January 16, 2008
Nirad Chaudhuri, a writer from India, lived under British rule for many years. He criticized the British for their rude, contemptuous behavior toward Indians. He also criticized the British for decadence. This decadence “consists in the refusal to acknowledge great achievements of great individuals. Disrespect for great achievements is a result... of the lack of courage to attempt them.”1
Though he criticized British shortcomings, Chaudhuri nonetheless believed that the British governed India better than it had ever been governed before. Chaudhuri was opposed to Indian independence; “I thought that power in Indian hands,” he wrote, “would be a calamity for the Indian people.” In Chaudhuri’s view, Gandhi’s independence movement had no positive content, it was based on hatred and xenophobia. Like Kedourie, Chaudhuri blamed the British for leaving India too quickly. In the 1930s, when Fascism and Communism were popular, Chaudhuri remained pro-British. Like Nietzsche, Ibsen, and other intellectuals, Chaudhuri wasn’t a patriot, but rather a citizen of the world. Inside India, Chaudhuri’s writings were controversial, and he was subjected to “raucous hatred.”
As a student at the University of Calcutta, Chaudhuri failed his Master’s exam, then refused to take it again — an episode reminiscent of Kedourie’s “defiance” of his thesis. For much of his life, Chaudhuri depended on hand-outs from reluctant relatives.
Chaudhuri died in 1999, at the age of 101. His wife, Amiya Dhar, was also a writer. His son, Kirti, is a distinguished historian and artist. Kirti’s son, Vik, is a devoted cyclist who cycled from Alaska to the southern tip of South America.
In an essay on Passage to India, Chaudhuri found fault with Forster’s depiction of India.2 (Chaudhuri later wrote a book called Passage to England, a book that Forster reviewed.) I recommend Chaudhuri’s essay. What’s more interesting than listening to a great writer discuss another great writer?
Chaudhuri blames Forster for arousing British opposition to Britain’s empire:
Chaudhuri blames Forster for passing over the Indian struggle for independence: “The novel wholly ignores the largest area of Indo-British relations and is taken up with a relatively small sector.” Chaudhuri says that the “largest area,” and the area that he himself was familiar with, was “the conflict between Indian nationalists and the British administration. Here I saw great suffering and distress, but also exultation, a brave acceptance of ill-treatment and conquest of weak tears.... In the other sector, the conflict was between associates, the British officials and their Indian subordinates or hangers-on, and had all the meanness of a family quarrel.”
According to Chaudhuri, Forster chose to write about the trivial aspect of Anglo-Indian relations because that’s the aspect he was familiar with. Also, Forster made a point of ignoring politics: “his is an appeal in a political case to the court of humane feelings.” But, Chaudhuri cautions, “the most obvious moral judgment on a political situation is not necessarily a right judgment, and for humane feelings to go for a straight tilt at politics is even more quixotic than tilting at windmills.” Perhaps “humane feelings” would suggest that the British can’t rule India, but political wisdom might suggest that a British withdrawal would trigger catastrophe; the policy of “humane feelings” might be an unwise policy.
According to Chaudhuri, there are no admirable characters in Forster’s novel: “Both the groups of characters [i.e., the Indians and the English] in A Passage to India are insignificant and despicable.... [Forster] can plead for satisfactory Indo-British relations on the only basis which could be proof against disillusionment, the basis of the least respect and the largest charity.”
Chaudhuri says that, in India, the Muslims hated the British more than the Hindus did, because the Muslims had been deprived of an empire by the British. On the other hand, the Muslims knew that the Hindu nationalists could bear most of the weight of expelling the British, so they could afford to be friendly to the British. “This game, played with boldness and hardheaded realism, succeeded beyond expectation and created an independent state for the Muslims of India.”
But while Muslim leaders were successfully playing “a colossal Machiavellian game of politics,” the majority of Muslims were either filled with a “barren and rancorous hatred” or pining for British patronage. Forster’s Indians are among those pining for British patronage: “Aziz and his friends belong to the servile section and are all inverted toadies. With such material, a searching history of the Muslim destiny in India could have been written, but not a novel on Indo-British relations, for which it was essential to have a Hindu protagonist.”
