Thinking modernist ethics with animals in a Passage to India.
In the present essay I will expand upon the argument I made in Modernism and Theory, with its explicit linking of modernism--avant-garde formal experiment--with critique. The expansion will link this nexus to a fundamental concern with ethics. To begin with, I read modernisms obsession with innovation as itself issuing from and articulating an ethical imperative: "make it new" is the battle cry of critique. (1) It declares that what is is not good enough, and that it must be renovated--remade--improved. It is the modernist answer to Marx's demand for a "ruthless criticism of everything existing" ( 1978, 13). Though there is no doubt that the modernists' perception of the status quo was radically biased, and that their motivation was neither pure nor objective, their call for a radical break with the immediate past in the name of an improved future epitomizes ethical critique. (2)
The force of that critique found expression in any number of proclamations, manifestoes, critical analyses, directives, do's and don'ts, political commentaries, economic analyses, and broadcasts. Most powerfully, it found expression in a furor of aesthetic innovation that is perhaps unequaled in the history of literature. Driven by their sense that the aesthetics of the previous century were intimately tied to, and most clearly articulated, values with which they had grown impatient, modernist writers such as Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson, E. M. Forster, and Samuel Beckett--to name just a few--acted on their sense that the hegemony of realism and naturalism wasn't doing justice to expression, experience, reality, humanity.
As I have mentioned, though, that critique was far from purely negative. In the same spirit in which Marx undertook his critique, the modernists undertook their critique most effectively by offering up alternatives. These alternatives manifest aesthetically in the advent of stream of consciousness, unreliable narrators, open-ended narratives--the usual list of modernist formal innovations--along with the introduction of previously off-limits topics. Among the chief effects produced by these innovations was a heightened awareness of epistemological and ontological uncertainty. Traditionally, ethics had relied upon the possibility that the subject was consistent and integrated and that he or she could know with relative certainty enough about a given situation to act rightly. The new aesthetics of modernism assumed instead that the self was fundamentally fragmented--or fragmenting--and that knowledge was often, if not always, fatally limited.
Far from seeing these limitations as inherently problematic, however, modernist experiment took them as presenting possibilities: the fragmented subject lent itself to explorations of a fragmentary sensorium, varying perspectives, personae, and the higher complexities of self-knowledge. Radical limitations on knowledge presented not so much barriers to be overcome in a striving for mastery as a sense that what lies beyond the knowledge of what is known must be honored and known--if known at all--only on its own terms.
As Emmanuel Levinas argues in "Ethics as First Philosophy" ( 1989), there is an inherent tension in any approach to the other: seeking to know the other risks "grasping" him or her (or it) and reducing alterity to sameness; preserving alterity in its absoluteness risks reducing it to the unrelatable, depriving it of its claim to ethical treatment. At issue is how we make the radically different recognizable to existing knowledge frameworks without depriving it of what makes it different. Dealing with similarity is easy; our epistemological frameworks readily accommodate the self-same. But how do we engage with those aspects of alterity that are essentially other, radically alien, perhaps fundamentally inimical to existing epistemological frameworks? How do we preserve them as other, using "other" only as a placeholder for their inassimilable character, (3) as a marker of the not-all that is at once in excess of the frameworks and yet integral to their coherence? It is tricky business, business that consistently risks collapsing the other into the same and/or alienating it to such an extent that it loses its ethical claim and becomes mere matter to be shaped, deformed, or disposed of without regret.
In The Animal That Therefore I Am, Jacques Derrida set the pursuit of this set of questions on the track of the feline. Starting with his own cat, staring at the naked Derrida just out of the shower, Derrida posed key questions about how one is to think the human/animal binary, what it would mean to try, and what ethical stakes are indicated in the effort. Derrida insists that he is talking about a specific cat and not a figure for catness or a vehicle for some other set of meanings or operations: "I must immediately make it clear, the cat I am talking about is a real cat, truly, believe me, a little cat. It isn't the figure of a cat. It doesn't silently enter the bedroom as an allegory for all the cats on the earth, the felines that traverse our myths and religions, literature and fables" (2008, 6). His excessive protestations--it's a real cat, truly, believe me!--wave a giant red flag warning us off just the naive reading he seems to solicit and raising the much more profound issue of such protestations themselves as marks of the distinction between the animal and the human. The insistence on what cannot be, on being taken seriously, on the truth (which is always already a lie), on closing the gap between the sign and the referent, and the signifier and the signified; the fundamental disavowal of the constructedness of the episteme in the very midst of its reassertion as metaphysical truth--as hors-texte--is his text. The performance is startling. It is out of character, contrary to what he's spent forty years teaching us, and attempts to drive a truck through the hole of our sentimentality. Even the formulation itself tips us off: "a little cat." The "a" here, though an article, is an indefinite article that automatically generalizes from the cat in question. (4) Had Derrida written "this little cat" instead, it might have been just a bit more convincing. But he did not.
What is more, the "figure" of the cat evokes for English readers coming to the text in translation, metaphor, rhetoric, figurative language--as it does as well for French readers. In French, however, figure also means face, a quality we've been taught to attend to by Levinas, who ascribes it solely to the human (as Derrida points out as well). (5) C'est pas la figure d'un chat could equally well be translated: It's not the face of a cat, where "face" is understood not as the arrangement of nose, eyes, mouth, whiskers on the front of a feline's head, but the locus of alterity from which the ethical appeal emerges. As Derrida soon after says, "An animal looks at me." "Un animal me regard." "An animal regards me" (2008, 6).The cat regards Derrida, naked and no doubt a bit shivery by now. It looks at him, examines him, but also esteems him, concerns him, pertains to him, solicits from him a response. It concerns him, makes him respons-ible, liable to respond. It is, in its otherness, a little cat, a real cat, truly, believe me--except that of course it is none of these things. What would it even mean for it to be a "real" cat? What is the precise nature of the epistemological claim condensed into "truly"? And what do we do with the plea that we "believe" Derrida when he has just told us that what he says is fact, and thus not a matter of belief at all? The cat is, and will become for the remainder of Derrida's book, something to think with, as Claude Levi-Strauss, one of Derrida's most powerful influences, famously remarked of animals more generally (1963, 89).
