Cognitive Mapping and the Catastrophe of Representation
Warning: This is academic writing. Do not attempt to operate heavy machinery.
As the modernist authors of the first half of the 20th Century created new forms of expression and literary technique, challenging the methods of writing and thinking institutionalized by the previous age, their countries’ grasp on the lands beyond their borders began to fail. At home and abroad, the world changed; the "turn inward" undertaken by so many of the period's novelists left the distant European empires a seldom mentioned afterthought, receding in strength and scope both in fact and perception. The subjugated cultures given no voice of their own in the literature concerned with the Imperial exercise itself therefore once again went unacknowledged by the discourse that chose to leave Empire behind entirely.
Marked ostensibly by its absence, the voice of the third world seems a permanently unrecognizable other, impossible to incorporate and represent to those whose minds placed their home nations, as well as themselves, at the center of the global map.
In A Passage to India, however, E. M. Forster suggests an alternative to outright unrepresentability of alien cultures. Addressing what Frederic Jameson, in "Modernism and Imperialism," refers to as the subject/object dialectic of Empire directly—a departure from formalist definitions of modernism—Forster portrays intimate contact between the English and Indian populations via a spectrum of symbolically charged characters, demonstrating that while representation of even such a highly marginalized and oppositional "other" as develops from the colonial enterprise is possible, the representation as a function of Empire is by its very nature false, and integration of the actual other into the predominant cognitive map must ultimately result in tremendous personal and social catastrophe. To identify with one’s cultural antithesis generates a crisis of identity the initial "self" cannot survive.
The immense distances between the First World metropolitan centers of Europe and the outlying imperialized lands create, as Jameson suggests, a substantial spatial disjunction, crucial to the conceptual isolation of the citizenry from the foundation of their praxis of life. "A significant structural segment of the economic system as a whole is now located elsewhere, beyond the metropolis, outside the daily life and existential experience of the home country," he writes. "Such spatial disjunction has as its immediate consequence the inability to grasp the way the system functions as a whole" (50-1). This experience, however, may be at least partially recreated and shared by the colonists themselves.
To identify traces of the imperial in modernist literature, Jameson calls for an "exceptional situation," one "which reproduces the appearance of First World social reality and social relationships…but whose underlying structure is in fact much closer to that of the Third World or of colonized daily life" (60). He looks to Joyce’s Dublin for this, but Forster’s Chandrapore offers yet another geographic model: the same seemingly incommensurable realities of the subject/object relationship compressed within a singular locality, two cultures that instead of melding into one another, fused by similarities such as history and language, remain diametrically opposed, but forced to intermingle nonetheless. "Colonized," as the Imperial powers understood it, or claimed to at the time, also meant partially civilized. "You can make India in England apparently, just as you can make England in India," Fielding remarks (my italics, 79).
The Callendars, Turtons, Lesleys, and Ronny Heaslops do attempt to make their own England, though in miniature and with only some success, within the Indian city. Though living in foreign lands, the empowered administrators of Chandrapore identify themselves by their original nationality. When the amateur orchestra at the club played the Anthem of the Army of Occupation, "it reminded every member…that he or she was British and in exile" (24). Defined by where they feel they should be instead of where they are, they cut themselves off from the native population--about which the worst of them consistently reveal they know practically nothing—by retreating to the confines of the club, normally an Indian-free environment. The relatively close quarters in which they live do not prevent their keeping the world beyond at bay, if at somewhat less than an arm’s length or little more than a tennis court’s. The narrator’s description of the Bridge Party, the first ever event of its kind for these characters, is riddled with spatial terminology, depicting wide spaces between the cultures when only yards or simply misconceptions separate the participants.