Chaudhuri notes that the British and Indians both speak Indo-European languages, because they both are Indo-European peoples. He notes that some Indian thinkers celebrated this kinship, but the British were more attracted by the simplicity of Muslim monotheism than by any British-Hindu kinship:
Notice how Swami Vivekananda regards Western thought as a ‘life-giving leaven.’ Isn’t this how Westerners regard Eastern thought? Perhaps the beneficial influence operates in both directions.
Chaudhuri concludes his essay thus:
Notice the penultimate sentence: “Lastly, attention is diverted away from those Indians who stood aloof from the world the book describes and were aristocratic in their way, although possessing no outward attribute of aristocracy.” Who could this refer to but Chaudhuri himself? Chaudhuri evidently feels personally insulted by Forster’s depiction of the Indian people.
Chaudhuri was a man of vast learning, and his writings are filled with literary allusions; he mentions Alfred de Vigny, Don Quixote tilting at windmills, Pilate washing his hands, Swami Vivekananda, British Orientalists, a Machiavellian game, etc. But despite this plethora of allusions, Chaudhuri’s tone is lively, not pedantic. Chaudhuri must be regarded as one of the best English stylists of the 20th century.
One of the leading novelists of Forster’s generation was D. H. Lawrence, who once wrote in a letter, “Am reading Passage to India. It’s good, but makes one wish a bomb would fall and end everything. Life is more interesting in its undercurrents than in its obvious, and E. M. does see people, people and nothing but people: ad nauseam.”3 I think Lawrence is right to stress the importance of “undercurrents”; in previous issues, we’ve often discussed the importance of these undercurrents, referring to them as “shadowy drives,” etc. And it’s probably true that Forster doesn’t give these undercurrents their due. But what he does, he does very well: Forster’s works combine philosophical depth, sparkling humor, and balanced humanism. Forster shows us life well lived, and perhaps this is more important than showing us undercurrents.
Another of Forster’s contemporaries, the art historian Roger Fry, had this to say of Passage to India:
This remark strengthens the argument that I made in an earlier issue, that Forster’s Howards End has a philosophical meaning, a mystical meaning. I reject Fry’s view that the best creations are unconscious, and I applaud Forster for consciously giving his work philosophical depth, and for superbly depicting a Zennish worldview in Howards End. I’m not suggesting, however, that all great creations are conscious; there may well be writers equal to Forster, or even better than Forster, who work in a different style, who work more unconsciously, and do a better job of depicting unconscious undercurrents.
Virginia Woolf’s criticism of Forster is similar to Roger Fry’s. Woolf says that Howards End is a “failure.” She says, “Elaboration, skill, wisdom, penetration, beauty — they are all there, but they lack fusion; they lack cohesion; the book as a whole lacks force.”4 There is some truth to Woolf’s criticism. Perhaps Forster himself wasn’t a forceful person. But again I say, what he does, he does very well, and he achieves things of great importance. I find Forster’s works very enjoyable, and isn’t enjoyment worth something? Shouldn’t enjoyment be an argument in the field of aesthetics? I also find a deep wisdom in both Forster’s novels and his essays. Isn’t wisdom worth something — even in a work of art?
Woolf herself admits that she read Howards End with “keen interest... from start to finish.” She wishes that Forster would “write comedy only.” She says that when Forster “forgets that he should solve the problem of the universe, he is the most diverting of novelists.” Perhaps Forster understood, better than Woolf did, that his generation faced a philosophical crisis, a religious crisis, but there was a way out, there was a solution. Forster saw the light, and naturally he wasn’t content to hide this light under a bushel, and write only comedy.
