Madison Morrison's Web / Sentence of the Gods / Happening
Causality, Chance, Intertext, Topos and Plot in MM’s Happening

Causality, Chance, Intertext, Topos and Plot
in MM’s Happening

Arvind Thomas

Common reason says that every event has an efficient cause preceding it. Madison Morrison, however, seems to argue that an event can take place by pure chance. Hap-penning, as his title might facetiously be read, pens together events that exhibit no prior causal connections. Viewed differently, Happen-ing exhibits events not as accomplished but as in the process of becoming: the present tense marker, the “-ing” underlines the processual status of events that “happen” as the text unfolds:

Continuous arrival of new faces. Husbands, children in their arms. Mother Arul: introduced, she spreads her legs apart in a defiant gesture of territoriality. Behind the human cluster, seated in the street, a threesome of small naked children, playing. A passing elder shouts at them…. (19)

If the author’s words are cast in the present tense, the citations in the text are for the most part in the past tense:

Bombay overhead park scene, 9:00 am, view from the fourth floor, YMCA international Guest House. Three skinny teenagers at cricket pitch, batsman cleaning the ball in a large rain puddle. “In the long contest of the European nations for India, England emerged the winner.” On the basketball court 2 much younger kids play 2-man soccer, their ball a patchwork of black and white. At the corner of the park, a large humped white Brahma bull lazily grazes at refuse. “Her gift was partly the gift of fortune.” (284-5)

What kind of time does such an extract unfold in? The repetition of the quoted words alongside the author’s own words indicates two movements: one in reverse (towards the past), the other forwards (in the present). Or is the repetition a recollection forward — doesn’t the textual extract, by repeating certain words about the European conquest of India in the context of the author’s description of children playing three European games, transpose the repeated words into the now? The repetition here exhibits a paradoxical movement between past and present, for the “European conquest” is renewed in the games played by the children in the now of the author’s words.

Just as the time of Happening is two-fold (the quoted past renewed in the now of the author’s in situ narration), so many a character is multifaceted:

While priest — at furthest reaches of ladder — festoons Nandi’s neck with jasmine braids, a cow begins her descent over step 700, followed now by 3 more brindled herdmates. Above wait the bulls, as Krisna — descended from station before Nandi (where he had been turning about on a vertical axis, hands held in namaste posture) arrives to pelt them with stones. . . . Krisna to author’s side. “Gola,” he says, giving author what author presumes is his last name. Asked for rupee, is rewarded with peanut. “Hosoo,” he replies, in response to author’s request for the word “bull” in Kannada. (210)

The Krisna of history is here incarnate in the cowherd of Karnataka and the mythical Nandi is realized in the temple cow. Such character-evocation on the margins of myth and reality raises the question: what or which world(s) do the characters/events inhabit? Doesn’t the continual interruption of the in situ narrative split its ontological coherence by obtruding into it a distinctly other world? And doesn’t the co-presence/nesting of multiple worlds within a textual stretch present the reader with the task of making sense of their interrelation? Indeed the reader finds himself at the site where the multiple writings (both citations and the author’s words) that constitute the text converge. One may be tempted to venture that the reader, not the putative writer, of Happening is the one who weaves together the narrative incoherencies to derive its textual meaning:

“The women arrive unaccompanied.” Empty lobby. “And of their own choice.” Taj Inter-Continental Hotel, air-conditioned humidity. “And they are well over the age of majority.” A rather unluxurious setting, lawn furniture heavily overpainted, upholstered, in green vinyl. “Before they first set foot in the Bombay bandar.” Octagonal coffee table, ashtray atop it. “On the whole their treatment in the brothel is not bad.” Elevator doors continue to open, close, in regular rhythm. “And they are not subjected to cruelty.” None of them in use but all alternately indicating their availability. (261-262)

Here two spaces are superimposed: one of a brothel, the other of a five-star hotel. How is the reader to tease sense out this weave of two distinct (almost mutually exclusive) scenes? What kind of reading does such an extract demand?

Happening, like Morrison’s Realization and Engendering, shares the salient features of modernist (one might add postmodernist) writing. Arguably, the text’s predominant feature is its intertextuality: at the level of surface-structure intertextuality is expressed in the text’s interweaving of citations of past writers with the author’s own words; at a less visible level intertextuality finds expression in the textual production of meaning at every instance of such interweaving. Given its pervasiveness in the text, it would be fruitful to view intertextuality as the rubric under which all other textual features may be discussed. As employed in Happening, MM's intertextuality throws into relief a number of philosophical/theoretical questions, the confrontation (if not comprehension) of which may offer a valuable purchase on the text’s “meaning.” It might thus be best to pose such questions and to reflect upon them without actually “answering” them.