From the imposed safety of the "English side", the narrator indicates, "Mrs. Moore and Miss Quested were gazing rather sadly over the tennis lawn. No, it was not picturesque; the East, abandoning its secular magnificence, was descending into a valley whose farther side no man can see" (39). Standing on the eastern side, and standing in for the East itself, are the Indians. An "island" of Indian women, beyond the "dusky line," failed attempts at tennis sets between "East and West" when “the barrier grew impenetrable" (47)—this is the language of division, of borders and boundaries, us and them. It takes neither ocean nor continent to create the spatial gap necessary to live in ignorance of another culture, to close off and turn in; where actual physical space is lacking, one need merely write the social conditions, "local, national, and international," of that space into the cognitive map, which as Jameson suggests in "Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism" we all necessarily can and do. The persistent, almost desperate misrepresentation of the subjugated culture by those subjugating it, the manufacturing of a totality of the other that reduces a multifaceted, complex culture to inaccurately simple terms and presents those terms as fact, becomes as much if not a greater dilemma than the perceived absence of any representation at all. The latter constitutes a social void, the valley described above; the former a deliberately detrimental act intended to reinforce the "rightness" of the colonial ethos, naturally occurring in the scene of its action and a logical explanation of the change in Englishmen after a few months in India. "Fear is everywhere," the narrator informs us. "The British Raj rests on it" (190). Due to the proximity to the “other,” the voice unheard at home can echo down the halls of every Sahib and his wife, and requires an accordant increase in resistance to keep the primary map intact. They do not know the "Real India" (a problematic concept in itself), do not want to know the Real India, and do not want anyone else to know it either. The means by which this is accomplished appear in the form, too often historically and contemporarily, of hostility, at its least violent the shouting down and pushing away to maintain the space: disparaging generalizations, segregation, etc. A young girl, in response to Fielding’s comment about making an England in India, characterizes the venture as both expensive and nasty. It is, and must worsen as the competition for space (geographical and geopolitical) between mutually present imperial subject and object draws toward an inevitable moment of crisis. There simply isn’t enough room for the two of them.
The same critical proximity, of course, creates the crucial interstitial area in which the opposing cultures rub up against each other in ways unimaginable in transcontinental/oceanic models, trading samples the dominating system cannot choose but to assimilate. The realities of "the lord and of the bondsman," as Jameson puts it, are not kept apart by any cordon sanitaire. Hamidullah claims that friendship with an Englishman is possible only in England, to which he had been "before the big rush" (7)—before there was an India in England, before the imperial homeland and its own "natives" had to face a contest for spatial re-mapping of their own soil. Hamidullah, as an Indian, could be safely roped off. In India, total separation is unfeasible, and by extension, total friendship, but the very fact of an actively contested space permits the development of characters whose identities and perceptions of India differ from their respective cultural dominants. The Imperial system does create its own resistance, and its logic is inescapable. Leon Trotsky’s assessment of war, slightly amended, perfectly summarizes the position: you may not be interested in Empire, but Empire is interested in you. Involvement, especially in the scene of its operation, is implicit. Consequently, it is in the uncontrollable, semi-fluid area, where heretical thought seeps through cracks in the walls, that the necessary crisis must originate. Dr. Fielding and Dr. Aziz, the novel’s most parallel thematic counterparts, temporarily inhabit this space, but it is not immediately between them that the tension will intensify and erupt.
Though they remain for the most part on their own "sides," Doctors Aziz and Fielding certainly dangle their feet over the other’s cultural territory. Appropriation of culture takes place between them, linguistically and habitually. Representation is therefore implied, but has been compromised. Neither must entirely forego their cultural core, for each has a base of operations to which he can return. Happily, both have come to the cultural bargaining table. Fielding is a renowned student of Persian poetry, untidy, and "finds it convenient and pleasant to associate with Indians" (66). Aziz has a striking command of both proper and idiomatic English, practices Western medicine (at the beginning of the novel), and, though conflicted, yearns for a measure of acceptance amongst the English beyond that normally afforded to natives of his station. So, Fielding has characteristics Aziz can identify as Indian-like, and Aziz has characteristics Fielding can identify as English-like. Neither is represents to the other as a cultural totality. But then, neither is nor could be. Fielding’s cognitive map already places him off-center to England’s colonial hegemony, separated by a "gulf between him and his countrymen" (64). As a Muslim, Aziz is already in an Indian minority. Their individually peripheral status automatically places them further from the combative ideologies at work in the colonial dialectic, and closer to each other.
