Scholarship and integrity: Matthew Arnold's "The Scholar-Gipsy" and Anita Desai's "Scholar and Gypsy".
From their medieval beginnings, universities were essentially religious institutions. It is no surprise, then, that the crisis of religious faith, which found expression in nineteenth-century Europe, provoked a parallel need to question and redefine the function and purpose of universities. John Henry Newman's The Idea of the University (1852) is a famous example. But I propose to argue here that Matthew Arnold's poem "The Scholar-Gipsy" published in 1853, is a reassertion of the value of the university every bit as passionate and cogent as Newman's, though leading in a diametrically opposing direction. And Anita Desai's short story "Scholar and Gypsy," (1) published in 1978, offers a perspective on how these debates match up to the realities of the late twentieth century. A close reading and comparison of these texts by Arnold and Desai, from different centuries and different continents, is not only mutually illuminating, but can also shed light for our own time on the issues raised.
Poet and Critics
Arnold was moved to write "The Scholar-Gipsy" by an anecdote he found in Glanvil's Vanity of Dogmatizing (1661), which he summarises early in the poem:
The story of the Oxford scholar poor, Of pregnant parts and quick inventive brain, Who, tired of knocking at preferment's door, One summer morn forsook His friends, and went to learn the gipsy-lore, And roam'd the world with that wild brotherhood, And came, as most men deem'd, to little good,. But came to Oxford and his friends n.o more. (2)
Writers, artists, musicians, critics, and readers have also been moved by Arnold's version of the story ever since; it is one of the most frequently-discussed poems in the language. And, as David Rampton notes, discussion has centred almost entirely on the "quasi-human figure" (4) of the Scholar-Gipsy himself, to the exclusion of much else, as holding the key to the poem's meaning and value. A very broad range of interpretation has been drawn from Arnold's creation by critics. For Lionel Trilling, the Scholar-Gipsy is "imagination, impulse, and pleasure" and "he is what virtually every writer of the modem period conceives, the experience of art projected into the actuality and totality of life as the ideal form of the moral life" (14). Clinton Machann's reading is close to Trilling's, describing the Scholar-Gipsy as "the 'best' self, as distinct from the 'ordinary' self' (37). G. Wilson Knight sees him as symbolising "areas of wisdom and faculties of the mind neither tapped nor respected by the western tradition" (58). And for Alan Roper, he embodies "faith in the existence of a supernatural power" (221). In contrast to these inspiring claims, F. R. Leavis believes that the character of the Scholar-Gipsy offers merely "a holiday from serious aims and exacting business" and symbolises "Victorian poetry" itself, "unable to be in essence anything but relaxed, relaxing and anodyne" (30). And for David Riede, he is merely a "wanderer" whose story demonstrates that,pace Keats, "literature cannot point to 'Truth'" (147).
These are hugely diverse readings, and represent only a fraction of the scores of interpretations that the figure of the Scholar-Gipsy has attracted. But all of these commentators--admirers and detractors alike--spend most of their time discussing the connotations and implications of the word "gipsy" and those parts of the poem that embody and expand them. The word "scholar' in the poem's rifle, and those parts of the poem that develop its resonance, tend to be overlooked. And the significance of the other two protagonists: the narrator and the ever-proximate university is all but ignored This poem evokes, in some of the greatest poetry of the nineteenth century, two quite separate journeys of discovery--that of the Scholar-Gipsy and that of the narrator--in order to establish their respective relationships with the third protagonist, the university. What follows is an attempt to present a more balanced reading of the poem, taking account of both sides of the Scholar-Gipsy persona, and also of the significance of the narrator and the setting. I believe that in this way we can more nearly approach Arnold's own intentions and preoccupations in writing the poem. I will firstly indicate what I see as its most significant elements, and then attempt to synthesise their significance.
On the Edge
The Scholar-Gipsy "roam'd the world with that wild brotherhood ... But came to Oxford and his friends no more" (ll.38-40), Arnold tells us. But in the very next lines, this seemingly absolute closure is qualified:
But once, years after, in the country-lanes, Two scholars, whom at college erst he knew, Met him.... (ll. 41-43)
They talked together; then "he left them, and return'd no more" (1. 51). Again, we have that final, haunting phrase "no more"; yet the Scholar-Gipsy is again seen, repeatedly, in the countryside around the university. It is as though he would like to leave Oxford and return "no more," (3) but is always drawn back to its orbit. He has "roam'd the world," and could presumably go or stay anywhere within it, but is constantly pulled back, not to the university or to his former friends and fellows, but to the natural world around it. He is to be found on the edge; never within Oxford, but always within sight of it. The poem's narrator follows the Scholar-Gipsy's example and roams the same woods and hills.
The opening lines evoke a timeless pastoral world, going back to Virgil and beyond, that the narrator inhabits; until at the end of the third stanza, Arnold locates these hills and fields precisely: "And the eye travels down to Oxford's towers" (1.30). The narrator believes that he too has seen the Scholar-Gipsy: "And I myself seem half to know thy looks" (1.62), though his words are doubly qualified by "seem" and "half." He devotes his life to a "quest" (1.10) to find the Scholar-Gipsy and substantiate his evanescent perception. The relationship between the two characters, the Scholar-Gipsy and the narrator who seeks him, is central to an understanding of the poem's meaning, and has not been fully explored.