Happening opens with a significant citation of Walter Hamilton’s “Preface” to his Description of Hindostan (1829):

The composition of this publication having been undertaken with a view to the information of those persons who have never visited India . . . it must be recollected . . . how impossible it is to describe so vast and populous a country in a small compass, or by a few general phrases, none of which applies universally, for unless the information conveyed has distinct and local reference, it leaves no definite impression on the mind. . . . Conciseness has been . . . aimed at, but probably the reader . . . will think with doubtful success. . . . It is obvious . . . that satisfactory delineation of so immense an empire must be the result of a progressive accumulation of facts on the precision of which reliance can be placed, and that acquiescence in the prior details of accidental travelers tends to perpetuate error. (1)

The passage is significant in itself, but also because it serves as a preface to the author’s own words which immediately follow:

We leave by bus for Tandarai, the mid-morning sun already more than ample. Our destination: Wilson’s parents home, in a village, 10 kilometers from Chingleput, where he was raised . . . (1)

How exactly does Hamilton’s “Preface” act as foreword to the author’s own text? Hamilton’s preface, while verbalizing the problems any writer on India is likely to face, recommends two ways of tackling them: recourse to distinct and local reference, and the progressive accumulation of facts. Happening continually anchors itself in local soil as it sets out to chart India. Does not Hamilton’s “conciseness” express itself in terms of the author’s meticulous noting down of the distances covered, the time(s) of various events, the impressions of people the author happens upon, and the responses of the people the author interacts with? The opening subtext here, as in every other chapter, acts as a context for the rest of the chapter.

Intertextuality manifests itself not only in the juxtaposition of two or more “discrete” sections of separate texts but also in the splicing/twinning of sentences from different texts:

“The yogic pose in the form of Dakshinamurthy.” As author begins temple proper approach, 3 12-year-old girls in red, yellow, green kurta-pajamas pass (North Indian tourists). “Symbolizes the spiritual quest.” Author smiles. “And conquest of the Self.” All 3 return his smile. “These constitute the very essence of Indian religious thought and practice” (quotations from The Bronzes of Tanjore). (33)

What happens when such splicing is simply semantically incongruous? How does one read a passage where each constituent sentence makes perfect sense and yet the resultant order/sequence of sentences does not yield a coherent order of meaning? Does intra-sentential semantic impertinence demand that the reader privilege a second order/metaphoric meaning over literal referential meaning? Perhaps a theory of metaphor such as Ricoeur’s may help. Ricoeur claims that metaphor in the form of “A is B” constitutes prima facie a category mistake, one that can be addressed (if not resolved) by holding together the perspectives A and B. In the splicing of citations on the yogic pose of Dakshinamurthy with an in situ description of the author’s interaction with three girls two perspectives are telescoped: the quoted writer’s view on Daskshinamurthy is “seen as” the words of the in situ portions and vice versa. Since “seeing as” occurs at the juncture of any two successive sentences, their twinning redefines our understanding of both the yogic pose and the observation of the girls at play. Put differently, where the literal senses of the sentences jar and founder a new second-order reference arises — a metaphorical meaning that is not already inscribed or implied in the words of the text but is rather engendered when the reader holds together the conflicting literal senses of the sentences. There occurs, in other words, a “happening” at the intersection of authorial and subtextual sentences. More specifically (with regard to the passage quoted above), the intermeshing of a reflection upon a bronze statue with an in situ recording of the exchange of smiles between author and three twelve-year-old girls confers on the bronze a “luster” borrowed from the girls even as they themselves are “transformed” by being located within a metaphysical reflection upon Indian religious thought. What are the epistemological implications of such an interweaving? Two different truth claims made — one by the repetition of the words of a person other than those of the author, the other by the author’s own words. In juxtaposing both truth claims the text calls them both into question. Is there then a “textual” attempt to articulate a different truth claim — one, that is, which arises from the textual interweavings? These matters emerge into sharp relief in the three opening paragraphs of Chapter 4:


Hamilton (1829):

“The approach to Madras from the sea is very striking; low flat sandy shores extending to the north and south, and the small hills that are seen inland, the whole exhibiting an appearance of barrenness that is much improved on closer inspection. The beach seems alive with the crowds that cover it. The public offices and store houses erected near the shore are fine buildings, with colonnades to the upper stories, supported on arched bases, covered with the beautiful shell mortar of Madras, hard, smooth, and polished.”

