Ineffable Gods

March 12, 2008 § 2 Comments

Now reading: A Passage to India.

I’m rapidly in the process of falling in love with this book (quite a change from yesterday, eh?), as it seems determined to thwart my expectations and be just completely fascinating, unpredictable, and beautiful.  (The lesson, as always: trust Ray Bradbury.  He says it’s good, it’s good.)

Forster has that sense of chapters as scenes, as potent mini-books which readers will stop and reflect upon before moving to another.  As such, the beginnings and endings of his chapters tend to be crucial, the places where he makes his points, sets his scenes (something he’s very good at, of course), brings his ideas to the fore from behind the action of the narrative.  (This is a common trait, another that I, for one, especially associate with early modernist British writers.  Again, maybe it’s just me.  I’d like to read something someday about the development of the chapter.  Surely Gerard Genette says something about it.  But I digress.)

Forster has been excellent, so far, at ending every chapter with an epigram, symbol, incident, or idea that’s really provocative.  See Chapter II: Mrs. Moore says, “I don’t think I understand people very well.  I only know whether I like or dislike them.”  To which Dr. Aziz, a Muslim, replies, “Then you are an Oriental.”

But I want to share the two that seem to be developing the most interesting theme, so far.  At the end of Chapter V, Mrs. Moore is talking to her son Ronny about the interactions between the English and the Indians, and Mrs. Moore is arguing that the English “are out here to be pleasant,” not simply to administer justice and bring civilization to India, “Because India is part of the earth.  And God has put us on the earth in order to be pleasant to each other.  God… is… love.”  This talk of God disturbs Ronny, and he ends the conversation as soon as possible.  In the chapter’s last paragraph, Forster writes:

“Mrs. Moore felt that she had made a mistake in mentioning God, but she found him increasingly difficult to avoid as she grew older, and he had been constantly in her thoughts since she entered India, though oddly enough he satisfied her less.  She must needs pronounce his name frequently, as the greatest she knew, yet she had never found it less efficacious.  Outside the arch there seemed always an arch, beyond the remotest echo a silence….”

At the end of Chapter VII we hear a similar thought from a different direction, told by Forster in a different way.   Mr. Fielding, the master of the small college, has invited to tea Dr. Aziz, Mrs. Moore and Ms. Questing, and a Brahman Professor at the college named Godbole.  At the end of their tea (which began very well and ended quite badly, with the arrival of Ronny to usher away the ladies) Godbole, with very little provocation (and quite out of character, seemingly, as he has been Brahminishly aloof throughout), sings a song for them.  It is unintelligible and rather baffling to the English ear, but the Hindu servants are entranced and delighted.  Fielding thanks him for the song and asks for an explanation, to which Godbole replies:

“I will explain in detail.  It was a religious song.  I placed myself in the position of a milkmaiden.  I say to Shri Krishna, ‘Come! come to me only.’  The god refuses to come.  I grow humble and say: ‘Do not come to me only.  Multiply yourself into a hundred Krishnas, and let one go to each of my hundred companions, but one, O Lord of the Universe, come to me.’  He refuses to come.  This is repeated several times.  The song is composed in a raga appropriate to the present hour, which is the evening.”

“But he comes in some other song, I hope?” said Mrs. Moore gently.

“Oh no, he refuses to come,” repeated Godbole, perhaps not understanding her question.  “I say to Him, Come, come, come, come, come, come.  He neglects to come.”

Ronny’s steps had died away, and there was a moment of absolute silence.  No ripple disturbed the water, no leaf stirred.

This theme, of the god who cannot be denied but is also removed, distant, inscrutable (as Gaiman and Pratchett had it, humorously, in Good Omens, “ineffable”), is handled so well here.  That last paragraph really knocks me out.  (As an aside, it also reminds me of the George Harrison song “My Sweet Lord,” the greatest pop song ever about god.)  Another interesting thing about this, I think, is that Forster relieves himself of the unwelcome necessity of commenting on Mrs. Moore’s reaction to this, after her similar rumination the night before.  We’re left to contemplate her reaction ourselves: that’s a nice ambiguous space to think in, and also leaves us wanting to read ahead to how she develops in the coming chapters.

There have started to be discussions about the Malabar Caves outside of town, and Part II of the book is entitled “Caves” (Part I is “Mosque”).  I have high hopes that we’re going to move into some really interesting metaphysical territory in Part II.

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