Decent People

D.W. Harding

  • The Root and the Flower by L.H. Myers
    Secker, 583 pp, £8.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 436 29810 4

The plan Myers adopted of framing a discussion of 20th-century people and their problems in Akbar’s India is vindicated by the freshness the novel has in this reissue fifty years after it was written. Finished when Myers was in his early fifties, it presents a mature and civilised man’s experience of picking his way among the decent and the detestable people of a sophisticated civilisation. Features of the background – the dictator state, the secret intelligence service and its ubiquitous agents, an underground movement, rival religions associated with political factions, mass executions, unexplained murders, prostitutes accidentally involved in high politics – such things have certainly not grown more remote from us since the late 1920s when the first novel of the trilogy appeared. Nor has the difficulty diminished of isolating personal moral convictions from practical politics.

The great variety of the praise the book evoked when it first appeared reflects the fact that Myers was civilised enough to suppose that an author must make his offering as attractive as conversation, not buttonholing his readers as if they had an obligation to listen to his troubles and convictions, but giving them inducements to go on reading. He is remarkably fertile in devising incidents, minor characters are vividly sketched, the excited bustle of social occasions contrasts with quiet scenes of natural landscape (not meticulously detailed, more like imaginative and effective stage sets), philosophical reflections are skilfully merged into character and action, and he offers an unfolding plot in which subordinate puzzles, episodes of suspense, forebodings, glimpses of intrigue, all create minor turbulence on a deeper wave, mounting irresistibly to the crucial choice between good and evil in a world where in the end personal values and political action cannot be held apart. The ultimate choice is made not in terms of practical politics, let alone ideology, but from detestation of a person, one who expresses a transcendent force of evil, and by a person who believes in no such force and thinks he has freed himself from personal attachments and antipathies.

The decent people of the novel, seen in close up, are four adults and an adolescent boy, all with faults and limitations, critical of one another, but united by trust in each other’s moral seriousness and by a shared distaste for the ‘hardness, coarseness, and ostentation’ of the society established by Akbar’s empire. The positively evil force is only gradually defined, focused at last in Prince Daniyal. The practical problem, for everyone with political responsibilities, is whether to support the intelligent but apparently trifling aesthete Daniyal as future Emperor, or his half-brother Salim, a drink-sodden boor and a secret adherent of the orgiastic cults which Akbar’s persecutions have driven underground. Between the decent people and the evil, Myers introduces a varied array of characters, all involved in some degree with one side or the other, whether as dupes, victims, allies, tools or would-be exploiters. As possible people in the world Myers knew, they are not only portrayed but always, tacitly or explicitly, appraised. That they should be is central to the purpose he defined in his Preface to the 1934 volume.

When a novelist displays an attitude of aesthetic detachment from the ordinary ethical and philosophical preoccupations of humanity, something in us protests – we charge him with a kind of inverted cant, or of artistic snobbery. Proust, for instance, by treating all sorts of sensibility as equal in importance, and all manifestations of character as standing on the same plane of significance, adds nothing to his achievement, but only draws attention to himself as aiming at the exaltation of a rather petty form of aestheticism.

  For my part I believe that a man serves himself better by showing a respect for such moral taste as he may possess ... While a great deal is made of aesthetic sensibility and its refinements, we hear very little about moral sensibility. It is ignored; and the deep-seated spiritual vulgarity that lies at the heart of our civilisation commonly passes without notice ... Is there less range of merit in personalities than in works of art?

Unfortunately, the reprint silently omits his Preface and though Penelope Fitzgerald’s Introduction includes some useful biographical facts it cannot balance the loss.

Of the major characters, Rajah Amar is gradually and unexpectedly moved into the centre of the action. Buddhist self-discipline has brought him to the point where he feels fitted for withdrawal from the world – once he has fulfilled his last responsibility of committing his small principality to a political alignment that his wife Sita can maintain during their son Jali’s minority, with guidance from Gokal, his Brahmin friend. In spite of Daniyal’s reputation as a trifler, and in spite of disliking him when they meet, Amar judges that his faction is the stronger, and must in prudence be supported against Salim’s. Sidelights on Daniyal’s character make him a little uneasy lest he should be committing Sita ‘to an allegiance that would be offensive to her personal standards’. In an anticipatory irony he reflects: ‘For his part he found little difficulty in sifting out questions of personality from questions of policy but Sita was otherwise constituted.’ Hari, the impulsive and romantic member of the group of friends, warns him: ‘You have made no terms with the feminine in yourself, and of that we all partake. Some day it may wreak vengeance upon you.’ As the climax comes nearer, Gokal begs Amar to recognise the full force of his intuitive revulsion from Daniyal: then ‘you will change your attitude from one of frigid and contemptuous self-withdrawal accompanied by outward acquiescence into one of hot anger and nonacquiescence.’

