Meiotic Fictions: Hybridity and the Reproduction of the New

Nicole Matos

[1] "How does newness come into the world? How is it born? Of what fusions, translations, conjoinings is it made" (Verses 8)? These questions, central to the sprawling, provocative project that is The Satanic Verses, are ones that Rushdie purports to answer himself:

The Satanic Verses celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Melange, hodgepodge, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world. It is the great possibility that mass migration gives the world, and I have tried to embrace it. The Satanic Verses is for change-by-fusion, change-by-conjoining. It is a love-song to our mongrel selves. (Homelands 394)

While Rushdie explicitly identifies "the process of hybridization" as "the novel's most crucial dynamic" (Homelands 403), I'd like to suggest that submerged within The Satanic Verses is also a kind of shadow-text that problematizes hybridity as primary metaphor for the "real" that Rushdie expresses — a real that Rushdie, like Gilroy, gropes towards in a successive invoking of the almost-but-not-quite-right-word: for Rushdie, not only hybridity, impurity, intermingling, transformation, mongrelization, melange, hodgepodge, a bit of this and that, change-by-fusion, change-by-conjoining, but also self-regenerat[ing] (Homelands 16), teem[ing] (Homelands 16), bastard (Homelands 394), cross-pollinat[ed] (Homelands 20), and so on. And while I wouldn't go so far as to argue that meiotic is the single "right word" that Rushdie searches for (or even that there could be one), it may be a more effective metaphor for his project than the one The Satanic Verses ostensibly chooses as primary: the hybridity of "chimerean graft" (420).

[2] Although heralding this image as central to the mongrelizing, newness-celebrating project of the novel is a popular move, to do so is to overlook the fact that a chimerean graft (Frankenstein's monster, stitched together from the limbs of corpses, was one) is actually one of the most heterogeneous or "chunky" of all possible hybridities — one in which the components of each parent are still visibly separate, sharing only blood, roots, a vascular system. The concept is introduced in the novel through Otto Cone's garden; hardly an example of effective cultural reinvention-through-fusion, Otto is identified by his wife as "strictly a melting pot man" (305). Chamcha Saladin's investment in the concept comes at a particularly low point in his life, and its framing within Saladin's obsessive, "immobile" (419) TV watching, is not unambivalent:

It seemed to him, as he idled across the channels, that the box was full of freaks: there were mutants — "Mutts" — on Dr. Who, bizarre creatures who appeared to have been crossbred with different types of industrial machinery ... A hospital in Guyana has apparently preserved the body of a fully formed merman, complete with gills and scales ... He was reminded of an execrable piece of poetry which Jumpi Joshi had hesitatingly shown him at the Shaandaar B and B. Its name, "I Sing the Body Eclectic," was fully representative of the whole, Saladin thought bitterly. He made Pamela's baby with no trouble at all: no broken sticks on his damn chromosomes ...

On Gardener's World he had been shown how to achieve something called a "chimerean graft" (the very same, as chance would have it, that had been the pride of Otto Cone's garden) ...There it palpably was, a chimera with roots, firmly planted in and growing vigorously in the English earth: a tree, he thought, capable of taking the metaphoric place of the one his father had chopped down in a distant garden in another, incompatible world. If such a tree were possible then so was he; he too could cohere, send down roots, survive. Amid all the televisual images of hybrid tragedies — the uselessness of mermen, the failures of plastic surgery, the Esperanto-like vacuity of much modern art, the Coca-Colonization of the planet — he was given this one gift. It was enough. (419-420)

Read through in its extended context, the chimerean graft seems less an ideal or wholeheartedly celebrated concept than a merely adequate concept — one better than the other "hybrid tragedies," but still testifying to "another, incompatible world," "enough" to help one "cohere," but that's all. The parts of a chimerean "Body Eclectic" could never be "fully representative of the whole." The passage does, however, hint at a preferable option, although one inexplicably denied to Saladin — genetic recombination, sexual reproduction: "[Jumpi] made Pamela's baby with no trouble at all: no broken sticks on his damn chromosomes."

