- A Spiritual Bloomsbury: Hinduism and Homosexuality in the Lives and Writing of Edward Carpenter, E. M. Forster, and Christopher Isherwood
A Spiritual Bloomsbury is an ambitious and idiosyncratic book that brings together a number of Antony Copley's long-standing interests: the history of modern India, the history of religion, and the history of sexuality—or, more accurately, the history of a particular form of male homosexuality. It is also a dense and difficult work, and Copley's arguments are sometimes contradictory and often provocative. The opening lines of the prologue suggest the scope of the book: "Given two such powerful drives as the sexual and the religious, often in conflict, it is deeply intriguing to see just how any one individual manages their rivalry and seeks their reconciliation" (1). The book develops its arguments through a detailed (though necessarily selective) examination of the lives and writings of homosexual men in three successive generations—Edward Carpenter (1844–1929), E. M. Forster (1879–1970), and Christopher Isherwood (1904–86)—each of whom "shared a similar sexuality and sought in Hindu spirituality one way of achieving personal autonomy and fulfillment." They form, he suggests, "a natural trinity" in which "there is the feel of an apostolic succession." The reference to "Bloomsbury" in the book's title comes from the emphasis all three men placed on friendship ("the leitmotif of Bloomsbury") and on "the centrality of personal relationships" in their lives (1). Copley makes a real effort to place each of these figures within a longer sexual-spiritual tradition, linking them through a guru-disciple relationship.
Copley portrays the late Victorian Edward Carpenter—a socialist and a feminist as well as a sex reformer—as both a disciple caught between different gurus and a "would-be guru" himself (10). According to Copley, the direction of Carpenter's energies was the result of his reading of Walt Whitman's work and his decision to take Whitman as a kind of guru figure. In the 1890s Carpenter set out for Colombo, in what is now Sri Lanka, on a journey to a very different guru, Ramaswamy the gnani, also known as Ilakkanam the Grammarian. Copley poses Whitman and Ramaswamy as alternatives for Carpenter, with Ramaswamy standing for transcendence and asceticism and Whitman for a "this-worldly" vision in which sex itself became a religion (15, 36–37). In Copley's analysis, "Carpenter's was a profound revolt against a Victorian cult of masculinity that denied man's feminine side. His was a quest once again for wholeness, with an emphasis on feeling rather than intellect, and in Vedantism, especially with Hinduism, as he was later to argue, endorsing a sacramental attitude to sex, he found the means for both his self-acceptance and self-transcendence" (28). [End Page 395]
In E. M. Forster, Copley finds one of Carpenter's many "disciples," but Forster's own ambivalence about Carpenter's vision, especially as the years wore on and "Carpenter's idealism began to look dated and naïve," ultimately led him in a very different direction (98). Copley characterizes Forster's political and philosophical position as a "troubled loyalty to liberal humanism" and argues convincingly that Forster's (in)famous injunction to "only connect" was transformed in profound ways by his encounter with Indian culture and religion: "Exposure to Hinduism had eroded the liberal humanism, there was a greater sense of irony, of man's impermanence" (108–9). Forster's Christianity faded early in his life (it was, Copley notes, only "tepid" in any case); indeed, Forster had long been critical of his family's evangelical heritage, which he saw as a religion without a sense of beauty, imagination, or any sense of the "unseen" (111–13). In mysticism, especially the mysticism of the Krishna cult, Forster found a personalized form of "transcendent release" from sexual frustration, Copley argues (114). In Copley's reading, Forster's own encounters with India were framed by his relationships with...