Wheeler (1861):

“Tuesday, 11 July. The sea having for about 10 days past encroached upon this town, and we, hoping as it is usual, that it would retreat again of itself, forbore any remedies to keep it off; but now that instead of its losing it mightily gains ground upon us, and without a speedy course be taken the town will run an apparent hazard of being swallowed up, for it has undermined even to the walls, and so deep that it has eaten away below the very foundation of the town, and the great bulwark next to the sea side, without a speedy and timely intervention, will certainly in a day or two more, yield to its violence: it is therefore ordered forthwith that the drum be beat to call all coolies, carpenters, smiths, peons, and all other workmen, and that sufficient materials be provided, that they may work day and night to endeavor to put a stop to its fury: for without effectual means be used in such an eminent danger and exigency, the town, garrison, and our own lives, considering all the foregoing circumstances, must needs be very hazardous and insecure.”

Author (1989):

January 15. Madras at mid winter. A return, by bus, from Anna Square (pronounced “Squire”), on this the last day of Pongal, first festival of the year. The streets are half deserted. Not only a seat on the bus, but the bus half empty, half of those seated bearing in their laps dishes in metal canisters to deliver to relatives for the mid-day meal. The women dressed in silk sarees, or in the case of the poor, their best cotton. All have flowers in their hair, an air of expectancy. (75-76)

Although the three paragraphs are all set in and about Madras, they offer three strikingly different views on the city: the difference that arises when they are placed thus stimulates the question of the status of place in Happening. Place or topos (to use a broader term) is made manifest at different levels and in different senses. At the level of surface structure, there is the space bracketed by the words enclosed within quotation marks; parallel to this is the space created by the author’s own words — a space that is always delineated in the present continuous tense as the author’s own words are produced in situ. Topos seems to be the principle that underlies the organization of the book in terms of chapters: the contents are composed of place names. This is not to suggest that topos is a positivistic geophysical idea. Rather, the topos is every now and then stripped of its positivistic properties and constructed in terms of the narrator’s imagination. Topos as a site of textual space partakes of the conventional “real” and the “fictional” (these terms should not suggest that reality and fiction are necessarily mutually exclusive). Indeed as with time, topos represents a complex multilayered site, as exemplified in the following passage:

“Your vehicle is ready, sir” (small brown van ready for temple trip). Early going retraces route of author’s day-before pedestrian outing. Combination of Indian streets, Indian vehicle suspension system makes in situ writing impossible. Finally, stop by Cauvery river (50 yards onto bridge): two men bathing below. “One of the Chola Kings bought from a merchant.” Two men working above on the bridge itself. “An attractive beautiful necklace.” To break up concrete floor of its sidewalk. “Of pearls.” By hand. “And presented it” Using 6-foot metal poles. “To his beautiful queen.” With spikes on the end. “Next day the King and the Queen came to the sacred River Cauvery.” Progressively distant view of other bathers. “To take their holy baths.” River ghats. “When the Queen reached the shore.” Line the water-depleted river bed. “She found that her necklace was missing.” Sighting, on northern horizon. “Everything precious and everything costlier.” Of Srirangam pagoda. “Would be offered at the sacred feet of God Jumbanatha and went to Thiruvanucka with his queen.” Left turn in pagoda’s direction. “The priest who brought the holy water from the River Cauvery.” Temple approach at breakneck speed. “Poured it on the Sivalingam.” Horn-honking van aswerve. “The beautiful necklace of the queen fell round the neck of the Sivalingam.” Around-bend gopuram-appearance. “In the very presence of royal couple.” General Srirangam frontal view. (172-173)

In splicing an already written account of the myth of the necklace with the author’s in situ description, the text actually reconstructs the setting of the myth. Indeed, the text’s experience of the Sacred River and the equally sacred place of Srirangam are constituted in the author’s ride to Srirangam under the shadow of the mythical account. The ride culminates in an epiphanic revelation of the frontal aspect of the place, coinciding with the moment of the Queen’s discovery of the necklace. It is as if the topos of Srirangam emerges at the end of both the myth and the author’s in situ narration, thereby presenting topos as a realization (mimesis) that occurs at the end of an action plotted simultaneously along a dual axis.

