On Not Knowing: Putting E.M. Forster in the Oval Office

George Packer is a regular contributor to Dissent and his new novel, "Central Square" will be out in October

How would a novelist imagine what happened between President Bill Clinton and Kathleen E. Willey in the hallway off the Oval Office on Nov. 29, 1993? I don't mean Anonymous. I mean a novelist like E.M. Forster.

As it happens, Forster's most famous work, "A Passage to India," turns on an alleged sexual assault between two acquaintances. It's worth reading this novel's key passages during a week when private human encounters have finally taken their place as the central business of politics. For what interests literature is what politics cannot face: the real experience of these encounters. We think that with the Clinton scandals we have grown up and accepted the complex moral truth about people. Reading Forster shows how much we are still unwilling to know.

In the book, Adela Quested, a young Englishwoman who wants to "see the real India," goes sightseeing in the famous Marabar caves with her Indian host, Dr. Aziz. As they scramble over the rocks, the conversation turns to marriage: She is engaged, his wife is dead. Quested goes into one cave, Aziz into another. End of chapter. Next chapter: Quested is seen fleeing the area in the car of a friend. As soon as Aziz returns to town, he is arrested on charges of having insulted her--British colonial for what we call sexual assault.

Journalism and law want to know: Who did what to whom? But no one can say, not even the author. Ten years after "A Passage to India" was published, Forster wrote a friend: "I tried to show that India is an unexplainable muddle by introducing an unexplained muddle--Miss Quested's experience in the cave. When asked what happened there, I don't know." Forster saw this as a fault. But by not imagining what really happened in the cave, he makes us pay attention to two things of greater importance: private feeling before, and public response after.

While climbing, Quested realizes she doesn't love the man she is engaged to. This crisis provokes her to question Aziz about his marriage, to notice he is attractive and, finally, to ask: "Have you one wife or more than one?" She doesn't know she has just insulted him. Aziz, who has taken great pride in showing her the real India, thinks, "Damn the English even at their best," and goes off to be by himself for a moment. The connection between them is broken, never to be repaired.

Politics takes over: Depositions are given, conspiracies smelled, letters exposed to impugn character. "The machinery" grinds into gear, and "it will work to its end." The Indian community takes up Aziz's cause; the British rally indignantly to the wronged woman's side. When she expresses doubt about her own story, they tell her it is too late: "The issues Miss Quested had raised were so much more important than she was herself that people inevitably forgot her." At trial, the lawyerly maneuvering rivals Court TV. Quested takes the stand, and her doubt returns. She withdraws the charge, and in doing so, becomes "a real person."

Turn back to the president and Willey: Whatever happened in the cave off the Oval Office, the public versions leave out everything Forster would describe. Forster would spend pages drawing the emotional context of a woman whose husband has brought them to the brink of financial ruin. In desperation, she goes to the most powerful man in the world, and he promises to help. This part of the conversation, Forster would lay out in great detail. Then he would turn his attention to the other character, the man: The woman's plea has elicited compassion, and also pride in his own power. He has been able to comfort her, which makes him feel like a good man, and this sequence of emotions is exciting, liberating. Something happens.

But before it can, Forster ends the chapter. In the next chapter, the woman learns her husband has killed himself that day, and the memory of whatever happened with the other man will be forever shadowed by anguish, anger and guilt.

A former White House assistant, Linda R. Tripp, has said, Willey looked "flushed and joyful," on her way out of the Oval Office. Willey describes herself as shocked and angered. The president says he is "mystified and disappointed" by the charge of having insulted Willey.

In the absence of Forster's version, we try to establish "credibility"--because the only model of truth our politics offers is the legal model. It turns out Willey continued to write warm letters to the president for several years; that a friend says Willey asked her to lie to a journalist about Willey's response to whatever happened; that Willey has gone fishing for a book deal and dallied with the tabloids.

Suddenly, she seems less credible. We cannot connect these revelations to the calm, mature woman who appeared on "60 Minutes," and we shift back and forth between seemingly incompatible accounts. Aziz, whose innocence is as clear as anything can be in "A Passage to India," began revising the day's events even before he learned of the accusation, and "before breakfast was over, he had told a good many lies." But with Willey we want to know: Is she a liar or not? She cannot allow herself to be a real person, because that would mean filling in the emotional gray shades that are the novelist's chief concern. If she filled them in, the political, journalistic and legal machinery would destroy her. In this climate, the way to maintain credibility is to have a simple, consistent, stainless story; in other words, an incredible one.

About us, the public, Forster might observe: We are too concerned about seeming to be outraged or seeming not to be outraged to know what our authentic response is. The same public figure who downplays the story one day is in high moral dudgeon the next. In "A Passage to India," the hysteria of British and Indians is extreme, but, like the extremeness of never knowing what happened, it puts the focus on emotions rather than facts.

In our case, like theirs, the people whose motives and acts we are trying to weigh have no reality for us. The political machinery turns them into caricatures, which makes it hard to care about them humanly, as we care about characters in a novel. But we are fed such a heavy diet of information, laced with such important concepts as perjury and conspiracy, that we are obliged to come up with some response.

So we open the paper, hoping to find the truth, and feel vaguely tainted by the whole affair. It makes us all liars. "The evil was propagating in every direction," Forster wrote, "it seemed to have an existence of its own, apart from anything that was done or said by individuals." Every day the news hands us private lives and an inadequate model to understand them. For that, politics needs literature.

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