Crisis of Knowledge in A Passage to India

Personally, I was struck by the enigmatic quality of A Passage to India, which seems to resonate with the crisis of knowledge characteristic of modernist works. Throughout the novel, we are presented with events that we struggle to comprehend, as well as occurrences that underscore characters’ inability to grasp knowledge. For instance, we read of the failure of naming the “green bird”—calling it “bee-eater” and “parrot” though it is neither of the two (78)—and of identifying the animal that crashed into the car—with characters speculating that it was either a goat, buffalo or hyena (81-82). In fact, it is suggested that “nothing in India is identifiable”, perhaps highlighting a crisis of knowledge that plagues both the characters and the readers of the novel.

This failure to identify emerges again through attempts at describing sound. Firstly, Mrs. Moore describes the sound of the train moving as “pomper, pomper, pomper” (126), yet this train was “half asleep, going nowhere in particular” (127). Secondly, Mrs. Moore describes the echo in the Marabar Caves as “entirely devoid of distinction […] ‘boum’ is the sound as far as the human alphabet can express it, or ‘bou-oum’, or ‘ou-boum’ – utterly dull” (137). Again, we notice the preoccupation with naming, with expressing with certainty and through language. The novel however critiques this, insisting that it is impossible for “the mind [to] take hold of such a country” (127).

Where does this crisis of knowledge leave us then? If we were to look at the relationship between Modernism and Empire, perhaps we could say that the desire to name and to know relates to power relations; it is those who can name and know that have the power. Modernism’s crisis of knowledge thus serves as a critique of Empire, suggesting that we need to re-examine our understanding of Empire, and calling for a re-awakening of what we know or think we know about Empire.

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