Monday, April 16, 2012

A Passage to India - E.M. Forster

I did not expect E. M. Forster's A Passage to India to be heavy with metaphysics and musings on the meaning of life. To my delight, this classic contains copious amounts of both. This is a brilliant novel that works on many levels. In addition to its deep philosophical streak, it has an interesting story, incredibly deep and complex characters, as well as important and intricate social, political and historical commentary. Judging by reviews and online comments, many read this work primarily as a criticism and commentary on British colonialism and British interactions with the nation of India. While these elements represent major aspects of Forster’s work, these components are just the tip of a very large iceberg.

The novel opens as Adela Quested and Mrs. Moore arrive in India to assess the feasibility of Adela becoming engaged to Mrs. Moore’s son, Ronny Heaslop. Ronny is a British official stationed on the sub continent. Mrs. Moore initially shows a strong inclination to understand the people of India. Adela eventually does become engaged to Ronny. Meanwhile, the women meet an affable and ingratiating Indian Doctor named Aziz. Soon these characters embark on a visit to an enormous geographical formation known as the Marabar Caves. Separated from the rest of the group, Adela, while in some kind of incoherent trance that is prompted by the strange and mystical caves, falsely imagines that Aziz has attempted to attack her. The accusation brings the weight of the British Colonial community down upon Aziz. The doctor is supported by the local Indian community and one British ally, Cyril Fielding, who is the headmaster of the local Indian School and a progressive thinker. In a dramatic and politically charged trial, Aziz is only acquitted when Adela comes to her senses and announces that he likely did not commit the crime.

Though the remainder of the plot feels a little less focused and difficult to summarize, it is thematically and philosophically coherent and interesting. Adela is subsequently vilified as having betrayed the British community who still believe that Aziz is guilty. Mrs. Moore dies. The engagement between Adela and Ronny is broken off due to Adela’s estrangement from British society. However, Fielding and Adela develop a strong friendship and intellectual connection.

Due to his unwarranted persecution, Aziz becomes alienated and exhibits paranoia towards everything British. This hostility results in a falling out with Fielding. Several years after the trial, during the Hindu Festival of Lord Krishna, Fielding and Aziz reconcile, and it is presumed that Aziz will release some, but not all, of his bitterness.

The philosophy, both openly discussed and underlying this work, is so extremely multifaceted, complex, and varied that it would take several pages just to provide an accurate summery. Instead of attempting such a synopsis or analysis, I will focus on just one important point; the geographic object that is such an integral part of Forster’s book known as the Marabar Caves.

Marabar is one of the most striking non – human creations that I have encountered in literature. It has strong shades of Moby Dick. Like the great white behemoth, it is a huge and monstrous force of nature. It is symbolically and perhaps actually, a terrible malevolence. Though representing only a segment of the worldview presented in A Passage to India, it is integral to plot, characters and theme. Artistically, its presentation is marvelous.

Articulating exactly what Marabar represents is a little bit of a challenge. The geological miscreation exemplifies a complex set of ideas.  These concepts revolve around the realization that meaningless lies behind all existence. Upon encountering Marabar, several of the book’s characters become fixated upon the enormity of the universe as well as the inevitability of death, and come to see that human concepts such as honor, love, religion, profound experiences, etc. really mean nothing when viewed in the context of the totality all of creation.

A strange echo is heard in the caves, a constant monotonous sound describes as "Bourn".  This echo stays in the mind of several characters. The sound seems to represent a level of sameness and uniformity in the cosmos that ultimately obliterates all meaning to human life.

 Mrs. Moore, a person who up until she enters the caverns, believes in love as well as recognizing the value of understanding people who are different from her, and is generally optimistic, has a soul wrenching experience at Marabar.

“What had spoken to her in that scoured-out cavity of the granite?  What dwelt in the first of the caves? Something very old and very small. Before time, it was before space also. Something snub-nosed, incapable of generosity—the undying worm itself”

This encounter seems to illustrate the emptiness of eventual non-existence that is prevalent in the universe. Mrs. Moore subsequently no longer believes in love, honor, human achievement, religion, etc. She further ponders the effects that the revelations have had upon her. 

She had come to that state where the horror of the universe and its smallness are both visible at the same time—the twilight of the double vision in which so many elderly people are involved. If this world is not to our taste, well, at all events there is Heaven, Hell, Annihilation-one or other of those large things, that huge scenic background of stars, fires, blue or black air. All heroic endeavour, and all that is known as art, assumes that there is such a background, just as all practical endeavour, when the world is to our taste, assumes that the world is all. But in the twilight of the double vision, a spiritual muddledom is set up for which no high-sounding words can be found; we can neither act nor refrain from action, we can neither ignore nor respect Infinity.”

