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E.M. Forster (1879–1970)

Two years ago, a young American writer living in London remarked to me how wonderful he thought it was to be living at a time when E. M. Forster was alive. Believing that Forster, though almost ninety, would still be pleased at such recognition, I arranged for the young writer to visit him at his Cambridge rooms so imaginatively provided by the Fellows of King’s, his old college. Afterward my American friend told me that in the course of their conversation, Forster had inquired whether he had ever been to Greece: to which he replied no, that it seemed impossible (on account of those Colonels) to go now. Forster said:

One recalls instants in Greece which were beautiful though the country even then was embedded in muck. Somehow one’s dearest memories are of situations which, if one saw them in a wider context, were always in muck.

There is a lot of Forster in this answer: his insistence always on the muddle and confusion enclosing moments of vision. He gave only two cheers for democracy, which was nevertheless worth dying for. It also throws light on something which struck everyone who knew Forster well: that at any moment—almost to the very end—he seemed to speak out of his whole life. The world-renowned writer, returned to his college at the end of his life, still spoke with the voice of the Cambridge undergraduate of 1900. Although his novels steadily improved, essentially they express the same values and attitudes as do his essays. He said to me once that he didn’t attach importance to writers “developing,” having early, middle, and last periods, etc.

Like Fielding in A Passage to India, Forster traveled light, living for the greater part of his life in his mother’s house, acquiring no family of his own and few possessions, needing money so little that when late in life he had some, he counted it as his luck that he was able to give most of it to his friends. He was of by no means striking appearance, as an unsurpassable description by William Plomer indicates:

Incurious fellow passengers on a train, seeing him in a cheap cloth cap and a scruffy waterproof, and carrying the sort of little bag that might have been carried in 1890 by the man who came to wind the clocks, might have thought him a dim provincial of settled habits and taken no more notice of him.

Yet the joke would have been on any fellow passenger who dismissed him as insignificant because he did not look important. Under the hair which never turned white and which seemed brushed hastily up and to one side like a choirboy’s, there were eyes which looked quickly and took everything in, and a mouth quick to not quite silent laughter. Forster realized the ridiculousness of being important and enjoyed the joke of going unnoticed. His conversation consisted largely of anecdotes, sharp and witty. But although his friends were conscious of his affection they also felt his criticism, reinforced by post cards praising or blaming such of their actions as had caught his attention. I once got a card expressing his delight because I had walked out of a Foyle’s Literary Luncheon where a pundit called Lord Samuel had got up and read derisively some lines of Dylan Thomas, asking the sneering audience of poetry lovers—“Do you call that poetry?”

I also got sharply critical ones. I found the effect of knowing Forster was that he became a kind of supplementary conscience tacked on to my own and bringing what I imagine to be Forsterian scruples to bear on my conduct. For instance—is not the sentence before this one extremely clumsy? In this essay, do I have the air of claiming more friendship with Forster than I actually enjoyed (he certainly had much closer friends than I)? And in my opening paragraph, is not my account of sending the young American writer to see Forster egotistic (I have rewritten it three times)?

When I first met him in the early Thirties, there was a Forster problem: why had he given up writing novels? The question was asked because no one who knew him believed that he had lost his talent. If one did not feel this intuitively, there was the evidence of his criticism—Aspects of the Novel—biography—Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson—and essays—Abinger Harvest—to show the gifts that went into his fiction, though they were here used for different purposes. Yet all this work seemed to cover over a silence—that of the novelist; and most of his fiction seemed written so long ago. It was extraordinary to think that Where Angels Fear to Tread, The Longest Journey, A Room with a View, and Howards End were written in 1905, 1907, 1908, and 1910 respectively. Although A Passage to India, surely his masterpiece, was written as late as 1924, this seemed an exception, arising out of his specially passionate involvement with India.

To discuss why he gave up writing novels leads to a consideration of his work as a whole. One reason for thinking that he might have continued doingso is that his essays have so often the look of autobiographic fiction in which Forster himself, a bit self-deprecatory, appears at the center of the contemporary world, like Prufrock in the drawing room. This is particularly striking when he writes about politics, as he often did in the Thirties. In essays and lectures Forster expresses civilized and liberal views in a tone of voice which is not so much defeatist as that of one wryly accepting defeat: one who nevertheless remains obstinately though ineffectively himself with imagination and intellect alive, concentrated like a spring, with resilience which might one day still effect a comeback.

