I am lost to the world
With which I used to waste much time;
It has for so long known nothing of me,
It may well believe that I am dead.— Gustav Mahler, Rückert-Lieder, ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’
In India, one stands on hallowed ground. Time has come and gone from this pullulating land, and empires have risen and fallen; civilisations founded, in her overflowing breast, leave behind only a residuum of their achievements when they pass, dotting the landscape with the relics of gods worshipped and wars fought. An orientalist walks through this reliquary with due sensitivity, attentive to the accumulation of history upon every surface, the thick scum of myth that is sticky to the touch; but he has forgotten to close the door. A wind of change blows through this subcontinent, and the baroque webs are blown away; papers scatter, and bones clatter in the cold. So quickly are the permutations of time lost to itself.
For E. M. Forster, it is a country for old men. One less lives in it than spectates it, watching the circles of dust spiral around one’s feet. For a country that is the object of wanderlust and putatively vivid in spiritual life, it is, on closer inspection, as desiccated as anything else on this side of the century. Upon the coming of the ‘Hot Weather’ (Forster 1982, 146), the vivid turns into the lurid, and
All over the city and over much of India the same retreat on the part of humanity was beginning, into cellars, up hills, under trees. April, herald of horrors, is at hand. The sun was returning to his kingdom with power but without beauty – that was the sinister feature. If only there had been beauty! His cruelty would have been tolerable then. Through excess of light, he failed to triumph, he also; in his yellowy-white overflow not only matter, but brightness itself lay drowned. He was not the unattainable friend, either of men or birds or other suns, he was not the eternal promise, the never-withdrawn suggestion that haunts our consciousness; he was merely a creature, like the rest, and so debarred from glory.Forster 1982, 127
Quite apart from rejuvenating and defrosting as it does in the northerly latitudes, summer – for the existence of spring is foreclosed – exceeds the spectrum of human sensation, and of human comprehension, whose cycle of life is put into abeyance. The coup de théâtre that is usually offered the species in the throes of spring is subjected to harsh anti-climax, whose providential cornucopia simultaneously grows overripe just as it begins to ripen, and whose rot radiates in the stultifying heat. Even further than the incomprehensibility of God, India refuses to the masses, even, the soupçon of comfort that is gained from an explicable existence; who, enclosed within this purgation, suffer an anguish greater than that of judicious condemnation: indiscrimination. Greater than divine punishment – abandonment:
Trees of a poor quality bordered the road, indeed the whole scene was inferior, and suggested that the country-side was too vast to admit of excellence. In vain did each item in it call out, ‘Come, come.’ There was not enough god to go round.Forster 1982, 102
In such a desert, even the infinite mercy of God is barren.
For now, still, a few oases exist, upon which the orientalist has not, yet, been allowed tread, in whose refuge some remnant of enchantment may still be found – and, then, disaster strikes. It is upon the rapidly depleting power of nostalgia – the rapidly depleting past – that Aziz may rest his soul:
The front – in full moonlight – had the appearance of marble, and the ninety-nine names of God on the frieze stood out black, as the frieze stood out white against the sky. The contest between this dualism and the contention of shadows within pleased Aziz, and he tried to symbolize the whole into some truth of religion or love. A mosque by winning his approval let loose his imagination. The temple of another creed, Hindu, Christian, or Greek, would have bored him and failed to awaken his sense of beauty. Here was Islam, his own country, more than a Faith, more than a battle-cry, more, much more… Islam, an attitude towards life both exquisite and durable, where his body and his thoughts found their home.Forster 1982, 41
Like the homes of every Indian under British rule, it is fated for transgression, whose form, in this case, takes on that of the haphazard Mrs Moore. Though (in this case – unusually) benign and apologetic, her intrusion, nevertheless, reminds Aziz of the essential fact of his reverie: that it is, in spite of it all – in spite of reality – a reverie, contained within walls that are every day growing older. ‘His poem was again about the decay of Islam and the brevity of love’, whose pulchritude is rapidly instantiating itself, and, thereby, destroying itself, incarnating itself from the eternal sublime into an object d’art (Forster 1982, 265). The colours of the world, the cool sanctuaries and shaded purdahs, flourishing bayans and lotuses, are gradually being bleached out into irradiance.
Upon the day that Aziz and his ill-fated party depart for the Marabar Caves, light wrought its erosive power, and, shining through the spirit, rendered what was left of it a diaphanous wisp. The ‘veils of the morning’ (Yeats 1963, ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, 44) of places elsewhere are robbed of their demurity, unveiled and roughly consummated without much ado:
As she spoke, the sky to the left turned angry orange. Colour throbbed and mounted behind a pattern of trees, grew in intensity, was yet brighter, incredibly brighter, strained from without against the globe of the air. They awaited the miracle. But at the supreme moment, when night should have died and day lived, nothing occurred. It was as if virtue had failed in the celestial fount. The hues in the east decayed, the hills seemed dimmer though in fact better lit, and a profound disappointment entered with the morning breeze. Why, when the chamber was prepared, did the bridegroom not enter with trumpets and shawms, as humanity expects? The sun rose without splendour.Forster 1982, 149–50
A defiled beauty lies stark across the land, whose cries for help, having now awakened from her nightmares, echo in the party’s ears, arousing less sympathy than disgust. It appears to be a ‘false dawn’, caused by the atmospherics; yet, when dawn turns to morning, and the light becomes proleptic of the afternoon blaze, it is the falsity that remains (Forster 1982, 150). ‘Nothing was explained, and yet there was no romance’ – however, one begins to sense the perfunctory work of that ‘yet’ – nothing was explainable, since the land refuses to yield, rendering any attempt at romance a forced one (Forster 1982, 153). Visions of India collapse, and the dreams of those seeking the ‘real India’ are turned febrile under the burning sun, one image melding into another, all figments of their desperate imaginations, ghastly and overwrought and blinding (Forster 1982, 52). Through their necromancy, a palimpsest rises from the ground, whose empires echo of their heydays, of elephants and servants, of heroes and legends; yet, blinding is the light that sieges their closed eyelids, and Carthage is burned, and the ashes are scattered. Reality forces their eyes open, and, like Turner’s Regulus, reality exceeds the spectrum of human sensation.