The critic Edwin Muir also disparaged Forster, but his complaint wasn’t that Forster was mystical or philosophical, but rather that Forster didn’t go far enough, that Forster was too moderate:
Again, there is some truth to this criticism. Muir must admit, though, that there’s a certain wisdom in moderation, and he must admit that Forster deserves credit for standing aloof from the political enthusiasms of his time — Communism, Fascism, etc. Instead of seeking salvation in politics, Forster stayed true to the inner life.
Let’s return, for a moment, to Lawrence’s view that Forster stays on the surface, and overlooks the all-important “undercurrents” in human affairs. A penetrating critic named Martin Price has shown that Forster may understand these undercurrents better than Lawrence thinks. In his book Forms of Life, Price devotes a chapter to Forster. Though he focuses on A Passage to India, he briefly discusses A Room With A View. [Spoiler Warning: Don’t read the rest of this paragraph if you’re planning to read Room With A View.] Price quotes George’s remarks on Miss Bartlett: “From the very first moment we met, she hoped, far down in her mind, that we should be like this — of course, very far down [that is, she hoped George and Lucy would be together, though she appeared to separate them at times]. That she fought us on the surface, and yet she hoped. I can’t explain her any other way... she is not frozen, Lucy, she is not withered up all through. She tore us apart twice, but... that evening she was given one more chance to make us happy. We can never make friends with her or thank her. But I do believe that, far down in her heart, far below all speech and behavior, she is glad.” Miss Bartlett is doing the sort of “unconscious arranging” that we’ve often discussed in Phlit.
Price quotes from Forster’s essay, “Anonymity: An Inquiry”: “Just as words have two functions — information and creation — so each human mind has two personalities, one on the surface, one deeper down. The upper personality has a name. It is called S. T. Coleridge, or William Shakespeare, or Mrs. Humphry Ward. It is conscious and alert, it does things like dining out, answering letters, etc., and it differs vividly and amusingly from other personalities. The lower personality is a very queer affair. In many ways it is a perfect fool, but without it there is no literature, because unless a man dips a bucket down into it occasionally he cannot produce first-class work. There is something general about it. Although it is inside S. T. Coleridge, it cannot be labeled with his name. It has something in common with all other deeper personalities, and the mystic will assert that the common quality is God, and that here, in the obscure recesses of our being, we near the gates of the Divine.”
It is this “lower personality” that we’ve often discussed in Phlit; we’ve referred to it as “shadowy drives,” or “unconscious arranging,” and we’ve distinguished it from character, from the “upper personality.” We’ve argued that Shakespeare and other great writers don’t focus on character, but rather go deeper than character, dip a bucket into the “lower personality” that is common to everyone. We argued that Hamlet’s “lower personality” is negative and destructive, and most of our examples of “shadowy drives” have been negative. Forster, however, shows us a positive drive in Miss Bartlett, and he says in the above-quoted passage that the lower personality is near “the gates of the Divine.” Forster overlooks negative drives, he seems unaware that the lower personality is near the gates of Hell, as well as near the gates of the Divine, he seems unaware that a “shadow drive” can create a pile of corpses (as in Moby Dick or Hamlet) as well as a happy marriage.
I agree with Forster that the lower personality, the unconscious personality, is divine, but I follow Jung in believing that the divine is evil as well as good, just as the yin-yang symbol is dark as well as light. If Forster believed that the lower personality is God, and God is entirely good, then I think he misunderstood God, the unconscious, and literature. In Jung’s view, the unconscious is both evil and good, and God is both evil and good.
Forster’s characters seem to fall into two groups:
In my view, Price misunderstands Forster and his mystical characters. Price says that these characters are deeply flawed, lacking in “social responsibility,” and dehumanized: “At one extreme are the caricatures caught in the social grid — the Turtons and Burtons. At the other are the characters [such as Mrs. Moore and Godbole] who slip out of the meshes of social responsibility through despair or obliviousness.... Transcendence dehumanizes.” Price fails to see that Forster presents a positive ideal, and that Forster’s most positive characters are his mystical characters.
