A Passage to India Questions and Answers
by E. M. Forster

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Analyze in detail the ways in which the texts in A Passage to India by E. M. Forster and "An Encounter" by James Joyce relate to Clive Bell's chapter and theory on "Aesthetics and Post-Impressionism."    

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Clive Bell's influential volume of aesthetic criticism, entitled simply Art (1914), is best known for its articulation of three notions which ultimately became catchwords not only in his immediate environment of the Bloomsbury circle (of painters, poets, and novelists) but in Anglo-American Modernist circles as well.

The influence of Bell's notion of "significant form," is, for example, readily apparent in T. S. Eliot's prose criticism. Indeed, it is the notion of "significant form"—by which Bell means "lines and colors combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms [that] stir our aesthetic emotions"—for which Bell is perhaps best known.

Almost equally important, however, are the related concepts of 1) "aesthetic emotion" (meaning simply the "peculiar emotion provoked by works of art") and 2) "post-impressionism," which Bell uses variously to refer to then-recent developments in French art post-dating the heyday of Impressionistism (that include Claude Monet and others).

Post-impressionism, as exemplified by Edouard Manet, marked, in Bell's view, a recovery of attention to sempiternal "significant form" in the fine arts and, as such, an awakening after the figurative slumber of the plastic arts that Bell detected in Impressionism—of "aesthetic emotion. Post-impressionism, then, was a movement—a revolution—and, in a sense, merely a recovery of the perennial capacity of the best art to provoke a particular human emotion through the personal experience of encountering it.

In James Joyce's short story "An Encounter," two young boys skip school and play truant for a day. While walking around a field, they encounter a strange older man who talks to them about literature. The narrator pretends familiarity with the works to which the man refers, namely those of Thomas Moore, Sir Walter Scott, and Lord Lytton.

The older man sees in the narrator a kindred spirit and exclaims: "Ah, I can see you are a bookworm like me," whereas the other boy (Mahony) is dismissed as one who "goes in for games." The man then proceeds to make the narrator very uncomfortable by alluding to having a sweetheart, and, ultimately, saying how much he would enjoy whipping a boy—an experience which he seems to associate with "some great mystery."

It is hinted at that the pleasure that the man derives from his imagined experience is co-extensive with his aesthetic taste, as evidenced in his choice of literature. Both prompt extreme emotion in the man; for example, he points out that he "never tired" of reading Lytton and Scott. He seamlessly moves off into his discussion of girls and boys and whipping. The narrator is frightened by the strange man and is relieved when Mahony (now called Murphy, as they have decided to use fake names) rescues him.

In "An Encounter," the young narrator lacks the "aesthetic emotion" stirred up by a work of art, largely because he has not experienced the works of art in question but also because something in him is not yet equipped for that level of experience. It is frightening to him, and he can only pretend to have access to it in order to appear to be sophisticated. The reality of the threat that the man represents to the boy is immediate; the promise of (pre-modern) art is somehow associated with that threat, but it is remote for the time being. The novels mentioned by the man do not speak directly to the boy's contemporary experience.

In E. M. Forster's A Passage to India, post-impressionism is not something that eludes the grasp of children but rather something that gives rise to hurt feelings and misunderstanding between adults from different cultures. Forster actually uses the term "post-impression" in depicting a conversation between Dr. Aziz, the Indian doctor, and the British expatriate Mr. Fielding. It is Dr. Aziz who, upon hearing that a new visitor to India (Miss Brested) is "artistic," asks if she is "a post-impressionist." Mr. Fielding replies rather harshly: "Post Impressionism, indeed! Come along to tea. This world is getting too much for me altogether."

This exchange gives rise to offense on the part of Dr. Aziz. He feels that he has been insulted. To him:

the remark suggested that he, an obscure Indian, had no right to have heard of Post Impressionism—a privilege reserved for the Ruling Race.

In fact, Forster indicates, Mr. Fielding actually thinks that the whole notion of "Post Impressionism" is pretentious and silly, not that Mr. Aziz is. Here, as in Joyce's "An Encounter," talk of art—or, in this case, art criticism—does not create harmony or foster friendship; rather, it provokes alienation and reinforces differences.

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