"Arts to Rule as They Desired"
Nor have the Scholar-Gipsy's reasons for living within the orbit of the university, rather than anywhere else in the world, ever been satisfactorily explained. When his former fellows ask him about his life since leaving Oxford,
... he answer'd, that the gipsy-crew, His mates, had arts to rule as they desired The workings of men's brains, And they can bind them to what thoughts they will. 'And I,' he said, 'the secret of their art, When fully learn'd, will to the world impart; But it needs heaven-sent moments for this skill.' (ll. 44-50)
He is still a scholar, then, in search of knowledge, and plans to "impart" his findings when the work is complete. But this is, of course, a radically different type of knowledge from conventional academic learning. Wilson Knight, noting the derivation of "gipsy" from "Egypt," and the Hindu origins of the Romany race, convincingly equates the "arts" of the "gipsycrew" with "the esoteric schools originating from the East" (57). But Wordsworth's great challenge in The Prelude, to seek "Knowledge not purchas'd with the loss of power!" (Book V: 1. 449) is every bit as apposite, and reminds us that dissatisfaction with rational learning was very much a part of the Romantic agenda that formed Arnold's sensibility.
Here, I think we need to remind ourselves of the connotations of the word "gipsy" in English culture. Arnold's phrase "gipsy-crew," with its echoes of Coleridge's "ghastly crew" (1.340) in "The Ancient Mariner," as well as the proverbial "motley crew," is part of a long tradition. When Shakespeare wishes to depict the disillusion with Cleopatra that drives Mark Antony to suicide, he has him say:
O, this false soul of Egypt! This grave charm, Whose eye becked forth my wars and called them home, Whose bosom was my crownet, my chief end, Like a right gipsy hath at fast and loose Beguiled me to the very heart of loss. (Act IV: Sc. XII, 11.25-29)
This passage, and indeed every reference to gipsies in the play, illustrates vividly the profound suspicion with which Englishspeaking culture has viewed gipsy people. Cleopatra clearly has "arts to rule" the "workings of men's brains," but she uses them "like a right gipsy" to betray Antony, the Roman caught between the forces of Western power and status and Eastern intrigue and pleasure. The Scholar-Gipsy, on the other hand, seeks to acquire and master these "strange arts" (1. 135), not for any underhand or personal motive, but in order to "impart" them to "the world." He will remove the secrecy and suspicion from them, so that all people may benefit from their exercise. And in his portrayal of the ScholarGipsy's aim, Matthew Arnold will radically reappraise the old East/West polarities and prejudices.
The aim is clear enough, then; but the means of achieving it is far less so: "But it needs heaven-sent moments for this skill," the Scholar-Gipsy tells his old friends. This becomes a refrain in the narrator's mind: "waiting for the spark from heaven to fall"; "Thou waitest for the spark from heaven!" (ll. 120 and 171). But this waiting is far from passive; it takes the form of an alert, rapt contemplation of the natural world: "Children," the narrator reminds the Scholar-Gipsy,
Have known thee eying, all an April-day, The springing pastures and the feeding kine; And mark'd thee, when the stars come out and shine, Through the long dewy grass move slow away. (ll. 107-110)
He avoids noisy, crowded places, choosing "shy retreats" and "retired ground" (ll. 70-71) to await the spark from heaven. In this respect, Arnold again draws on the high Romantic agenda. Coleridge, for example, in the poem "Frost at Midnight," bemoaned his own childhood confined in "the great city," seeing "naught lovely," and promised that his newborn child would "wander like a breeze" in the natural world, and so learn "that eternal language, which thy God/Utters" (ll. 52, 53, 54, and 60-61). Nature here is not merely a place of rest and solace, but a means of reaching divine reality. Matthew Arnold's "waiting for the spark from heaven" is very much in this tradition.
The Scholar-Gipsy does still occasionally communicate with people, but not verbally. The "Maidens" who "dance around the Fyfield elm in May" (ll. 82-83), for example, sometimes see him:
Oft thou hast given them store Of flowers--the frail-leaf'd, white anemony, Dark bluebells drench'd with dews of summer eves, And purple orchises with spotted leaves-But none hath words she can report of thee. (ll. 86-90)
Evoking these encounters inspires some of Arnold's finest poetry, subtly using every poetic device to create a rare fusion of sound, pace, image, and meaning: musical, incantatory, yet sharply precise. "Through the long dewy grass move slow away" and "Dark bluebells drench'd with dews of summer eves" are unforgettable. And the presence of "dew" in both lines is not coincidental.