In the Thirties when his younger contemporaries, some of them his friends, tended to be communist, he admitted that the future probably lay with communism, while adding, sotto voce, that the communist future would be lacking in almost everything for which he cared. Wilfred Stone in his study of Forster, The Cave and the Mountain, cites an essay which appeared in the communisant New Statesman of the Thirties:

… [The communist] argument for revolution—the argument that we must do evil so that good may come in the long run—it seems to me to have nothing in it. Not because I am too nice to do evil, but because I don’t believe the Communists know what leads to what. They say they know because they are becoming conscious of “the causality of society,” I say they don’t know, and my counsel for 1938-39 conduct is rather: Do good, and possibly good may come from it. Be soft, even if you stand to get squashed.

What is Forsterian here is the drama implied in the word “squashed.” It suggests retreat without prospect of any rearguard action; and yet in asserting the weakness of the individual it also punctures public and official attitudes and language. No political manifesto could use such a feeble word. One is reminded often in Forster’s political but highly personal writing of the clod of clay in Blake’s poem, which, while trodden by the cattle’s feet, sings of love that builds a heaven in Hell’s despite (true, it is refuted later by a pebble). If I were to sum up in two lines the curious fusion of apparent helplessness with defiance in Forster’s writing about the public world, they would be from a sonnet of Shakespeare:

How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

It seems that after the First World War, and during the Thirties, Forster felt that concern for the values of civilization must be expressed not in defiant rhetoric but by recognizing one’s own weakness. He saluted (perhaps wrongly) the same attitude in Eliot’s poetry:

Here was a protest, and a feeble one, and the more congenial for being feeble. For what, in that world of gigantic horror, was tolerable except the slighter gestures of dissent?

Forster had little sympathy with force, even when it was righteous. He disliked great men, including Winston Churchill. He expressed no displeasure at seeing newspaper pictures of the corpse of Mussolini hung up on a meat hook. Toward the end of the war, one day I noticed a photograph of General Patton pinned on his wall. He explained that it was necessary sometimes to remind oneself of what one should hate. This from What I Believe is famous, notorious even:

If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.

And in the same essay he writes:

I realise that all society rests upon force. But all the great creative actions, all the decent human relations, occur during the intervals when force has not managed to come to the front. These intervals are what matter. I want them to be as frequent and as lengthy as possible, and I call them “civilisation.”

The “liberal” note of the essays may influence us retroactively, so that we read politics too much into the novels. That Forster abandoned fiction may be taken as a symptom of failure to imagine in novels a world in which the values he supported had been defeated. Indeed, a rather prolific English novelist said to me recently that proof of Forster’s failure was that he did not go on writing fiction.

An easy step from this is to read at least two of the novels—Howards End and A Passage to India—as political dramas of the conflict between the soft and the hard, the liberal-thinking and art-loving, and the hardheaded, unimaginative imperialists. Arguing along these lines, the distinguished Indian writer Nirad Chaudhuri described A Passage to India as “a political essay in Anglo-Indian relations” which “helped the growth of that mood which enabled the British people to leave India with an almost Pilate-like gesture of washing their hands of a disagreeable affair” (Encounter, June 1954).

One can understand what Mr. Chaudhuri meant. One can also understand Forster’s annoyance. It is true that his novel greatly strengthened that part of English opinion which was anti-imperialist. But A Passage to India is about the English, Indians, and India. It is about people and life, and about politics only because they are there as Bombay and Delhi are there and because they condition the thoughts and behavior of the characters in the novel. On the level of facts which are present the novel does have political implications. But on the level of the imagined and created life, politics are only a containing vessel, like a tank which surrounds water and fish. The best way to demonstrate this is to recall the famous conversation between Aziz and Fielding when they are riding with which the book ends. Aziz declares that Fielding and he can never be friends until the English have been driven into the sea: a sentiment disputed by Fielding, who asks, “Why can’t we two be friends now?” but agreed to by their horses who “didn’t want it—they swerved apart” and re-echoed by mountains, rocks, and sky.

On the level of political fact this conversation certainly implies that for Aziz and Fielding to be friends—which is important to Forster the English must leave India. But on the level of imagined and created life Aziz’s statement reveals an aspect of his relationship with Fielding, which is already one of friendship (“And then,” he concluded, half kissing him, “you and I shall be friends”). On the political interpretation the scene points prophetically to the future of liberated India. On the creative level it makes this almost irrelevant by asserting the love that there already is between Aziz and Fielding.

