Sunday, May 25, 2008

Civilisation and Culture

I read E.M. Forster's A Passage to India (published 1924) again, after a gap of over 25 years. It is a remarkable novel of British India. A recent article in The Guardian*, from which my brother Raja sent me an excerpt, helped me to understand some issues in the book.
The excerpt goes, 'We face a conflict between civilisation and culture, which used to be on the same side. Civilisation means rational reflection, material wellbeing, individual autonomy and ironic self-doubt; culture means a form of life that is customary, collective, passionate, spontaneous, unreflective and arational. It is no surprise, then, to find that we have civilisation whereas they have culture. The contrast between west and east is being mapped on a new axis.'

Forster says in the novel that in the 1920s, especially among the products of England's public schools, 'the arts were bad form'. Any mention of an artistic accomplishment like playing the viola is an affectation, or an embarrassment, especially to the Englishmen in India -- a breed Forster seems to have despised. Among Indians, however, he says, '...literature had not been divorced from civilization' and whether an Indian is educated in it or not, he responds, from his soul, to music, art and poetry.
This must have been because the Indians of the time, unlike the English, had no 'nation state' to inspire fine sentiments: they only had its culture.

Among the major characters in the novel, Fielding is the only Englishman who has Forster's complete approval. Fielding lives outside the tight little circle of the civil station and its rigid norms, makes friends with Indians, and cares very little for what his countrymen think of him. ' The remark that did him most harm at the Club was a silly aside to the effect that the so called white races are really pinko-grey.'
In a world where ' "white" has no more to do with colour than "god save the King" with a god' such a remark does Fielding no good. No wonder, 'the pinko-gray male whom he addressed was subtly scandalised; his sense of insecurity was awoken, and he communicated it to the rest of the herd.'
Fielding says to Dr.Aziz, ' Any man can travel light until he has a wife or children,' and adds that it isn’t only Englishmen like him who travel light, but the 'sadhus and such' of India. Then he says, 'I'm a holy man minus the holiness.'
'He had no racial feeling' the book tells us, 'because he had matured in a different atmosphere', having travelled all over the world.
The reader -- the Indian reader, in particular -- settles down comfortably to the idea that Fielding, indeed Forster, is Indian at heart.

Which is why Chapter XXXII comes as a shock, where the authorial voice actually shrugs off the East completely like a man shaking off a hypnotic spell, or a hallucination that was pleasant enough while it lasted, but is not wholesome at all. When Fielding, on his return voyage, sees the buildings of Venice, we're told, 'He had forgotten the beauty of form among idol temples and lumpy hills; indeed, without form, how can there be beauty? Form stammered here and there in a mosque, became rigid through nervousness....'.
There is worse yet. 'The Mediterranean is the human norm. When men leave that exquisite lake, whether through the Bosporus or the Pillars of Hercules, they approach the monstrous and the extraordinary; and the southern exit leads to the strangest experience of all.'
'Monstrous' and 'extraordinary' - So after all, we must hear the clich├ęd expressions of imperialism, which are used to dismiss that which cannot be understood, let alone appreciated. Further, '...tender romantic fancies that he thought were dead forever flowered when he saw the buttercups and daisies of June.' Your Englishman is normal again. Pinko-gray is white once more, when restored to the milder sun of England.

And yet we can’t discard all this completely. Once you recover from the sense of betrayal, you see another aspect that goes beyond a mere rejection of the East.
Forster goes on '...but something more precious than mosaics and marbles was offered to him now; the harmony between the works of man and the earth that upholds them, the civilization that has escaped muddle, the spirit in a reasonable form, with flesh and blood subsisting.'
Perhaps, like the ancient Romans, Forster wanted to believe that the Mediterranean is the centre of the earth. Perhaps, in Forster's world, the countries around the Mediterranean had arrived at that balance between civilization and culture which neither Forster's England nor his India could achieve.

Once again, the Guardian piece helps us to understand it all better.
' The problem is that civilisation needs culture even if it feels superior to it. Its own political authority will not operate unless it can bed itself down in a specific way of life. Men and women do not easily submit to a power that does not weave itself into the texture of their daily existence - one reason why culture remains so politically vital. Civilisation cannot get on with culture, and it cannot get on without it. '

*By Terry Eagleton who is John Edward Taylor professor of English literature at Manchester University

7 comments:

RAJI MUTHUKRISHNAN said...

Good, well-written article. Now I want to read 'A Passage To India' all over again.
The distinction between culture and civilisation - isn't one inbred, and the other a veneer?

Kamini said...

Very well analyzed and written. And so relevant today.

Anonymous said...

Not to worry, though. At the end of the day, money doesnt talk, it swears. There's no stopping the economic juggernaut that is India. And this will permeate all aspects. And the upper caste cultural affectations of the occident all seem to be so old-fashioned. Ask Mittal and his monkey money.

Still whether the spoils of Tipu Sultan's empire now put up for show at Windsor castle will be returned to its legitimate home remains to be seen. At the very least, with respect to the plundered riches of India, sooner or later there will be discussions of the kind that the Elgin marbles elicit, or the stone of destiny. Heck, even Native America trinkets seem to enjoy this sort of attention in militant liberal quarters across the Atlantic. Indians on the other hand seem to sadly let themselves down. No group of people in this world looks down on its own like Indians do. The ones making extreme demands will be viewed as unrefined and far too polarizing in their approach by those who will in turn be viewed as mere anglophiliacs and apologists. And the many in between will be caught in the clamor... "Which side are you on?" But I digress...

It is a matter of time before the tone of the Indian writers that pepper the literary landscape today will tilt towards providing a indisputably refined form for the culture that is India and there will be a course correction into how the past is viewed.

Maiji said...

What a coincidence! Today I have started reading E. M. Forster’s ‘The Hill of Devi’ and you have written a review of ‘a Passage To India’ by the same author.

I very much feel that you are right when you say that once he enters the Mediterranean the outlook of the home-going Englishman changes completely. In my younger days while going back to Delhi after a stay of three to four months with my parents in Trivandrum, I had felt my own personality change once I boarded the Grand Trunk Express from Madras Central (the only biweekly or triweekly train to Delhi in those days): the Kerala mental attitude was left behind, while the Delhi attitude enveloped one quite involuntarily.

Gardenia said...

Thank you, Raji, Thank you, Kamini for all the encouragement.
Anonymous, how well you write - it should be on Blogger, at least!
Maiji, I value your comment - that was a fantastic insight; the GT express experience with changing identities.

Anonymous said...

Eleanor Maiji, wearing a face that she keeps in a train heading North...

flowergirl said...

oh wow! what a civilised and cultured family I married into!! Hadn't thought of the two civilisation and culture - as separate.