Just as Forster divides people into mystical and mundane, so too he sees India as divided between the mystical and the mundane: “There ‘is scarcely anything in that tormented land,’ Forster wrote in 1922, ‘which fills up the gulf between the illimitable and the inane, and society suffers in consequence. What isn’t piety is apt to be indecency; what isn’t metaphysics is intrigue.’”7
Perhaps what India lacks is an ethical system to fill up the gap between the mystical and the mundane: “Hinduism [Forster wrote] can pull itself to supply the human demand for morality just as Protestantism at a pinch can meet the human desire for the infinite and the incomprehensible, but the effort is in neither case congenial. Left to itself each lapses — the one into mysticism, the other into ethics.”8 This doesn’t mean, however, that Forster was opposed to Hinduism (or to mysticism, or to Zen). Rather, it means that Forster saw weaknesses as well as strengths in Hinduism; perhaps Forster believed that Hinduism needed to be supplemented and revised, not accepted “as is.” Price is too quick to conclude that Forster opposes Godbole’s mysticism/pantheism.
But I think Price hits the mark with his comments on other characters. Price says that ultimately Aziz becomes free, finds himself. “Adela Quested and Cyril Fielding are, in contrast with Aziz, trapped within the limits of liberal, rational intelligence. They are well-meaning, tolerant, open. Adela is high-minded, theoretical, and unconsciously patronizing; but she has courage and conscience.... The point of Adela’s charge [against Aziz] is that her mind — honest and admirable — is out of touch with her feelings, does not know her heart. Fielding in a comparable way suffers an excess of detachment, an inability to escape his intelligence and to lose himself in feeling.... There is a ‘wistfulness,’ a suspicion of being cut off from a reality their rational clarity cannot quite admit exists.”
An example of Fielding being “cut off” from reality occurs in Chapter 20, when Fielding can’t appreciate the view from the verandah. It was a “lovely, exquisite moment — but passing the Englishman with averted face and on swift wings. He experienced nothing himself; it was as if someone had told him there was such a moment, and he was obliged to believe.”9
But Fielding’s strengths are at least as striking as his weaknesses. Fielding seems to be Forster’s ideal, Forster’s ideal self. Forster describes Fielding thus:
A cultured life, a life free of pedantry and worldliness. A life focused on the inner life, on personal growth, on the development of personality.
Another critic, Laurence Brander, takes a similar view of Aziz and Adela. Brander argues that Aziz achieves a harmony of conscious and unconscious, Adela doesn’t. Brander quotes one of Forster’s lectures: “‘If you prefer the language of Freud... the conscious must be satisfactorily based on the subconscious.’ Was that what was wrong with Mrs Moore and Miss Quested? There are hints in the development of their characters that it was so. On the other hand, there are hints that Aziz, the poet, was satisfactorily based and in particular his own moment of mystical vision to show that he was. So he was untroubled by echoes.”11
When Brander speaks of “echoes,” he’s referring to echoes in the caves. According to Brander, Adela’s experiences in the caves closely matches Kipling’s remarks about the caves: “The validity of the experiences of Mrs Moore and Adela is confirmed by a description of a very similar experience in Kipling’s From Sea to Sea (1889).”
