Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Passage to India

E. M. Foster's novel follows the adventures of three English people who have come out recently to join the ruling class in India in the early part of the 20th century and of an Indian who becomes involved with them.  The prose is effective but not exciting.  Characterization is subtle and intimate.  Plot is like life; events have consequences, but there is never a sense of the author shaping reality to the needs of drama. Narration is third person, omniscient author, and the author is free to make comments on the characters, events, and life.

The dialogue is crisp, realistic, and on occasion very witty.  Speech tags are seriously lacking.  I read the book aloud, and frequently had to interpolate the attribution of a bit of dialogue, and sometimes had to stop to figure it out.

The book has three main concerns: The relations between the English rulers and professional class Indians;  Friendship;  and the experience of an individual relating to the nature of the universe, which is seen here from something like a Hindu perspective.

The first three quarters of the book are set in an area of India that is described as in Bihar, but seems like West Bengal.  That is, an area dominated politically and culturally by Muslim landowners, with a shadowy mass of poor Hindus who are mostly agricultural laborers.  The last quarter of the novel moves to Hindu native state.

The English characters who have been serving in India for some time are described as rigid and priggish.  They treat Indians as nonpersons and retreat into a shell as anyone might do if surrounded by nonpersons.  Early in the book an Indian comments something to the effect that any Englishman who comes to India goes bad in a year, and a woman in six months.  Treatment of the wives of the administrators is particularly scathing.  Perhaps it is because the men at least have to work with Indians, whereas the women are closeted in their homes and the English-only club.  The main English characters are our hero, Fielding, who is been in India perhaps only a few months and is a caring, skeptical, person who maintains his ties with anyone he happens to like, and two women: a young woman who has come out to decide whether to marry an administrator, and the frail and sensitive mother of the administrator, who accompanies her.

The novel is pessimistic on this score: the implication is that it will never be possible for the English and the Indians to have consistently human relations.

The main Indian character is a mercurial, poetic, engaging, sentimental Muslim doctor who works for the British.  He becomes friendly first with the mother, as she and he have a meeting of the minds when she sympathetically visits a mosque and does not act like an overlord.  Through her, he becomes a close friend of Fielding.  It is his friendship for the mother, the mother's  friendship for the possible fiancé, and most of all the off-and-on friendship between Fielding and the Indian doctor. Off-and-on because of the events that unfold.

The plot turns on something that happens to the fiancée when she visits one of a group of caves.  In these dark caves, she confronts the absence of structure.  The caves have the property that reflection from the curved, shiny walls transforms any light, say a match stirking, into a sort of writhing squiggle, and, more important, any sound – any sound, a footfall, your name, the rustle of a crowd, – transforms into a single low roar.  This phenomenon is the objective correlative of the absence of structure.  I'm no expert on Hindu metaphysics, but I understand that for an intellectual Hindu the ultimate reality is something formless that includes nonbeing as well as being.  Confronted with this phenomenon, the English girl, fragile because of insecurity about her emotional life and her future, panics terribly, and eventually accuses the Indian doctor, who was in fact absent, of sexual assault.

In a broader and less intense way, from time to time, Forster writes in his own voice about the relation between the individual and the nature of reality.

The English community circles its wagons and puts the doctor on trial.  It becomes a political trial and the object of mass demonstrations.  In the witness box, the fiancée somehow gets a grip on what happened and retracts the charge -; the doctor is acquitted.  Her retraction is an example of Forster's realism, which is rooted in the mysterious quality of life as both random and inevitable, rather than in any kind of theory.  It is both surprising and convincing.

The lives of the characters in the setting where they originally appeared are now shattered and they scatter.  The last quarter of the book is about when the sane Englishmen, Fielding, and the doctor meet again a few years later in a Hindu native state where the latter has taken a job and Fielding is making an inspection tour.  Though they have a deep and convivial feeling for one another, in the end, Fielding has been at least partially sucked into the English attitude, and the trial has forced the doctor to become a militant Indian nationalist, so their friendship cannot endure.

Stereotyping is important in this book, and Forster explores it and its consequences in detail.  With the exception of Fielding and the two women, the English overlords stereotype the Indians as nonhuman.  Indians stereotype the English as arrogant and capricious.  The Muslims show casual contempt for the Hindus.  The attitude of the Hindus towards Muslims is never really explored.  But Forster also is guilty of stereotyping, seeing the Indians as casual about veracity and commitment, and making some generalizations about "Orientals" as if the Orient contained no Chinese, Japanese, Indonesians etc.