This brings us to the question of plot. What specific notion of plot does such intertextual writing reflect? Does the plot unfold in teleological fashion? Can one speak of plot in terms of a beginning, middle and a predetermined end? The citation from Hamilton’s “Preface” that opens the text argues that “the satisfactory delineation of so immense an empire must be the result of a progressive accumulation of facts.” The plot or plots of Happening seem more like an accumulation of accounts. What kind of progression do they show? Clearly, there seems to be no gradual teleological unfolding of a grand design. Perhaps a return to the text’s title may offer a clue as to the nature of its plot(s). The title “Happening,” grammatically a participle, suggests the present continuous tense, and by extension the idea of things in progress or in process and thus resisting division into temporally enclosed constituents such as a beginning and an end. However, common sense may protest: doesn’t the text begin on page 1? Doesn’t each chapter open and close? Of course common sense is valid, but only in so far as any construct worth the name of “text” necessarily opens and closes. But common reason fails to fathom many of the text’s openings and endings. Just as the chapters are not ordered in the sequence of their author’s experience, so the sections of any chapter do not necessarily proceed in linear fashion: a chapter simply breaks off, terminates, it does not end:

Flickering charcoal fires. “Till every power hostile to it.” (The ruins of which are traceable fifty-seven miles north-east of Delhi.) “Was overthrown.” (On an old bed of the Ganges.) To the modern traveler’s oasis: “And its supremacy was completely established.” The aerodrome. (352)

Many of the events that the text represents may be construed as primarily self-referential in so far as they draw insistent attention to their eventness. Consider the concluding lines of two different paragraphs:

. . . thence to quick shoreline passages of “boatments”. . . and again to the sudden emergence of office buildings. A little girl passes in magenta frock top, polkadot trousers in green and pink. (270)

The girls have put on skirts, red socks, tennis shoes. Elder women [with] large nose ornaments in sunburst design, at the center of which, rubies. From under the skirt of one of the elder women, the cry of an infant. (113)

What we witness here as elsewhere are clusters of impressions that are in no apparent way linked to one another. Each cluster, as above, exists as an evocation of an event for its own sake, as a pure happening. However, these independent evocations can be seen to be serially connected through the reader’s memory. Indeed, in retrospect, the reader discovers patterns of verbal repetition that often draw the apparently disparate segments together. Verbal repetition is the basic constituent of the plot of Happening. It is the principle upon which the text’s coherence rests. Repetition occurs at different levels. Most ostensibly, it is present in the text’s quotations, which comprise a site of multiple suggestion/recollection of the original sources from which they have been abstracted. Consider the passage that interweaves the author’s description of Delhi with a citation on Taimur’s conquest of Delhi:

“Taimur crossed the Indus on September 20, 1398.” I arrive. “After capturing a fort and a town on his way he arrived at Multan, which he took in October.” Am greeted warmly (relations always nothing if not cordial). “In November Bhatner succumbed.” “We’ve sent out those telegrams for you.” I breathe a sigh of relief. “On December 15 the forces of Delhi were defeated in the field.” . . . ” And Delhi was occupied.” Reason? “It’s so late in the year that their programs have already been planned.” (72)

In repeating the words of an account of Taimur’s conquest in the context of the author’s visits to various American officials in Delhi, the text brings together Taimur and MM, whose words register his desperate attempts to get the USIS to organize a lecture program alongside Taimur’s invasion of Delhi and his success as a plunderer. The almost simultaneous evocation of the two worlds brings Taimur’s success to bear upon the author’s failure: the repetition of the quotation, apart from reproducing its original discursive context, invests it with irony at the point where the two discursive worlds of the author and Taimur intersect. This happens in the sentence: “And Delhi was occupied.” Delhi was occupied or “conquered” (its original discursive meaning) by Taimur but is also busy (the ironic meaning it takes on when it recurs in the author’s context) with matters that leave it indifferent to the author’s requests.

