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In his Express review
Wendy Moffat's biography, EM Forster: A New Life
, Duncan Fallowell wrote that "the great and beautiful theme of all [Forster's] work [was] 'the search of each person for an honest connection with another human being.'"
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
A friend recently wrote to me asking for recommendations of classic books he could read over Spring Break. (Plainly, he's not one of my friends who believes that nothing in the classics can rival Girls Gone Wild: Endless Spring Break
; and for those of my friends who do hold such beliefs, what about the "lioness on the cheese grater
" position referred to in Lysistrata
So back to my friend: I replied with a list of books that included Henry James' The Aspern Papers
, possibly my fave of the James oeuvre
. Short, shocking and chock full of nasty conflicts of interest and sexual tensions, The Aspern Papers
is my idea of reading satisfaction.
Not so much my friend: "I tried reading the Aspern Papers, but didn't really enjoy the writing style."
Poor Henry! All those long sentences with tangential, intermediary clauses; all that punctuation - those dashes, those commas; all those asides, all that effort, all that style
: all beyond the ready appreciation of today's reader.
And poor friend! Henry James is not called "The Master" for nothing. All his learning, his intimate knowledge of the human viscera, his understanding of emotional contortion and manipulative behavior, of the corrupting power of money and the dangers of life on society's periphery: all inaccessible under the lock of his impenetrable prose.
The situation brought to mind the scene in E.M. Forster's A Passage to India
, when Aziz spontaneously recites a poem by Ghalib
to an assortment of well-wishers who have come to his bedside when he's sick:
[The poem] had no connection with anything that had gone before, but it came from his heart and spoke to theirs. They were overwhelmed by its pathos; pathos, they agreed, is the highest quality in art; a poem should touch the hearer with a sense of his own weakness, and should institute some comparison between mankind and flowers.
. . . .
Of the company, only Hamidullah had any comprehension of poetry. The minds of the others were inferior and rough. Yet they listened with pleasure, because literature had not been divorced from their civilization. The police inspector, for instance, did not feel that Aziz had degraded himself by reciting, nor break into the cheery guffaw with which an Englishman averts the infection of beauty. He just sat with his mind empty, and when his thoughts, which were mainly ignoble, flowed back into it they had a pleasant freshness.
(p. 99-100.) With humor and a deft description, Forster captured - almost 90 years ago - what we have lost and, still today, haven't been able to replace. The "infection of beauty" imbues even the ignoble thought with a "pleasant freshness."
Translation: Girls Gone Wild
is even better after reading The Aspern Papers
(Image of John Singer Sargent's portrait of Henry James from State College of Florida
In their film version
of E.M. Forster's A Room with a View
, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory make an error that quite possibly is a first for book-to-screen adaptations: they make the sex less controversial. Specifically, they uncouple the sex from religion, stripping the romance between Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson of the trappings of transcendence and holiness in which Forster had clothed it. In place of Foster's couple surrendering to the divinity of sexually-vibrant love, Merchant and Ivory give us a pair relieving themselves of silly Victorian repression in order to obtain self-fulfillment. Superficially persuasive, perhaps, but not what Forster wrote.
In A Room with a View
, Forster's didactic side is irrepressible and insistent on teaching that God is in the pleasures of the flesh, that religion errs when it banishes the body from the realm of the holy, and that the only correct response to desire is to act upon it.
"Passion is sanity
," admonishes old Mr. Emerson, and "love is of the body. . . . Ah! for a little directness to liberate the soul!"
Mr. Emerson's words succeed in "robb[ing] the body of its taint," and his version of reality thereby prevails over that of poor, likable Reverend Mr. Beebe, who agrees to help Lucy because of his "belief in celibacy" and his determination that, by "plac[ing] [Lucy] out of danger until she could confirm her resolution of virginity
," he is helping "not only Lucy, but religion also."
Mr. Beebe's soul shall not be liberated, not in A Room with a View
Not when Lucy runs off with George Emerson after finally grasping "the holiness of direct desire
." Sex with George in the loving context of matrimony is a sacred imperative to E.M. Forster.