Besides refusing to respect the intensity of his own feelings, Amar has neglected the fact borne in on Jali amid the vulgarities of smart society at the Durbar that however politely conformist the decent and sensitive are, the others will infallibly detect and dislike them. At the extreme of evil represented by Daniyal – the worst of several degrees of ‘wickedness’ that Gokal defines – goodness is accurately perceived and deeply hated: ‘what the wicked man desires is this: that the gentle and the innocent, the kindly and the wise – all those to whom goodness is dear – should be offered a spectacle of the world such that they sicken at heart – sicken with a horror far more awful than any that could be caused by personal affliction.’ Daniyal sends for Amar and deliberately displays himself as the evil person he really is. Amar, the Buddhist – almost, he himself believes, free from anger as a lurking possibility, a prudent judge of what is politically practicable – reacts as a person, draws his sword against the Prince and is instantly felled by a blow to the head from the bodyguard Daniyal has placed in readiness. ‘Another minute, and I really believe he would have run me through. A very hot-tempered gentleman!’ the Prince remarks. The problem of anger, its psychological validity, its practical futility, had been announced as a theme in the opening incident of the trilogy: Jali watches a snake, exasperated beyond bearing, explode into a lunge fatal to itself.

Amar triumphs by at last recognising and defying, though fatally, the evil he had tried to deny the existence of. Identifying evil, defining the detestable, is one of Myers’s major preoccupations. Goodness, the quality uniting the decent though imperfect people, he seems to treat as a natural thing in most of his characters, though only rudimentary in all but a few. True, his belief in a transcendent force of evil obliges him to find an opposed force outside man as well as part of him: he makes Gokal say, in an imaginary argument with Amar, that the love uniting them ‘is more than human and seeks what is more than human. It rests upon an intuition that for you a man is lovable inasmuch as he partakes of the divine essence ... it testifies to your unacknowledged recognition of God.’ But compared with the attention given to the diabolical, God and his ways are dealt with almost perfunctorily. That forms one of the contrasts between Myers’s book and another novel of the late 1920s, Mr Weston’s Good Wine by T.F. Powys, which has also been reissued, together with a perceptive and generously appreciative Introduction by Ronald Blythe.[*] Powys’s fantasy of God coming to earth (its whimsicality controlled enough to be tolerable) makes God not only benign but powerful, judging and in some measure rewarding good and evil in the simplicities of village life. Myers’s survey of the same qualities among the fashionable and prosperous leaves him less assured. If his God had come down from heaven he would have had his back to the wall. Amar affirms his faith in Karma, ‘the noblest intuition of our race’, but Hari replies: ‘I know that the sun will rise in the east; would to God I felt equally certain that evil bore with it its inevitable expiation.’

‘It will come again,’ says Gokal when Amar points out the shabbiness and incipient dereliction of the Camp, the Pleasance of the Arts – Daniyal’s temporary festival village which Jali, too, had been comforted to think of as soon rotting in the lakeside marsh over which it was built. ‘Here,’ says Penelope Fitzgerald of the Camp, ‘Myers perhaps lets his prejudices run away with him.’ Readers in the 1930s naturally had Bloomsbury and Cambridge in mind, and she records that Myers admitted the Camp to be ‘a monstrous version’ of those coteries. In the same way a poison may be a monstrous version of what occurs naturally in dilute form before the herbalist decocts it. But in any case an alert and sexually active boy growing up in the 1890s (Myers was 19 at the turn of the century) had no need to wait for the 1920s and 30s to show him a self-nominated élite of pretentious aesthetes who found part of their distinctiveness in homosexuality. Although he made some acquaintance in Bloomsbury at one time, and of course knew all he wanted of Cambridge where his home had been, his habitat was Mayfair, among people whose wealth and social background brought them nearer to the characters of the trilogy.

