The Marabar Caves

March 15, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: A Passage to India.

There will be much more to say about what’s going on with (and in) the Marabar Caves, but for now I just want to pause and savor Forster’s Chapter XII, the opening of Part II, describing the caves. It’s a somewhat cosmic, mystical chapter; Forster writes beautifully about India’s prehistory, interpreting how the strange rock formations in which the caves reside came to be.

He goes out of his way to point out that the caves are not merely spooky: “To call them ‘uncanny’ suggests ghosts, and they are older than all spirit.” (Sacrilegious to some, I suppose, this idea that spirits came to be only when mankind came to be. But then Forster definitely has his own ideas about religion in this book.) But they are also strangely unassuming, to humans. An interesting passage here: “their reputation — for they have one — does not depend upon human speech. It is as if the surrounding plain or the passing birds have taken upon themselves to exclaim ‘extraordinary,’ and the word has taken root in the air, and been inhaled by mankind.”

Now I have to quote the next paragraph in full, just for the beauty of it and because it seems to hold some sort of key:

They are dark caves. Even when they open towards the sun, very little light penetrates down the entrance tunnel into the circular chamber. There is little to see, and no eye to see it, until 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 marvellously polished. The two flames approach and strive to unite, but cannot, because one of them breathes air, the other stone. A mirror inlaid with lovely colours divides the lovers, delicate stars of pink and grey interpose, exquisite nebulae, shadings fainter than the tail of a comet or the midday moon, all the evanescent life of the granite, only here visible. Fists and fingers thrust above the advancing soil — here at last is their skin, finer than any covering acquired by the animals, smoother than windless water, more voluptuous than love. The radiance increases, the flames touch one another, kiss, expire. The cave is dark again, like all the caves.

The “fists and fingers” here are a reference back to the opening chapter of the book, in which Forster mentions the Marabar Hills, using the metaphor of “a group of fists and fingers thrust up through the soil.” The “skin,” the inside of the hills, polished somehow (by who? by nature?), “more voluptuous than love.” These caves are the heart of the book, and Forster sets what appears to be the book’s pivotal event (or non-event) there. I’ll need to tackle what happens at the caves tomorrow.

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