If reality can be said to ‘echo’, it so does in Mrs Moore’s ears, and, latterly, in those of Adela. Having ventured into the darkness of the Marabars, she came the closest to God that any human could: that being nothing, and nowhere. All of light and sound and fury reflected back upon her – those essential aspects of life – as echo, as hollow echo, as secondary derivation of that promised vitality of existence brought so expensively by Prometheus; all of life reflected back upon her, as palimpsest, as approximation, as Stygian phantom; God’s creation becomes ingenuous:
the echo began in some indescribable way to undermine her hold on life. Coming at a moment when she chanced to be fatigued, it had managed to murmur, ‘Pathos, piety, courage – they exist, but are identical, and so is filth. Everything exists, nothing has value.’ If one had spoken vileness in that place, or quoted lofty poetry, the comment would have been the same – ‘ou-boum.’ … Devils are of the North, and poems can be written about them, but no one could romanticize the Marabar because it robbed infinity and eternity of their vastness, the only quality that accommodates them to mankind. …
But suddenly, at the edge of her mind, Religion appeared, poor little talkative Christianity, and she knew that all its divine words from ‘Let there be Light’ to ‘It is finished’ only amounted to ‘boum.’ Then she was terrified over an area larger than usual; the universe, never comprehensible to her intellect, offered no repose to her soul, the mood of the last two months took definite form at last, and she realized that she didn’t want to write to her children, didn’t want to communicate with anyone, not even with God. She sat motionless with horrorForster 1982, 160–1
Existence atrophies. The paralysis spreads, the galvanisation of a whole civilisation loses its charge, and the projected images begin to fade to white, the reel starting to run out; though occasionally flickering a spasm back on to the screen, it is the deluge of light that shines triumphant in the end; and, boxing it in, is the boundless, murky darkness. Meaning is revealed as mirage, with the symbols and sublimities that represent it slowly rarefying – rent asunder from their subjects and reality – until, when, one day, approached again, the mirage dissipates into waves of heat. The appurtenances of civilisation become overheated and fecund; and, coupling together again and again, spring off image after image after sign, mere spectres that roam the land. As Baudrillard writes:
Today’s nihilism is one of transparency …
The universe, and all of us, have entered live into simulation, into the malefic, not even malefic, indifferent, sphere of deterrence: in a bizarre fashion, nihilism has been entirely realized no longer through destruction, but through simulation and deterrence. From the active, violent phantasm, from the phantasm of the myth and the stage that it also was, historically, it has passed into the transparent, falsely transparent, operation of things.Baudrillard 1994, 159
A new mal du siècle haunts this side of the century.
Herself venturing into a cave, Adela encounters this malevolence. The darkness drops, and existence, merely ‘this shadow, or sort of shadow … bottling me up’, makes itself known for the first time in her life (Forster 1982, 199). The vividities promised to her – the India of the Orient, her impending domestic felicity – are all enervated by this malaise, graspable by her, only, as ‘a sort of sadness … no, nothing as solid as sadness: living at half pressure expresses it best. Half pressure’ (Forster 1982, 240). The beautiful becomes garish, and the real, transparent; the densities of life are, suddenly, found to be inflated. She lashes out, at whatever she can, whatever is nearest, in the sole hope of hitting anything – something – concrete, good or bad, but something upon which she may grasp; yet, her flailing disturbs, only, the hot, humid air. At the trial, she, even, becomes exhausted of this.
What is it that she sees? so painfully that life, itself, is wrenched out of her? The caves;
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 loversForster 1982, 138
It is reality – mirrored – that traumatises: shown to the visitor, ruthlessly, callously, is his very own image. At once, in the Freudian mode, the inner life, the flame of the spirit, is forced into an agon with its reality – whose cold materiality cannot compare – and whose reconciliation, ineluctably, fails to satiate. Rendered in statuary, beauty cannot hope to stay alive, immured in so many layers of hard granite; nor can corpulent existence, with all its appendages, be allowed to emerge unbrutalised. Unable to banish these phantom limbs – these spectres of meaning – whose irritations only redouble, existence succumbs to miasma: the miasma of simulacra.
The reliquary is haunted. Though the myths are long lost, and the scrolls indecipherable, their lost presence remains, drained of their past vitality. Incessantly, the cold winds blow, and with every gust, another relic is hollowed out, another page flutters away, and another civilisation yields to time. Things are falling apart before our orientalist’s eyes, and, very soon, that which he has been running from, all this while, will catch his glance: his own image, deathly ill, a prognosis of the future to come.
Baudrillard, Jean. 1994. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. The Body, In Theory: Histories of Cultural Materialism 15. Ann Arbour, MI: University of Michigan.
Forster, E. M. 1982. A Passage to India. Edited by Oliver Stallybrass. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.
Yeats, William Butler. 1963. The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. 2nd ed. London, UK: Macmillan.