"And Thou Hast Climb'd the Hill"
It is noticeable that Arnold places each episode of the poem precisely within a month or season, moving through spring, summer, and autumn. The climax of the poem, exactly half-way through, is set in mid-winter. It is the apex of the work formally, thematically, and topographically, bringing together the three protagonists: the narrator, the Scholar-Gipsy, and the university, in a crucial encounter which repays close attention:
And once, in winter, on the causeway chill Where home through flooded fields foot-travellers go, Have I not pass'd thee on the wooden bridge, Wrapt in thy cloak and battling with the snow, Thy face tow'rd Hinksey and its wintry ridge? And thou hast climb'd the hill, And gain'd the white brow of the Cumner range; Turn'd once to watch, while thick the snowflakes fall, The line of festal light in Christ-Church hall-Then sought thy straw in some sequester'd grange. (ll. 121-30)
The phrase "line of festal light" strongly suggests the great mid-winter festival of Christmas, and the name "Christ-Church" does nothing to contradict this association. The Scholar-Gipsy walks away, then, not only from warmth, good cheer, and humankind, but also from the celebration of the event that for Christians is "the spark from heaven": the birth of Christ (They of course would write "Heaven"; in this poem it is always a lower-case "heaven"). Christianity began in a pastoral setting, with a birth in a barn, attended by animals and shepherds; by the mid-nineteenth century, Arnold suggests, it was more at home in the grand Hall of one of the wealthiest Oxford colleges. It is the outsider, the Scholar-Gipsy, who is in touch with those natural, pastoral roots, and sleeps on straw in a "grange ." But at this crucial, climactic point in the poem, the ScholarGipsy is also confronting the university, of which Christ Church is an abiding symbol. He "turns" in order "to watch" the lights of the Great Hall through the snowstorm, and then moves on; is this a rejection of the university, or is he reassuring himself that it is still there, close to hand for when he is ready to "impart" his new knowledge? And the narrator witnesses this encounter. At first, he is unsure and interrogative as before: "Have I not pass'd thee... ? "' but when he comes to the climactic moments there is no uncertainty: We move from question to statement, the narrator's doubts finally vanquished by affirmation. He has achieved his "quest" and we hear no more about it in the poem. It is a great, moving moment, the high point of"The Scholar-Gipsy" in every sense. (4)
"This Strange Disease of Modern Life"
Up to this moment in the poem, the journeys of the two personae have been complementary: The Scholar-Gipsy roamed the countryside around Oxford waiting intently for "the spark from heaven," and the narrator roamed the same woods and hills in search of the Scholar-Gipsy. But after this great climax, the narrator understands that although the ScholarGipsy's journey will continue as before, his own is over. The contrast and the realisations that go with it are bitter: The Scholar-Gipsy fled human society "early... with powers fresh, undiverted to the world without" (ll. 161-62). He is free from "the sick fatigue, the languid doubt" (l. 165) that oppresses the narrator and others like him:
... we, Light half-believers of our casual creeds, Who never deeply felt, nor clearly will'd, Whose insight never has borne fruit in deeds. (ll. 171-74)
Knowledge without power, in other words. Most commentators have assumed that the "we" with whom the narrator identifies is humankind in general. But this reading cannot be sustained beyond the next stanza:
... we suffer! And amongst us one, Who most has suffer'd, takes dejectedly His seat upon the intellectual throne; And all his store of sad experience he Lays bare of wretched days. (ll. 182-86)
Given that the whole action of the poem takes place within sight of "Oxford's towers," and the weight of the phrase "intellectual throne," there is little doubt that the narrator's first-person plural refers to the scholarly community of the university. They are all afflicted with "this strange disease of modem life/With its sick hurry, its divided aims,/Its heads o'ertaxed, its palsied hearts" (ll. 203-05). (5) The narrator now understands the Scholar-Gipsy's reluctance to re-enter human society until he has perfected the "arts" to heal it: If he did, he too would become sick with "mental strife.., grow old at last, and die" (ll. 22230), and all hope of redemption would be lost with him.
The narrator urges the Scholar-Gipsy, "Fly hence, our contact fear!" (1. 206), underlining his message with the two similes which end the poem: Dido turning away from Aeneas in Hades (ll. 208-10), and the 'Tyrian trader" turning away from the Greeks (ll. 232-50). Wilson Knight points out the East/West conflict inherent in each of these figures of speech with great skill; but it is also worth noting how Arnold has modified the connotations of the word "gipsy" by the end of the poem. The traditional polarity between Western and Eastern ways of thought, which we saw early on, has, by the end of the poem, been reversed--the East being here a symbol of probity and hope; the West of decay and decline. In this respect, Arnold aligns himself with the nineteenth-century reappraisal of Romany culture which had begun in earnest with George Borrow's The Zincali (1841).
"The Letter Killeth" (6)
"The Scholar-Gipsy" is, I believe, a poem about knowledge. When Arnold uses the epithet, he has a very clear meaning in mind: not, as most commentators have supposed, a man who was once a scholar, who stopped being one in order to follow a "gipsy-crew." This interpretation can only be sustained by misreading or ignoring large parts of the poem. Arnold's creation is a scholar who leaves the university to roam the world with the gipsies, in order to learn their "strange arts" and then return to the society of men and share the radically new knowledge he has perfected. He never stops being a scholar, then. After his travels with the gipsies, he never wanders far from Oxford, keeping its towers in sight; what can we draw from this, if not an intention to publish, in the broadest sense, his perfected knowledge at the university, as a first step towards imparting it to the world?
