The individual’s understanding of belonging is inextricably shaped by significant moments in time, which while not necessarily life-changing events, have a lasting, individual and personal impact. Such a concept of the significance of profound moments in time is echoed in Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2003 novel ‘The Namesake’ and Sean Penn’s 2007 film ‘Into the Wild. ’ Both pieces rely upon an authorial manipulation of time, extended metaphor, symbolism and medium-specific techniques to make evident this importance of profound moments in impacting the individual.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake’ spans over thirty years and across two generations, following the tale of second generation Indian/American or ‘American born confused Deshi’ Gogol Ganguli and his family. Lahiri’s storytelling fastens or slows according to the emphasis placed on respective events and as such it is clear that Lahiri pinpoints certain significant moments in the lives of Gogol and the other characters as profound in what they contribute to Gogol’s understanding of belonging- which is accomplished only by the end of the novel.
Penn’s film similarly sees an authorial manipulation of time- though over a shorter period than that embraced by Lahiri. Penn relies on cut-away flashbacks to reveal significant moments of change in the outlook of protagonist Chris McCandless (later self-named Chris Supertramp) and as such the viewer gains an insight into Chris’ inexplicable sense of belonging to nature and each other living person he encounters in his escape from materialistic, American suburbia and its ‘things, things, things’ in his embracing of a nomadic lifestyle ‘lost in the wild. This manipulation of time however, also makes evident the near tangible presence of the past and past memories in the individual’s quest for belonging and self-realization in the present. Lahiri juxtaposes the memories of Ashima with those of Gogol to make evident the conflicts between first and second generational migrant experiences. Rich imagery makes clear the strength of belonging to Calcutta which defines Ashima’s experiences living on alien ‘American seconds. Ashima remembers, in sensory detail ‘her father, sitting at the slanted ink stained table by the window- smoking, sketching, listening to the voice of America. ’
Olfactory and tactile sensory imagery displays the way in which this one particular moment has defined Ashima’s remembrances of home and of her father. To Ashima, this memory is unassailable. In complete juxtaposition, Gogol ‘will for the rest of his life remember that cold, overcast Spring, digging in the dirt, collecting rocks. Gogol’s identity crisis- as an example of self-imposed barriers to belonging- is evident in that he is an Indian, with Indian parents and surrounded by the colour and culture of India- but with childhood memories not of Calcutta but rather of American suburban development. This inclusion of childhood moments in time sees Lahiri almost embracing a foreshadowing effect- in highlighting the thirty year long struggle for self which will follow for Gogol.
Sean Penn’s ‘Into the Wild’ embraces flashback in the identification of the way in which significant moments in time shape Chris’ understanding of belonging. As Chris embraces a free, loving nomadic lifestyle only rarely to memories of his violent childhood- defined by domestic arguments and the passive aggression of both parents- surface. His sister Carine’s presence as voice-over however, makes the impact of significant moments in Chris’ life consistently evident.
As Chris is depicted in still, wide angle shots as one amongst nature and in panning shots as truly ‘lost in the wild’ the presence of Carine pervades the present and makes his past unavoidable. Carine recounts how upon Chris’ realization that he and his sister were ‘bastard children’ he thought his whole life thus far to be a ‘murder of everyday’s truth. ’ Chris, in his running from ‘this sick society’ is making a brave attempt to transcend the lies of his childhood which he cannot- in all good conscience- belong to.
The past violence permeates Chris’ experiences however and his final killing of a moose for sustenance in the Alaskan wilderness: the tearing out of the animal’s heart- sees him revert to the savagery of his father whom he so despises. The symbolic significance of such an act of inhumanity sees Chris’ spiral into madness initiated. Lahiri and Penn additionally embrace the concept of profound inter-personal relationships and interactions as shaping the individual’s understanding of belonging. For example, in Chapter Ten of ‘The Namesake’ Lahiri embraces third person narration to explore Moushimi’s understanding of belonging.
Moushimi’s profound realization that she and Gogol do not belong to one another, who she tellingly refers to as ‘Nikhil’ throughout the chapter, comes through two significant moments in time. Firstly her connection to Paris makes manifest her disconnection from Gogol: ‘‘here Moushimi had reinvented herself. ’ Additionally, her dissatisfying affair with Dimitri provides ultimate closure. Gogol’s relationships with women bring him gradually closer to the eventual realization that he cannot disconnect from his heritage.
His intimate relationships, begin with a mysterious college girl: ‘’he did not want to tell Kim his name,’’ and Gogol reaches a final realization through Moushimi that belonging can be enhanced by relationships but that such a union is possible only if each individual has realized their own capacity for belonging, both to self and society. This realization takes place in a train- one of Lahiri’s key motifs- along with Indian cuisine and photographs to make clear a change in the individual’s approach towards belonging. In Penn’s ‘Into the Wild’ Chris is depicted as attempting to lose himself in the natural world.
However in a true example of dramatic irony, Chris’ greatest developments in his attempts to belong, are with others. Chris remains unable to accept this fact: ‘‘but you are wrong if you think that the joy of life comes principally from the joy of human relationships. ’’ It is only at the moment of death that such enlightenment is reached. As a non-diegetic reverberation of Chris’ heartbeat sounds and fast-cut editing sees a pastiche of close up facial shots and panning shots of the wilderness it becomes evident that Chris has become tragically ‘lost in the wild. This is reinforced in the final realization that ‘happiness is only real when shared. ’ Belonging to others is essential. Once again, the dramatic circular irony- in that the film opens with the intertextuality of Lord Byron’s poem ‘There is a Pleasure in the Pathless Woods’ including the statement: ‘I love man not the less, but nature more,’ and ends with Chris’ final moment in time making evident the necessity of human relationships to belonging.
It is clear that in both Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2003 novel ‘The Namesake’ and Sean Penn’s 2007 film ‘Into the Wild’ that the individual’s understanding of belonging is inextricably shaped by significant moments in time, which possess a great and lasting individual impact. This is evident through the authorial manipulation of time, extended metaphor, symbolism and a range of medium-specific techniques in each respective text.