And yet, as Glenn Willmott has put it, "the cat does matter" (2010, 840). And if recent criticism is any indicator, it matters especially for modernism. Willmott writes that "modernist writing characteristically makes of the animal an abstract synecdoche for the plenum of asocial, feral Nature that is the transcendental signifier of biocentric writing." Likewise, Carrie Rohman notes that modernist narrative charts "a crisis in humanism vis-a-vis the animal," where "the animal represents the human subject's internal resistance to rationality and symbolic law" (2008, 21, 71). Philip Armstrong pushes this further, claiming that "modernism offered primal engagements between humans and savage beasts--the jungle, the hunt, the tooth-and-nail contest--or else it showed the perversion of these vital, primitive relationships into acts of degraded cruelty towards animals in domestic settings" (2008, 134). In doing so, it privileged the primitive over the civilized: "modernist writers and artists did not seek to eliminate the received dichotomy between civilization and primitivism; rather they embraced it, but by reversing its values" (143). I want to try to balance some of the tensions in these statements by attending closely to a key modernist novel's handling of animals in navigating its ethics.
A Passage to India is absolutely teeming with wildlife. Over fifty types of animals are named, and their presence frames every significant episode in the novel. They fall roughly into three categories: real, imagined or hypothesized, and purely figurative. With a few important exceptions--the wasp, horses, elephants--they are background only. My thesis turns around this pervasiveness and its relationship to the novel's engagement with justice and ethics. I want to examine two key episodes in which animals are linked to what Levinas calls nonintentional consciousness, alterity, affect, and ethics. (6) The first episode turns around a little green bird that is actually there and seen by both Ronny and Adela. The second concerns a hyena that Adela alone may see, but may not exist at all. (7) In both cases, Forster challenges epistemological complacency, introduces several representational/interpretive possibilities, denies their capacity--both singly and together--to capture the singularity of the event, and holds open a space for an ethical otherwise. Forster's rejection of any interpretive move that would explain the entire situation constitutes a powerful critique of epistemological positivism, and his insistence that there remains always the possibility of a better explanation than those we have, though none will ever be total, decisive, or complete, articulates the novel's ethical dimension.
Forster puts a bird on it
The first example conies when Adela breaks off her "understanding" with Ronny. Having spoken without thinking while visiting Fielding, Aziz, and some other Indians, Adela has just discovered that she has already made up her mind not to marry Ronny: "Miss Quested was thinking over her own behaviour, and didn't like it at all. Instead of weighing Ronny and herself, and coming to a reasoned conclusion about marriage, she had incidentally, in the course of a talk about mangoes, remarked to mixed company that she didn't mean to stop in India. Which meant that she wouldn't marry Ronny; but what a way to announce it, what a way for a civilized girl to behave!" (Forster  2005, 76). (8) Forster sets up an opposition between knowledge and being here with remarkable clarity. Adela's dedication to a reasoned assessment of whether to marry Ronny or not is circumvented by her unconscious decision against doing so. Without having grasped her situation firmly as a civilized girl would have done, she finds that she has intuitively arrived at a conclusion. When her nonintentional consciousness speaks her determination without even consulting her, Adela discovers an alterity within, a difference of herself from herself--something unconscious, perhaps instinctive, has taken her in hand. Only when she speaks--or is spoken--does she discover what she feels and race to catch up.
Ronny is still in the starting blocks. When Adela tells Ronny that they "must have a thorough talk," so she can inform him of her decision not to marry him, Ronny utterly fails to hear the import of her words:
[Ronny:] "My temper's rotten, I must apologize, ... the way those Bengalis let you down this morning annoyed me, and I don't want that sort of thing to keep happening."
[Adela:] "It's nothing to do with them that I ..."
[Ronny:] "No, but Aziz would make some similar muddle over the caves. He meant nothing by the invitation, I could tell by his voice; it's just their way of being pleasant." (PI 76) (9)
Ronny's claim to know what would happen, based on his supposed knowledge of Indian vocal patterns, helps create precisely the sort of confusion he attributes to Indian doublespeak. He claims that Indians do not mean what they say, having just failed to understand what Adela means by her own words. At the same moment that he claims to be able to "tell by his voice" that Aziz was not serious, he remains oblivious to both the tone and the content of Adela's voice.
When she resumes speaking, Adela cuts to the chase, trying to articulate an affective state that does not readily lend itself to neutral pragmatic expression. Ronny, on the other hand, is determined to be officious and legalistic, utterly missing the human--dare I say animal?--dimensions of the situation. "'I've finally decided we are not going to be married, my dear boy.' The news hurt Ronny very much." Ronny has a heart! He does care for Adela and is crushed that she won't have him! How unexpectedly grand! But wait--not so fast. Read on: "He had heard Aziz announce that she would not return to the country, but had paid no attention to the remark, for he never dreamt that an Indian could be a channel of communication between two English people" (77). Ronny is not brokenhearted over Adelas rejection at all. He is just hurt that an Indian knew before he did, and that an Indian communicated the news to him.