I want to add a note about the movie directed by David Lean.  On its own terms, I think it's a good movie, but it departs from the meaning of the book in two important respects.  In the movie the reason for the fiancée's panic is sexual anxiety, provoked in part by a bicycle trip through jungley erotic sculptures, which is not in the novel.  The absence of form can invoke feelings related to undisciplined sexuality, but the novel is not centered on sex.  Second,  in the end Fielding and the Indian doctor are separated by circumstances, rather than Forster's vision of the impossibility of rulers being friends with the ruled.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Noam Chomsky and Paul Celan

One of the things Noam Chomsky did to revolutionize linguistics was to point out that you could make sentences that were grammatically correct but did not make sense. His observation freed linguists to devote their attention to grammar without worrying about meaning, as they had tended to do.  An example he used is this sentence: “Colorless ideas sleep furiously.”
It seems to me that when Chomsky asserts this he is using ‘make’ in a narrow sense. The phrase “make sense” for him means something like ‘to harmonize rationally with the speaker’s notion of the world.’ But ‘make’ can also mean create, and ‘make sense’ can mean create meaning.
I once had a teacher, Yousel Rogat, who suggested that any metaphor, as opposed to a simile, behind the scenes evokes a universe in which the metaphor is literally true. If you say, “life is like a nightmare,” you point to certain resemblances that you might be able to list. “If you say, “life is a nightmare”, you evoke a universe of darkness and suffering where sordid details struggle for realization.
So it is with Chomsky’s own sentence.  If you speak it from the narrow, Chomskian perspective, then you say nothing about ideas or about sleep or about fury. But if you take ‘make’ in the sense of create, you have a resonant image of ideas, some reified (because they might have color), but without color and at once somnambulant and raging. And it does seem relevant to me that Chomsky is himself a furious wielder of abstract ideas intended to rouse others from complacency time after time.
And so it is with Paul Clean. His poems for the most part do not make sense in the narrow Chomskian definition.

         Here's pelt sky. Even now
         a clear wing writes
        
         I, too, remember,
         dust-
         colored one, arrived
         as a crane
But they make a great deal of sense by creating meaning.  Of course I’m reading in translation, but I doubt knowing German would make any difference. In fact I think the German inclination to create new words by joining old ones freely lends it self to this sort of sense making. You can put two words together in a way that does not harmonize rationally with the world, as you know it, but does create a new sense, a new batch of meaning.
This generation of meaning is one thing that makes Clean so exhilarating to read, and, in his context so moving. You are constantly involved in making sense.  Reading this book is a long struggle in which you time after time are forced to make (create) sense based on the chimeric materials Celan provides you. Nourishing your mind in the background as you work is Celan’s tortured history, his upbringing as a German-speaking Jew in what had been part of Austria, was then Romania and is now the Ukraine; the death of his mother in a concentration camp; his tormented attempts to recreate his nationality and his identity; his deep involvement with the German language though he was a Jew suffering horrors enacted by Germans; his eventual suicide. It is the history of a chimeric identity and the poems are chimeric.  That the evocation is mostly of tragedy and suffering does not make it less wonderful because it shows the capacity of the human mind to work with such dark material, and come out richer in meaning.



Friday, January 31, 2014

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

There are some good things about this novel: there are some wonderful descriptive passages, particularly descriptions of the sea during the period when the protagonist is on a fishing boat.  I thought of Moby Dick.  A section about 15 pages long where a North Korean delegation visits a Texas ranch is laugh-aloud funny.  The book as a whole has a certain imaginative, surreal zaniness.

That's about it.  Basically, it's a trashy piece of work.  Reading it is like reading the script of a B adventure movie.  It follows the life of an orphan in North Korea who, through a series of unlikely events, comes to masquerade as a member of the elite.  Outside of the descriptive passages mentioned, the prose is adequate to mediocre.  The dialogue is stilted.  The real problem has to do with plot and characterization.  Both are totally subservient to building scenes.  It's like one of those operas where the plot and characterization serve only to maneuver the singers onto the stage where they can emote beautifully.  I think of I Puritani, written during the height of the fashion of mad scenes, where the heroine goes mad and sings a gorgeous aria, then, since one mad scene is good two must be better, recovers but suddenly goes mad again when she sees her boyfriend out riding with another woman, and finally regains her sanity  - for the opera has a happy ending.  But here there is no beautiful music.  The Orphan Master's Son has not one, but two endings, both spuriously happy, one highly suitable for a grade B Hollywood adventure movie and the other for a grade B North Korean adventure movie.

