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Two Cheers for Mr. Forster

The Cave and the Mountain: A Study of E. M. Forster

by Wilfred Stone
Stanford, 400 pp., $8.75

Mr. Stone’s thorough, well documented, and critical study requires one to look back upon Mr. Forster’s achievement, and makes a suggestion that the significance of his work has not been properly accounted for. I think that this is true. Mr. Forster has had more far-reaching ambitions than is generally recognized; and I agree with Mr. Stone that these ambitions were finally realized in A Passage to India, for which all his previous work was a preparation. Mr. Stone supports his interpretation both with biographical evidence, including the evidence of conversations with Mr. Forster, and with some perceptive analysis of the novels.

There is also a philosophical issue, still alive, which may be worth stating abstractly. An underlying argument, a division of allegiance, runs through all of Mr. Forster’s writing and shapes the developing style and structure of his novels. Roughly stated, the division is between, on the one side, an inherited liberalism, confirmed among lifelong friends at Cambridge and never altogether discarded, which stressed the authority of the individual conscience, and stressed also the qualities of sensitiveness and lucidity in personal relations within the setting of a civilized private life. On the other side, Mr. Forster has always represented the natural order surrounding this little compound of cultivated ground as sublime, unknown, unlimited, and as not adapted to our powers of understanding. We cannot be safe and at home within the compound, however much we may defensively pretend to be. The function of art is to take men outside the compound of conscious awareness, beyond their moral anxieties, and to find expression for the deeper rhythms in nature from which we are otherwise disconnected. This is the sense of the often-quoted Forster aphorism “only connect,” which has a philosophical rather than a social sense. The connection that needs to be made is between the upper and literate reaches of the mind and the lower and unwashed, or proletarian, levels of consciousness, which can no longer be downtrodden and despised; for they are ready to strike back, to withdraw their energies, if they are not accepted and set free.

THERE WAS A KIND of provincialism in the enlightened and entirely secular thought which had developed among Mr. Forster’s contemporaries at Cambridge in the generation that succeeded Mill and Sidgwick. In the more or less secret society of the Apostles in Cambridge, to which Mr. Forster naturally belonged, a new intellectual life was founded on the probing of meanings and the rejection of mysteries; Keynes described in Two Memoirs the sudden illumination which G. E. Moore’s analytical philosophy had brought to the Society and to the generation at Cambridge directly and indirectly formed by it. A lucid consciousness, the willed and curious enjoyment of love and friendship and of aesthetic emotions, were taken to be the proper themes of morality, and correspondingly, of that conversation among friends which develops into literature. This new self-consciousness must inform any literature that would interest a generation for whom Christianity, and indeed any transcendental philosophy, were no longer worthy of discussion. Now the degree of truthfulness and of clarity which can be achieved in the inner consciousness of individuals is alone worth exploring. Only states of mind, cultivated, observed, and authentically discriminated, could have value, as G. E. Moore had taught, in a natural order that is otherwise inert and neutral; neutral, that is, except insofar as it may give rise to aesthetic emotions, which must themselves be analyzed, understood, and purged of sentimental irrelevancies. Fiction, no less than Roger Fry’s art criticism, must serve that clear consciousness, which is the ability to articulate and make distinct the dim repulsions and attractions, naturally felt, which conventional minds are afraid to distinguish and to name. The value is to be found in the distinguishing, in the letter that you write or in the account that you can give among friends, in the analysis of experience, of its precise form and nature, rather than in the dumb promptings and confusions of experience itself. If you always know what you mean, you are saved; you belong to the true gentry of the mind, who are at home in their gardens and in command of the natural sources of feeling. If enlightened men are placed in nature, as in a garden, and on cultivated ground, the point must be to know the names of the plants, to botanize among the emotions, to stroll with one’s secateur, snipping the buds in talk. One is to forget about the wilderness of unfenced feeling outside; because it is undistinguished and unlabeled, there can be nothing of real interest there.

