Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Passage to India by E. M. Forster

No, she did not wish to repeat that experience. The more she thought over it, the more disagreeable and frightening it became. She minded it much more now than at the time. The crush and the smells s he could forget, but the echo began in some indescribable way to undermine her hold on life. Coming at a moment when she chanced to be fatigued, it had managed to murmur, "Pathos, piety, courage--they exist, but are identical, and so is filth. Everything exists, nothing has value." If one had spoken vileness in that place, or quoted lofty poetry, the comment would have been the same--"ou-boum."

A Passage to India is a strange book. One can rifle off the details--in British-controlled India, a Muslim is accused of assaulting an English girl in a mysterious cave--but a summary seems beside the point. As Mrs. Moore decides about her memory of the accused, Dr. Aziz--"Yes, it was all true, but how false a summary of the man; the essential life of the him had been slain"--there is something crucial missing, something ineffable.

The novel begins and ends as a story about the difficulty of friendship and intimacy between the Indian and the English. Dr. Aziz is the great centerpiece of these sections, a stubborn, fickle, but gregarious man who wishes to make friends of Mrs. Moore and her companion, the young Adela Quested, and resolves to take them to the nearby Marabar Caves:

His friends thought him most unwise to mix himself up with English ladies, and warned him to take every precaution against unpunctuality. Consequently he spent the previous night at the train station.

But the middle section--the book is split into three unequal parts called Mosque, Caves and Temple--is something else all together. The Marabar Caves are annihilators of meaning. The echo that attaches itself to Mrs. Moore proves unshakable, and follows her as she leaves, promising a kind of anti-transcendence:

The unspeakable attempt presented itself to her as love: in a cave, in a church--Boum, it amounts to the same. Visions are supposed to entail profundity, but--Wait till you get one, dear reader! The abyss also may be petty, the serpent of eternity made of maggots..

And so the Caves themselves seem to be responsible for Ms. Quested's experience of a violent attack, which is never explained in a "proper" sense. Unpredictably, the English rally around Ms. Quested and use her story to validate their most brutish prejudices ("Why, the kindest thing one can do to a native is to let him die," one says) and the Indians rally around Aziz and riot. But though this makes for some great scenes of satire (my favorite is when the trial magistrate permits Ms. Quested to sit on the platform to escape the heat of the gallery, and she's joined by every white person in the court save one) Forster's interests lie mainly elsewhere. Ironically, what nearly destroys Dr. Aziz, Mrs. Moore, and Ms. Quested is just what they had been seeking: a sense of unity, a sense of intimacy and oneness with the other. But when difference is annihilated, nothing remains; when man succeeds in finding infinity he has lost himself:

Devils are of the North, and poems can be written about them, but no one could romanticize the Marabar because it robbed infinity and eternity of their vastness, the only quality that accommodates them to mankind.

In what must be the most striking prose Forster ever wrote, he symbolizes the problem with a flame:

They are dark caves. Even when they open towards the sun, very little light penetrates down the entrance tunnel into the circular chamber. There is little to see, and no eye to see it, until the visitor arrives for his five minutes, and strikes a match. Immediately another flame rises in the depths of the rock and moves towards the surface like an imprisoned spirit: the walls of the circular chamber have been most marvellously polished. The two flames approach and strive to unite, but cannot, because one of them breathes air, the other stone.

At first this seems a symbol of the relationship between the Indians and the English--two mirrored flames, unable to connect--but soon becomes a symbol of the inability to touch, to interact, to communicate with anything beyond oneself. Mrs. Moore and Ms. Quested are given brief glimpses of the flame beyond the wall, and perhaps finding only an image of themselves, are traumatized by them. The other conflicts of the novel--Ms. Quested's only-half-wanted marriage to the City Magistrate, the relations between the Indians and their occupiers, the inability to describe or create a unified Indian nation--become slivers of this whole, and the solution promises to be worse than the conflict.

By contrast, the Temple section begins with an extended description of a Hindu ceremony that brings a more beneficial unity:

When the villagers broke cordon for a glimpse of the silver image, a most beautiful and radiant expression came into their faces, a beauty in which there was nothing personal,l for it caused them all to resemble one another during the moment of its indwelling, and only when it was withdrawn did they revert to individual clods.

What is it about the Hindu ceremony that makes it a joy, rather than a terror? Can Prof. Godbole, Aziz's Hindu friend, be right or wise when he remarks of the charges,

I am informed that an evil action was performed in the Marabar Hills, and that a highly esteemed English lady is now seriously ill in consequence. My answer to that is this: that action was performed by Dr. Aziz... It was performed by the guide... It was performed by you... It was performed by me... And by my students. It was even performed by the lady herself. When evil occurs, it expresses the whole of the universe. Similarly when good occurs.

Godbole goes on to say that good and evil "are both of them aspects of my Lord. He is present in the one, absent in the other, and the difference between presence and absence is great, as great as my feeble mind can grasp. Yet absence implies presence, absence is not non-existence, and we are therefore entitled to repeat, 'Come, come, come, come.'" Is this what differentiates these unities, an eye to the presence, and not the absence, of God? Or the hopefulness that one is coming to make the unity meaningful?

These questions fade into the background of A Passage to India. By the end we are left with a little tableau of an Englishman and and Indian promising friendship, but their horses rearing away from one another. We are left, if we wish, to return to thinking about England and India, but also, if we wish, to see that there are more encompassing concerns at hand, and that there is unity in disunity, and also with a thin echo of Godbole's "Come, come, come, come":

But the horses didn't want it--they swerved apart; the earth didn't want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn't want it, they said in their hundred voices, "No, not yet," and the sky said, "No, not there."

1 comment:

Brent Waggoner said...

This sounds great. The passage about the light reminds me of the short story Everything Is Green thematically.