Cue the return of officious Ronny: "He controlled himself and said gently, 'You never said we should marry, my dear girl; you never bound either yourself or me--don't let this upset you.'" Adela's attempt to play up only meets with official politeness and correct behavior: '"I only want everything to be absolutely clear between us, and to answer any questions you care to put to me on my conduct.' 'But I haven't got any questions. You've acted within your rights.'" (77). Opting for the legal over the personal, Ronny nevertheless neglects the just here--as he does throughout--in a manner consistent with Forster's understanding of British colonial administration: "'We've been awfully British over it, but I suppose that's all right.' 'As we are British, I suppose it is'" (78). Being "awfully British" sounds very much like the sort of dissembling of which Ronny accuses Aziz: saying one thing and meaning quite another. Adhering to the polite legal and civil formulae of engaging and disengaging to be married, Ronny and Adela manage to say everything about the public, legal standing of their relationship without approaching the emotional, psychological, affective ferment beneath it. Put another way, they defer to the "civilized" protocols of the highest human conduct, implicitly understood as distinct from the animal in every way.
Enter the bird. "A little green bird was observing [Adela], so brilliant and neat that it might have hopped straight out of a shop. On catching her eye it closed its own, gave a small skip and prepared to go to bed. Some Indian wild bird" (78). Just as Ronny and Adela appear to have decided to be rational, pragmatic, reasonable, about their separation--just as they've decided to ignore or repress the animal, the affective, the inarticulate--Forster reintroduces them in the figure of this little green bird. The bird appears both to understand Adela and to evade communion with her: it watches her until she catches its eye, then closes it.
The species difference thus introduced finds immediate repetition in the racialized language of the ensuing paragraph: "Experiences, not character, divided them; they were not dissimilar, as humans go; indeed, when compared with the people who stood nearest to them in point of space they became practically identical. The Bhil who was holding an officer's polo pony, the Eurasian who drove the Nawab Bahadur's car, the Nawab Bahadur himself, the Nawab Bahadur's debauched grandson." To contemporary ears, the language here is shocking. Ronny and Adela are not dissimilar as humans go, compared to the people who stand nearest to them in point of space (as opposed to what? evolutionary time? species?). The Bhil, the Eurasian, the Nawab Bahadur, the Nawab Bahadur's grandson are all placed outside the category of "human" strictly on the basis of epistemological regimes and susceptibility to emotion: "none [of them] would have examined a difficulty so frankly and coolly" (78).
The triumph of knowledge over species, racial, and affective difficulty is almost immediately undercut, though, by the little green bird:
"Do you know what the name of that green bird up above us is?" she asked, putting her shoulder rather nearer to his.
"Oh, no, Ronny, it has red bars on its wings."
"Parrot," he hazarded.
"Good gracious, no."
The bird in question dived into the dome of the tree. It was of no importance, yet they would have liked to identify it, it would somehow have solaced their hearts. But nothing in India is identifiable, the mere asking of a question causes it to disappear or to merge in something else.
"McBryde has an illustrated bird-book," he said dejectedly. "I'm no good at all at birds, in fact I'm useless at any information outside my own job. It's a great pity."
"So am I. I'm useless at everything." (78-79)
The taxonomizing, cataloging, grasping power of knowledge fails utterly here. Ronny and Adela seem to know that the bird is a bird. Beyond that, they have no idea at all. Each guess only reveals the extent of Ronny's ignorance more fully, undermining the alignment of knowledge with officialdom, Britishness, and masculinity upon which the empire itself rests. The bird remains unidentified, or, rather, its correct identification by Ronny (it is almost certainly a bee-eater) goes unratified, demonstrating both the capacity of the animal other to elude the imperial knowledge regime, and of that regime's failure to know even when it is right: the episode concludes with the stamp of a double not-all.
Enter the hyena
This indeterminacy bleeds into the ensuing action, as Ronny and Adela's freshly clarified status is almost instantly complicated again. Overhearing Ronny and Adela's conversation, the Nawab Bahadur garrulously approaches the couple and insists on taking them for a ride in his car. Not wanting to let on that there is anything amiss, Ronny and Adela agree. Along the road, a bump brings Adela and Ronny's hands together, and the animal again appears on the scene, this time as a return of the repressed: the touch is "one of the thrills so frequent in the animal kingdom.... Each was too proud to increase the pressure, but neither withdrew it" (PI 93). At just that moment, the car crashes: "They gripped ... bump, jump, a swerve, two wheels lifted in the air, brakes on, bump with tree at edge of embankment, standstill" (94). The syntax here mimics the experience of the accident, sacrificing grammar for immediacy of rendering, and concretizing the upheaval their animal attraction seems to threaten to the rational conclusion they have reached. Likewise, it literally clinches their new connection, as they grip hands and only let go after they have gotten out of the car.
In the aftermath, everyone almost immediately falls back into character: Ronny is the caretaking English official, Adela is the plucky English girl, and the Nawab Bahadur is the hysterical Indian:
"Frightened, Adela?" [Ronny] released her hand.
"Not a bit."
"I consider not to be frightened the height of folly," cried the Nawab Bahadur quite rudely.
"Well, it's all over now, tears are useless," said Ronny, dismounting. "We had some luck butting that tree."
"All over ... oh yes, the danger is past, let us smoke cigarettes, let us do anything we please. O yes ... enjoy ourselves--oh my merciful God ..." His words died into Arabic again. (94)
The Nawab Bahadur's fractured syntax and loquacity are at odds with Ronny and Adela's terseness; their phrases are rendered as sentences, marked with periods, while his are separated by ellipses, suggesting incomplete thoughts, discontinuity, and internal fragmentation. Ronny and Adela's telegraphic utterances by contrast suggest fortitude and decisiveness, an ethic of action that wastes no words versus the Nawab Bahadur's blubbering.