To Merchant and Ivory, it's little more than an opportunity for an orgasm. Gone from the film's dialogue are Mr. Emerson's references to the holy-carnal. (Indeed, the film splits up his critical interview with Lucy, having Mr. Emerson spend half the time speaking to Lucy's spinster cousin, Charlotte, a prude on whom such a sermon would have been wasted.) Nor does the film include any inkling of Mr. Beebe's religious abstinence. As for "the holiness of direct desire," all we get is the genial approbation of sexual longing acknowledged and acted upon in a socially responsible way. In place of the ecstasy and rapture of Saint Theresa
, we get Dr. Ruth
. Superficially persuasive, perhaps, but not what Forster wrote.
In a moment of irony, the film includes a quote of something Forster did write: "Mistrust all enterprises that require new clothes
." Possibly Merchant and Ivory felt that makers of costume dramas are exempted from this wisdom. To the contrary: new clothes often signal new values. And while it might seem easy to understand the cut of an Edwardian dress, it may be less difficult to comprehend that a modern, sexual-health marriage doesn't fit inside it.
(Image of Helena Bonham-Carter in the Merchant-Ivory film version of A Room with a View
from Duke University's website
My last post
constituted a kind of footnote to my penultimate post
, and now I have to confess something embarrassing about footnotes: I've never written just one. They always seem to proliferate on me.
So here's another footnote to that penultimate post, in which I casually referred to E.M. Forster's A Room with a View
as, variously, "uneven" and "at times . . . implausible." I hadn't included any evidence supporting those judgments in the post and, though I think the judgments are warranted, I also think that, without elaboration, they're unfair. So I elaborate.
My concerns rest on two scenes. Both involve conversational confrontations that lead to personal transformations. Both seem to reflect, not human behavior as lived and observed, but characters' behavior as imagined by an optimistic author determined to craft salvation for his creations, whether deserving or no.
In the first scene
, Lucy Honeychurch tells Cecil Vyse, her fiancé, that she won't marry him. As her reason, she proffers that he's "the sort who can't know any one intimately." She condemns him for "always protecting" her and not "let[ting] me be myself." She calls him "conventional" because he "may understand beautiful things," but he doesn't "know how to use them." (p. 201.)
Cecil, up until this point, has been controlling, condescending and conniving about getting his way. He seems well-defended against any reality that shows his asshole personality. Nor does his asshole personality seem to encompass being a good sport about rejection. Nonetheless, wholly outside of his character, he replies:
It is true.
. . . .
True, every word. It is a revelation. It is - I.
. . . .
He repeated: "'The sort that can know no one intimately.' It is true. I fell to pieces the very first day we were engaged. I behaved like a cad to Beebe and to your brother. You are even greater than I thought."
(p. 202.) Then, with dignity and grace, and without much further ado, he departs.
Now I have, in my day, broken up with one or two men. I've also taken other men to task for asshole behavior, actions which - in a more or less direct way - led to them breaking up with me. And based on these experiences, I find Cecil's response so implausible that I'm tempted to hazard that E.M. Forster has never witnessed - or received an accurate second-hand account of - an actual break-up between a male and a female.
This scene is a contrivance. Resulting not from organic interaction between the characters, but from authorial sentimentality for Cecil and a need to advance the plot and deepen Lucy's character development, the scene is a gentle redemption of Cecil that paves the way for Lucy's redemption two chapters on. Unsurprisingly, Lucy's redemption is the second scene
with which I take issue.
In this second engineered exchange, George Emerson's father talks Lucy into marrying George. His technique is a bit brutal by Edwardian standards. He "mean[s] to shock" Lucy with references to the carnal: "I only wish poets would say this, too: love is of the body; not the body, but of the body. . . . Ah! for a little directness to liberate the soul!" And he warns Lucy that, "It isn't possible to love and to part. . . . You can transmute love, ignore it, muddle it, but you can never pull it out of you. I know by experience that the poets are right: love is eternal." (p. 237.) He urges her, "When I think what life is, and how seldom love is answered by love - Marry him; it is one of the moments for which the world was made." (p. 238.)
