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Reorienting Forster: Intimacy and Islamic Space

From: Criticism
Volume 49, Number 1, Winter 2007
pp. 35-54 | 10.1353/crt.2008.0011

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[T]he Orient is the stage on which the whole East is confined.

—Edward Said, Orientalism

The Hindu character is almost incomprehensible to us . . . The more I know the less I understand. With the Mohammedans it is different. When after the nightmare of Gokul Ashtami, I stood on the minaret of the Taj in Agra, and heard the evening call 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 whom I am meeting now. They may not be as subtle or suggestive as the Hindus, but I can follow what they are saying.

—E. M. Forster, Letter to Aunt Laura Forster, November 6, 1921

A number of recent readings of E. M. Forster's later novels have profitably explicated his relationship to empire, sometimes in conjunction with Forster's fraught representations of sexuality. Some postcolonial critics have expressed unease with the apparent gap between Forster's liberal and progressive public writings and the more troubled fantasies of dominance over (and sometimes submission to) Indian and African men, many of them of Islamic heritage, that feature in Forster's posthumously published writings. Other critics, Stuart Christie chief among them, have seen important continuities in the different genres of Forster's writing on race and empire (public, semipublic, and private; fiction and nonfiction), arguing for the overwhelmingly progressive impact of Forster's published work on his readers. Both sides of the debate have merit, though what is undeniable is that Forster strove, in both his life and his fictional works, to develop substantive personal relationships with individual men from India and Egypt. In his various colonial writings, Forster develops a unique concept of intimacy in semipublic spaces, which might enable him to provisionally overcome the obstacles introduced by the imbalance of power between white and brown, between colonizer and colonized. This intimacy is, as the etymology of the word suggests, a kind of touching, which alludes to the sensual but retains "definite outlines and horizons"—and does not allow full access to the muddled realms of psychic interiority. Forster's intimacy is, in short, constrained by the nature of the space where it transpires, and our reading of it must begin with an account of that space.

Aspects of Forster's approach to space have admittedly been discussed before; a passage from the opening pages of Howards End, for instance, has been memorably described by Fredric Jameson as a quintessential modern representation of imperialism in the novel. Jameson's observation taps into a theme that is quite rich in Forster's later novels, but closer examination of Forster's representation of space in A Passage to India and other texts from during and after his travels in Egypt and India suggests a more complex picture than does Jameson's formulation of Forster's imperialism as "the roads out to infinity, beyond the bounds and borders of the national state." In dialectical relationship with the "limitless," one finds an engagement with a more bounded concept of space throughout much of Forster's work, exemplified in threshold spaces, at the border of public and private. Featuring prominently among these are spaces specifically marked as Islamic, including mosques as well as the secular architecture of India's composite Indo-Islamic past. Forster's Islamic spaces, I will argue, are of special importance in considering the implications of Forster's unique engagement with the "Orient." Forster's interest in Islamic space constitutes a discourse that is at once more personal and less authoritative than the Orientalist discourse described by Edward Said in his groundbreaking 1979 book, Orientalism. Forster is attracted to Islamic space not merely as a form of knowledge, but as an intense structure of feeling that is always partly an expression of his personal attraction to men like Masood. If for Said the discourse of Orientalism is a "stage on which the whole East is confined," for Forster the discourse of Islam (one important character in the theater of cultural difference) constitutes, not confinement, but a kind of partially enclosed courtyard, sheltering both...

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