[3] Often cited, but perhaps sometimes oversimplified, too, is The Satanic Verses's use of paradigms of mutation and evolution. Clearly, Rushdie is interested in the role mutation plays in the way species evolve, speculating that mutation is "the price to pay for survival, for being reborn, for becoming new" (137) and wondering about the relation of individual mutations to natural selection (259-260). But what has been overlooked, or as I would argue, consciously or unconsciously subsumed, is that it is the process of meiosis, not mutation, that is arguably most important to evolution. [14] And mutation, like chimerean grafting, is not presented without ambivalence. [15] Take, for instance, the hybrid horrors of the mutant hospital (169-177) who have clearly been "composited" by the enemy, the homogeneous other:

Saladin was still puzzled. The [manticore] seemed to be suggesting that these mutations were the responsibility of—of whom? How could they be? —"I don't see," he ventured, "who can be blamed ... "

The manticore ground its three rows of teeth in evident frustration. "There's a woman over that way," it said, "who is now mostly water-buffalo. There are businessmen from Nigeria who have grown sturdy tails. There is a group of holiday-makers from Senegal who were doing no more than changing planes when they were turned into slippery snakes ..."

"But how do they do it?" Chamcha wanted to know.

"They describe us," the other whispered solemnly, "That's all." (174)

Significant, too, is the prominent role that cancer, of the dread of it, plays in the lives of so many characters - Zeeny, Allie, Mishal, Changez: a fearful playing-out of the ultimate in sameness-replication, of course, but one of mutation as well.

[4] The most hopeful and most characteristic trope of hybridity offered in the novel may ultimately be not one of chimerean grafting or of mutation, but, in fact, meiosis. And it's the image that comes first, when Gibreel and Saladin experience their "big bang ... the universal beginning" (4). In a process that scrambles sexual fertilization and birth, Chamcha and Gilbreel fall from the "metal phallus" of the airplane "like spermatozoa waiting to be spilt" (41), "plummet like bundles dropped by some carelessly open-beaked stork ... Chamcha was going down head first, in the recommended position for babies entering the birth canal" (5). But while Rushdie (with a question mark) identifies the proceedings as mutation (5), the most compelling image — and even the conflation of names, "Gibreelsaladin Farishtachamcha" (5) — stages the mechanics of meiosis, of chromosomes crossing-over in "geminate cartwheels":

Chamcha, prim, rigid, and still upside-down, saw Gibreel Farishta in his purple bush-shirt come swimming towards him across that cloud-walled funnel, and would have shouted, "Keep away, get away from me," except that something prevented him, the beginning of a little fluttery screamy thing in his intestines, so instead of uttering words of rejection he opened his arms and Farishta swam into them until they were embracing head-to-tail and the force of their collision sent them tumbling end over end, performing their geminate cartwheels all the way down and along the hole that went to Wonderland; while pushing their way out of the white came a succession of cloudforms, ceaselessly metamorphosing, gods into bulls, women into spiders, men into wolves. Hybrid cloud-creatures pressed in upon them, gigantic flowers with human breasts handing from fleshy stalks, winged cats, centaurs, and Chamcha in his semi-consciousness was seized by the notion that he, too, had acquired the condition of cloudiness, becoming metamorphic, hybrid, as if he were growing into the person whose head now rested between his legs and whose legs were wrapped around his long, patrician neck. (6-7)

[5] Meiosis, the intertwining of Saladin and Chamcha until their limbs "grow together" is the literal biological process that offers what Rushdie says he wants for this scene: "Mutation? Yessir, but not random" (5). Though it doesn't entirely answer the "question" of newness, it can provide a certain sort of lens for examining this central question. Meiosis may be a concept that can help elucidate Rushdie's elusive distinction between Gibreel as "continuous" and Saladin as the "selectively discontinuous":

Well, then. —Are we coming closer to it? Should we even say that these are two fundamentally different types of self? Might we not agree that Gibreel, for all his stage-name and performances, for all his born-again slogans, new beginnings, metamorphoses—has wished to remain, to a large degree, continuous, that is joined to and arising from his past ... whereas Saladin Chamcha is a creature of selected discontinuities, a willing re-invention, his preferred revolt against history what makes him, in our chosen idiom, false? (441)

[6] Taking meiosis as our chosen idiom might also allow us to intervene, to offer new, third, mediating possibilities, into some of the text's most explored dichotomies — between Ovid and Lucretius (meiotic recombination is neither Ovid's essence-retaining waxing of shape or Lucretius's essence-destroying, incendiary change, but something else that includes a bit of both), and between singularity and multiplicity (each sexually reproduced creature is both truly unique and only ever a pastiche of previous creatures, of their genetic instructions). And ultimately, between life and death, which Rushdie suggests is not a dichotomy at all, but a kind of mutual sacrifice, a gift the existing grant in order that the non-existing (for a little while) may enter.

[14] Genetic change through mutation is exponentially more rare than change through meiotic recombination. According to Fenwick, "the average gene changes by mutation only once in 200, 000 years" (204).

[15] Technically, a "mutant" should only result from genetic mutation, but Rushdie also uses "mutant" in its pop-culture sense: any entity of striking, "composite" difference.