I'm bumping this to the top of the queue on general principle. It's one of the oldest posts here, having originally been posted on May 6, 2010. This is the third post in a series of five posts dealing with the symbolic deployment of racial difference. The first was about Shakespeare’s Caliban while the second was about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. All five have been collected into a working paper, Five Easy Pieces: Race in the Symbolic Universe (June 2014).
Now I want do deal with projected sexuality as depicted in two more recent novels: William Faulkner's Light in August (1932) and E. M. Forster's A Passage to India (1924). Faulkner, like Twain, is central to the recognized canon of American literature and Light in August is one of his most important works. Forster of course, is British, not American, and, as such, is a more direct heir to the psycho-cultural dynamic of Prospero's magic island. But Forster's novel is worth discussing because it displays much the same psychological dynamics as Faulkner's even though the racial Other is an Asian Indian rather than an African American. The psycho-cultural dynamic I'm concerned about didn't originate in America. The European settlers brought it with them. It is a Western problem, not an exclusively American one – nor, for that matter, is it exclusively Western (whatever that means), but that’s well beyond the scope of this post.
A Passage to India centers on Adela Quested and Dr. Aziz. Ms. Quested came to India to be with her fiancé, Ronny Moore, who was stationed there. Dr. Aziz is a local physician who befriended her in her desire to see the "real" India. In particular, he took her and some companions to see the Marabar caves, a local natural wonder that was sacred to the Hindus. While walking in one of these caves Ms. Quested become confused, lost all sense of herself, and after coming out concluded that she must have been raped by Dr. Aziz. From that suspicion came a trial and during the trial Ms. Quested admitted that Dr. Aziz had not followed her into the cave at all. Hence he could not have raped her.
Why would Forster make such an incident the center of his novel? Because he wanted to underline a hidden sexuality in the British attitude toward the Indians. Just as Tom Sawyer used Jim as a screen on which to project his fantasies of escape and capture, so Forster's British used the Indians as a screen on which to project their own sexuality. Ms. Quested came to India to be with her fiancé, a man she found to be stilted, boring, and less interesting than the enthusiastic Dr. Aziz. The warmth and sexuality she saw in Aziz was the warmth and sexuality she wanted in her fiance, but was unable to find. And the outrage which the British community felt over this alleged rape had more to do with their collective fears and hidden desires than it had to do with justice.
Much of the book is conversation. And much of that conversation is that of one social group trying to make some sense out of the actions of another social group. For the most part we have Indians trying to make sense out of the British, and British trying to make sense out of the Indians. Much of the mutual puzzlement can justifiably be attributed to cultural difference. But these conversations aren't matters of mere curiosity about the others; they are part of a social process. And that social process is one of oppression. The British, in their conversations, talk of the inferiority of the Indians and, hence, the justice of British rule. The Indians are concerned both with insulating themselves from the British and with maintaining their dignity in the face of the ruling raj.
Forster's British men think of the Indians as women (or children). And, just as man is destined to rule over woman, so the British are destined to rule over Indians. Indian women have almost no role in the book; the key Indian characters are all male. And they are depicted in ways that give them many of the stereotypical attributes of women—they are emotional, dependent, changeable, they take poetry seriously. Forster is quite clearly sympathetic to these men; but his British males are not. Let us grant that Forster's sympathetic portrayal of Aziz and friends is accurate—I certainly don't have any grounds on which to question it. As such, it does reflect real cultural difference. But that cultural difference functions in this novel as sexual difference, the politics are sexual politics. The cold, rational British male must rule over warm, emotional creatures - such as women and Indians.
We see a typical example of this attitude in the testimony of the Superintendent of Police, Mr. McBryde, who opened the trial for the prosecution. At one point McBryde remarked, under the general heading of Oriental Pathology, that "the darker races are physically attracted by the fairer, but not vice versa . . ." At this point someone in the court most ungraciously commented "Even when the lady is so uglier than the gentleman?" McBryde's comment is standard racist fare. The "darker races" are sexually rapacious and inevitably drawn to white women. The anonymous reply, while certainly not meeting current tests of political correctness, restores a measure of volition and even dignity to the sexual preferences of the "darker races." The statement doesn't deny sexuality, but it clearly indicates that Aziz and others exercise discrimination in their choice of objects. They are not the slaves of mere whiteness.
However certain her countrymen (and women) where about the events at the Marabar caves, Adela herself was not so sure. As the trial approached, she gave voice to her doubts about what happened, or did not happen, in the cave. She was counseled to put those doubts aside and to give testimony against Aziz. When she finally recanted and the case was dismissed, she was ostracized. Mrs. Turton, wife of the local head of the raj, had remarked that she would never see Adela again. On the face of it, that is a strange attitude. Yes, it is unfortunate and a bit embarrassing that Adela made this groundless accusation against Aziz. But now that it is over, wouldn't it be reasonable and humane to be glad that this business is over and help Adela restore herself to society? Why shun her, for the embarrassment is mostly hers.