Brander’s comments on Godbole strengthen my argument that Forster takes a positive view of Godbole’s mysticism/pantheism. Brander says that Godbole represents universal love (the Hindu theme), while Aziz represents friendship (the Muslim theme). Brander summarizes Forster’s characters thus:
Just as universal love seems higher than friendship, so Forster regards Hinduism as higher than Islam. Forster takes a dim view of simple, rational, Muslim monotheism. Brander quotes Forster: “‘“There is no God but God” doesn’t carry us far through the complexities of matter and spirit; it is only a game with words, really, a religious pun, not a religious truth.’ Mrs Moore had dismissed ‘poor little talkative Christianity’. Now Islam is rejected. Hinduism is left.”12
Brander writes thus of Fielding:
Brander mentions Adela’s car accident, and the ghost she sees. Brander says that Forster’s novel deals with “things outside normal experience.” Like most people who are interested in the mystical, Forster was interested in the occult, and there are occult phenomena in Howards End as well as Passage to India.13
We said above that India lacked an ethical system to fill up the gap between the mystical and the mundane. In an earlier issue, we suggested that India was too introverted:
Perhaps India needs an ethical system, an extraverted ethics. Perhaps India needs absolute morality, black-and-white morality. This may be a social need, but not a philosophical need. Society may benefit from black-and-white morality, but philosophy is more profound if it sees morality as grey and relative, not absolute. Forster understood this, and he created characters who are grey and relative; Forster said, “The idea of relativity has got into the air and has favored certain tendencies in novels. Absolute good and evil, as in Dickens, are seldom presented. A character becomes good or evil in relation to some other character or in a situation which may itself change. You can’t measure people up because the yard-measure keeps altering its length.”14 Forster realized that, in Hinduism, morality is relative, and this makes Hinduism more impressive to philosophers, though it may be less useful to society.15
Hinduism does a better job than Protestantism of grasping the whole universe. Hinduism’s moral relativism can deal with the universe’s “rough spots,” whereas Protestantism’s black-and-white morality can’t reconcile these “rough spots” with its concept of a benevolent Creator. When Forster’s friend Dickinson was in India, surrounded by wilderness and insects, he wrote, “‘In the face of these things, most religious talk seems “tosh”. If there’s a God, or gods, they’re beyond my ken. I think, perhaps, after all, the Hindus took in more of the facts in their religion than most people have done.’”16
Forster had a good grasp of world affairs. Writing in the early 1920s, he understood Hindu-Muslim hostility,17 the rising power of Japan,18 and the likelihood that, if Britain became involved in another major war, India would break away from the British Empire.19 He says that atheism is growing in England, but people “don’t like the name. The truth is that the West doesn’t bother much over belief and disbelief in these days.”20
The decline of religious belief, says Forster, has brought with it a decline of morality. At this point in the conversation, an Indian says, “Excuse the question, but if this is the case, how is England justified in holding India?” Forster understands the decline of religion and morality, and he understands that Britain can’t rule an empire if it doesn’t believe in itself, if its own Weltanschauung is eroding; nihilism can’t be imperial.
Generally speaking, Western religion is ethical, it prescribes rules for our behavior toward other people — the Ten Commandments, for example, or “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” These rules come from God, and if belief in God erodes, man falls into moral anarchy.
Eastern religion is psychological and metaphysical, rather than ethical. The psychological side of Eastern religion says, “use the following techniques to reduce stress and attain inner peace,” while the metaphysical side says, “man is connected to the whole universe, his being/energy is akin to the being/energy in everything else.” If the individual achieves inner peace, and is comfortable with his place in the universe, virtuous conduct is likely to result, even without an ethical code.
Reason is more important in Western thought than in Eastern thought, perhaps because reason can be useful in regulating our inter-actions with other people, but it isn’t as useful in psychological and metaphysical inquiries.
I began by saying “Generally speaking” because there are counter-currents. While Taoism and Buddhism may be described as psychological and metaphysical, Confucianism has a strong ethical tendency. Western religion sometimes aims at inner peace, as in precepts like “take no thought for the morrow.”
