E.M. Forster's A Passage to India: A Passage to the Patria?

Penelope Pether

Abstract


This essay takes fonnulations of the literary imagining of 'the nation' as the starting-point for a reading ofA Passage to India. In 1977 Regis Debray provided what Timothy Brennan has called 'an explanation in literary terms of the nation's universal appeal', by identifying its two 'anti-death processes'. The first of these is the assigning (implicitly, the inventing) of origins, which in tum 'allows ritual repetition, the ritualization of memory, celebration, commemoration-in short, all those forms of magical behaviour signifying defeat of the irreversibility of time'.

The second founding gesture of any human society is its delimitation within an enclosed space. Here also there takes place an encounter with the sacred, in the sense of the Temple. What is the Temple, etymologically? It was what the ancient priest or diviner traced out, raising his wand heavenwards, the outline of a sacred space within which divination could be undertaken. This fundamental gesture is found at the birth of all societies, in their mythology at least. But the myth presence is an indication of something real.

The first of these 'anti-death processes' characterizes the atavistic strand of English modernism found in the writing of Forster, Woolf, and Eliot, what Perry Meisel has called 'the recurrent desire to find origins or ground despite the impossibility of ever doing so for sure'. It is evident, for example, in the uses of the Cadbury Rings in The Longest Journey and of the wych-elm in Howards End. The second process has specific and crucial implications for this reading of A Passage to India.

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