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“Only connect,” E.M. Forster’s inscription to Howard’s End, is more problematic than it ought to be. It is a typically Forsterian injunction: idealistic, sweetly humanist and absolute, but vague and stated to be challenged. First, to what does the statement apply? It is there beneath the title, prompting the first-time reader to extend it through every situation of the novel, which is easy enough. We are meant only to connect people, perhaps, or England and Germany, or struggling and comfortable classes, or, with other works in mind, the colonizer and the colonized. The quote does not reveal itself until the final third of the book, where it refers to something interior and specific: “Only connect and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die” (188). There is of course nothing unexpected about a specific phrase having a possible wider meaning, but it is slightly unbalancing to have the large meanings present themselves first.
But Forster, despite his scrupulous avoidance of the horrible, is an unexpectedly unbalancing author. This is in part an effect of his pose of steadiness. His constant, assured and auntly narrative voice promises truth through sheer force of diction: “He had known that she would pass from his hands and eyes, but had thought she could live in his mind, not realizing that the very fact that we have loved the dead increases their unreality, and that the more passionately we invoke them the further they recede” (50, Passage to India) to take an example almost at random. This trick – intruding on a character’s musings with a statement from a higher expressive power – is a recognized Forsterism. Yet this narrative voice, with its style of confidence and consistency, is proudly inconsistent. It can pronounce the dreadful resounding “ou-boum” of Mrs. Moore’s disintegration with the same force as it articulates Aziz’s joy at finding her sympathetic. Forster is a moral philosopher of a proclaimed and profound humanist bent, so his official views are easily detected: they are the nice ones. But a triumph for the Forsterian world view cannot be achieved without the defeat of a strong opposition.
The idea of this dialectic as a strategy can be supported by an episode in Howard’s End that constitutes a sort of micro-cosm of the Forster novel, the description of Beethoven’s Fifth. The composer is curiously alive and active throughout the performance of his piece “Here Beethoven started decorating his tune… Here Beethoven, after humming and hawing with great sweetness, said “heigh-ho!” (45). Beethoven only ceases to be the subject during his third movement, when “a goblin walking quietly over the universe” and his cohorts fill Helen with “panic and emptiness” (46). But then, “Beethoven took hold of the goblins, and made them do what he wanted. He appeared in person. He gave them a little push…. and then – he blew with his mouth and they were scattered! (46). The artist is in control here, he lets the goblins loose so he can triumph over them with a vision of harmony and heroism. But this is not the natural order of things. It is a matter of the artist’s choice.
Beethoven chose to make all right in the end…. But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things. (47)
This is Forster’s method, art wavering between optimism and uncertainty- ‘muddle.’ He starts out with a certain vision, only to have it falter in subtle and frightening ways, then reaffirms it. But the affirmation comes with an artistic admission – that articulate, dominant narrative voice chose to have things turn out that way. Life in his novels is rather like Beethoven’s sonnets: “They can triumph or despair as the player decides and Lucy had decided that they should triumph” (Room With a View 29)
Yet this artistic vision of triumph and unity is presented as seen by people experiencing it in disparate and contradictory ways. Famously, Freddy follows the technicalities with the aid of the score, Mrs. Munt taps her foot, and Helen has visions of shipwrecks and goblins, which Margaret finds a little silly. Most aesthetic appreciation in Forster is like this: problematic, muddled. What is the right way to listen, or to look at the Della Roba babies and the Giotto frescos? The understanding of art, the unifying, de-muddling force, can be as disjointed and disputed as anything else.
In Howard’s End, the question of disjunction is further muddled, because the problem lurking beneath the imperative “only connect” is sex. Those words, and the words “the prose and the passion” want to expand universally, covering both the unwhole world and the unwhole people in it. Instead they contract to the site of disjunction caused by the sex drive – the beast and the monk. As if strangers in the house were not enough, now there are strangers inside. The problem is expressed more clearly, if less evocatively, in Maurice. This posthumous novel centers on what his other works were literally barred from touching: the awakening of homosexuality. Sex and desire in Howard’s End, a Room with a View, and A Passage to India are brief implications of rapture or terror: a grappling in a cave, a fall into a field of violets, where kisses are shattering and anything further is only talked about later. There is no explicitness in Maurice, but we see the beginning and the end of love scenes, the veil drawn out of standard courtesy.
Maurice can almost be read as a development of the famous quote from Howard’s End, as an understory to the various bargains made by Margaret, who attempts to combine the disparate elements in her husband’s lack of character. The hero is tormented by sexual desires that will not fit within the character society allows him. He does not even have the dispensation for lust allotted to straight men like his father and Mr. Wilcox. His first love Clive, who makes an improbable conversion to heterosexuality, enjoys such a Wilcoxian marriage: “They united in a world that bore no reverence to the daily, and this secrecy drew after it much else of their lives. So much could never be mentioned” (151). Yet Maurice, by his very deviance, is saved from this compartmentalized state. As the wavering, absolute narrator says of Clive’s attitude towards sex: “Between men it is inexcusable, between men and women it may be practised since nature and society approve, but never discussed not vaunted” (151). Between men it is inexcusable, and so must be discussed, or at least thought about. Thus, the young Maurice, when told about sex by his schoolteacher, is able to recognize that the societal scripts for love are inconclusive and flawed, his homosexual desires reveal it to him: “‘Liar,’ he thought. ‘Liar, coward, he’s told me nothing.'” (9). The delicate moral issues and concerns with conventionality that run through the more famous novels reappear as the difficulties of a man trying to write out sexuality.
And in this, at least, Forster’s much invoked “muddle” becomes a desirable state. Queer desire is unscripted, beyond the pale, and so demands a reconsideration of marriage, of love and society as a whole. It demands a rewriting, and this is where the conscientious author can triumph. The mysterious bargains made by heterosexual couples tend to enforce whatever limits and boundaries are already there. Leonard Bast, whose marriage is a lurid pun on the union between the beast and the monk, relies on canons for his intellectual life, his singular place as a clerk for everything else. He is devoted to keeping them separate. As Forster suggests in Aspects of the Novel, the various facts of human life are separate, and almost irreconcilable. But as the author can chose to tell us everything and “suggest a more comprehensible and thus a more manageable human race” (70), the character can choose to make the bridge and create his or herself, to “only connect” and become the author of his or her own crucial “I.”
Forster, E.M. Aspects of the Novel. Penguin Classics 2000.
Forster, E.M. Howard’s End Penguin English Library, 1984.
Forster, E.M. Maurice. Holder and Stoughton, London, 1971.
Forster, E.M. A Passage to India. Guild Publishing, London, 1987.
Forster, E.M. A Room with a View. Holder and Stoughton, London, 1977.
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