“At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers”
In this short story, Rushdie satirizes capitalism and celebrities. His use of the ruby slippers from the American film, The Wizard of Oz also gestures toward American imperialism. The use of memorabilia from a famous western film, such as The Wizard of Oz, is a metaphor for the negative impacts that colonialism has made throughout the world. Rushdie uses this short story to provide critique and commentary on several aspects that he believes are detrimental to society. He shows how celebrities are elevated to a higher social status because of their perceived superiority to those who are not famous: “Movie stars are here, among the bidders, bringing their glossy, spangled auras to the saleroom….when one of us collides with a star’s priceless (and fragile) aura, he or she is instantly knocked to the floor by a security team and hustled out to the waiting paddy-wagons” (Rushdie 88). “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers” also emphasizes the negative effects that rampant capitalism can have on a society, specifically through the unequal distribution of wealth, power, and prestige that are the hallmarks of social stratification. Those who belong to the privileged class are in a position to spend their wealth on material and superfluous items, as illustrated through Dorothy’s ruby slippers. Rushie not only critiques the emphasis on materialism but also the emphasis some people place on physical appearances: “The memorabilia junkies are out in predictable force, and now with a ducking movement of the head one of them applies her desperate lips to the slippers’ transparent cage…the system pumps a hundred thousand volts of electricity into the collagen-implanted lips of the glass kisser, terminating her interest with the proceedings. It is an unpleasant whiffy moment, but it fails to deter a second aficionado from the same suicidal act of devotion” (Rushdie 88-89).
This scene is particularly indicative of the issues with materialism; immediately after one person dies after trying to kiss the display, another person does the exact same thing. This displays powerful social commentary on the extent of denigration that some people are willing to go to to obtain material objects. It not only focuses on the detriments of materialism, it also acknowledges the emphasis that some people place on their physical appearance with the phrase “collagen-implanted lips.” Rushdie brings to attention human flaws that erroneously place value on shallow ideals, namely materialism and physical beauty created by unnatural alterations to the human body.
Rushdie also focuses on the detrimental effects of unchecked capitalism and the desire to sacrifice ethics and personal, and community, pride in order to obtain profit: “In the Grand Saleroom… we have witnessed the auction of the Taj Mahal, the Statue of Liberty, the Alps, the Sphinx. We have assisted at the sale of wives and the purchase of husbands. State secrets have been sold here, openly, to the highest bidder. On one very special occasion, the Auctioneers presided over the sale,…to a bunch of smoldering red demons ,of a wide selection of human souls of all classes, qualities, ages, race,and creeds. Everything is for sale…we engage in a battle of wits and wallets, a war of nerves…There is a purity about our actions here, and also an aesthetically pleasing tension between the vast complexity of life that turns up packaged into lots, to go under the hammer, and the equally immense simplicity of our manner of dealing with this life…All are equal before the justice of the gavels…this is the courtroom of demand” (Rushdie 98-99). The author uses important cultural landmarks of various countries to demonstrate the level of social degradation that has occurred in the name of profit.
Historical landmarks, that should be priceless, are instead for sale to the highest bidder, showing that profit trumps heritage, and cultural meaning, and people place little value on things like history and culture. Rushie also emphasizes the greed, consumerism, and desire for material goods that people are willing to degrade themselves to the extreme because they believe they will be fulfilled in some way: “We revere the slippers because we believe they can make us invulnerable to witches ( and there are so many sorcerers pursuing us nowadays…Disapproving critiques of the fetishing of the slippers are offered by religious fundamentalists, who have been allowed to gain entry by virtue of the extreme liberalism of some of the Auctioneers, who argue that a civilized saleroom must be a broad church, open, tolerant. The fundamentalists have openly stated that they are interested in buying the magic footwear only in order to burn it, and this is not, in the view of the liberal Auctioneers, a reprehensible programme. What price tolerance if the intolerant are not tolerated also?” (Rushdie 92). Witches and sorcerers function as a metaphor for unappealing aspects of society and the human condition, and Rushdie satirizes the belief that capitalism and consumerism are the solution for these issues. Because Rushdie chooses a prop from a Western movie, there is an implication that colonialism and Western imperialism are the the motivations for these types of societal denigrations.