Arnold's notion of a radically new knowledge which has the power to regenerate humankind is, as we have seen, an integral part of the high Romantic agenda which Wordsworth and Byron, in particular, spread across Europe and beyond in the nineteenth century, and which informed the sensibilities of so many artists, musicians, and writers. In this, Matthew Arnold is no exception. Wordsworth's proclamation of "Knowledge not purchas'd with the loss of power!" is very much the progenitor of the Scholar-Gipsy's "project" (l. 199), and, in this sense, the poem is as much about power as it is about knowledge: The aim is nothing less than the regeneration of mankind, as it was with Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, and Shelley at their most confident. "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world," Shelley wrote famously in 1821, and worked in the full confidence that his work could contribute to a social regeneration (Wroe 308-09, 324, 333).
What is new in Matthew Arnold's vision of knowledge, as it is expressed in "The Scholar-Gipsy," is the idea of the university, where this new knowledge can be disseminated and used for the benefit of mankind. Where the Romantic poets had relied on poetry alone to regenerate society, Arnold looks to poetry with scholarship, to the Scholar-Gipsy, with the university as the center from which this new knowledge will spread. This is Arnold's contribution to the Romantic debate about knowledge: His deep love of the city, university, and surrounding countryside of Oxford informs "The Scholar-Gipsy" on many levels. But his unflinching analysis of the "strange disease of modem life," that afflicts the scholarly community as much as other walks of life, leaves no room for sentimentality. His hope is that the university he loves can one day be the center and starting point for the regeneration of mankind that formed the backbone of Romantic aspirations.
"O Life Unlike to Ours!"
Where does this leave the modem scholar who reads the poem, the lover of ideas attracted, as so many are, by its very rifle? What are we to make of this text that conjures a perennial figure of hope and regeneration through scholarship, and then tells us that contact with us would kill him off, and all hope with him? I have argued here that the setting of the poem--the university of Oxford and its surrounding countryside--is as important in its way as the two main personae. And it is in the relative positioning of the two characters within this setting that the core of the poem's meaning resides, I believe. In the person of the Scholar-Gipsy, Arnold offers us an ideal of the scholar: acutely able, single-minded, in intimate touch with the creative processes and cycles of the living world, untainted by the compromises of social life and career, unwaveringly committed to the betterment of his species. And this Scholar-Gipsy's place, at least for the moment, is outside of the university: Contact with it, Arnold argues, would destroy him. Arnold's scholarly ideal is, he concludes, impossible to sustain in "modem" Oxford. The university is the center of gravity of the Scholar-Gipsy's orbiting, but until he has perfected the "arts" to regenerate it, he must avoid it.
In stark contrast to this ideal, in the person of the narrator, Arnold offers us the reality of the scholar's predicament as he sees it. The narrator seeks an ideal to guide his life, but the revelation of that ideal, in the poem's climax, brings with it the realization that it can never be attained by the narrator or his audience, born, as we are, already tainted with "this strange disease of modem life" (1.203), subject to the insidious "repeated shocks, again, again" that "exhaust the energy of strongest souls" (ll. 144-45). But he is desperate to keep the Scholar-Gipsy alive and flourishing: "our feverish contact fly!" (1. 221), he pleads, and urges him to "freshen" the "flowers" of his thought with the "dew" of nature's reality (ll. 218-19). The epiphany of the poem's climax reveals to him not only that he cannot wholly emulate the Scholar-Gipsy or follow him any more, but also that the thought of him, free and untainted, must be kept alive. This image--this Platonic ideal--directs his life: He has to accept and engage with reality as he finds it, but a part of his mind remains on the edge with the Scholar-Gipsy, providing a perspective and standard for all he does. This, I believe, is what Arnold wants us to take from this poem: a re-thinking of ourselves as scholars, and of our relations to the communities and institutions within which we work. We cannot but engage with them in order to function as scholars. The ScholarGipsy's complete freedom and autonomy are not an option for us. But they are an essential touchstone if our work is to retain its intrinsic significance and purpose, its "unconquerable hope" (l. 211), to use Arnold's phrase; I would use the word "integrity."
Anita Desai: Integrity and Disintegration
Anita Desai is one of those lovers of ideas who have wrestled with Arnold's poem and used it as a touchstone. Born in 1937 in Mussoorie, India, to a Bengali father and a German mother, brought up and educated in Delhi, Desai is quite literally an embodiment of the meeting of East and West. Although it is her third language, after Hindi and German, English "was always my literary language, my book language," she told Maya Jaggi in 1999: "I worked hard to bend the English language to bring in the sounds and tempo and rhythms of spoken languages around me, which are part of my world too. With English you can, it's so flexible and elastic" (Jaggi 3 and 6). But she is aware that the choice of English as her medium largely determines her subject-matter: "You're always having to select, to acknowledge your limits; you write only about those parts of life that have been affected by English" (Jaggi 6). In this crucial sense, then, the meeting points of East and West are always her subject.
Desai's considerable reputation rests chiefly on her novels, which have provoked extensive critical discussion. Her short stories, which have been relatively overlooked, merit closer attention (Sharrad et al. n. pag.). The story "Scholar and Gypsy" epitomizes many of her abiding themes and concerns. It was first published in Bombay and London in the 1978 collection Games at Twilight. English reviewers hailed the collection as "absolutely first-rate" (Lee 21). Ian Stewart noted Desai's "distilled clarity of writing" (120), while Victoria Glendinning asserted that "she writes an extraordinarily delicate, lucid English which puts many English writers to shame" (973). It was not just the prose that found favor, however, but the content too; "the volume's profound theme is the tension between convention and exploration," as Hermione Lee suggested (21).
