Sunday, November 18, 2007


Aziz upheld the proprieties, though he did not invest them with any moral halo, and it was here that he chiefly differed from an Englishman. His conventions were social. There is no harm in deceiving society as long as she does not find you out, because it is only when she finds you out that you have harmed her; she is not like a friend or God, who are injured by the mere existence of unfaithfulness.--E.M. Forster, A Passage to India (1924)

A Passage to India is a slippery novel, and that's probably what makes it great. Forster novels tend to be a bit contrived in terms of plot, with characters who often do what they have to do in order to satisfy the authorial intention. This may be as it should be -- especially for the British. But my sense of the possibilities of the novel was early determined by Dostoevsky and, as M. M. Bakhtin famously theorized, Dostoevsky's characters tend to get away from their author, behaving in surprising ways, saying outrageous things and the like. Passage comes closest to that quality of any twentieth-century novel in English that I can think of.

What this means is that the novel, though it is deliberately plotted and features a few contrived moments, permits its characters more seeming autonomy. In most scenes we have the sense that the dialogue could go quite a different way -- as is quite often the case in real life. What makes us hew to a certain script in our dealings with others, maintaining "a line" or fixing on a subject matter that lets the conversation proceed without falling off the map into uncharted regions? In Passage that je ne sais quoi of successful social interaction is always threatening to fall apart, to disintegrate under the pressures of the embattled sense of identity that its characters possess. But, unlike Dostoevsky, that pressure isn't due to the psychoses of the characters, but to the pressures of the British Raj. No one can ever be quite himself or herself in this setting; the mixed sex events are problematic enough, the mixed race events nearly impossible, and the mixed race and mixed sex outings -- such as Dr. Aziz's ill-fated picnic to the Marabar caves -- potentially disastrous.

Getting that "right" -- the tensions between the stiff upper-lip racial "masters" such as Ronny Healsop; the liberal "I want to see the real India" mannerisms of his fiancée Adela Quested; the aging, moody interest and detachment of Ronny's mother Mrs. Moore; the trying so hard to please but also to be my own man attitudes of Muslim Dr. Aziz; the sympathetic Anglo-Indian viewpoint of schoolmaster Fielding, always willing to see his own people as imperfect and the Indians as better than they are judged to be; the inscrutable outlook of Godbole, a Hindu who suggests that in religious thought he finds the anecdote to all this impossible political friction; as well as the "make 'em squeal" fascist contempt for "the natives" on the part of the Collector General and his wife, and the confusion and confused signals on the part of the leaders of the Indian community -- would be enough to make the novel noteworthy, but Forster brings his own special touch to the show, which makes the novel oh so slippery and more subtle than most.

The special quality of Forster's narration is a kind of knowing satire towards everyone, almost equally. This isn't to say that he plays them for laughs or that we are meant to see them as silly and amusing. Rather we have to see them as us, as the way we are in all such sticky situations where "something big" seems to be on the line simply in the way we speak or comport ourselves. In other words, we see the impossible burden that being "emblems of a culture" places upon people, who will continue to try to live up to its impossibility. Forster achieves this by a technique that is no mean feat, it seems to me: he makes almost every character simultaneously likeable and tedious. We admire some insight they have, we are disappointed by their inability to act in accord with what they think. We find their behavior encouraging, but their thoughts are commonplace foolishness. Mrs. Moore and Godbole emerge as the most provoking, because each is able to attain a detachment that comes to seem sensible if selfish -- or mystic to the point of rendering our own commonplace foolishness sad and silly in its own right.

Ultimately it's that perspective -- the unlikely Moore / Godbole confluence -- that lifts the novel out of what it might otherwise be: Austenian comedy of manners about those stuffy, snobbish or well-meaning Brits abroad, signaled in the novel by the oft-recurring word "muddle." But it's the '20s and the novel reminds me at times of another European who tried to take the "passage to India": Hermann Hesse. If the latter's Siddhartha (1922) seems a Buddhism rife with German romanticism, it's still an effort to reconfigure the familiar on unfamiliar terrain. Forster is similarly straining after some vision of what "difference" India makes. I won't say that the novel is fulling satisfying in that regard, but I will say it does significantly question all the British pieties while remaining unflappably British. Kinda like a sitar in a Beatles tune, it "brings it all back home."

No mean feat -- Empire. My word, yes.

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