Adela, who alone saw the cause of the crash, informs the others: "We ran into an animal." This revelation prompts the Nawab Bahadur to cry out in "disproportionate and ridiculous" terror. Ignoring him, or taking his hysterics as normal in an Indian, Adela speculates about what kind of animal it was. First, she says it was large and certainly "too big for a goat" (94). Then, after inconclusively trying to find its tracks in the dusty road, she declares, "it was a buffalo.... Unless it was a hyena." Ronny pounces on this last suggestion, ratifying it as the truth on the basis of some rather slim knowledge of hyenas: "Hyenas prowl in nullahs and headlights dazzle them" (95). There are several things wrong with this conclusion: a) Ronny admittedly knows nothing about the local fauna, as the previous discussion of the little green bird shows; b) just because hyenas prowl in nullahs doesn't mean buffalo don't (and in fact if there were water in the nullah then a buffalo is more likely than a hyena); c) whatever it is hit the car, not vice versa, so the point about lights dazzling hyenas is irrelevant; and d) it depends upon a hyena of such strength and moving at such a velocity that it could strike a moving car with enough force to knock it off the road. The decision that it was a hyena rather than a buffalo--or indeed any of the fifty other types of animals named in the novel--that causes the accident is simply preposterous. It is utterly without basis, and produces an explanation that stretches credulity to breaking point. So why is it so decisively and quickly settled upon?
The answer lies in the specificity of the hyena, this hyena, this little cat--or at least this class of relatively small great cat. (10) To illuminate this part of my argument, we must turn away from the novel briefly, and consider hyenas. I contend that Forster both introduces the hyena here and has its unlikely role in the accident insisted upon by Ronny because of the hyena's powerful symbolic associations, particularly in India.
There are four different types of hyena: striped, brown, spotted, and aardwolf. The striped hyena is the most common in India, though it is possible that spotted hyenas once roamed there too. One of the chief difficulties regarding hyenas is that until very recently few naturalists distinguished between spotted and striped hyenas. Spotted hyenas are the ones we all think of: they live primarily in Africa, "laugh" as their call, and roam the Serengeti plains of Tanzania. Striped hyenas do not have the telltale laughing cry, and are more common in India and West Asia. However, because spotted hyenas may have roamed in the same areas, and because neither myth nor science distinguished between the two, they are often blurred together. We are concerned here with the striped hyena that roamed in much of India until the 1930s, when it was hunted and crowded out. The key characteristics of interest in the present context have to do with hyenas' sexuality and gendered behavior. First, hyena clans are organized matriarchally, and the females are sexually dominant: males cautiously approach females to mate and must position themselves submissively beneath the female to copulate successfully. This is because of the female spotted hyenas unique genitalia, which is almost exactly the same in appearance as that of the male. Joan Roughgarden describes them:
The females have a phallus 90 percent as long and the same diameter as a male penis.... The labia are fused to form a scrotum containing fat and connective tissue resembling testicles. The urogenital canal runs the length of the clitoris, rather than venting from below. The animal can pee with the organ, making it a penis. Completing the picture, the female penis contains erectile tissue ... that allows erections like those of a male penis. (2009, 38)
This peculiar genital structure requires the male effectively to get underneath the female to mate, placing him in a very precarious position. His penis must invert the female's penis, turning it into a temporary vagina. (11) Also, as Roughgarden notes, the female penis is capable of erection, but this has nothing to do with sex. Instead, female spotted hyenas get erections as a sign of submission to other female spotted hyenas. The erection is submission in a purely female set of social relations. The more they mimic male sexual functioning, the more submissive female hyenas are--always with regard to one another, never in relation to male hyenas, who are always secondary. Add to this the fact that hyenas have been "documented as engaging in same-sex mating," and the hyena becomes a highly flexible vehicle for all manner of sexual and social metaphors (141).
As we might imagine, these traits give rise to some very strange traditions, especially since hyenas were not studied up close or dissected for thousands of years. (12) Some of these traditions include the ideas that hyenas are hermaphrodites, they change sex from year to year, and they reproduce parthenogenetically. These are added to other traditions about them: hyenas can imitate the calls of humans to lure people to their death, if they circle a person or a dog three times it becomes paralyzed, their shadows can deprive people and dogs of voice, they dig up graves and eat corpses, witches ride on them, and so on. (13) Moreover, their bodies are believed to be the source of tremendous magical properties. As Jurgen Frembgen notes, "Already in antiquity it is well known that Greeks and Romans used the blood, excrements, rectum, genitalia, eyes, tongue, hair, skin, and fat as well as the ash of different parts of the body, as effective means to ward off evil and to ensure love and fertility" (1988,338). Eating the tongue can fight tumors, the fat is a cure for rheumatism. More pertinently here, even among the Greeks and Romans--and up to very recently in West Asia--"there was the widespread belief that the genitalia 'would hold a couple peaceably together' and that an anus worn as an amulet on the upper arm would make its male possessor irresistible to women" (339).
In the Indian and West Asian context--the region most proximate to that in which A Passage to India is set--the hyena is a powerful means of thinking about ambiguity, perversion, inversion, aberrance, deviance, deceit, necrophagy, protective magic, love, and fertility. It is a key figure in particular for sexual confusion and dissembling, for rapacious females who masquerade as males and dominate them contra natura. Small wonder, then, that hyenas have such a potent history as metaphors of sexual deviance. Aesop writes, "They say that hyenas change their sex each year and become males and females alternately. Now, one day a male hyena attempted an unnatural sex act with a female hyena. The female responded: 'If you do that, friend, remember that what you do to me will soon be done to you'" (Temple and Temple 1998, 249). In the Middle Ages, hyenas were common figures of sexual aberration, very often depicted in close proximity to images of necrophagy. They appear in Shakespeare's plays as homophobic insults, and Milton's Samson calls Dalila a hyena for her unnatural act in depriving him of his strength and assuming superiority over him (Milton  1950, 1.748). The hyena serves a similar metaphorical function in Jane Eyre, where it is used to characterize the madwoman in the attic, Bertha Mason, and in anti-Jacobin attacks on Mary Wollstonecraft as a "hyena in petticoats" (Myer 1988, 318).