All of this is in stark contrast to subsequent critical reaction published in India. Shiv K. Kumar criticized both Desai's "laboured prose" and her pretensions to profundity: "insipid details are invested with the dimensions of dramatic significance, and long involuted sentences are coaxed into suggesting psychic complexity" (204). Kumar even called into question the intellectual honesty of Desai's invocations of Arnold, writing of "'Scholar and Gypsy,' with its unmistakable overtones from Matthew Arnold's much anthologized poem 'The Scholar Gypsy' [sic] (coy plagiarism?)" (Kumar 205). Evelyn Damashek Varady, while admiring the immediacy and vividness of Desai's "street scenes and pastoral vistas" in "Scholar and Gypsy," criticizes the dialogue as "anachronistic" and unconvincing, and the attitudes that Desai ascribes to her heroine Pat as "outdated" (197-98). In the reading that follows, I will indicate my own position within this broad spectrum of critical response, and explore the thematic and structural parallels with Arnold's poem.
The last and, by far, the longest story in the collection, Desai's "Scholar and Gypsy" offers a critique of late twentieth-century Western scholarship and culture by oblique comparison with Arnold's nineteenth-century critique. On one level, this story of the disintegration of a marriage can be read, and its ironies savored, without any knowledge of Arnold; but the more deeply we know "The Scholar-Gipsy," the more subtle and devastating does Desai's "Scholar and Gypsy" become.
The story is set in India in the nineteen seventies, but the main characters are a young American couple. The other ten stories in Games at Twilight have just one protagonist; it is central to the meaning of "Scholar and Gypsy" that it has two. David is an ambitious university scholar, "charming and socially graceful" and "of Long Island upbringing" (130), while his wife Pat is a country girl from Vermont, who "only went to high school and stayed home after that," as she reminds him (113). David comes to India, with Pat in tow, so that he can complete his sociology thesis. In Bombay and Delhi, they go to parties given by intellectuals, and the young man is in his element: "David attracted people like a magnet--with his charm, his nonchalance, his grace" (109). But Pat is completely overwhelmed by the dizzying heat, by the poverty in the streets, and by the people at parties:
The guests all wore brilliant clothes and jewellery, and their eyes and teeth flashed with such primitive lust as they eyed her slim, white-sheathed blonde self, that the sensation of being caught up and crushed, crowded in and choked sent her into comers where their knees pushed into her, their hands slid over her back, their voices bored into her, so that when she got back to the hotel, on David's ann, she was more like a corpse than an American globe-trotter. (109)
When she tries to voice her feelings to David afterwards, about how "primitive" the people are, he is unreceptive. He wants "to share his views with her" (110), and is clearly unused to Pat airing hers! Desai's irony is finely pointed in this scene: David laments '"Here I was, disappointed at finding them so westernized. I would have liked them a bit more primitive--at least for the sake of my thesis" (110). Pat is suffering from the kind of culture shock very normal in people who leave their own environment for the first time, for a very different one. David, on the other hand, seems oblivious to the differences, "striding over the coconut shells and betel-stained papers and the fish scales and lepers' stumps" (108). With that shocking final phrase, Desai shows us that David's initial ability to cope is based on an inability to perceive and respond to any feelings or needs beyond his own. His "nonchalance" begins to seem a less appealing trait; Desai uses every connotation of her words with skill and precision, building a profound cumulative effect beneath the irony and humor.
Before they came to India, Pat had had little by way of feelings or opinions to express. This, one suspects, together with her "fragility" (130), good looks, and diffidence, constituted her chief attraction for David. Here she is different, and so are his feelings for her:
"But you can't let climate get you down, dear," David said softly, in order to express tenderness that he hardly felt any longer, seeing her suffer so unbeautifully, her feet dusty, her hair stringy, her face thin and appalled.... He had never imagined she could be a burden--not the companion and fellow gypsy she had so fairly promised to be. (112)
David's affection is superficial, then, based on her looks and readiness to follow his lead and enhance his image of himself as scholar-gypsy. His terms of endearment for her--"dear" and "my girl" (116)--are those of a father or elderly mentor rather than a young lover. (7) As soon as she no longer flatters his vanity, his tenderness evaporates. But
Pat's affection is no more substantial, based more on a lack of any alternative life-plan of her own than any particular feelings for David. On both sides, the experience of India reveals the inadequacy of the relationship and the motives that brought them together: The bond between scholar and gypsy begins to fall apart on first contact with the East.
In a detailed analysis of Desai's fiction, Sunaima Singh argues that her typical female character has her "whole being ... wrapped up tightly by the expectations of others," while her "male protagonists" are "indifferent and unconcerned about their wives' sentiments and desires" (75, 124). Usha Pathania asserts that Desai examines the universal tragedy of "temperamental incompatibility" (22). (8) between men and women. Pat and David illustrate the truth of these diagnoses: They may be American, but their relationship is essentially no different from those of the Indian couples Desai portrays in her novels. (9) This, I believe, is a crucial point: Her portrayal of human relationships transcends racial stereotypes, just as her choice of character avoids the obvious; she is "repeatedly drawn to 'failures and wrecks' as characters," Jaggi notes (4). As we will see, Pat and David illustrate the aptness of this statement too.