These are images from Mr. Forster’s earlier novels, which have the delicacy of being composed from within the assumptions that they implicitly question. He used the traditional forms of social comedy, and made his stories turn at their crisis on a failure of articulateness, a weakness in distinguishing clearly, on the unpardonable clumsiness of not saying what one really means. Yet he used these familiar forms in Howard’s End and in The Longest Journey to suggest by an added resonance of style, particularly in natural description, that the values of an inner truthfulness and of a lucidity of feeling were very incomplete; they can no longer be wholeheartedly accepted, as they had been by Jane Austen, to whose thought and purpose the forms of social comedy were perfectly appropriate. The musical metaphor is Mr. Forster’s own metaphor for his aims. He would write about a house and a family’s relation to it, about gentility and social distinctions and marriage, about the self-consciousness that may corrupt those who do good, and at the same time indicate that these are not really to be taken as its central themes, as they may be in Emma; they are rather symptoms of a more fundamental insecurity. His method was to hint, and his art was an art of allusion. The allusion was to the inadequacy of the ethics of a clear consciousness and of a civilized private life, which places the human intelligence at the center of the universe, as the unique source of value and of significance.

BY VIRTUE OF THIS philosophical doubt Mr. Forster has generally been included within the modern movement. His early novels appeared to be a forewarning of what was to come, the beginning of the end of the nineteenth-century novel in England. For it is difficult now to make the anxious operations of an individual’s conscience the center of interest in fiction, as Henry James still could, without implying some wider setting. A story that unfolds within the four walls of a house, within a settled and customary privacy, will now be lent some exemplary meaning, social or philosophical, of which the imagined personal relations are only an emblem. Some of the experiments of the modern movement in literature can be attributed to the undermining of the ethics of secular liberalism, of the belief in the final value and interest of the individual case. If one asks why The Longest Journey seems on the surface, perhaps most of all in America, remote in style from contemporary sensibility, the answer is to be found, I think, in the type of moral preoccupation that gives substance to the plot. Can salvation and admission to the company of the elect be found by enlightenment alone and by emancipation from the cold conventions of the north? These are issues drawn from the heyday of advancing liberal thought, alive and intense in Middlemarch. It is the interest of Mr. Forster’s writing, extending from 1902 until the present day, that he is a bridge between the ethical culture of the nineteenth century in England and the modern movement, which was typified for Forster by Lawrence. With the sole exception of the last pages of A Passage to India, Mr. Forster has kept to the traditional forms and has not defied the ordinary canons of taste and credibility, as Lawrence did in his effort to break away from the ethics of individual responsibility and from the depiction of managed emotions, fully understood and expressed. Forster’s novels may therefore have sometimes seemed apart from, and irrelevant to, the main stream, an island of peaceful and traditional accomplishment. But the appearance is deceiving. All through his writing there is a tension, a productive muddle in thought and artistic aim. How seriously can moral earnestness, the earnest dissent of Mill and Sidgwick and even of Mr. Forster’s friends at Cambridge, be taken? Has it become a vulgar illusion to suppose that nature as a whole has labored to produce, as its final triumph and justification, the sensitive individual conscience? Is humanism, taken as the assumption that consciousness is the measure of all things, a defensive conceit which is horribly exposed as soon as one is far away from Surrey and the Home Counties? Are there attractions and repulsions and ambiguous energies which ought not to be examined and understood, but which can only be indirectly expressed? These are broad philosophical questions which are raised again and again in Forster’s fiction from the earlier stories, with their unassimilated elements of fantasy, to the last definitive work. In A Passage to India the implied metaphysics is at last embodied in the story, not apologetically added in the guise of fantasy, as in the earlier stories, or sentimentally disguised, as in The Longest Journey and Where Angels Fear to Tread. The scale is finally the right one for the vision, which places the anxious human beings, for the first time fully realized and memorable characters, against the immense, subduing background of the subcontinent, the Temple, the Mountain, and the Cave. The protagonists in A Passage to India seem to be more honestly and solidly presented by the author just because he is at the same time absorbing them into his larger design. In The Longest Journey and Howard’s End there is a nagging impression of falsity, which shows principally in the invocation of naturalness, as if Mr. Forster with an unavowed fastidiousness despised his characters, and particularly the women, for the finiteness and smallness of their ends, and therefore by implication despised his own story. Unlike Jane Austen, he could find no excitement of self-discovery in the act of marriage, in finding a place in society, as the climax of a story which leaves no loose ends dangling. Precisely the loose ends, the intermediate and unrecognized connections, interested him, as they were to interest Lawrence. Their imaginations were concerned with the undifferentiating flood rather than with the entry, two by two and segregated, into the Ark. The social framework in which, in these early stories, we view love and friendship and marriage is too neat and belittling, because it seems to put human discrimination at the center, when in fact there is no center, or, if there is, we cannot know where it is. The question that Mr. Forster has always implied is: “Will it really profit us so much if we save our souls and lose the whole world?”

