Certainly Forster's theme is no secret. Indeed, his formulation of it in Howard's End is endlessly quoted:
Only connect! . . . Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.Although "Only connect" obviously resonates with many people, I prefer Forster's statement of the principal in concrete terms. Here he is, explaining in A Passage to India, how "only connect" works in action, without any of the abstract "beast" and "monk" references:
There needs must be this evil of brains in India, but woe to him through whom they are increased! The feeling grew that Mr. Fielding was a disruptive force, and rightly, for ideas are fatal to caste, and he used ideas by that most potent method - interchange. Neither a missionary nor a student, he was happiest in the give-and-take of a private conversation. The world, he believed, is a globe of men who are trying to reach one another and can best do so by the help of good will plus culture and intelligence - a creed ill-suited to Chandrapore, but [Fielding] had come out too late to lose it.Forster's description of cross-cultural connection through conversational interchange is something I recognize from experience. But the more important reason for preferring "good will plus culture and intelligence" to "only connect" is that, in A Passage to India, Forster illustrates something else I know from experience: the limits of his doctrine.
"Only connect" just isn't enough. Abstractly stated, it's easy to romanticize; contextualized in A Passage to India, it's exposed as wishful thinking.
A brief summary of the plot of A Passage to India is here useful: Fielding and Aziz manage to become friends despite the British raj. When Adela Quested accuses Aziz of making criminal sexual advances, Fielding maintains Aziz's innocence. Fielding resigns from the British club in protest of the colonial community's racist presumption of Aziz's guilt. Adela receives vulgar support from racist colonials, against which her intrinsic decency recoils. On the witness stand in court, Adela dramatically retracts her accusation. In the aftermath of the trial, Fielding houses Adela at the school where he teaches, and he urges Aziz not to sue Adela for libel. Aziz accuses Fielding of helping his [Aziz's] enemy, and years later refuses to see Fielding when he returns to India with his new wife. Upon learning that Fielding's wife is not Adela Quested, but in fact Stella Moore, the daughter of an elderly woman who Aziz loved and honored, Aziz relents in his anger, but the rupture in their friendship is permanent.
In the book's last scene, Fielding and Aziz meet, "aware that they could meet no more." Aziz asserts, "if it's fifty-five hundred years we shall get rid of you, yes, we shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea, and then . . . and then . . . you and I shall be friends." Fielding questions this perspective: "Why can't we be friends now? . . . It's what I want. It's what you want." But Forster makes clear that everything in the environs - the horses, "the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion . . . they didn't want it, they said in their hundred voices, 'No, not yet,' and the sky said, 'No, not there.'"
As even the plot outline clarifies, the connection between Aziz and Fielding does not make manifest "human love at its height." It reveals that individual human connections devoid of social support are fragile, fleeting and unstable. The flip-side is shown by Adela Quested, who is propped up by people she loathes: social support devoid of human connections are equally fragile, fleeting and unstable. Both - as demonstrated by the ostracization of both Fielding and Adela - lead to loneliness and isolation.
I have lived this saddening dynamic myself. The vast majority of interactions that I've had over the last seven years have involved some attempt to connect across a cultural divide. The connections so achieved don't mean what I hope, or wish, or think they mean; they're superficial; they evaporate with a hint of pressure; they continually disappoint. Falling into the trap of blaming myself - I didn't try hard enough, I didn't have enough compassion - is easy, but the truth is hard.
What EM Forster could have said - what's accurate - is "Only connect, in a context that supports connection." The drawback to truth, of course, is what Forster describes at the end of A Passage to India: contexts often don't support connections. The temples, the sky, they don't want it. And if you're in a context that doesn't support the connection you want or need, then you must remake your context, which is vastly more difficult than making a connection.
To describe Forster's "great and beautiful" theme as finding individual connection with another human being does a disservice to Forster, I think. In his own life, he knew that what he needed was not an individual connection, but a gay-friendly social context. And in A Passage to India, he suffused his art with that more complicated version of his theme: "Only connect, although the connection will fail, fragile, fleeting and unstable is our portion."
(Image of EM Forster from The Daily Mail)