Modern readers need not be too disturbed by his attitude to homosexuality if they observe what Myers actually says. He ignores, it is true, the possibility of a deep love relation between people of the same sex, presumably not having met with it. But he puts his general position with no great heat or intolerance in a conversation between Hari Khan and Mabun Das, head of Akbar’s intelligence agency, who is secretly working against Daniyal’s claim to the succession. The scene achieves the object Myers aimed at throughout, of fusing plot, character and moral problem: Mabun, the astute, ruthless, hard-working administrator with a clear mind for the necessities, is delicately considerate about asking the more privileged and fastidious Hari to commit a little perjury in the good cause of discrediting Daniyal. He has to remind Hari that it would be useless simply to expose Daniyal’s homosexual practices: that would only remind Akbar of his own early days ‘and of rough, manly loves amongst the young warriors of the Steppes. Sodomy, in his view of it, is at the furthest possible remove from effeminacy or perversion ... And in this country, too, amongst us Hindus, sodomy, you must remember, ranks only in the fourth degree of misdoing, it takes an inconspicuous place with “dissimulation, looking disrespectfully at a Brahmin, and smelling any spirituous liquor, or anything extremely fetid and unfit to be smelt”.’

Myers would probably have spared no more than a passing clinical glance at such things as A.E. Housman’s trips to Paris or Wittgenstein’s forays into the squalider streets of Vienna. Hints of what he detested in the Camp are more likely to be found in P.N. Furbank’s life of E.M. Forster, where, for instance, he quotes a letter from an academic intellectual who engaged in ‘friendly pandering’ for Forster: the letter offers encouragement, together with advice on tactics of seduction, when Forster was taking his young policeman on a motoring holiday and had to overcome the man’s reluctance to be unfaithful to his wife. The flavour of gloating and smirking brings a whiff from the marsh that Daniyal’s Camp had polluted, the smell they tried to mask with clouds of aromatic smoke from braziers.

Myers, however, is more convinced than convincing when he maintains that Daniyal’s homosexuality is the cause of the concentrated evil of his personality. He makes a yogi assert that Daniyal falls into the worst of various classes of homosexual. In Daniyal ‘there was such grave aberrancy that the whole character of the man must necessarily be vitiated. The most potent of all human instincts could not deviate so widely from its proper channel without bringing about a distortion and disordering of the entire nature.’ The vague assertion carries no weight. Myers’s strength was as a novelist, and the evil in Daniyal is effectively defined through glimpses of his associates and of one of his victims, and eventually, in the climax, by the novelist’s basic tool of showing action in situation. With simulated friendliness Daniyal delicately taunts Amar about his wife’s affair with Hari, which threatens the peace of mind Amar needs for his imminent retirement from the world; then, after a display of exaggerated nonchalance when one of Salim’s raiding parties disturbs the Camp, he exhibits his skill in juggling three coloured balls. Gunevati, the beautiful girl who has served in the forbidden religious orgies with Salim, is sitting in mute misery: her tongue has been cut out (not on Daniyal’s orders, as Penelope Fitzgerald says – it was the last thing Daniyal wanted – but by agents of Mabun Das because she has begun to give information). Daniyal hopes to frighten still more disclosures from her. Members of her cult were executed by being trampled and crushed by mad elephants, and Daniyal has one whose trumpetings are sometimes heard. Gunevati’s only sign of responsiveness had come when a white cat jumped onto her lap and she smiled and stroked it. Now the cat ran to Daniyal and rubbed itself against his leg, making him miss one of the balls. He puts his foot on its head and crushes it. At the sounds of the cracking bones, ‘the Prince’s eyes glanced for one smiling second into those of Gunevati.’ She faints. Daniyal saunters up to Amar as if to start a casual conversation, defying him to object to this display of himself as he is and so provoking Amar’s fatal attack. Violence, including murder, is by no means excluded for Myers from the repertory of civilised decent people, as The Orissers, his earlier novel, had indicated. In the evil of Daniyal Amar is given a legitimate and irresistible target for the anger that has always been part of him in spite of every effort to rid himself of it.