The hyenas are fascinating, but let us return to A Passage to India to see what Forster does with them: Ronny and Adela have just arbitrarily--and counterintuitively--determined that their car was knocked off the road by a hyena just after experiencing an animal thrill of erotic contact at dusk in the wake of breaking off their engagement, while being driven on the Marabar road toward the Caves where Adela will have her hallucination of attempted rape, and riding in the back seat of a car driven by a Eurasian but owned by a high-ranking Indian. The ironies proliferate as Ronny and Adela arrive at a blithe certainty about a figure that is the epitome of alterity and uncertainty. The hyenas otherness is so overdetermined that it becomes an ethical vortex in the novel, establishing the interplay between self and other that governs the plot. Racial, sexual, gender, national, caste, and class othernesses are all invoked and overdetermined, just as they were in the scene where Ronny and Adela's break-up is witnessed by the little green bird. Each of these concerns is negotiated in terms of one or more other kinds of alterity, so that none of them is easily compartmentalized, contained, controlled: they are all connected.
The Nawab Bahadur seems to understand this. When Adela and Ronny agree that it must have been a hyena that hit the car, his outburst verges on ironic dismissal: '"Excellent, a hyena,' said the Indian with an angry irony and a gesture at the night" (PI 95). Of course, the Nawab Bahadur has other reasons for reacting with "ridiculous and disproportionate" terror to the situation. As it turns out, the car accident is neither the Nawab Bahadur's first nor his most serious. Nine years before, when he first got a car, the Nawab Bahadur ran over and killed a drunken man who wandered out in the road. Though he made restitution before God and the law for the death, the Nawab Bahadur retains a guilty conscience, which he projects in the notion that the dead man "continue[s] to wait in an unspeakable form, close to the scene of his death" to take revenge (102).
The Nawab Bahadur's "angry irony" has less to do with Ronny and Adela s foolish certainty than with his own superstitious certainty that whatever form the animal took it was not that of any identifiable creature on earth but a ghostly revenger of "unspeakable" form. The form is said here to be "unspeakable," but only a moment later Aziz names it, telling the Nawab Bahadur's grandson, Nureddin, that "we Moslems simply must get rid of these superstitions, or India will never advance. How long must I hear of the savage pig upon the Marabar road?" (102). For Aziz the "unspeakable form" taken by the ghost of the dead man is that of a "savage pig," and it's a story that has been told more than once. It is tempting to read this as Aziz's misrendering of the animal as a wild boar, perhaps due to the linguistic multiplicities that characterize all the conversations among Indians in the novel: Urdu, Hindi, Persian, Arabic, English. But it would be a mistake to do so, since we'd miss an important link.
Aziz is not simply mistranslating "wild boar" as "savage pig." If Aziz meant wild boar he would have said it. Instead, it takes us back to the hyena again. "Hyena" etymologically derives from the Greek hyaina, itself containing the root hys. Hyaina is the feminine form of swine, and hys is of course the same root word we find in hysteria, derived from the root hyster, meaning womb. So when Aziz translates the unspeakable form of the dead man's spirit into a "savage pig" he does so in a way that reveals much more than it appears to. No one has mentioned a wild boar at any point in the novel, and there is no precedent for his calling the spirit a "savage pig." (14) It seems radically incongruous, a clue that sticks out and can only be explained as a result of Aziz's English education, which would have taken him through the rudiments of Greek. He translates the Nawab Bahadur's "unspeakable form" into the "hyena" decided upon by Ronny and Adela, but then takes it back to its etymological roots in a way that highlights the feminine provenance of the term as well as its imperialist underpinnings. When Aziz characterizes the unspeakable form of the dead man's spirit as a "savage pig," several things take place at once: a) Ronny and Adela's decision that the animal was a hyena gains symbolic credibility, even if it remains highly unlikely as a real explanation; b) it reinforces the identification of the hyena with a deranged femininity--piggish, savage, hysterical; c) taken with the unlikelihood that a hyena really caused the accident, the supernatural explanation gains at least as much traction as Ronny and Adela's ostensibly rational explanation; d) it thus retroactively lends an aura of spectrality to the car accident. Mrs. Moore confirms this last consequence directly.
When Ronny and Adela return to their bungalow and tell Mrs. Moore about the accident, she apparently ignores their claim that it was a hyena, and says instead, "A ghost!" before settling down to play a version of Patience called, significantly, "demon" (PI 88-89). No one takes much notice of the old woman, but of course this outburst reopens the fissure of indeterminacy in the "official account" of the crash, links it to the Nawab Bahadurs "unspeakable form," and anticipates Adela's experience in the cave, where she thinks she's attacked but acknowledges that the attacker in fact never touches her. Further, it ties the accident and the animal register in the novel to its concern with ghosts and specters, pointing toward a full reading of alterity and the ethical in the novel. Just as Aziz's introduction of the "savage pig" into the discourse around the accident retroactively confirmed Ronny and Adela's intuitive decision to call its cause a hyena, so Mrs. Moore's declaration that it was a ghost reinforces the Nawab Bahadur's certainty that it was the "unspeakable" spectre of the drunken man he had killed years earlier. The combination allows the hyena and the ghost to draw upon each other's signifying power, transforming the ghost /hyena into the sine qua non of alterity in the novel. The combination firmly raises the novel's concern with alterity above the simple opposition of Indian/English or man/woman and places it on the sort of properly ethical footing outlined chiefly by Levinas and Derrida.