|1.|| This is a quote from Edward Shils, Portraits: A Gallery of Intellectuals, ch. 3, “Nirad C. Chaudhuri” back|
|2.|| A Routledge Literary Sourcebook on E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, edited by Peter Childs; Extract from Nirad Chaudhuri, “Passage To and From India” back|
|3.|| E. M. Forster: The Critical Heritage, edited by Philip Gardner; D. H. Lawrence letter of 7/23/24 back|
|4.|| See the Norton Critical Edition of Howards End, edited by P. Armstrong back|
|5.|| Muir’s essay is in E. M. Forster: The Critical Heritage, edited by Philip Gardner. Muir wrote a book called The Structure of the Novel, which might be compared to Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. Muir also wrote poetry. Muir’s Kafka translations are well known. back|
|6.|| Ralph Moore has the sort of intuitive wisdom that Mrs. Moore has, and he dissipates Aziz’s hostility to the British. “Aziz is released from his anger [Price writes], his hands become kind, and he acknowledges Ralph Moore’s intuitive power: ‘Then you are an Oriental.’” Aziz had spoken the same words to Mrs. Moore in the mosque, at the beginning of the novel. “At this moment Forster makes Aziz himself acknowledge and accept the pattern of nonlogical repetition, of ‘life by values’ as opposed to ‘life in time.’” back|
|7.|| Quoted in Price back|
|8.|| Quoted in Price back|
|9.|| p. 212 (Harcourt paperback, 1984) back|
|10.|| Ch. 20, p. 212 back|
|11.|| E. M. Forster: A Critical Study, by Laurence Brander, “A Passage to India” back|
|12.|| Earlier I quoted Chaudhuri’s remark about the “simplicity” of Islam. Price speaks of the rationalism of Islam: “As a Muslim [Aziz] is more a rationalist in his religion than the Hindu, perhaps even more than a Christian like Mrs. Moore.” If Aziz ultimately reaches enlightenment, perhaps he does so not because of Islam, but despite Islam. back|
|13.|| Brander quotes Forster’s comments on an “esoteric tendency”; Forster said that “the best work of the period” (the modern period?) has this tendency. (Brander is quoting from the end of a lecture that Forster delivered in Glasgow in 1944.) For more on this subject, click here. back|
|14.|| Quoted in Brander back|
|15.|| According to Brander, Forster’s “discussion of Hindu thought and belief” shows that he understands Hinduism’s moral relativism. Consider, for example, Godbole’s comments on the affair in the caves. Godbole thinks that everything in the universe is connected, including good and evil. “Nothing can be performed in isolation. All perform a good action, when one is performed, and when an evil action is performed, all perform it.” (ch. 19, p. 196, Harcourt paperback, 1984)
Godbole says that the “evil action” in the caves was performed by both the perpetrator and the victim, by both Aziz and Adela. “When evil occurs,” Godbole says, “it expresses the whole of the universe. Similarly when good occurs.” Each of us is a blend of good and evil. When someone objects, “You’re preaching that evil and good are the same,” Godbole responds, “Oh no, excuse me once again. Good and evil are different, as their names imply. But, in my own humble opinion, they are both of them aspects of my Lord.” (p. 197, ch. 19) (One is reminded of Jung, who also believed that good and evil are different, and that God blends good and evil, just as the yin-yang symbol blends black and white.)
At the Hindu festival, “God could not issue from his temple until the unclean Sweepers played their tune, they were the spot of filth without which the spirit cannot cohere.” (p. 342, ch. 36) The Hindu god is not all-good.
Forster seems to have little use for morality. Fielding writes to Aziz, “It is on my mind that you think me a prude about women. I had rather you thought anything else of me.... I am absolutely devoid of morals.”
Godbole isn’t the only character who thinks that everything is connected. Another of Forster’s mystical characters, Mrs. Moore, has the same feeling. When she steps out of the club, “A sudden sense of unity, of kinship with the heavenly bodies, passed into the old woman and out, like water through a tank, leaving a strange freshness behind.” (ch. 3, p. 28) back
|16.|| Quoted in Brander back|
|17.|| See, for example, chapter 7, p. 72 (Harcourt paperback, 1984), where a Muslim says there’s “nothing sanitary” in a Hindu household. back|
|18.|| When Aziz tells Fielding that the English should “clear out,” Fielding asks, “Who do you want instead of the English? The Japanese?” (ch. 37, p. 361) back|
|19.|| Aziz says, “Until England is in difficulties we keep silent, but in the next European war — aha, aha! Then is our time.” (ch. 37, p. 360) back|
|20.||Ch. 9 back|