The emotional gulf between them is thrown into stark relief in a scene portraying yet another party, at the house of Sharma, a "Delhi intellectual" (114). Here, Desai's flair for combining ironic, mocking wit with deeply serious implications is at its most acute. There are the usual types present, including "the inevitable longhaired intellectual--either journalist or professor--who sat crosslegged on the floor and held forth, abusively, on the crassness of the Americans, to David's delight and Pat's embarrassment" (114). But they also meet Sharma's wife, a "new type" for Pat, "a genuine social worker, trained," rather than a sociologist intellectual of the type David cultivates. The next day she takes Pat to see some of the children she works with. Afterwards,
She [Pat] thought of the way the child at the hospital had smiled after the doctor had finished painting her burns with gentian violet and given her a plastic doll. It had been a cheap, cracked pink plastic doll and the child had smiled at it through the gentian violet, its smile stamped in, or cut out, in that face still taut with pain, as by a machine. Pat had known that face would always be in pain, and the smile would always be cut out as by the machine of charity, mechanically. (115)
The memory of the pink, caucasian doll given to a suffering Indian child conveys the inadequacy and insensitivity of "the machine of charity" to Pat's, and the reader's mind, with a force that makes it difficult to erase. Her feelings for her husband may be superficial, but there is no doubting Pat's capacity for deep feeling. Significantly, David and his intellectual friends are not present at the hospital.
"And Thou Hast Climb'd the Hill"
When Pat returns from the hospital visit deeply shocked, David panics to see that her eyes, once "so blue," are fading. '"We'd better go to the hills for a while,' he said: he did not want murder on his hands" (115). They take a gruelling three-hundred-mile journey by bus through a sandstorm. And as they climb into the hills, battling with the sand that "buried passengers and seats" (115), the roles are abruptly reversed. Pat is revived by the cooler climate of Manali, the apple trees and cattle remind her of home. Suddenly, she is in her element, and it is David who flounders, terrified by the precipitous roads and tom from his accustomed urban-intellectual environment. There is worse to come:
'Jesus,' David said in alarm, 'the place is full of hippies.' Pat looked at the faces they passed then and saw that the crowd outside the baker's was indeed one of fair men and women, even if they seemed to be beggars. Some were dressed like Indian gurus, in loincloths or saffron robes, with beads around their necks, others as gypsies in pantaloons or spangled skirts, some in plain rags and tatters.... 'Why,' she said, watching one woman with a child approach an Indian couple with her empty hand outstretched, 'they might be Americans!' David shuddered. (118-19)
This is too much for David. He delights in "long-haired intellectuals" criticizing his country: This is his notion of how intellectuals should behave, and of course it threatens nothing. But to see his countrymen and women rejecting the Western way of life (whose values David never questions) and begging from third-world people is deeply distasteful to him; still more disturbing is the notion that Americans might have something to learn from Indian people and their culture.
And this is precisely the direction in which Pat's new zest for life in India is taking her. While David, with no intellectual company worthy of his attention in Manali, stays indoors and works on the thesis that "had begun to seem totally irrelevant" (129), Pat explores the woods and temples around the small town and begins to feel, like the hippies, that she can find something of fundamental value here. When she tries to explain her change of heart to David,he "clicked his tongue like an impatient pedagogue" (128), and would not listen to her plans for them both to join a hippy commune:
'I met some folks who live in a commune.., and I had coffee with some of them--' 'Sure it was coffee?' he snarled and, turning his back, hurled himself at the typewriter with such frenzy that she could not make herself heard .... What she had planned to say to him was put away, like an unsuccessful gift. (132-33)
David has steadfastly refused to take the slightest notice of his new surroundings in India. In the end, they force themselves upon his attention, in the form of an aging bus radiator which explodes in his face and temporarily blinds him. Indians rush to help him, "blinded, scalded, being dragged through the streets by strangers, madmen, all laying to carry him, all babbling as at a universal holocaust" (134). He awakens to the sound of"a blessedly American voice.... He was the American mission hospital doctor but to David he was God himself on an inspection visit mercifully timed to coincide with David's accident" (134-35). But if we are thinking of Saul's temporary blindness on the road to Damascus and are expecting a great epiphany, we are in for a disappointment: David leaves the hospital with his handsome face covered in gentian violet for the bums, like the child Pat had seen in the Delhi hospital, but otherwise, again like the child, nothing fundamental has changed. The truth of this is borne out by his subsequent, and final, exchange with Pat back at the boarding house. David is angry and abusive,
but she continued calmly that she was sure to find, in the end, something that could not be found on the cocktail rounds of Delhi, Bombay or even, for that matter, Long Island, but that she was positive existed here, in the forest, on the mountains. 'What cocktail rounds? Are you trying to imply I'm a social gadabout, not a serious student of sociology, working on a thesis on which my entire career is based?' 'Working on a thesis?' she screeched derisively. 'Sociology? The idea of you, Dave, when you've never so much as looked, I mean really looked, into the soul, the prana, of the next man--is just too,--' she spluttered to a stop. (137)
Pat cannot express herself in the way that David can, but there is little doubt where the author's sympathies he in this denouement. Pat strides off to her commune in search of Nirvana, "bag and prayer beads in hand" (138). David, like Mark Antony before him, is abandoned by his woman; but this modern lover is not about to fall on his sword: "If the truth were to be told, he felt greater regret at having to arrive in Delhi with a face like a painted baboon's than to arrive without his wife" (138).