This fusion of the ethical and the spectral also invokes a challenge to us as readers to undertake an ethical interpretive strategy. As I have argued, Forster provides two narratives to explain or account for the crash: the rationalist English and the supernaturalist Muslim. They reciprocally corroborate and reinforce each other as mirror images: they are not identical, but each consolidates the other. However, both individually and together they are "spurious unities" that fail to shed any real light on the cause--the event--that precipitates the accident. Twice in the lead-up to the accident Forster uses the phrase "spurious unity": once to describe the transient sense of connection between Adela and Ronny and once to describe the night itself:
Each was too proud to increase the pressure [of their hands touching], but neither withdrew it, and a spurious unity descended on them, as local and temporary as the gleam that inhabits a firefly. It would vanish in a moment, perhaps to reappear, but the darkness is alone durable. And the night that encircled them, absolute as it seemed, was itself only a spurious unity, being modified by the gleams of day that leaked up round the edges of the earth, and by the stars. (80-81; emphasis added)
This repetition raises the possibility that all unity is spurious and ties any sense of unity to a subjective and temporary perspective: only Ronny and Adela experience their unity as something not spurious; only those in the midst of the night experience it as total. The warning thus articulated gains traction in the narrative of the car accident, alerting us to the dangers of seeking unity, of attempting to reconcile the various oddities of the episode into a single totalizing explanation. Not only are these unities spurious, but they are tendentially totalizing and thus unethical for Forster. The link of the hyena to conventionally deviant sexuality resonates powerfully given his own personal life, and brings yet another added dimension to the racial-sexual politics encoded into the novel's spectropoethics. (15)
At the same time, Forster leaves bait for the unwary, inviting us to seek alternative unifying explanations even after we have seen through those of Ronny and Adela on the one hand, and the Nawab Bahadur on the other. This bait comes in the form of other plausible explanations that are bizarrely introduced into the narrative only to be let drop without further comment. First, there is the unattributed denial of a very likely cause of the accident: someone--we can never be sure who--tells us, "Wasn't the bridge. We skidded" (81). Adela repudiates the second half of this ("We didn't skid"), but the first half--the possibility that the car hit the bridge--simply disappears. If, as seems likely, the speaker is Harris the driver, then his unprovoked denial that he hit the bridge smacks of a protest registered rather suspiciously early: no one said the car did hit the bridge. Was he perhaps nodding, and clipped the bridge, causing the accident? Or, if your preference runs to the psychoanalytical, maybe we could take up the other bit of bait. When Adela and Ronny are trying to find the animal's tracks on the road, Adela's skirts brush and obscure the tracks to such an extent that "it was Adela if anyone who had attacked the car" (82). Indeed. Adela is the only one who sees--or claims to have seen--the animal, and its appearance coincides with her entry into dense ambivalence about her sexuality, identity, and Englishness. Perhaps she merely hallucinated the animal? Of course, Forster's warnings about spurious unities apply here equally. Though either of these explanations could function as a unified account on its own, and they present a nicely totalized explanation when put together, they are little more than bait. If we've been paying attention to the novel at all thus far, if we are to approach ethically that which remains ultimately unreadable--then we have to resist the urge to supplement the characters' explanations with anything ostensibly more stable, rational, complete, likely.
In the case of the accident, just as in the case of the incident in the Marabar Caves, we witness the imposition of an official narrative on an indeterminate event. The insistence upon making order out of disorder leads in both cases to foreclosing alternative possibilities that may have been more just. Their relative truth remains out of consideration: the effort to align truth with justice is precisely what Forster rejects, just as Levinas rejects the effort to align knowledge with being. In both cases, truth and knowledge are viewed as latently violent. In the mania to fix an explanation, to force being to conform to knowledge or to determine a truth that will be complete and fully just, Ronny and Adela, the British officials, and even readers keen to solve the mystery articulate a desire for closure that both Forster and Levinas would read as totalizing, totalitarian, perhaps even latently fascist. (16)
The point, as it is for the "real" India, is that there is no arche, no primary source version either of India or of the accident that can be definitively and singularly categorized, captured, tamed, and made to account for itself. Nor does Forster regret this impossibility--he does not lament the lack of a clear final explanation, but recognizes it as the only possibility for justice, for a genuinely ethical orientation in the world. It's ethical because it retains an openness, an incompletion. It is founded in and on an "otherwise" that none of the narratives produced can ever articulate adequately. This is its tendentially utopian dimension: the impossibility of arriving at the final explanation is the possibility of promise, the openness that always permits of a better version, a better narrative, a truer connection. (17) The evidence of this ultimately is encoded into the final lines of the novel:
"Why can't we be friends now?" said [Fielding], holding [Aziz] affectionately. "It's what I want. It's what you want." But the horses didn't want it--they swerved apart; the earth didn't want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single-file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn't want it, they said in their hundred voices, "No, not yet," and the sky said, "No, not there." (306)
The narrative here does not prohibit the kind of interpersonal connection devoid of political and racial feeling to which Aziz and Fielding aspire. Rather it defers it to elsewhere, an elsewhen, specifically by invoking the animal--horses, birds, carrion--along with sites of the law (the jail) and potential justice (temples). (18) The capitalized "Guest House" suggests precisely the absolute hospitality to the other that Levinas insists upon as key to ethical comportment. In this complex of figures, the narrative insists on attending the future to come, the avenir a venir that is both Derrida's definition of justice and the very condition of possibility for ethics. It also preserves alterity not as something to be ridiculed, segregated, or eliminated but as something to be preserved in its alterity, honored as such, and reconciled with the realm of the selfsame to whose integrity it is absolutely essential.