THE PERCEPTION OF WHOLENESS is the point. Integrity, a hard separateness, can be achieved only by a contraction of the sympathies that might connect us with parts of the world that are remote from our own. From one point of view, it might have been better for the English in India to speak less clearly, to blurt and stammer more, and to enter into the sudden quarrels and bursts of affection among their Indian friends which they did not allow themselves to understand. The integrity of the individual administrator or doctor, and the self-respect founded on it, kept the tiny English minority in India upright while keeping them apart. A Passage to India shows why that whole world was soon to be lost. Mrs. Moore discovers that she has the virtue of a rock rather than that of a sponge, and is shattered. Mr. Forster makes one feel both sides of this particular opposition as no other writer has. He understands perfectly the tight, fastidious accents of the English middle classes, as they used to be, and the trimmed hedges of their emotions, with the debris swept away as “nerves.” He understands the fear of being absorbed into the surrounding country, of losing distinctness and control, and of surrendering to intimations of fulfillment that cannot be analyzed and accounted for. Integrity requires that one should not allow music or any work of art to sweep over one and to carry one away until it has first justified itself as properly constructed and intelligible; as in aesthetics, so also in the relations between races, and especially in sexual relations, distinctness and a definite labeling of differences should be preserved.

Mr. Forster’s mystical pantheism and his belief that a confused and inarticulate consciousness may often be a better guide to the realities, leaves him to imitate, sometimes awkwardly, finally successfully, in the construction of A Passage to India the unassertive suggestiveness of music, while still preserving the most literal forms of narrative. He has not only required of the reader a common understanding of the social implications of his story, but also a sympathy with the inarticulate ups and downs of sexuality and of fear below the levels of consciousness, conveyed in the texture of the writing. He found in the visual art of India and in Indian thought a vindication of the sources of his own distrust of liberal humanism, of its pretentions to a willed lucidity and order. The profusion and extravagance of forms and sexual variety were a rebuke to the optimism of doctrines of self-knowledge. The doctrines of relaxed will and of the superior honesty of unmoralized feeling; the belief in the deeper significance of music among the arts, and of Indian art, with its celebrations of unrestricted sexuality: These form a pattern and represent a temperament which was converted by Schopenhauer into a philosophy. For Mr. Forster they were one side of a conflict which can be interpreted at different levels, as at once a social conflict and a philosophical one. Philosophically, the issue concerns the scale on which the characters, British and Indian, see themselves against the background of India and its monuments. The British ride across the vast landscape with a selfimportance that is inseparable from their clear purpose, their respect for the sanctity of individual life and for man-made justice. They hold themselves apart from the unmeasured license, the teeming births and deaths outside the compound, and from the uncalculated renewals of Indian life which are the basis of a different dignity. Outside the compound men accept their immersion in inhuman processes that have their own uncalculated justice and balance, plotted on a different time scale. The story of the national and social misunderstanding and disconnectedness, fascinating in itself, is a fitting sign of the meeting of the two philosophical attitudes.

SINCE A Passage to India Mr. Forster has published no more novels. His vision had been expressed, and the bridge built: a bridge, among other things, between two periods and two styles in English fiction. Mr. Stone has provided the detail necessary for critical discussion. He of course avoids the generalities of this review, and in tracing Forster’s development stays as close as he can to the texts. There is a full discussion of the later critical writing. The subject throughout bears the weight of his intensive examination.

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