In Daniyal’s display of evil, homosexuality is involved only indirectly – in the presence of one of his discarded catamites, the princeling he has reduced to abject silliness and allows to hang around him in order to show how indulgent he can be. Much more evident throughout the final scenes with Daniyal is his deliberate trivialising of everything that matters. His way of taunting Amar about his withdrawal from the world when Sita and Hari are in love has been used to set the tone for the climactic scene; he assures Amar that Sita, to procure Daniyal’s protection of her lover, will persuade both Hari and Gokal to act against their conscience:

Oh yes, we shall all get on famously together. But to think of you all by yourself in Ceylon! Rajah, are you sure that you won’t change your mind? I know that for some people religion is a necessity. I am not narrow-minded on the subject. But really to run away to a monastery at your age! – and to leave one’s pretty wife behind! Are you sure you want to go as far as that?

The keynote of the Camp is the inversion of values – important things treated with flippancy and serious concern reserved for what matters less. Daniyal breaks off his airy discussion of Amar’s affairs to exclaim in outrage at the way his brocades are being packed. It is this inversion which helps to make Daniyal ‘amusing’ and which allows him to be tolerated by one of Amar’s friends, a society hostess for whom Amar himself, as he recognises, seems

a little cramped by prudishness. In his view, on the other hand, her placid overlooking of moral standards simply meant that her taste was one-sided, incomplete. Perhaps even she halted, with most of the world, at that stage where immorality still retains a certain glamour. Nor was she sophisticated enough to hold sophistication cheap.

Daniyal is the final distillation of the Camp’s characteristics: shallow aestheticism, bogus intellectualism, sniggering excitement over petty naughtinesses, heartlessness, malicious scoring off the vulnerable, a fragile self-esteem based on the conviction of being daringly different from ordinary society. Whether homosexuality is a necessary part of this constellation may be in doubt; Myers offers no very attractive picture of the heterosexual majority. There, too, the sexual relation is trivialised. The brainless young Ranee Jagashri appears first in the conventional society gathered for the Durbar, engaged in casual promiscuities (which include making herself amusedly accessible to the youthful Jali); later, having gained entrée to the Camp, she does her best to work up a lesbian affair so as to keep in the swim. And Ambissa – older, and unsparing of herself and of others in her pursuit of worldly power – prostitutes to Daniyal both her odious son Ali and the impulsively romantic Lalita. Because he damned the trivialising of sex Myers was logically committed to specifying the alternative. The sexual relation in a mature and civilised person’s life, potentially ‘serious’ in the sense in which his practical and philosophical activities are serious, forms part of the climax towards which the novel moves, reaching definition at the same time as Amar’s decisive stand against evil.

Sex at its simplest is represented by Gunevati, the low-caste girl who initiates Jali into its natural pleasures, and the force of that urge is a thread running through the trilogy. It leads Gokal, the philosopher and guide of the group of friends, to take Gunevati into open concubinage, to their pity and dismay. It also provides the driving force for the orgiastic worship of Kali by the secret cults which Akbar has attempted to stamp out. In this form, its limited possibilities, elementary as well as elemental, are suggested by the quality of the devotees brought into the story: Gunevati herself – ‘quite without character, intelligence, taste or moral sense’, in Amar’s words; Prince Salim, stupid, bullying, drink-sodden; the sly yogi of vaunted sexual capabilities; the Governor of Kathiapur, hearty and crude, who almost touches dignity when he exclaims: ‘ “I would willingly die for the Great Goddess. – And,” he added with a sudden drop into bitterness, “I very likely shall.” ’

Gunevati has shown Jali not only the simple pleasure sex can give but how easily he can use it for making a sort of contact with the shallow but intimidating social world by becoming a precocious young rake. Hardly beyond that phase has been his uncle Hari’s notorious philandering. But as the story opens Hari has taken a further step in his progress by embarking on an affair with the honestly passionate Lalita; its wild imprudence (she is betrothed to Daniyal) compels them, each in misery, to abandon the affair. Seeing Hari’s deep distress, Amar’s Christian wife Sita, whom Myers makes the most simply admirable of all the women, almost a moral touchstone, realises that ‘he had at least put some genuine feeling into it. She could believe that it had been a romance and not mere loveless gallantry.’ But Hari’s development had further to go, and his next step takes the form of his deeply serious love for Sita herself, whose own love for Amar has subsided into friendship.

