Postcolonial Studies: A Materialist Critique

By Benita Parry | Go to book overview

11

Materiality and mystification in A Passage to India

In the light of critical work that has sought to make connections between the emergence of a literary modernism and imperialism in narrative form and stylistic practice, how should we place a proto-modernist fiction where another and distant world is manifestly present and the disjoined spheres are brought into uneasy proximity, and which also, pace Said, undermines imperial grandiloquence and offers a disenchanted perspective on empire, registers a dispersed consciousness, and by reflecting ironically and critically on its own project, manifests a waning of narrative power? The reputation of A Passage to India1 as conventional in form, language and attested value 2 has inhibited discussion on an emergent modernism that is inseparable from the novel's failure to reach the destination intimated in its title. Said has remarked that for him the most interesting thing about the book is the use of India 'to represent material that according to the canons of the novel form cannot in fact be represented - vastness, incomprehensible creeds, secret motions, histories and social forms'. 3 This judicious comment recognizes that Forster's innovations were induced by an attempt to render India legible within western fictional modes. It could be extended to observe that in the process A Passage to India construes the subcontinent's material world, cultural forms and systems of thought as resistant to discursive appropriation by its conquerors: 'How can the mind take hold of such a country? Generations of invaders have tried, but they remain in exile' (p. 148). This meditation serves to alienate the Raj's belligerent claim to discursive power over the subcontinent, and it discloses the inevitable frustration of the novel's own narrative ambition.

Neither stylistically nor syntactically does A Passage to India display that 'constitutive sense of creation through rupture and crisis' which has been described as the vocation of an aesthetic modernism. 4 All the same, a fiction which moves between the mundane and the arcane, gives voice to the contingency of the material world and is haunted by the transcendent, exists at the limits of realist writing, the affinities with modernism evident in the prominence of its anti-referential registers. On the one hand as an architecturally composed text exhibiting that 'vital harmony' Forster believed essential to works of art - described by him as 'the only objects in the material universe to possess internal order' 5 - the book augurs both the pleasures afforded by an elegant design and the reassurance of lucidity. On the other, the perplexity with which the novel reconfigures the distant, alien complex of cultures that is its ostensible subject signals an anxiety about the impasse of representation. Thus the aesthetic closure, once hailed by critics as instigated by a rage for order that issued in a coherent and integrated text, can be seen as a formal resolution to the historical conflicts, cultural chasms, social

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