Monday, January 11, 2016

PROBLEM: How does an entire country exorcise a national delusion?

It suddenly occurs to me that everyone in the US should be studying the behavior of England toward India, and asking ourselves, "What might this tell people in the US about coming to our senses?"

The Sikh parade at the Gateway to India on the occasion of the departure
of British troops from India on 28 February 1948. (Source: Wikipedia)

Long ago, my sister Elaine told me of two statements made by the poet Stephen Spender when he was lecturing at the University of Connecticut, both concerning E.M. Forster.

The first is that Forster was the kind of person who you thought of when you were wrestling with a profound moral problem.  You would be lying awake at three in the morning, and you would ask yourself, What would Forster say about this . . . ?

The second is that Forster's novel A Passage to India changed public opinion in Britain overnight when it came out in 1924.

E. M. Forster, by Dora Carrington
(Source: Wikipedia)
I recently re-watched the 1984 David Lean film based on the book. I found it entertaining, and it certainly showed the racism and imperialism of the British in India. But I didn't quite see it as earth-shaking.

Then I picked up the book itself, and read it carefully.  I was particularly intrigued by the role of the one character in the book who seemed un-infected with ideas of racial and cultural superiority, or by the desire to enjoy power.

I hope people will read the book. (I've appended some study questions below.)

A Passage to India is about a delusion. It's about a specific delusion troubling one single character in the book, but its larger message is that somehow an entire country had let itself be taken in by a delusion about race and culture and power. And it reminds that -- before too much longer -- something was done about it by the British, at least in part, at least with respect to India.

Of course, the departure of the British from India in 1947 was the consequence of many forces, and most of the time we think of the activism that occurred in the years immediately leading up to their departure, the Quit India Movement led by Gandhi. But what was done along the way to prepare the ground?

At a time when the US is reaping the consequences of decades of violence and dominance it has inflicted on Iraq and other countries of the Mideast and South Asia, does A Passage to India hold clues for an exorcism of the US national delusion?

At a time when the US is waking up to the fact that black lives matter, is A Passage to India one resource to be used in spurring what will certainly be a long, difficult course of change?

Related Posts

The United States is like that alcoholic family member, for whom every circumstance is an excuse to hit the bottle. Except, with the US, the bottle is violence.

(See It's Time for the United States to Stop Hitting the Bottle)

Anyone who has had to write a speech knows that the hardest part is to land on the main idea. Once you've got that right, the rest practically writes itself.

(See "The way to respond to ISIS is not through violence." )

Maybe a good next step is to read Coates' book and sit with it . . . listening to what comes up . . . but not jumping immediately into "solving."

(See On Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates (A Confession))

Eventually, in large part due to Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, the United States was converted from a country in which a small number of people thought slavery needed to be ended into a country determined to act to end slavery. This literary work took the movement wide, and it took it deep.

Why is a novel an important tool for creative resistance?

(See Creative Resistance 101: Uncle Tom's Cabin )

Study Questions for A Passage to India

(1) Mrs. Moore becomes a symbol in the book. What does she represent? (Why?) ... How important is this symbolism to the book? ... Did this symbolism feel convincing to you?

(2) Where does Mrs. Moore "go"? (Something seems to change. What is it?)

(3) Forster depicts the social and interpersonal reality of institutionalized domination. How "new" (revealing) do you suppose this was to the British public in 1924? ... What is special about the way a novel is able to illuminate this?

(4) Does Aziz feel real to you? How so? ... Relative to his subjugation by the British, is he just a "dreamer"?

(5) Do you think Forster understands/respects Indian culture? (Is it necessary to this undertaking that he do so?)

(6) Where's the hope? (Does it lie in the behavior of some individuals? Does it lie in a political idea?)

(7) Michel Foucault and Edward Said both make the point that observing (and describing, and related activities) is concomitant with power dominance. In this novel, the observer becomes the observed. What does this bring up for you?

(8) Fielding points out the distinction between Adela's interest in "India" and interest (or liking for) actual Indians. What does this bring up for you?

(9) There's scant reference to organized Christianity (particularly missionaries) in the book. Does the book bring up anything for you about mission work in new contexts?

(10) Having now read A Passage to India . . . what will you do differently?