Dialogue in extremis
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Dialogue in extremis book
In this Chapter, Ram-Prasad provides a close reading and analysis of the dialogue between Rāma and Vālin, which appears in the Rāmāyaṇa. In a text whose moral ambiguities have been overlain in the vulgate and glossed (over) by commentators, and which remains intractably complex despite contemporary politico-devotional discomfort, the episode of Rāma’s killing of the monkey king Vālin from hiding is exemplary for its thorny details. The circumstances of Rāma’s commitment to Sugrīva to kill Vālin while the monkey-brothers are in single combat make for a skilful narrative of friendship and political alliance, but only through some very doubtful logic. The actual killing has always struck the audience as problematic, and the tradition has preserved Vālin’s eloquent case against Rāma in which he sums up this intuitive sense of wrong-doing. We then have two sequences in this episode. One is Rāma’s set of arguments to justify himself, which are in themselves inconsistent and drew the apologetic attention of medieval commentators. And then there is Vālin’s (epistemically miraculous) acceptance of Rāma’s defence, and his dying words arranging his affairs so that his son joins Rāma’s mission to rescue Sītā, and his soon-to-be widow Tārā is consoled. Ram-Prasad will examine the philosophical implications of the dialogue between the dying monkey king and Rāma (whose ethical presence as king is somehow also a divine presence as God). What can we make of Vālin’s persuasive summary of Rāma’s actions, Rāma’s own multiple, inconsistent arguments in defence and Vālin’s astonishing acceptance of that defence? Ram-Prasad will read this dialogue simultaneously in two ways. One is as the narrative enactment of the unresolved (perhaps irresolvable) dialogue between the subaltern expression of alterity and the elite pursuit of closure. The other is as a theological depiction faith in the face of existential bafflement. He suggests that there is a subtle and complex hermeneutic relationship between the two readings. The dialogue is a model for the careful reading of the purposes of endlessly meaningful narratives that make them live for us.