Unfortunately, within that structure, embracing hybridity is extraordinarily challenging at best. As previously explained, domination or resistance against domination requires a totalizing view of the opposition. The catastrophes of A Passage to India arise out of two "uncompromised" Englishwomen looking for an "uncompromised" or "real" India. They bring the formalistic First World modernist void with them, aware that Anglicized India is not the "real" thing even if they do not know what is. It should be mentioned, as is discussed in Homi K. Bhabha’s "The Postcolonial and the Postmodern: The Question of Agency" as well as elucidated within A Passage to India itself, that the system in India even while under British rule was in actuality far from binary. There is no one "real India," no neatly outlined solid block of color as on a globe. National internal hybridity, evidenced by a number of social, religious, and economic categories, creates multiple "gray areas"—not No Man’s Lands but potentially All Men’s, also falling into open conflict as a result, with somewhat increased frequency in the absence of the polarizing British incursion. Otherness can be a question of degree; some are more other than others. The experience of the Englishwomen in India is the competition between the most divergent forces for control over their cognitive maps, the right to imprint what in the specifically Imperial dynamic amounts to one of only two possible views. Jameson warns that:
No enlargement of personal experience (in the knowledge of other social classes, for example), no intensity of self-examination (in the form of whatever social guilt), no scientific deductions on the basis of the internal evidence of First World data, can ever be enough to include this radical otherness of colonial life, colonial suffering, and colonial exploitation, let alone the structural connections between that and this, between absent space and daily life in the metropolis ("Modernism and Imperialism," 51).
We will see that he is correct, in this assessment, for all the characters between nations. The radical other can be truly represented, but not included. Only one view can safely be held, only one space occupied. Following the debacle of the Marabar Caves, Fielding and Aziz will separate, the futility of attempting true friendship apparent. Miss Quested will turn away from India, taking uncertainty with her and returning to the void. Mrs. Moore, identity displaced, appropriated, and re-mapped, will die.
But the road through this novel to Marabar is a long one, and Forster situates Mrs. Moore and Miss Quested differently from the beginning, laying the foundations for their separate ends. Their map of India looks the same stepping off the boat, their initial ideas of the country mere preconceptions, images constructed long before they landed and based on the available information. "They had made such a romantic voyage across the Mediterranean and through the sands of Egypt to the harbour of Bombay, to find only a gridiron of bungalows at the end of it" (23). Both express disappointment, but as the search for India takes them further into the uncontrolled, interstitial space to crucial moments of representation, their paths, like their characters, quickly diverge.
The competition for Mrs. Moore begins in a mosque, the scene of our introduction to her, and hers to Dr. Aziz. The exchange, taking place outside her son’s sphere of influence, gives Aziz the opportunity to make a first impression of himself as yet unchallenged by the Imperial dogma continually and vehemently expressed in the club. She sympathizes with his complaints, and shares some of her own, a gross violation of conduct as acted by English women and expected by Indian men. It does not fit his social map, his placement in relation to class and order. To reconcile the discrepancy, he places her outside the English totality, identifies her as an "Oriental" (21), and in so doing puts her in opposition to her son, whom upon hearing of the meeting is immensely troubled—Aziz got to her first, and he must scramble in the aftermath to even the score, carefully redefine the gap, generate mistrust of not only Aziz but all Indians. He uses "phrases and arguments that he had picked up from older officials" to silence her: the cynical, hardened, veteran language of colonization (33). But the damage has been done; Mrs. Moore questions the rhetoric freely, and by demanding that her son respect the privacy of her conversation with Aziz, effectively creates a space for herself away from both camps.
Heaslop agrees to her terms, reasoning that whatever space his mother occupies now, she will go back to England and resume her English life. But Miss Quested presents him with a more complicated issue. If she is to remain in India as the wife of a city magistrate, the misrepresentation must be deeply instilled, without contradiction. He cannot have her asking questions or listening to the voice of the subjugated other, and deciding, to the discredit of the Imperial rhetoric, that the voice is truly human and perhaps not so different from her own. She must stay on the English side of the lawn. Therefore, Heaslop trades honoring his mother’s wishes for the mapping rights to Adela. He asks his mother not to mention Dr. Aziz to her, to keep her nascent impressions of India as (albeit incompletely) personified by him quiet. Where the native component of her cognitive map is concerned, Ronny wants total control of his potential bride.