Muddles versus mysteries
In this sense, the novel offers both a critique and the possibility of ethics by preventing us from arriving at a determinate explanation that would transform the muddle with which we are presented into a mystery that can be solved. The opposition between the muddle and the mystery is key in A Passage to India, and the narrator consistently elevates the muddle over the mystery. Muddles are insoluble. They resist any effort to make sense out of them, and defy reason, as do the Indians with whom Ronny associates muddles. Mysteries, on the other hand, belong to the long English tradition of apparent muddles that can be made to make sense. They have solutions--the more rational the better--and they admit of closure. This is why they are so popular, why we have Agatha Christie Mysteries and not Agatha Christie Muddles. It's why Adela and Ronny are so happy and (spuriously) united when they set about solving the mystery of what caused the car accident: "The English people walked a few steps back into the darkness, united and happy." It's also why Forster pulls the rug out from under them as their amateur enthusiasm turns the incident into an adventure and finally a muddle: "The incident was a great relief to them both. They forgot their abortive personal relationship, and felt adventurous as they muddled about in the dust." Immediately after, Adela announces that the accident was caused by "a buffalo ... unless it was a hyena," and the machinery starts up again (PI 82). The predominance of muddles over mysteries in a text concerned with the English effort to maintain order in India--the kind of order Ronny prides himself on being able to bring to any situation, whether it is a car accident or a religious dispute over parade routes--constitutes a profound resistance to the positivist logic of governmentality. It insists that not all messes can be sorted, and that the effort to insist on trying may well be the source of more suffering than simply leaving it alone.
As evidence of this, let us recall the ending of the trial. Just when the full might of British administration, embodied in the juridical-legal apparatus of the criminal court system, is trying to ascertain Aziz's guilt or innocence, the rug is pulled out from under it. Adela withdraws her charge, Turton claims that the trial should be adjourned because she is not well, and the case is dismissed. There is never an official recognition that Aziz is not guilty of the charges. Legally, he has not been acquitted but only released because the charge has been withdrawn. Double jeopardy does not apply, and there is every possibility that Adela could renew the charge if she wished. The issue is never resolved. Instead, it is held in abeyance. It remains a muddle rather than a mystery. Moreover, it does so in a register that implies that arriving at a verdict--either way--would have been to miss what is essential. (19) What happened on the Marabar road, like what happened in the Marabar Cave, can never be known to a certainty. It will forever be lost to knowledge, and as such impervious to the depredations of any regime of truth, however hostile or friendly. If justice is to hinge upon knowing what happened, then it can never be delivered.
And yet Forster does not indicate that the novel's refusal to pronounce upon Aziz's guilt or innocence is a failure of justice. Instead, his narrative indicates that the suspension of any decision is precisely what makes justice possible--not now, but perhaps in what Derrida would call a future to come. This is the possibility of ethics that goes with the force of critique in A Passage to India. Only by withholding decision, by keeping the ending open, and forestalling--potentially forever--the decision that will conclude the muddle, can Forster retain the possibility of ethics, of justice. This openness is essential. It sustains the possibility that another explanation may be better than the one we have. It steers us away from any and all "spurious unities." It allows us not only to imagine but to reach for a better account, one that is more just to all concerned and that strives its utmost not to foreclose or oppress. (20) This is, perhaps, the very ethical essence of literature and reading, the singularity, as Derek Attridge (2004) has it, which makes interminable analysis an ethical practice.
I want to conclude by suggesting that this conflicted sense of critique and ethics--of the tension between the muddle and the mystery--is characteristic of a larger modernist ethics. In light of their profoundly felt break with the Victorian past and with the certainties they imagined to characterize it, the modernists felt keenly the need to forge a new ethics as well as a new aesthetics. I suggest that the two are intimately--irrevocably--linked. Faced with the lack of a stable point of religious consensus, with the first cracks in empire, with sexual and racial and social upheaval, many modernists sought a new mode of ethical orientation in the world. They did so not as poststructuralists, celebrating indeterminacy for its own sake and pretending to reject all stability. Rather, they did so with an earnest desire to produce a new ethics, a new means of deciding what was right and wrong in the world--or at least of determining what might be the better and worse courses of action in a given situation, which ways are most pertinent, to return to Derrida's distinction. Consistently, however, they ran up against their inability to demarcate such an ethics with any clarity. The result is not a determination to advance an ethics of openness and indeterminacy against the overly confident epistemological violence of a Victorian worldview that knew God to be in his heaven and all to be right with the world. Rather, it is to meet head-on the inability to resolve the difficulty. Faced with the insuperable difficulty of forging a clear ethics in a new world, modernists like Forster held the door. They committed themselves to rejecting harmful solutions simply to have done with the muddle. In doing so, they discovered an ethics of indeterminacy that would gradually find clearer and clearer articulation in the work of Levinas and Derrida--but also crucially influencing Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, and Jacques Lacan--as the century wore on. In this respect, modernism founded what has perhaps been the most lasting aspect of contemporary theory, and the one with the greatest significance.
A version of this article was originally presented at the "Interceptions: Theory's Modernism and Modernism's Theory" conference, held at Glasgow University, 11 December 2010.1 thank the organizers for the invitation to present, and for their patience in attending the delivery of this fuller version of the paper.
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(1.) Pound's phrase comes from old Chinese texts he loosely translated in the 1920s and 1930s, identified in the Chinese cantos by Pound as an inscription on Tching T'ang's bathtub ("Canto LIU"): cleansing the body (corps, corpse, corpus) makes it new not by destroying it but by exfoliating and renovating. Michael North locates the phrase's initial appearance in an obscure publication by Pound in 1928, with its more prominent debut as the title of his 1934 volume Make It New, before it is inserted into "Canto LIII.