“The Harmony of the Spheres”
In the short story “The Harmony of the Spheres” the narrator, Khan, chronicles the mental breakdown and subsequent suicide that occurs as a result of his friend, Eliot Crane’s schizophrenia and associations with the occult: “…the writer Eliot Crane, who had been suffering from what he called ‘brainstorms’ of paranoid schizophrenia, had lunch with his wife, a young photo-journalist called Lucy Evans…An hour later Lucy woke up with a premonition of disaster and went without getting dressed to the door of the guest bedroom; which taking a deep breath, she opened…He had been ill for more than two years, and all should could think was It’s over… He had sucked on his shotgun and pulled the trigger. The weapon had belonged to his father, who had put it to the same use. The only suicide note Eliot left after perpetuating this final act of macabre symmetry was a meticulous account of how to clean and care for the gun…he had met a demon once and ever since that day he and Lucy have been on the run…they had sold their haunted home… and moved to the bleak, sheep-smelly Welsh cottage they name (with gallows humour) Crowley End.” (Rushdie 125-126). Through this character, Rushdie uses the loss of personal identity that Eliot feels as a result of his schizophrenia as a metaphor for colonization.
When a colonized nation is overtaken by a colonizer, they may experience mental fragmentation and a loss of personal identity akin to what someone who suffers from a mental disorder like schizophrenia may also experience. There is also a theme of betrayal in “The Harmony of the Spheres,” as Khan discovers at the end of the story, and after Eliot’s death, that his wife, Mala, had an affair with Eliot. Khan is completely unaware of their betrayal; it is only after he had gone through Eliot’s writing and told Mala about it that he discovered that the fantasies described in the writings were, in fact, true: ”He was so sick, so crazy, that he fantasised all these last- tango encounters with you…just after we got home from Venice…those two days I was alone with Lucy…and he said he had to go to Cambridge for a lecture. Mala stood up and turned her back on me, and before she spoke I guessed her answer…Yes she had warned me against Eliot Crane, warned me with the bitter passion of her denunciation of him and I…had failed to hear the real warning, failed to understand what she had meant by the passion in her voice…So here it came: the collapse of harmony, the demolition of the spheres of my heart. Those weren’t fantasies, she said” (Rushdie 145-146).
What makes this infidelity even harder for Khan, is the near sexual encounter that he and Eliot’s wife, Lucy, almost engaged in while Eliot was allegedly giving a lecture in Cambridge: “Lucy as a skipper was intensely desirable, revealing great physical strength and a kind of boaty bossiness that I found very arousing. On this trip we had two nights alone, because Eliot had to return to Cambridge to hear a lecture by a ‘top man from Austria’ on the subject of the Nazis and the occult…. “But at a certain moment she kissed my cheek, murmured ‘madness love,’ and rolled over, turning her back on the too-distant past. I thought of Mala, my not-too distant present, and blushed guiltily in the dark”(Rushdie 132).However, both Lucy and Khan recalled their marriage vows and felt guilty about their intentions that would lead to infidelity, and did not continue. The irony here is that Eliot himself had lied to both Khan and his wife Lucy in order to go sleep with Mala, Khan’s wife. “The Harmony of the Spheres” differs from Rushdie’s usual content in his stories, but there are parallels that can be drawn to colonization, specifically in the loss of personal identity experienced by Eliot as a result of his mental illness;this is comparative to the loss of personal identity experienced by members of a colonized nation after they are dominated by an imperialist nation.
This course made me see Western imperialism through a variety of lenses. One thing that seemed to be consistent to me is the constant oppression of women throughout the literature we read over the semester. While all members of a colonized society were oppressed and controlled by the colonizer in some way, it seems as though women suffered to a higher degree. In stories like Woman at Point Zero and Nervous Conditions women were already oppressed by a patriarchal social hierarchy, and were then additionally oppressed by the colonizer. This made me realize that feminism and advocacy for women are of the utmost importance.