Can We Connect? Some Reflections on E.M. Forster's A Passage to India (Part 2)

"Obtuseness," the mental quality that E.M. Forster identified in Howard’s End, fairly abounds in A Passage to India. We see it in the obtuseness of the English with regard to the Indians, the Indians with regard to the English, Moslems with regard to Hindus (and vice versa), and even in the obtuseness of people to their own selves–one way of looking at Ms. Quested’s accusation that Aziz has molested her (the fulcrum of the novels plot) is that it is based entirely on her obtuse mistaking of her own inner turmoil for an attack on her person.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, Third Edition, the adjective obtuse means "lacking in quickness of perception or intellect." After giving this definition, the dictionary advises its readers to "See Synonyms at stupid." It would be wrong, in my view, to read Forster’s novel as suggesting that the many characters in it who fail to notice what’s most important about and to those around them are stupid people. Rather, most are fairly intelligent humans and, as such, are focused on and consumed by their own reality most of the time and, for that reason, just don’t notice things. And, as Forster also recognizes, this fact of human life–our tendency to be obtuse–sometimes has its uses.

Those uses are hinted at in Howard’s End, when Forster describes the reaction of Margaret’s husband Henry Wilcox, when she taxes him with his lack of sensitivity to the world around him:

He simply did not notice things, and there was no more to be said. He never noticed that Helen and Frieda were hostile, or that Tibby was not interested in currant plantations; he never noticed the light and shades that exist in the grayest conversation, the fingerposts, the milestones, the collisions, the illimitable views. Once–on another occasion–she scolded him about it. He was puzzled, but replied with a laugh: "My motto is ‘Concentrate.’ I’ve no intention of frittering away my strength on that sort of thing." "It isn’t frittering away the strength," she protested. "It’s enlarging the space in which you may be strong." He answered: "You’re a clever little woman, but my motto’s ‘Concentrate.’"

It is probably hard to express fully how much a reader of Howard’s End hates this man for his "you’re a clever little woman" and for his complete obtuseness with regard to Margaret herself, her depth, intelligence, and feeling. Yet, Forster never lets us forget that Mr. Wilcox is a successful man of business, who supports his family and values Margaret highly in his own way. Unlike the contemplative Margaret, Mr. Wilcox is one of those extroverted people who is focused on doing things in the world: he "concentrates" and, in his narrow focus, achieves material things. It almost does not need saying that, due to their life circumstances and the social structure in which they live, Margaret, as his wife, depends to some extent on this obtuse man’s abilities for her comfort and lifestyle. (Although, to be fair to Margaret–and to Forster–she is in fact a person of some independent means who probably could get along without Wilcox. She chooses him freely for her own reasons.)

Unlike the reader, Forster does not judge Wilcox–I do not recall him ever expressly criticizing him–and this is mirrored by what I see as Forster’s similar reluctance to pass moral judgments on the characters in A Passage to India. On one level then, the latter book, like Howard’s End, seems to be making the uncomfortable point that, whether we like it or not, human society might not survive without a certain amount of obtuseness.

But only a certain amount, Forster also seems to say, as he depicts the deep pain and trouble inflicted when people are obtuse. Isn’t there another way, A Passage to India poignantly asks, to live a productive yet fully aware life? Isn’t there a way available to us to combine a capacity to act and to do with an openness to the other that, as Margaret describes it in Howard’s End, would actually "enlarge the space in which [we] may be strong"?

How can this be accomplished? What does Forster place against the often casual, yet monumental obtuseness of we human beings to each other and to what is important?

The answer given in A Passage to India, the counterweight that Forster there offers to the almost universal obtuseness displayed throughout the book, is the intuitive understanding of Mrs. Moore. This is evident very early in the novel, when the Moslem Dr. Aziz finds that Mrs. Moore, an English woman (and in his terms an infidel), has entered the mosque where he has taken refuge.

. . .Another pillar moved, a third, and then an Englishwoman stepped out into the moonlight.Suddenly, he was furiously angry and shouted, "Madam! Madam! Madam!"
"Oh! Oh!:" the woman gasped.
"Madam, this is a mosque, you have no right here at all; you should have taken off your shoes; this is a holy place for Moslems.
"I have taken them off."
"You have?"
"I left them at the entrance."
"Then I ask you pardon."
Still startled, the woman moved out, keeping the ablution-tank between them. He called after her, "I am truly sorry for speaking."
"Yes, I was right, was I not? If I remove my shoes, I am allowed?"
"Of course, but so few ladies take the trouble, especially if thinking no one is there to see."
"That makes no difference. God is here."

At least as they are depicted in A Passage to India, many, if not most of the English in India would probably not have been aware that they ought to take off their shoes when entering a mosque (that was certainly Dr. Aziz’s assumption), and might never have thought that God was in that house, as God would be assumed to inhabit their own houses of worship. But, as Forster seems to me to point out, the problem is not that most of the English intentionally rejected these concepts–they did not, for example, consciously reject the notion that one should remove ones shoes before entering a Moslem sacred place–so much as that they simply did not notice them. They were obtuse.

In A Passage to India, Mrs. Moore’s intuitive and passionate understanding is so special, so unique, among the English, that in the end she becomes for Dr. Azizs community a spiritual presence to be invoked in times of need–given a new, Indian name, Esmiss Esmoor–and becoming almost a god. I feel that one question posed by this profoundly moving work is whether Mrs. Moore’s ability not to be obtuse is, in fact, a gift given only to a few, or is something to which we can all aspire. If each of us tries hard enough, can we connect?

In the introduction to his 1943 study of E.M. Forster, Lionel Trilling wrote: "I have wanted for a long time to write about him and it gives me a special satisfaction to write about him now, for a consideration of Forster’s work is, I think, useful in time of war." I came across this quote some time after I had decided on Forster’s A Passage to India as the topic of this essay, but when I read it I realized how apt it was. As was true when Trilling wrote those words we are at war today, and one workable definition of war is surely that it is a most extreme manifestation of human obtuseness. In this sense, the recurrence of war throughout human history, despite all efforts to prevent it, seems to offer with respect to the question "Can we connect?" an emphatic "no," the sad response that ultimately we cannot connect.

But our survival as a species I think has ever depended upon rejecting that pessimistic view. And, I would like to think that the answer to the question "Can we connect?", is "YES," if we take the first step of confronting the all-too-human lack of sensitivity and understanding that Forster depicts with particular fervor in his novel about India. And then, having been brought to that understanding by a work like A Passage to India, we must figure out what to do about the problem. A Passage to India does not provide an answer, but challenges us to find one and convinces us that one must be found.

As Lionel Trilling wrote in his essay on A Passage to India:

The disintegrating question, What, then, must be done? which many readers have raised is of course never answered–or not answered in the language in which the question has been asked. The book simply involves the question in ultimates. This, obviously, is no answer; still, it defines the scope of a possible answer, and thus restates the questions. For the answer we can never again temporize, because the question, after it has been involved in the moods and visions of the story, turns out to be the most enormous question that has ever been asked, requiring an answer of enormous magnanimity. Great as the problem of India is, Forster’s book is not about India alone; it is about all of human life.

Author: Martin Newhouse

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