Salman Rushdie wrote an amusing little book in 1992. The title of the book is The Wizard of Oz. It’s about the famous movie with Judy Garland’s Dorothy and Toto and the Wicked Witches, East and West. The movie The Wizard of Oz is celebrating its 75-year anniversary this month. For three-quarters of a century, this unusual movie has been infecting the brains of young people all over the world. Rushdie was one of them. At age ten, Rushdie wrote his first story. He called it “Over the Rainbow.” Strange to think that there is a direct line from The Wizard of Oz to Rushdie’s now-classic tale of the partition of India, Midnight’s Children (1980).
Rushdie is an unabashed lover of the film. Call the film, he writes, “imaginative truth. Call it (reach for your revolvers now) art.” Rushdie also has strong opinions about what this artful film is and is not about. It is not about going home. Yes, Dorothy frequently talks about going home. After her house falls on the Wicked Witch of the East, the munchkins and the Good Witch Glinda tell her to go home immediately. She isn’t safe in Oz, they tell her, not with the Wicked Witch of the West still lurking about. So Dorothy follows the Yellow Brick Road in order to find the Wizard, who will help her return to her home in Kansas. At the end of the movie, she clicks her ruby slippers together and repeats, “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.” In a movie that Rushdie says is not about going home, there is quite a lot of home-talk.
But that’s not, says Rushdie, the real story. “Anybody,” he writes, “who has swallowed the screenwriters’ notion that this is a film about the superiority of ‘home’ over ‘away’, that the ‘moral’ of The Wizard of Oz is as sickly-sweet as an embroidered sampler — East, West, home’s best — would do well to listen to the yearning in Judy Garland’s voice, as her face tilts up towards the skies.”
Point taken. Garland’s Dorothy does yearn and tilt as she sings her famous song. That song is, indeed, the soul of the movie. Ostensibly, Dorothy runs away from home to save her little dog Toto. But maybe that is just an excuse to go on an adventure. One minute Dorothy is worrying about her scruffy small beast, the next minute she is crooning about a magical place she heard of once in a lullaby. Everybody needs a good reason to break the bonds of home and seek out something new, something “over the rainbow.” “In its most emotional moments,” writes Rushdie:
This is unarguably a film about the joys of going away, of leaving the greyness and entering the colour, of making a new life in the place ‘where there isn’t any trouble’. ‘Over the Rainbow’ is, or ought to be, the anthem of all the world’s migrants, all those who go in search of the place where ‘the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true’.
Rushdie is, therefore, highly annoyed by the ending of The Wizard of Oz. Waking up again on her bed in good ol’ Kansas, Dorothy declares, “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look further than my own back yard. And if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.” This is no longer the anthem of all the world’s migrants. This is an encomium to staying put. “How does it come about,” Rushdie asks, “at the close of this radical and enabling film, which teaches us in the least didactic way possible to build on what we have, to make the best of ourselves, that we are given this conservative little homily?” How could anyone renounce the colorful world of Oz, Rushdie wants to know, the dream of a new and different place, for the black and white comforts, the utter drabness of Kansas and all the homespun hominess it represents?
Rushdie’s explanation for this failure of imagination in the movie is that the filmmakers lost their nerve. The default position for the “moralizing” and “sentimental” Hollywood studio system was always for the safe and staid. The pat ending of The Wizard of Oz, thinks Rushdie, can and therefore should be ignored.
But it must be asked: What tension does the plot of the movie contain if Dorothy doesn’t go home?
In fact, Dorothy starts going home very early in the movie. First, she sings her lovely song about rainbows, grabs Toto and leaves the family farm. In a few minutes, she runs into Professor Marvel, the travelling salesman/quack/fortune teller. Professor Marvel realizes he has stumbled upon a little girl who has foolishly run away. He tricks her into worrying about her aunt and wanting to go back home. Within minutes, Dorothy is on her way. That would have been the entire plot of the movie. Little girl worries about dog, dreams about far away places, “runs away” from home for an hour or so, then rushes back to where she belongs and to the people who love her.
But fate has other things in store for Dorothy. There is an event. A freak of nature. A tornado comes. Dorothy is knocked unconscious and the world starts spinning. Perhaps Dorothy has even invoked the cyclone with all the yearning in her song. Now, she is going to have a real journey, whether she likes it or not. But it is a journey in which she never, actually, leaves home. The conceit of the movie (we find out later) is that Dorothy never even leaves her bed. She merely dreamed up Oz after getting bumped on the head. Or did she?
The question to ask, however, is not “Did Dorothy leave home”?” but rather “Did she want to leave home?” Did she want to leave Kansas more than she wanted to stay? Did she want to leave simply in order to experience the joy of coming back home? Do we have to leave one home forever in order to find our true home? Is it even possible to talk of home without some knowledge of what is not our home? Home seems an eternal problem.
