Friday, April 02, 2004

Books Fall Apart (E.M. Forster's biography, now in tatters)

I've been working on a chapter on E.M. Forster's attitude to Indian communalism... So earlier this week I reread A Passage to India, and today I was reading my old copy of P.N. Furbank's E.M. Forster: A Life (well-used already when I bought it).

I was happily reading away at Yale -- when the book fell totally apart! First the spine cracked, then the pages separated from the cover, and the pages of the book began to come apart in chunks. Reading from now is like eating crumb cake without a napkin... .

But at least I found some good stuff. The long and short of it is, Forster preferred Indian Muslims to Hindus. He saw Muslims as having the basic attributes of civilized social order, while Hindus were a confused muddle. So you have letters like the following one to his aunt (6 November 1921), from his second trip to India:

The more I know [about Hindus] the less I understand. With the Mohammedans it is different. When after the nightmare of Gokul Ashtami [a Hindu festival], I stood on the minaret of the Taj in Agra, and heard the evening cal to prayer from the adjacent mosque, I knew at all events where I stood and what I heard; it was a land that was not merely atmosphere but had definite outlines and horizons. So with the Mohammedan friends of Masood [Forster's Oxford friend, an aristocrat from Hyderabad] whom I am meeting now. They may not be as subtle or as suggestive as the Hindus, but I can follow what they are saying.


Did Forster have some kind of racial identification with Muslims, as fellow conquerors of India? I tend to think not. Actually he recognized and respected his distance from the Muslims he knew, and from Islam in general. I think, in contrast to Hinduism and Buddhism, which represented the muddled horizon of Orientalism for Forster, he feels more aesthetically and philosophically engaged by what he wants to identify as an "Islamic world-view." For Forster, Muslims represent architecture and order, while Hindus represent earth, mud, and muddle.

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