Scholar-Gipsy or Scholar and Gypsy?
The European and American hippies who flocked to India in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s were a manifestation of a much larger counterculture, evolved by a younger generation of Westerners who rejected the mores and values of their elders, and sought alternatives. I have argued elsewhere that this search involved a reappraisal of other cultures, particularly those of India and Africa, which their European and American elders had patronised and belittled for centuries as part of a colonial, supremacist mindset (Cook 140-42). I argued in the same chapter that the counterculture was in many ways a rediscovery of the great search for alternative values of the Romantic movement. With these two points in mind, I would suggest that Anita Desai's choice of time, place, and character for her fictional exploration of the resonance of Matthew Amold's poem, its ideas, and values, for the late twentieth century, is uncannily apposite. I will now explore the main features of this resonance between poem and story.
Consciously or unconsciously, Anita Desai echoes precisely the journey made by Arnold's two human protagonists: the Scholar-Gipsy and the narrator. David, who likes to think of himself as a Scholar-Gipsy figure, journeys to India in search of material for the thesis that will launch his career, with Pat, whom he likes to think of as a "fellow gypsy," in his wake (112). Both narratives begin in the heat of summer, and in each case the two travelers climb to higher ground and a colder climate, where crucial discoveries are made, and after which the two cease to travel together. This parallel framework allows us, perhaps invites us, to make direct comparisons: Where Arnold's Scholar-Gipsy's aim is the regeneration of humanity, with the university as its center, David's is the furtherance of his university career; where one needs nature, solitude, and "retired ground" (1.70), the other craves the city, society, and parties; where one is single-minded in pursuit of his one great aim, the other doubts the relevance of his work even as he does it. And where the Scholar-Gipsy becomes a disciple of the "gipsy tribe" and devotes himself to learning their "strange arts" (1. 135), David refuses to take in his Indian surroundings, relying steadfastly on traditional American values.
The more closely we read "Scholar and Gypsy," the more clearly we see how wide of the mark Kumar's suggestion of"coy plagiarism" is. At every stage, Desai's story reminds us of the scholarly ideals of Arnold's poem (without any intention of claiming them as her own), only to underline how far, and how ludicrously, David falls short of them. And at the climax of the story, his and Pat's change of roles is not simply a matter of mood: It is she who, like the Scholar-Gipsy, recognizes that she has something to learn from the East, and is prepared to leave her previous life in pursuit of more satisfying values. She, not David, inherits the Romantic quest for new understanding: the "Nirvana" she seeks is comparable to the Scholar-Gipsy's "spark from heaven." It is she who experiences some form of epiphany in the cool hills of Manali; David learns nothing there. He, like Arnold's narrator, returns to the bustle and futility of "modem life" (1. 203). Hermione Lee's suggestion that Desal's "profound theme is the tension between convention and exploration" has clear relevance here. And while Desai gleefully points out the contradictions and inconsistencies of the Western hippies, they do in the end seem infinitely preferable to David, whose complete confidence in his own, and his country's, rightness are shown to be founded on the shallowest of illusions. He is the epitome of Arnold's modern scholars:
Light half-believers of our casual creeds, Who never deeply felt, nor clearly will'd, Whose insight never has borne fruit in deeds, Whose vague resolves never have been fulfill'd. (ll. 172-75)
If Matthew Arnold's "The Scholar-Gipsy" is all about integrity, Anita Desai's "Scholar and Gypsy" is all about the lack of it. The rifles of both works contain the seeds of their central meaning. By fusing the two concepts of "Scholar" and "Gipsy," and their connotations, into an epithet, Arnold prefigures the poem's plea for scholarly integrity. By using the words "Scholar" and "Gypsy" in her title, Desai gently nudges readers who know Arnold's poem; but by keeping the words separate, when we are expecting them yoked together, she prefigures the disintegration of the relationship between Pat and David, and of the qualities and values that the two words represent. Desai's modern tragi-comedy seems worlds away from the Romantic idealism of the nineteenth century and its poets. But a story about disintegration and the lack of integrity can still embody a passionate plea for integrity. I believe that Desai's story does embody such a plea, no less than Arnold's poem.
Arnold, Matthew. Arnold: Poetical Works. Eds. C. B. Tinker and H. F. Lowry. London: Oxford UP, 1969.
Borrow, George. The Zincali: An Account of the Gypsies of Spain. Teddington: Echo Library, 2006.
Coleridge, Ernest Hartley, ed. Coleridge: Poetical Works. London: Oxford UP, 1967.
Cook, Peter. "Go Ask Alice: The Image of the Child in the Sixties Counterculture." Eds. Jennifer Harding and Pat Pinsent. What Do You See? International Perspectives on Children's Book Illustration. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2008. 140-48.