Hari’s decisive bid for her love develops from a curious incident in which Myers makes Hari almost like a gleeful small boy when a rift between his parents feeds an unconscious fantasy of detaching his mother from his father. The scene has an odd incongruity: the novel is devoted to a group of wealthy, privileged people whose servants see to everything for them except their love affairs, their spiritual development and their enmeshment in politics, and the preceding chapter has been concerned with Gokal’s reaction to Sita’s Christian beliefs and his anxiety lest she and Hari were falling in love and might disturb the quiet understanding that would allow Amar to make his retirement with an untroubled mind. Into this elevated context there intrudes the little scene in which Hari, after a night of storm, overhears what he gathers with amusement and delight is a domestic quarrel between Sita and Amar – who has left the shutters open overnight and allowed the rain to soak her best dresses. It is very simply a scene of father getting into trouble from mother. For Hari,

it was strange, perhaps, that he stayed to listen, especially as he had a horror of the revelations that spring from certain changes of voice or manner when people are carried away. In his time he had heard more than one fine lady lose her temper and always to his disillusionment. Yet now, he stood his ground, and, listening, fell into a positive enchantment. Sita could let herself go as much as she pleased, she could storm and rage, but no harm would ensue. Nor did the unfortunate Amar lack dignity ...

Myers makes no attempt to explain the immense elation. But Hari in a minute or two reveals himself to Sita and signals to her to join him outside without Amar’s knowing. They recognise and confess their deep love for each other. As Hari had been approaching the house, he had paused by a lakelet: ‘Three huge blue and white butterflies appeared and began tumbling about over their own clear reflections.’ As he returned, knowing that he and Sita were united in their love, ‘the two butterflies were still tumbling about over the lily-pond ...’ There is nothing to show that Myers noticed that he had turned three into two – the phrasing suggests not – but, wittingly or not, the whole episode expands the paradigm of the eternal triangle of infancy.

For the men in the novel, the love relation offers a hope of allaying the distress of isolation, which drives Jali late at night to try to find his mother’s room along the corridors of the strange palace. His uncle Hari offers reassurance with worldly advice: ‘Pretend to yourself that you are like the others ... Everyone is doing it.’ But some time later when Hari has had to abandon his romantic attachment to Lalita he too suffers in the same way: ‘ “I am alone in the world,” thought Hari, “and every man is for ever alone.” ’ Later still, his love for Sita engaging far more of his personality than any previous affair, he experiences the most painful minutes in the whole of his life when he believes she has after all rejected him, has ‘discovered that her heart was, in reality, bound to her husband and child.’ For Gokal, too, Sita becomes something of a mother figure, a steady sympathetic presence while he tries to recover from emotional and physical collapse after Gunevati has poisoned him and gone off: ‘he not only found comfort in Sita, but was astonished by her power of consolation, which went far beyond anything that he had thought possible. For the first time in his life he realised the full possible value of loving-kindness as a factor in human experience.’ The mother figure, in one aspect or another, comes into the book more insistently than Myers explicitly indicated or perhaps noticed. Amar’s spiritual development has detached him from Sita, but his actual mother appears briefly and passively on her death-bed, and, without any preparatory hint, Myers speaks then of Amar’s looking at ‘those lineaments that he loved above all others’.

In presenting the love relation between Hari and Sita, Myers goes beyond his earlier work in his effort to imagine the woman’s attitude. The effort is, in fact, too evident, with something readymade about the freely emotional language of her reflections. For her, as for the men, love offers an alternative to loneliness. The background of her life is exile from the Christian community in the Caucasus from which Amar brought her: ‘Jali was his father’s son; alien like his father; and she longed for her native land and for a people unlike these, whose very tenderness floated upon waters of resignation and sorrow.’ In her love for Hari she hopes to find relief from the sense of isolation: ‘Love is the only fire at which we can warm ourselves when the great spaces look down on us, and the empty coldness of them settles upon us. Up here, under the huge, snowy mountains, I feel remote from the ordinary kindlinesses of life. Yesterday I walked to the edge of the valley and looked down into the pearly distance towards the plains, and I thought that nothing could match the loveliness of the earth except an exquisite love in the hearts of men.’