This entreaty frightens Lucy, but it also revolutionizes her. Despite her commitment to travel to Greece, despite having spent her mother's money on travel arrangements, despite being revealed as untrustworthy and unreliable to her family and Mr. Beebe, despite her ordinariness, prudishness and inexperience, she will now radically alter her life's course and marry George. Mr. Emerson's speech had "robbed the body of its taint, the world's taunts of their sting; he had shown her the holiness of direct desire." (p. 240.)
Without getting too graphic, I'll assert that I think I know a thing or two about the holiness of direct desire, and I've never experienced it in conversation with a lover-to-be's father. I won't go so far as to say that my experience is definitive, but I feel myself on comfortable ground calling this scene, as I did previously
, a deus ex machina.
It's a wondrous machine for transporting sheltered little Lucy into the wide-open world of adult love . . . but none of us have ever traveled in such a machine because it doesn't exist. What does exist - and what constitutes the conduit from innocence to sexual maturity that most (if not all) of us traverse - is a poorly-lit path, pitted with potholes and lined with muggers and thieves.
This reliance on artifice and contrivance, rather than the grit of reality, may be one reason why Forster is so often demoted from the top ranks of novelists: "There's something middling about Forster," writes
Zadie Smith in The New York Review of Books
, "he is halfway to where people want him to be."
And yet, despite my own objections to Forster's rude artifice, despite my sense that it adds "uneven" and "implausible" elements to his work, I don't think these flaws make Forster "middling." Shakespeare, too, is uneven (Henry VIII
anyone?) and implausible elements abound in his works (A Winter's Tale
, hello?); still, Shakespeare is tops, and anyone who disagrees is a "three-inch fool
Forster reached for artifice (I'm guessing) for the best reasons: he was imagining a world that didn't exist. He was giving us a nudge to head for the horizon and, if his vision of what lay beyond didn't accord with what was actually there, it doesn't make him less of a visionary. As Zadie Smith notes about Forster's literary criticism, he had an uncanny ability to be "right" about his contemporaries, to make judgments with which later generations agree - to see accurately in the midst of the thicket.
Forster, I think, had the same gift of insight about human behavior. What he seems to have lacked in A Room with a View
was the ability to imagine the alternatives that humans eventually adopted, as well as the literary and narrative capacities to allow his characters to lead him where he wouldn't have otherwise have gone. Still, a truly middling novelist is unlikely to have failed as graciously, and as entertainingly thought-provokingly, as Forster.
(Image of E.M. Forster from BBC
As a medium, blog posts - like any medium - have their strengths and weaknesses, and one of these (either a strength or weakness, take your pick) is that blog posts are not especially accommodating of footnotes. A footnote is, like, another blog post.
So here's a footnote to my prior post
about E.M. Forster casting a fumbling male as a romantic lead in A Room with a View
. My comments about males fumbling their way through courtship would benefit from a caveat. I wrote, "The fumbling man is the honest man, while the man who proceeds according
to script, regardless of the circumstances, is not actually responding
to the world around him. . . . if you want to live, you have to fumble," without qualifying that fumblers fall into two categories: (1) those who "step up"; and (2) those who don't.
The fumblers who are "responding to the world" - who are living life without a rehearsal, to paraphrase Forster - are generally the former and not the latter. The guys who won't "step up" are just as "unwilling to confront uncertainty and roll with it" and just as "defended against humiliation to risk genuine connection" as the straight-laced guy who never makes a wrong move.
And one reason why, culturally, we've "yet [to] work out the serious narrative of how the boy gets the girl when he's fumbling his way the whole time" is because the current crop of American male fumblers are of the latter category. They do not "step up." They fumble not
by kissing women when they shouldn't or running around naked when they should be clothed (as George in A Room with a View
does), but by getting stoned every day and generally being too passive. As any author knows, coaxing a plot line out of a passive protagonist ain't easy.
The obvious fix is that our passive fumblers need to step up, even though how we are to convince them to do so is not obvious. As Forster describes an analogous quandary in A Room with a View
It is obvious enough for the reader to conclude, "She loves young [George] Emerson." A reader in Lucy's place would not find it obvious. Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice, and we welcome "nerves" or any other shibboleth that will cloak our personal desire. She loved Cecil; George made her nervous; will the reader explain to her that the phrases should have been reversed?