Desai, Anita. Games at Twilight and Other Stories. London: William Heinemann, 1978/Bombay: Allied Publishers, 1978. Page references are to the Vintage reprint, London, 1998.
Glendinning, Victoria. "Mood Indigo." Times Literary Supplement (September 1, 1978): 973.
Holmes, Richard. Shelley--The Pursuit. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974.
Jaggi, Maya. "A Passage from India." The Guardian (June 19, 1999). <http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/1999/jun/19/books.guardianreview11>.
Kumar, Shiv K. "Desai's Games at Twilight:. A View." Ed. Ramesh K. Srivastava. Perspectives on Anita Desai. Ghaziabad: Vimal Prakashan 1984. 203-07.
Leavis, Frank Raymond. The Common Pursuit. London: Chatto and Windus, 1952.
Lee, Hermione. "Philosophical Guerrillas." The Observer (August 13, 1978): 21.
Machann, Clinton. Matthew Arnold: A Literary Life. NY: St. Martin's P, 1998.
Pathania, Usha. Human Bonds and Bondages: The Fiction of Anita Desai and Kamala Markandaya. Delhi: Kanishka Publishing House, 1992.
Rampton, David. "Back to the Future: Lionel Trilling, 'The Scholar-Gipsy,' and the State of Victorian Poetry." Victorian Poetry 45.1 (Spring 2007): 1-15.
Riede, David G. Matthew Arnold and the Betrayal of Language. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1988.
Roper, Alan. Arnold's Poetic Landscapes. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1969.
Shakespeare, William. Antony and Cleopatra. Ed. Richard Madelaine. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.
Sharrad, Paul et al.. Bibliography of Criticism of Indian Literature in English (19701990). <http://www.uow.edu.au/content/groups/public/@web/@arts/ documents/doc/uow019498.pdf>
Singh, Sunaina. The Novels of Margaret Atwood and Anita Desai: A Comparative Study in Feminist Perspectives. New Delhi: Creative Books, 1994.
Stewart, Ian. "Recent Fiction." Illustrated London News (October 1978): 120.
Travers, Martin. European Literature from Romanticism to Postmodernism: A Reader in Aesthetic Practice. London and NY: Continuum, 2001.
Trilling, Lionel. The Opposing Self." Nine Essays in Criticism. NY: Viking P, 1955.
Varady, Evelyn Damashek. "The West Views Anita Desai: American and British Criticism of Games at Twilight and Other Stories." Ed. Ramesh K. Srivastava. Perspectives on Anita Desai. Ghaziabad: Vimal Prakashan, 1984. 194-202.
Vaughan Williams, Ralph. An Oxford Elegy. John Westbrook (speaker), Jacques Orchestra, Choir of King's College Cambridge, cond. Sir David Willcocks. EMI CD No. 7243 5 67221 2 5, 1999.
Wilson Knight, G. "The Wilson Scholar-Gipsy: An Interpretation." Review of English Studies 6.21 (January 1955): 53-62.
Wordsworth, William. The Prelude, or Growth of a Poet's Mind (Text of 1805). Ed. Ernest de Selincourt. London: Oxford UP, 1969.
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* I am most grateful to the editors of this issue of Alif Ferial Ghazoul and Robert Switzer for their help and advice.
(1) Arnold chooses the spelling "gipsy," while Desai opts for the more current "gypsy"; I have followed the author's spelling in each case.
(2) Arnold, "The Scholar-Gipsy," ll. 32-40. Subsequent quotations are identi fied by line references in parentheses. All quotations are from Tinker and Lowry, 255-62.
(3) The phrase "no more" recurs yet again in 1.81.
(4) The composer Vaughan Williams recognizes the climactic nature of these words in his Oxford Elegy, a setting of words from "The Scholar-Gipsy" and its companion poem "Thyrsis," and sets this passage to powerful, dramatic music. See Vaughan Williams, track 8.
(5) Arnold's sense of the corrosive nature of"modem life" is echoed across nine teenth-century art and literature. George Sand, for example, in the Preface to her novel Indiana (1832), writes that "the powers of the soul exhaust themselves in the bitter struggle with the realities of life" (qtd. in Travers 98).
(6) "Not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life," Corinthians 2, Chapter 3, Verse 6.
(7) Varady suggests that Desai's dialogue is "out of place" in the mouths of modem young Americans "raised in a society where bikinis and Playboy pin-ups are as common as Coca Cola" (198). But I feel that this criticism misses the point: It is precisely through this choice of vocabulary and phraseology that Desai offers us insight into Pat's and David's marriage. Neither David, with his Long Island pretensions to sophistication and old-world charm, nor Pat, with her sheltered, conformist upbringing, would have confessed to any interest in Playboy pin-ups! Their fragile, doomed relationship is aeons away from Varady's stereotype of the raunchy, broad-minded American couple.
(8) Pathania's second chapter, "Dissonance and Despair" (11-53), is a search ing study of the theme.
(9) The parallels between Indian and American family lives are explored more fully in the novel Fasting, Feasting (London: Chatto and Windus, 1999).
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|Publication:||Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2009|
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