Forster includes additional passages describing the awe inspiring spiritual emptiness that Marabar embodies. The writing in these passages, as well as in other sections of this book, is often sublime as well as a little horrifying. Marabar is a wondrous but disturbing aesthetic creation!

Forster’s worldview also includes what I would call a counterforce to the nihilism. This is the human tendency to strive to establish connections with one another. The theme of connection, common in Forster’s writings, is in itself explored with layers upon layers of complexity.

Which force is stronger? A Passage to India provides no easy answers. Aziz, who early in the novel is enthusiastic and eager to make connections with various English personages, has this zeal ripped away from him due to the false accusations, which are the direct result of Adela’s strange experience with the force of the cave. Similarly Mrs. Moore’s yearning to make connections with Indians is destroyed in Marabar.

In a passage that symbolically sets up the ability of this void to thwart human connections, Forster describes what happens when a person enters the cave and strikes a match,

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 marvelously polished. The two flames approach and strive to unite, but cannot, because one of them breathes air, the other stone. “

Lest one conclude that worthlessness and emptiness always win out, hope for connectedness overcoming meaningless is at least suggested at the novel’s conclusion. During the Hindu Festival of Lord Krishna, several characters seem to experience some reinvigoration stemming from the Hindu concept that everything in the universe is connected and the festival’s mystical underpinnings. The triumph of the ability to connect is tempered however. Though Aziz and Fielding reconcile and temporarily reestablish their bond and friendship, both men realize that they will not associate with one in the future, as they have each moved into irreconcilable circles. The last lines of the novel illustrate that the natural forces in the world are constantly pushing against the human urge to connect.

I really appreciate the imagery and meaning that Forster has endowed upon Marabar. Humanity as a whole, as well as individual people and our concerns, exist in very big and seemingly uncaring universe. This cosmos will go on long after we, as well as all our creations and institutions, are dust. It is very easy for a perceptive person to become overwhelmed by this abyss. I also agree that the idea of connectedness between people, while possibly diminished by these realities, can serve as a source of value in contrast to this nihilism. My only qualm with Forster is that the author seems to be saying that human connectedness is the only counterweight in the grand scheme. While our associations with others are vital, I believe that there are other factors that one may look to as to ameliorate the void. Humanity’s noble quest to understand and comprehend existence is but one example.

I have only made the barest scratch at the content, meaning and ideas found in this work.  I went into A Passage to India expecting a great novel with a strong plot containing intriguing characters and important insights into people. I did find those elements in this book. I also found things that were much deeper and meaningful. These elements, so artistically and intensely expressed here, are only found in the most profound works of literature. Forster proves here that he was one of civilization’s all time great thinkers.


Caroline said...

E.M: Forster is one of my favourite authors that's why I kept this book unread so far. A silly habit and I seem to miss out.
You make it sound even more complex than his other novels.
I'm looking forward to reading it now.
Connect - or only connect is an underlying theme in more than one of his novels. It's alos the motto of Howard's End.
I wonder if he really always means to fellow human beings. In this book from what you write there also shines through a connectedness to anything.
I'll have to read for myself.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - The only other Forster novel that I have read is Howard's End. Though it was a while ago I remember it as having being a great novel but no where near being as philosophically complex and did not include the meta - physical musings that I found in A Passage to India.

Towards the end of this one, in relation to the Hindu ideas that are introduced, I think that Forster is suggesting that connections with the entire universe, and not just other people are important.

Violet said...

I haven't read this for ages, although I did watch the film again recently and felt that it still held up fairly well. I like Maurice a lot, and the film of that is really beautiful. My favourite Forster novel is A Room With a View, though. I might read Passage again soon and see what I think of the metaphysical aspects. I don't have a problem with the Void. It is what it is. I think we're connected through our Buddha-nature, but the Buddha taught us not to try and understand the nature of our existence, but just to be. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - I have not seen the film in a while. I will watch it again soon.

I am somewhat at peace with the void myself, though = I am still astounded by it.

I must chafe against the Buddhist concept of not trying to understand. It may indeed be futile, but trying to “get” it, is for me, an integral part of life.

Sarah said...

I only started reading Forster last year, and I was very impressed by Room with a View. As Caroline says, you do make this novel sound more complex. I also have a copy of this, so far, unread.

As you were talking about Marabar I was making a connection with the Rocket of Gravity's Rainbow, but my perceived connection may be no more meaningful than that of shared non-human focal point.

Brian Joseph said...

I actually have not yet read a "Room with a View" but I read "Howard's End." A Passage to India does seem much more complex then that novel.

Though I did not think of it before, there are definite similarities between Marabar and the Rocket in “Gravity's Rainbow.” As you mentioned both are non human and highly symbolic. They both represent something of awesome weight. They are both symbolically complex and a little difficult to pin down.

Elizabeth said...

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Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for the good word Elizabeth! It is always nice to hear from a fellow blogger. Your blog looks great. I love the Mailbox Monday concept!