This is all reminiscent of a much older story. A story, O muse, about a clever man who traveled far and wide after sacking the famous citadel of Troy.
Does Odysseus really want to go home? He says he does. But it takes Odysseus ten years to go a distance across the Mediterranean that, even in the Bronze Age, wasn’t more than a week’s journey. Did Odysseus, as he claimed, rush back as fast as he possibly could? Was he really so eager to get back to family and kids, to the supposedly fabulous bed he’d made out of a living tree, decorated with gold and silver and ivory?
There is, in The Odyssey, a genuine home-goer. His name is Nestor. That name comes from the Greek verb neomai, which means “to return,” “to go home.” So, the name Nestor could be translated as “the guy who goes home.” Nestor is like Odysseus in many ways. He’s a fast talker. He is crafty. He gets things done with words. But unlike Odysseus, he knows how to get home. And that is exactly what Nestor does at the end of the battle of Troy. He goes right home. It doesn’t take him ten years. It doesn’t take him any time at all. He doesn’t anger the Gods, complicating his journey. He doesn’t stop to have multi-year dalliances with sea nymphs. He simply returns.
Nestor plays an important role in The Odyssey. Odysseus’ young son Telemachus goes out on a dangerous sea journey to Pylos in order to speak with Nestor. Telemachus is in a tight spot. The suitors have gathered in his house and are seeking to marry his mother. Everyone, including Telemachus, assumes Odysseus is dead. Many of the suitors start to think that it would be better to get rid of Telemachus altogether, clearing the way of any inconvenient claims to Odysseus’ abandoned throne. Telemachus wants to know if there is any chance that his father will return.
In response, Nestor tells Telemachus a long tale about the fate of several of the Greek warriors after the fall of Troy. Homer uses the meeting between Telemachus and Nestor, as it were, to tell back-stories about everything that has happened to the great heroes of Troy. But there is one story Nestor cannot tell: his own. Nestor tells Telemachus that since he went right home, he never found out what happened to Odysseus. “So, dear child,” Nestor says, “I came back, without news, and I knew nothing.”
Nestor — the one who, by his very name “goes home” — has no story. He has nothing to relate, no new information. He can’t help. At the same time, Nestor is wise. We are told this again and again, both in The Iliad and The Odyssey. Nestor is wise and a man of good counsel. He is wise, we must suppose, because he knows that it is good to go home. But there are different kinds of wisdom. Nestor is the man to consult if you want to go home without delay. Odysseus has a different kind of wisdom. Odysseus is the man of much wandering, the person of a crooked and strange kind of counsel, a purveyor of life experience that is forked and unreliable. He’ll get you lost on a thousand detours before he even gets started. Odysseus and Nestor both undertake a journey to get home, but they couldn’t be more different in the means, manner and purpose of the homecoming.
Maybe one of the things that Dorothy learns on her detour through Oz is that she is more like Odysseus than Nestor. We can believe that both men want to get home, because they eventually do. So does Dorothy. But she learns, along her twisted path toward home, that she has complicated desires. She is, like Odysseus, a reluctant homegoer. The start of her quest, the beginning of the Yellow Brick Road, is a spiral. This is a journey that is going to wind around and double back on itself until it finally does reach home.
So, Rushdie is wrong. But Rushdie is also right. The Wizard of Oz is not just about the joys of going away. Nor does the The Wizard of Oz say that staying home is better than leaving. Maybe the film is about the fact that home is an unstable concept. Being at home, we want to leave. Leaving, we want to come back. Dorothy has a meaningful experience when she leaves, but only because she cares about home in the first place. Home is an irrepressible desire, one that cannot be done away with. Home is a kind of sickness. The word “homesick” is a more or less literal translation of the word nostalgia (nostos: return / algos: pain). The word nostos is littered throughout The Odyssey. Odysseus constantly feels the pain and the call of returning. Dorothy, too, constantly speaks of home and how badly she wants to get there.
There seems to be no permanent solution to the pains that drive us away from home and then back to it again. In the ancient stories, Odysseus doesn’t stay put on Ithaca when he finally returns from Troy. He goes on yet another journey — related in a lost epic poem known as the Telegony. He returns to Ithaca a final time, only to be killed accidently by a son he sired to the sea-witch Circe. In Frank Baum’s stories of Oz (the novels on which the film is based), Dorothy goes back to Oz again and again. She brings her family members from Kansas along with her. She wants them to experience what she has experienced. “So Oz,” Rushdie wrote in his little book, “finally became home; the imagined world became the actual world, as it does for us all, because the truth is that once we have left our childhood places and started to make up our lives, armed only with what we have and are, we understand that the real secret of the ruby slippers is not that ‘there’s no place like home’, but rather that there is no longer any such place as home.” Which never stops us from wanting it. And thinking we’ve found it never stops us from wanting to throw it away again. • 11 August 2014