Or is it? We need to ask ourselves why the Anglo-Indian community was so eager to embrace Adela's cause and to bring Aziz to trial. What Forster is showing us is that much of the British attitude toward the Indians originates in their own repression. Successful prosecution of the charge against Aziz would confirm their sense of moral and cultural superiority. This horrible sexual beast would have been exposed, captured, tried and convicted, and now will be punished. God only knows, so they were thinking, what would have happened to these people if we British hadn't come around to save them from their own animality. That is how a conviction would have allowed the British to feel.
Instead, Adela dissipated this energy with her admission that nothing had happened, leaving the British all worked up and nowhere to go. They were expecting a full-dress rape trial, complete with testimony about awful sex acts, and now have nothing to satisfy those expectations. With these unsatisfied expectations stirring in their souls they are a bit too close to suspecting that they need the trial for their own unconscious reasons. In this situation it is easier simply to shun Adela, to avoid the whole incident. Instead of making Aziz their scapegoat, they use Adela, since she's the one who made them uneasy.
I leave it as an exercise to the reader to consider the preceding remarks in view of the fact that Forster was gay.
With William Faulkner's Light in August we are in the American South. The story centers on one Joe Christmas, who has an affair with Joanna Burden, a recluse who lives outside the small town of Jefferson, Mississippi. Eventually he rapes and murders her, then runs, is captured, escapes and is hunted down, killed, and castrated. This story is framed by that of Lena Grove, a poor white country girl who is made pregnant by Lucas Burch and who journeys to Jefferson to find Lucas, who has become Christmas's partner in the bootleg business. She meets Byron Bunch who befriends her and sees that she is attended during labor. Lucas runs away from her but, as the novel closes, Byron is traveling with her and the implication is that they will be married.
The central story gets its horrible depth from the curious ambiguity of Joe Christmas's racial identity. He appears to be white, but there is some little reason to think he may have some black blood in him, making him a black man, at least by the standards of the American South--and North and West as well, but those regions play no role in the story. For Joanna Burden, this bit of blackness is much the attraction and point of her affair (from chapter 12):
Now and then she appointed trysts beneath certain shrubs about the grounds, where he would find her naked, or with her clothing half torn to ribbons upon her, in the wild throes of nymphomania, her body gleaming in the slow shifting from one to another of such formally erotic attitudes and gestures as a Beardsley of the time of Petronius might have drawn. She would be wild then, in the close, breathing halfdark without walls, with her wild hair, each strand of which would seem to come alive like octopus tentacles, and her wild hands and her breathing: "Negro! Negro! Negro!"
To Joanna Burden, Joe Christmas is just a black sexual animal, as unconnected to the larger social fabric of Jefferson as she is, totally lacking in individuality.
Both Christmas and Burden are victims of grandfatherly obsession. Christmas's grandfather, Doc Hines, is an ex-preacher and a rabid racist. His daughter Milly ran off with a circus performer. She said her lover was Mexican, which is what he told her. But Doc Hines, who killed the man, claimed he was black—and the circus owner may have said that as well. The kids at the orphanage called young Joe "nigger." We never really know. The issue is ambiguous. But not to Doc, or later to Joanna, or the lynch mob. Joe's putative blackness so angered Doc, and he felt so guilty about it, that he took a job as a janitor at the orphanage where he left his grandson after the boy's birth on Christmas Eve. That way he could keep an eye on the boy and see that no white person was ever contaminated by him.
In a parallel, but opposite fashion, Joanna Burden is the granddaughter of a Puritan abolitionist who had been murdered in the South in retaliation for his work on behalf of blacks. Joanna's sexual obsession is his legacy to her. She lived as a single woman and met Joe Christmas when in her late thirties or early forties. For three years she had an affair with him, more or less in secret. He lived in a cabin on the grounds of her house. He would come in through the kitchen, eat food she had left for him, and then go to the bedroom (or elsewhere) to have sex with her. As befitting her abolitionist heritage, she wanted him to get an education and take over her financial affairs—mainly giving money and advice to black colleges.
For none of these people is Joe Christmas a person. As Alfred Kazin argues in his classic essay on "The Stillness of Light in August", Joe Christmas is an abstraction trying to become a person. The central characteristic by which others define him, his blackness, is doubtful. It exists more in their minds than in him. That is the link between Faulkner's South and Forster's India. The Moslem Dr. Aziz didn't really rape Adela Quested. That rape happened only in her mind, and in the collective fantasies of her colonial cohorts. That sexuality, like Christmas's blackness, is mostly in the minds of the surrounding racists.
Both Forster and Faulkner give us a symbolic universe in which one group of people project their sexuality onto another group, a group over which they have control. Their efforts to control that group are, symbolically, efforts to control their own repressed desires. The trouble, of course, is that no matter how effectively you control the Other, whether the indigenous Indian or the African American, your own desires continue to make their claim on your actions. Trials and lynchings can confirm you in the rightness of your actions, and offer some temporary relief. But neither offers lasting satisfaction.