of imaginative life:

In the beginning was the tribe ... then for a little while we broke away, we got names and individuality and privacy and big ideas, and that started a wider fracturing ... and it looks like it’s scared us so profoundly ... that at top speed we’re rushing back into our skins and war-paint, Post-Modern into pre-modern, back to the future.

Mythology is the idiom of the times, the language of pre and post-fracture. The novel’s immortals, its Orpheus and Eurydice, are idols of the music business: Ormus Cama, whose Parsi father Sir Darius is obsessed by comparative mythology that draws together East and West, and Vina Aspara, half-Greek-American and half-Indian. They are both vessels for the spirit of our age because they are rendered rootless early on by childhood tragedy. That’s why people loved Vina, we’re told, ‘for making herself the exaggerated avatar of their own jumbled selves ... The girl can’t help it, that’s what her position came down to.’ She’s a chimerical mixture of Madonna and (in death) Princess Diana, with other bits added on (a sting in the tail from Germaine Greer); Ormus has a dead twin brother who sings Western hits into his ear long before they burst on the rest of the world – but Ormus can never quite make out the words. When he first hears ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, which he’s been humming for more than two years, he’s furious with the American ‘thief’ of his inspiration, and as time goes on his private music of the spheres (78 rpm) teases him more and more cruelly: ‘The ganga, my friend, is growing in the tin’ has been haunting him, and ‘sure enough ... one thousand and one nights later, “Blowin’ in the Wind” hit the airwaves.’

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