Note that there are several scenes of horrendous torture.  Someone who would be uncomfortable with reading vivid torture should skip this book.

Someone trying to defend the plot and characterization might assert that life in a totalitarian regime is often arbitrary, and, as Michael Kundera has explored so movingly, under the pressure of constant police scrutiny, if you make up a story about yourself, or someone else makes it up, that is who you become.  The problem in this book is that the manipulative plot and jerky characterization give no feeling of authenticity.  I am no more convinced I have learned anything reliable about North Korea than I would be convinced I had learned about the settlement of the Great Plains form watching a spaghetti western or about Renaissance Scotland by attending a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor.

Several fine novels address the effect of authoritarian regimes on human fate and character from the inside with great insight and authenticity.  Here are a few that come to mind:  From nearby China, Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian. Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and other novels. The long-term consequences of oppression are thoughtfully portrayed in Antonio Muñoz Molina’s Sepharad and The Rings of Saturn and other novels by W. G. Sebald. Read one of them instead.


I don't keep current on American fiction, so I don't have any idea what the Pulitzer committee had to choose from last year, but, if there was nothing better than this, it was a bad year.

Friday, January 17, 2014


I listened to this novel in the excellent recording by Sean Barrett of the English translation by Philip Gabriel. Kafka on the Shore is a Bildungsroman.  On his 15th birthday our hero, who has renamed himself Kafka after the Czech writer (Kafka means 'crow' in Czech), runs away from home where he has been living in estrangement from his father and in the absence of his mother, who ran away years before.  Is there an instance in Murakami of a father and son who get on?  He is one of those Murakami young men who make a virtue for the reader of not knowing what to do with themselves.  He is also running from Œdipus’ curse delivered as extended by his father: that he would sleep with his mother, sleep with his sister, and kill his father. It is difficult to write about this novel without injecting spoilers, but I think I can say that whether Kafka fulfills or avoids his curse depends on what it means to say something really happens.  

This novel is not speculative fiction like Science Fiction, nor does it create a coherent alternate world like fantasy, but there are unworldly departures from the commonplace.

It includes at least two touching love stories, and a violent murder by a reluctant murderer.

This is a long novel with several fully developed secondary characters.  The most important is a man who as a child was traumatized in a strange event during the second world war, which is recounted in full, and involves something that suggest American bombing of Japan and as well the sexual fantasies of his grade school teacher.  The victim grows up in a sense retarded, but able to talk with cats (Who can name a Murakami novel without a cat?) and his special powers enable him to effect the denouement.  Another important character is a transsexual librarian who is a bit of an authority on everything and a mentor to the hero.  Another is an uneducated truck driver who befriends the cat whisperer, learns to like Beethoven, and is treated for his good works to a hot prostitute who explains Hegel to him.  His physical strength contributes to the denouement.  So you see, there are many threads and arrangements blended carefully into the conclusion.

A secondary personage who has important role in the plot manifests as Colonel Sanders.  He explains that he is neither a god nor a Buddha nor a person.  Really, he is a sort of plot device, but utterly credible in another way, and teaches us something about the issue of character-driven plots and vice versa.

During the course of many trials and temptations, the hero spends some time in a distant forest that suggests purgatory but also suggests the Western Paradise of Pure Land 
Buddhism.

The hero has some remarkable erections in unworldly circumstances. Can anyone name a Murakami novel without remarkable erections?

I feel I am failing utterly to give the tone of this novel. It must sound chaotic and self-conscious. It is not. It is orderly and full of surprising but inevitable plot maneuvers. It is serious, entertaining, and moving.

For me the key to apprehending reality in unreality lay in the character and action of lady Rokujo in TheTale of Geji, which the worldly-wise librarian is at pains to explain to the questing hero. Lady Rokujo is one of Genji’s many lovers. The Buddhist psychology that underlines Lady Murasaki’s characterization requires that each person have a ruling aspect, and allows people to have spiritual extensions of themselves, like ghosts.  But these extensions may manifest while the person is alive. Lady Rokujo's ruling aspect is jealousy, and, without the corporeal Lady Rokujo even knowing it, her spiritual extensions slowly kills a competing lover.

It is in a world that includes such kinds of reality that Kafka undergoes trials and temptations and learns to be a person through many adventures both realistic and remarkable.