Repetition often occurs at a less obvious level. In a chapter entitled “Delhi” the repetition of clusters of adjectives in description of Delhi is particularly noteworthy. The chapter opens with two separate accounts of the capital:

“I do not believe there is a climate in the world more perfect than that of Delhi in the cold weather. . . . Most of the English flowers seem to flourish. . . . Of these there was a great pergola at Viceregal Lodge, crimson linum grew close by, and behind them the sun used to set. The flood of golden light would catch up the crimson, the purple and the green and make of them a glory indescribable.” (59)

— Yvonne Fitzroy, Courts and camps in India

What to make of Delhi? — for it yields little by itself: a serene depression, a meaningless expanse of boulevards . . . finally to arrive at Connaught Place, a great disappointment: colorless, inefficient . . . billboards in unimaginative color and design. . . . The faces of merchants bland, bored, affectless. They are doing nothing; there is nothing to do. (59-60)

And again:

What to make of Delhi? For it is neither a puzzle nor transparency. So little variety, so little mystery, so little vitality for a nation’s capital. (61)

The negative “nothing” used in the author’s first account and deployed in the second in the use of “neither” recurs within a citation at the chapter’s close:

Delhi.” Notwithstanding its antiquity, and the long period of time during which it has ranked as the first city of Hindostan, there is nothing in its locality particularly attractive.” (Hamilton) (73)

These words recall the author’s adjectives describing Delhi as “colorless,” “bland,” “unimaginative” and suggest a concordance of Hamilton’s and the author’s views on Delhi. However, in the citation that follows Hamilton’s the word “attractive” (used by Hamilton above) recurs in a different context.

I had, of course, taken my wife to the scenes of the fights at Agra, Aligarh, and Balandshahar, but Delhi had the greatest fascination for her. It is certainly an extraordinarily attractive place. . . . for hundreds of years it had been the seat of Government under Rulers of various nationalities and religions; few cities have the remains of so much pomp and glory, and few bear the traces of having been besieged so often, or could tell of so much blood spilt in their defence, or of such quantities of treasure looted from them. (Field Marshall Roberts) (73)

The word “attractive” as used at the close recalls three earlier contexts of its presence: the vivid color-imagery that suffuses Fitzroy’s account of Delhi at the outset of the chapter; the author’s accounts where the key-tone is colorlessness; and Hamilton’s comment where “attractive” is used in the negative. Further, the words “pomp,” “glory” and “various” in recalling the author’s phrase “so little variety” throw light on two different contexts where “variety” is used to convey diametrically opposed views on Delhi. The repetitions of words such as these, far from offering a harmonious view of Delhi, create a series of disruptions and dissonances between the different contexts of their repeated usage. What gathers together the different views on Delhi is simply the repeated use of certain adjectives in varying contexts. Delhi, the object of critical attention, doesn’t become progressively clarified as the chapter progresses. Rather, each different/separate comment on Delhi represents a repeated, albeit inadequate, attempt to “capture” Delhi, to present it from a particular vantage point. What emerges when the chapter is viewed retrospectively is a collage of jarring views pasted together — a collage where no single view is dominant and where the views relativize each other: the author’s poor impression of Delhi is no sooner corroborated by Hamilton than it is refuted by Roberts and Fitzroy. The idea of the collage most adequately describes the plot of Happening. Just as a collage exhibits no central unifying idea, so the travels the text highlights head in no specific direction. Places are visited for the sake of being visited; a single place is sometimes visited twice but the two visits are so independent as to suggest no causal link. Just as many an impression or event calls attention to its status as impression/event and so bears no relation to preceding or successive impressions/events, so the travels are not related (as they are in a modernist journey-motif, where the end is anticipated in the beginning). A chapter begins with slight reference to the preceding chapter(s), simply breaks off, terminates, does not end. This is nowhere more evident than in the closing chapter:

Flickering charcoal fires. “Till every power hostile to it.” (The ruins of which are traceable fifty-seven miles north-east of Delhi.) ”Was overthrown.” (On an old bed of the Ganges.) To the modern traveler’s oasis: “And its supremacy was completely established.” The aerodrome (352).

As with time and space, so with plot: does not Happening in breaking with the traditional idea of plot as a linear thematic movement call into question traditional ways of reading a text? In the light of these observations one may well ask: Can the text not be opened anywhere and read? And isn’t the reader expected to read in such a way as to de-sign-(ate) it — to invest it with meaning? Perhaps meaning is not quite the word, for there is no total meaning to be had. What is to be had is a spectacle of individual events that relate by accident (hap — for the words that present them are mere signs that serve as props for their performance. These signs are denotatively used — mere signifiers that point literally to these events. There is perhaps another way of reading the text — a way in which the reader herself/himself becomes the writer of the text. To follow this way is to presume two things: (1) that the text possesses a potentially coherent pattern of meaning and (2) that Madison Morrison has merely put together arbitrarily “the always already written, spoken and read into a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.”