(2.) My point here is fundamentally that of Jacques Derrida in Specters of Marx, when he claims that the proper ethical legacy of Marxian critique belongs to deconstruction rather than contemporary Marxism: deconstruction is ethical in its constant demand for negation, its rigorous negative dialectics without end, its commitment to justice as a "future to come" (avenir a venir).
(3.) For, of course, to assimilate them under the sign of the other is only to reduce their alterity to a category within existing frameworks in any event. It is, of course, impossible not to do this in language or thought, as Derrida argued in "Structure, Sign, and Play"--"This necessity is irreducible; it is not a historical contingency"--but how we fail matters:
If no one can escape this necessity, and if no one is therefore responsible for giving in to it, however little he may do so, this does not mean that all the ways of giving in to it are of equal pertinence. The quality and fecundity of a discourse are perhaps measured by the critical rigor with which this relation to the history of metaphysics and to inherited concepts is thought. (1978, 282)
(4.) More properly still, these words would be translated as "pussy," capturing the vulgar sexualized language indicated in the French colloquialism, une petite chatte, indicating the element of pudeur, moral knowledge, and biblical origin of the human/animal binary Derrida engages for the rest of the book.
(5.) Though, as Derek Ryan has pointed out, Levinas is far from decisive on this point:
One cannot entirely refuse the face of an animal. It is via the face that one understands, for example, a dog. Yet the priority here is not found in the animal, but in the human face. We understand the animal, the face of an animal, in accordance with Dasein. The phenomenon of the face is not in its purest form in the dog. In the dog, in the animal, there are other phenomena. For example, the force of nature is pure vitality. It is more this which characterizes the dog. But it also has a face. I cannot say at what moment you have the right to be called "face." The human face is completely different and only afterwards do we discover the face of an animal. (quoted in Atterton and Calarco 2004, 49)
(6.) Levinas characterizes nonintentional consciousness as consciousness that has no intention with regard to the other; it makes no use of it. By contrast, Levinas refers to knowledge as Auffassen, or grasping, its object to dominate it ( 1989,76-77).
(7.) The hyena is one of only two animals in the book that are both conjectured and conjured: their possibility is insisted into reality. The other is the black cobra Adela spies en route to the Marabar Caves. A quick look through the binoculars reveals it to be a stick, but her Indian entourage will not countenance her having been wrong, and insist that it really is a snake--truly, believe me, a little snake--that is simply pretending to be a stick for protection. (Of course, it is also a [perhaps the] figure for evil, moral knowledge, the Fall, and sexual transgression, and some clumsy foreshadowing too, but why quibble?)
(8.) A Passage to India will be cited as PI.
(9.) I will return to the muddle as a central term in the novel at the end of this essay; suffice it for now to note Ronny's distaste for muddles and association of them with Indians.
(10.) Despite their canine appearance, hyenas are in fact felines, belonging to the genus pantera.
(11.) The contemporary understanding of homosexuality as inversion in Forster's day is suggestive here.
(12.) Not until the 1930s did biologists confirm that hyenas are not hermaphrodites and establish protocols for telling males from females.
(13.) For more on these and other traditions, see Crooke 1896 and Swinnerton 1892.
(14.) Certainly, calling the unspeakable form "some kind of wild pig" layers its supernatural menace with qualities of filth, pollution, and profanation for the Nawab Bahadur's Muslim audience, but there is still more to the story.
(15.) I use this term to designate the poetics by which a literary work articulates its ethical concerns through tropes of spectrality.
(16.) I am thinking here of Levinas's rejection of the grasping dimension of knowing (Auffassen) as that which closes down possibility and alterity, clearing the path for precisely the sort of bonne conscience that allows for the annihilation of others (which, of course, in Levinas's experience was directly tied to German fascism). In Forster's case, I am thinking of his repeated insistence that friendship and the freedom to be other took precedence over any political allegiance, which he saw as always at least potentially menacing to efface alterity (see, for example, the first two parts of Two Cheers for Democracy , which features several essays outlining this view).
(17.) I am drawing upon Derrida's notion of utopian here, and upon Derrida s reading of Marx's notion of utopia as a permanent state of critique and indeterminacy: openness to a better future-to-come (avenir a venir). See Specters of Marx (1994).
(18.) Derrida makes a similar move several times in The Beast and the Sovereign, vol. I, perhaps nowhere more suggestively than when he takes up Levinas's perplexity when asked whether animals have faces. Derrida addresses this perplexity by parsing a D. H. Lawrence poem, "The Snake," to establish the link between animality and sovereignty in terms not only of hospitality and openness to the other, but also in terms of the Judeo-Christian doxa of transgression, forgiveness, and justice (see, e.g., 2008, 236-49).
(19.) Other modernist trials--Jim's in Lord Jim, Joseph K's in The Trial--seem to confirm this attitude as endemic to modernist suspicion of officialdom and/or the juridico-legal apparatus.
(20.) Naturally, this is not simply to celebrate indeterminacy as inherently good or to say that as long as we can refrain from making a decision we remain ethical. Clearly, there are many cases in which the only just thing to do is to render a verdict. In terms of A Passage to India, the only way justice could possibly have been rendered to Aziz is if he had insisted on seeing the trial through and obtained a verdict of not guilty. But, of course, this would mean nothing in the end. The closure it would bring would affect only his fate, and ignore the greater question of what happened to Adela and how justice can be done to or for her.
Stephen Ross is associate professor of English and cultural, social, and political thought at the University of Victoria. He is author of Conrad and Empire, editor of Modernism and Theory, coeditor of Dorothy Richardson's Pointed Roofs and The Tunnel (with Tara Thomson) and The Modernist World (with Allana C. Lindgren), and general editor of the Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism.
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|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2015|
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