But the woman whose outlook Myers tries to imagine sees love, not only as a safeguard against isolation, but as a force giving unity to her own self. Lamenting Gokal’s infatuation with Gunevati, which merely disrupted the life of philosophical and religious teaching he had made for himself, Sita reflects: ‘A woman saw that in this confused, fragmentary world love was the only power that could fuse a life into unity and endow it with form and significance.’ Unity in a life supposes stability and continuity, and Sita is more realistically anxious than Hari lest his love should fade:

  Often she fixed upon him a gaze of troubled intensity. ‘I wonder if you can understand? It is dreadfully important to me. You must not break the course of my life with something that is not deep, I could not bear it. It may sound foolish, but my world is very precious to me. You are seeking to break into it. You have broken into it. And now ...’

   When she spoke in this fashion Hari would look anxiously into his heart, but still he could find nothing to shake his self-confidence. Calling Lalita back into mind, so dissimilar did that experience and this seem to him that no points emerged even for comparison. And it was the same when he looked further back.

Yet for Sita, too, as for the other characters Myers enters into, the dread of isolation is part of a self that also demands privacy and independence. She imagines pleading with Hari: ‘although I need you, I also need to wander in the lands of my own mind – solitary and free ... You – who are free, too, really – you must let me be free.’ The yearning to be at one with other people or with one other person is always checked by the cherishing of some individual privacy; if separation were completely overcome, we should be living in each other’s wombs. The problem is sharp in childhood, and a big part of the development Myers imagines for Jali is his struggle between loneliness and the need to define himself as a different person from what he supposes his elders to suppose him. In the child of loving and attentive parents privacy is almost bound to go over into secrecy and concealment, a fact that Myers dramatises by entangling Jali’s secret development with affairs of state which threaten his parents and friends, until at last, at the turning point, he realises how fully, after all, he is on the side of the decent against the detestable. But the independent identity of each person in a love affair implies, ultimately, unpredictability. It is this that Sita is made to fear: ‘Don’t draw me into any depths however sweet ... For I should not be able to emerge whole again; and you – perhaps you would!’

Myers uses the story of Sita and Hari to express the stubborn, constantly renewed European hope of an enduring love, sexually sealed, between a man and a woman. John Donne expressed the same hope:

     Only our love hath no decay;
This, no to morrow hath, nor yesterday.

And the same fear:

Love is a growing, or full constant light;
And his first minute, after noone, is night.

Myers affirms the value of hoping for a lasting love relation between two independent people. But he avoids putting his lovers’ hopes to the test. Hari and Sita commit themselves fully to each other, but the problems intrinsic to such a relation are forestalled by the external calamity of Amar’s being struck down in the Camp. As Gokal brings him home, unconscious, perhaps dying, his heart sinks at the thought of the blow he would be dealing the lovers. ‘ “Nearly four weeks!” he said to himself. “They have had nearly four weeks.” And he tried to take comfort in the thought that the beauty of a personal relation, no matter how brief in time, in eternity is everlasting.’ Gokal might try, but Myers is leaving dim comfort in a sombre situation as the trilogy ends.

He used written English as it was when he learnt it, content to be fairly formal (and not always escaping cliché). He accepted what were then the usual methods of a novelist, producing dialogue in which complete sentences are exchanged without stumblings and with few interruptions. He had too much to say to want distracting ingenuities in saying it. The close interweaving of themes, their continuity through a pattern which is tightly organised behind its fluent variety of incident, the interplay of abstract reflection with personal emotion and action, give the trilogy a tensile strength that sustains repeated readings. It is an offer of conversation from an alert and sensitive man, ‘sophisticated enough to hold sophistication cheap’, reporting in middle age on the social scene in which his life had been passed. He observes its people acutely, and appraises them decisively. And he is unsparing in his reflections on those aspects of himself which are implicated in his account. Continuing the conversation where Myers paused, we may reject some of his beliefs, enter more or less fully into his assumptions and hopes: but for people who are not yet reconciled to the civilisation he was describing he remains a formidable ally.

[*] Hogarth, 316 pp., £3.95, 16 April, 0 7012 1905 2.