If politics were the meaning of A Passage to India, then Forster would, from his own point of view, simply have been proved wrong. For when, after Indian independence, he traveled there, he found it far more difficult to talk with his Indian friends than he had under the Raj. They were now only interested in talking politics.

But in A Passage to India, Forster creates the life of the imagination within the political context. This goes deeper than Forsterian muddle. Terror, vastness, masses, meaninglessness, and chaos, as well as love, religion, and beauty become part of our consciousness in this novel, mostly through the sensibility of Mrs. Moore, who at first is seen as tolerant and loving but who passes through a crisis in which her mind becomes terrible, like that of Yeats in his last poetry.

In this novel Forster alone among English novelists shares with Kafka a vision of some mysterious authority which lies behind illogical appearances, conventions and rituals which seem nonsensical. In the temple:

…this approaching triumph of India was a muddle (as we call it), a frustration of reason and form. Where was the God himself, in whose honour the congregation had gathered? Indistinguishable in the jumble of His own altar, huddled out of sight among images of inferior descent, smothered under rose-leaves, overhung by oleographs, outblazed by golden tablets representing the Rajah’s ancestors, and entirely obscured, when the wind blew, by the tattered foliage of a banana…. The inscriptions which the poets of the State had composed were hung where they could not be read…and one of them…consisted, by an unfortunate slip of the draughtsman, of the words, “God si Love.”

God si Love. Is this the final message of India?

Only Kafka, I think, could have answered in the affirmative.

Forster did not believe in belief. Nevertheless what chiefly distinguishes the redeemed from the unredeemed characters in his novels—the Schlegels from male Wilcoxes in Howards End—is that the unredeemed recognize only the solid values of this world, while the redeemed seem in communication with mysteries and uncertainties, values, meanings and non-meanings, beyond their actual circumstances.

When I think of Margaret and Helen Schlegel I think of them seeing invisible things, listening to unheard music. What are Mrs. Wilcox and Mrs. Moore but intermediaries between Forster’s invisible values (forces of light where with Lawrence there are dark gods) and the world? The house, Howards End, symbolizes England’s past; but like the mosques and temples of Forster’s India, it is more shrine than symbol. Mrs. Wilcox and Mrs. Moore are not symbolistes: they are, rather, priestesses in touch with divine mysteries, hearing terrible secrets. Perhaps what is least aesthetic and least “modern” about Forster (and therefore most to be valued) is his quite old-fashioned sense that works of art, though self-sufficient, communicate some meaning which is “neither an aesthetic pattern nor a sermon.”

When the Schlegels went to the concert where Beethoven’s Fifth was played, Helen Schlegel heard the third movement as “a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end.” “Others followed him….” What was terrible to Helen was that “they merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendor or heroism in the world…. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness!”

Art, then, becomes a medium for communicating through sensibility experiences like an infinite series of reflected images which finally lead to the unknown. In The Longest Journey, there is a scene in which Rickie watches his friend Ansell draw a square on a sheet of paper, and “within the square a circle, and within the circle a square, and inside that another circle, and inside that another square.” ” ‘Why will you do that?’ No answer. ‘Are they real?’ ‘The inside one is—the one in the middle of everything, that there’s never room enough to draw.’ “

One might do a diagram of Forster’s life work like this. The outside square of his novels is the conditions of contemporary history: Edwardian England in which traditions are fragmented, nature destroyed by the ruthless businessmen like Henry Wilcox. Inside this, a circle which is the behavior and manners of people who exist within this conditioning. Inside that the circle of personal relationships. Inside that the square of Mrs. Wilcox, Mrs. Moore—those who hear the messages still communicable at shrines. Inside that, a circle, a square, a circle, and so on, as far as consciousness may reach.

Forster realized how utterly dependent the inner life which can attain the fullest consciousness is on the most outward, most superficial conditioning, the frame of contemporary circumstances and politics. When he abandoned fiction—or when fiction abandoned him—he did not change his attitudes. What he did was to move outside his system of squares and circles—the fictitious boxes within boxes—and address himself to the external situation. Just as Arnold in the nineteenth century decided that it was necessary for criticism to create an external order of values so that within this frame poetry could again be written, Forster concerned himself with biography, criticism, essays about the state of the society. It was no head-on attack but a subtle strategy in which he wore his own ineffectiveness like a cap of invisibility, the Tarnhelm. Under the guise of a defeated liberal, he remained more than anyone else, except his contemporary D. H. Lawrence, alive and kicking.

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