(p. 165.) Men love dope; women make them nervous; will the reader explain to them that the phrases should have been reversed?
Forster provides - not a reader - but another character to assist Lucy Honeychurch: George's father, the wise and eccentric Mr. Emerson, who functions as the deus ex machina
, the instrument of revelation who during a single conversation withdraws "veil after veil" until Lucy sees "to the bottom of her soul." (p. 238.)
Forster's solution doesn't seem replicable on a large scale (or, truth be told, even on an individual level). But in the absence of the artifice of a deus ex machina
, allow me to harness the artifice of Web 2.0 communications networks to pass on this simple truth: stepping up makes life more fun.
And, on the off chance that my message in this context proves insufficient, that the serious narrative of how the boy gets the girl when he's fumbling his way the whole time can't be worked out in a foot note to a blog post, I've got a novel planned . . . .
(Image from the film version of A Room with a View
What passes for masculinity is a fashion, at least as much as it is innate. Rhett Butler doesn't fumble in his pursuit of Scarlett; Ben Stone does nothing but fumble with Allison Scott (in Knocked Up
, not quite the culture icon that Gone with Wind
has become) - call it the difference that seventy years makes in our mythologies of gender relations.
Maybe it's my generation, but I've always been more interested in male fumbling. (Granted, I haven't seen much non-fumbling; cultivating an interest in it strikes me as akin to obsessing over unicorns.) Male fumblers make good in my second novel, The Swing of Beijing
, and have a nervous breakdown in my third novel, Waiting for Love Child
. Indeed, I'm so interested in male fumblers that a previous agent told me that I "channel" men and that I need to stop doing it.
Well, the male fumbler may have been banished from my fourth novel, The Celebration Husband
, but my interest hasn't abated. Indeed, E.M. Forster piqued it with this passage from A Room with a View
[George's] awkwardness went straight to [Lucy's] heart; men were not gods after all, but as human and as clumsy as girls; even men might suffer from unexplained desires, and need help. To one of her upbringing, and of her destination, the weakness of men was a truth unfamiliar, but she had surmised it . . . .
(p. 178.) Forster, after all, was writing during an era when male fumblers were not the rage. To the contrary, the decisive man, ordering the world and his woman's place in it, was the ideal. As George protests to Lucy about her fiancé, Cecil:
I meet you together, and find him protecting and teaching you and your mother to be shocked, when it was for you to settle whether you were shocked or no. . . . He daren't let a woman decide. . . . Every moment of his life he's forming you, telling you what's charming or amusing or ladylike, telling you what a man thinks womanly.
(p. 194.) All very sensible condemnation today, but not 103 years ago when A Room with a View
was first published. Cecil is the respectable man; George, please remember, is a freak.
That Forster defied convention to allow the fumbling freak to prevail in romance suggests a perceptiveness and sympathy about masculinity that transcends fashion. (Of course, as a closeted gay man, Forster might have had particular insights into fumbling courtship of women; but I think his empathy was more universal.) "[I]t is impossible to rehearse life," he writes in A Room with a View
A fault in the scenery, a face in the audience, an irruption of the audience on the stage, and all our carefully planned gestures mean nothing, or mean too much.
(p. 154.) The fumbling man is the honest man, while the man who proceeds according to script, regardless of the circumstances, is not actually responding to the world around him. He is unwilling to confront uncertainty and roll with it; he is too defended against humiliation to risk genuine connection. He is, in fact, playing at living, but not really living. Forster teaches that, if you want to rehearse, you condemn yourself to the stage; and if you want to live, you have to fumble.
I don't think men - or women - are yet entirely comfortable with this truth. Seth Rogen, after all, is nobody's idea of Clark Gable, and Knocked Up
is a comedy. I'm not sure we've (that is, "we" as a culture, have) yet worked out the serious narrative of how the boy gets the girl when he's fumbling his way the whole time. As old, as uneven, and at times as implausible as it is, A Room with a View
may remain our bellwether of this realm of human behavior.
(Image of Julian Sands and Helena Bonham-Carter in A Room with a View
from The Guardian