In which case he never should have let her go beyond the borders of the club compound, and especially not to the Marabar Caves. Interestingly enough, the symbolic value of the caves within the structure of the novel, and the spatial considerations they evoke with respect to cognitive mapping and the representation of the subjugated other, far outweigh any actual diegetic significance. They are always spoken of braggingly, a major feature of the Indian landscape, the famous Marabar Caves—but as described by the characters familiar with them, they are largely unremarkable, possessing no religious or social importance, nor any particularly fascinating geological feature. The narrator’s language, however, reveals and repeats a quality not to be overlooked: the infinite. Forster, as Jameson explains using Howard’s End and the example of the Great North Road, has made use of the infinite before in relation to Empire, positing it as a modernist stylistic device that constitutes "a new spatial language that becomes the marker and substitute…of the unrepresentable totality" (58). In Chandrapore, where the Imperial dynamic manufactures totalities no less functional for their being manufactured, the infinitude of the Marabar Caves takes on the symbolic burden of representing a totalized, Real India—again, one side of the two possible in the specific context of this contested space.
That representation, however, is modified by an additional quality not mentioned by Jameson with regard to the Great North Road, and of special significance within the subject/object discourse: emptiness. The complete emptiness of the caves provides the key to destroying the meaning imposed on them, the key to Forster’s anti-Imperial rhetoric. "One of the caves is rumoured within the boulder that swings on the summit of the highest of the hills; a bubble-shaped cave that has neither ceiling nor floor, and mirrors its own darkness in every direction infinitely. If the boulder falls and smashes, the cave will smash too—empty as an Easter egg" (138). The manufactured, imposed representation of the Indian totality has no inherent substance. It exists only when viewed from the outside. The landscape of modernism in the First World permits the "infinite" Great North Road to extend conceptually beyond Britain’s borders. It symbolizes the potential of Empire, the path leading to the national destiny, expansion over an unrecognizable, unrepresented other. In the Marabar Caves, Forster shows us where the road ends—another infinity, enclosed, dark, leading nowhere, capable of showing only blurred reflections and sounding unintelligible echoes, boum, an unsustainable sham of enormous rocks that sway in the wind and rock beneath the weight of a crow. They "rob infinity and eternity of their vastness, the only quality that accommodates them to mankind" (165). The Marabar Caves are the end of Empire’s potential. Well beyond the supervision and control of the English masters, the presence in the caves of Mrs. Moore and Miss Quested, unattended by any representative of the English administration, transforms them into an interstitial locality of immense instability. Circumstance makes possible the representation of an India unfiltered through any external, mediating Imperial viewpoint. Their meaning as constructed by the logic of Imperialism disintegrates; questions, fears, and uncertainty arise as a result of Mrs. Moore and Miss Quested’s exploration. They are English, and the caves are off the map.
What follows in the novel are crises of identity linked to the larger crisis of cognitive mapping. The near-smothering of Mrs. Moore, and far more provocatively, the "insult" offered to Miss Quested, are immediately appropriated by Imperial voices to reassert the misrepresentation of the other, the manufactured totality threatened over the past days by the growing intimacy of Englishman and Indian. They move quickly to destroy the spaces between their club and Indian Chandrapore by placing immense pressure on characters in the periphery to return to their "proper" sides. The presumed perpetrator is revealingly assumed to be Aziz, a character of the interstitial space, troublesome to Ronny Heaslop ever since his mother encountered him in the mosque and started asking questions. By condemning Aziz as a criminal, representative of a race of criminals, the space he occupies can be emptied, reduced to a vacuum that must collapse.
Meanwhile, Aziz’s first defender, Dr. Fielding, is likewise warned of what the "wrong" choice will yield. He risks his last accepted “Englishness” simply by offering a voice in opposition to the peal of accusations. You’re either with us or against us, they exhort (we have recently heard this again, disturbingly). There is nowhere in between.
