Academic journal article Journal of Research in Gender Studies

Feminism and Femininity in Salman Rushdie's the Enchantress of Florence

Academic journal article Journal of Research in Gender Studies

Feminism and Femininity in Salman Rushdie's the Enchantress of Florence

Article excerpt

1. Locating Love ... Ideologically

The Enchantress of Florence is structured on the story-within-story pattern, involving historical and imaginary characters - a narrator: Niccolo Vespucci, an enchantress: Qara Köz, an emperor: Akbar the Great, a Florentine, a disabused Republican turned a political philosopher: Niccolo Machiavelli, a first minister, pirates, explorers, queens. The stories, however, are pretexts to discuss essential questions of power, love and, more than anything, the meanings of the self, beyond the geographical and temporal delimitations within which the above characters live - the Mughal Emperor's court at Fatehpur Sikri and the urban space of Renaissance Florence. Assessing the topic of secular humanism and its origins, Justin Newman refers to The Enchantress of Florence:

In several important ways, Rushdie's novel conforms to mainline accounts of secularization (as entailing the retreat of religion from public life paired with the decline of individual belief) and of humanism (epitomized by a commitment to beauty as the ultimate aesthetic value, a commitment paired with a recentering of life around worldly affairs and individual reason).1

However, the atemporality of the themes discussed is doubled by the presence of veridical historical details - Rushdie attaches an ample bibliography at the end of his novel in order to sustain the credibility of many hypostases in the book - and also by the presence of fantastic embodiments, imagined characters and incidents. As Justin Newman puts it, "In terms of genre, The Enchantress of Florence is a globe-traversing prose romance about the vicissitudes of love, power, and storytelling - a romance dressed in the guise of an impeccably researched historical novel (complete with an extensive bibliography)." (Newman, 676)

The image of Sikri opens Rushdie's novel: a combination of golden colors and unstable contours, fabulous dimensions, the imaginary and the limit of the real, thus anticipating the continuous play of the fantastic versus the real that guides the main characters' lives and stories.

In the day's last light the glowing lake below the palace-city looked like a sea of molten gold. A traveller coming this way at sunset - this traveler, coming this way, now, along the lakeshore road - might believe himself to be approaching the throne of a monarch so fabulously wealthy that he could allow a portion of his treasure to be poured into a giant hollow in the earth to dazzle and awe his guests. [...] Perhaps (the traveler surmised) the fountain of eternal youth laid within the city walls - perhaps even the legendary doorway to Paradise on Earth was somewhere close at hand?2

The image of Sikri is that of a liberal citadel, extremely permissive as to the commoners' daily behavior, leaving them the freedom to manifest themselves according to their own senses and will:

People ate where the birds could share their food and gambled where cutpurse could steal their winnings, they kissed in frill view of strangers and even lucked in the shadows if they wanted to. What did it mean to be a man so completely among men, and women too? (Rushdie, 141)

Florence, "Mercatrice, meretrice", at the end of the 15th century, is the city observed during its Renaissance glorious days, of philosophy and enlightened humanism, of the focus on the individual. Beyond everything else, the humanists asserted "man's genius... the extraordinary and unique ability of the human mind."3 Reality, however, especially daily life, looked completely different: Florence was a city of the streets, savage, with strange deeds taking place in the streets, men sodomizing in the shadow and various other events beyond a reasonable moral code. "The city of wealthy traders was also according to ancient custom a city of fabulous whores. Now that the Weepers' day was done the true nature of that city of lubricious sensualists reasserted itself. The world of whorehouse came flooding back. …

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