Faced with such a choice, in the light of what the two women have seen (or in Miss Quested’s case, what she has not), their identities are naturally endangered. Mrs. Moore is bound to Heaslop by blood; her attachment to him is a permanent one. To speak at the trial for her is to speak on behalf of Dr. Aziz, offering evidence of the nature of his character that would surely damage if not destroy the case against him. But she cannot, for to do so would irrevocably besmirch the reputation of her son, an act equally unconscionable to bearing false testimony. Miss Quested can choose to marry into Heaslop’s way of thinking, remaining bound to the club and the totalizing binary it represents, by a false accusation—the one he wants to hear—but that might destroy her by making her into precisely the sort of woman she claimed she never wanted to become. Two distinct and incommensurable realities fighting for a single space, in the mind and on the map. Choose the truth, and deny the Imperial mandate, deny England. Tell the lie, preserve the cognitive space, but know it for a falsehood and be forever lost within it. These are the contradictions that make what is, at last, under colonial rule, the Real India: Forster’s muddle. Moore and Quested witness the operational foundation of the colonial enterprise first-hand and cannot help but draw the structural connections of suffering and injustice in India to mangoes sold in the shops of London--the foundation in the mud leading up to the ivory tower.
Nonetheless, of the four central characters only Mrs. Moore violates the identity preserving non-inclusion principle, and she pays with her life. Dr. Aziz, Dr. Fielding, and even Miss Quested are rescued from similar catastrophes by mitigating circumstances that permit them to return not to any space of mutual understanding, but to their own respective sides, safely English or Indian. Each finally excludes or is excluded by the other in the wake of the trial. Quested claims no friendship with "Aziz or Indians generally" (288) and reduces her experience in the Marabar caves to an hallucination, a non-event locked permanently outside the realm of reality. Aziz ironically fulfills the mission of the subject/object relationship from the object side, asking Fielding to turn his back on England completely and "give in to the East" (289). Fielding does not. In addition to speaking on behalf of Adela and the question of restitution, rumors circulate about a possible affair between the two, upon which points the impossible friendship breaks. Adela returns to England and Fielding soon follows, retiring to the map of national origin into which the voice of the other cannot penetrate.
Mrs. Moore, on the other hand, never returns. She is absent from the trial, and the silence speaks loudly. Friend to Dr. Aziz, mother to Heaslop, she cannot reconcile the maps, not only of England’s to India’s, but the "hundred Indias" within the country itself (233). She sees through the Imperial representation of a single, subjugated other into the muddle, "a set up for which no high-sounding words can be found; we can neither ignore nor respect Infinity" (231). The symbolic infinities of the Great North Road and its end at the Marabar Caves exist and do not, held fast by thousands but amounting to nothing. This awareness renders her completely unsuited to life within the First World, where for her the true nature of its connection to the outlying colonial structure is not hidden by a spatial disjunction but readily apparent and real. Moore makes room for the actual other—others—in her cognitive map, incorporates ideas of India inconsistent with the prevailing hegemony. She takes no side, which as has been demonstrated, Empire cannot allow. Her death is appropriately symbolic. Neither English nor Indian, she dies between the nations, her final resting place an uncharted stretch of ocean floor. She then reappears in India in the voice of other: Esmiss Esmoor, her "Indianized" name chanted at the trial and built into a mythical figure of resistance. Even in death, sides must be taken.
Identity is defined by myriad relationships that serve to locate an individual within a society. Massive alteration of the cognitive map is an affront to that identity, frequently resulting in accordingly severe psychological trauma. To change the landmarks is to lose the self. The First World modernist space preserves the sanctity of the primary map, relegating the foundations of its praxis of life to the province of a distant Imperial force subjugating an unrepresented other. Inhabitants of the third world modernist space, however, must go to extraordinary lengths to recreate the conditions of home, misrepresent the once unheard voice as not merely other, but drastically different and vastly inferior in every respect. The metropolitan way of life to which they all one day hope to return depends on it; the Empire depends on it. But as Forster reveals, the Infinity that stands in for the other at home cannot stand in the sands of Chandrapore. The nothingness rises in its place. Only within it can the other be truly represented, not as a singularity but as a complex culture of multiple faces and voices.
Bhabha, Homi. “The Postcolonial and the Postmodern: The Question of Agency.” The Location of Culture. New York and London: Routledge, 1994. 171-197.
Jameson, Frederic. “Modernism and Imperialism.” Nationalism, Colonialism, and
Literature. Minnesota, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1990. 43-66.
--. “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” New Left Review 146
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