02 May 2008

Five Favourite Revolutionaries: E.M. Forster & Howards End

So the Wilcox episode fell into the background, leaving behind it memories of sweetness and horror that mingled, and the sisters pursued the life that Helen had commended. They talked to each other and other people, they filled the tall thin house at Wickham Place with those whom they liked or could befriend. They even attended public meetings. In their own fashion they cared deeply about politics, though not as politicians would have us care; they desired that public life should mirror whatever is good in the life within […] Not out of them are the shows of history erected: the world would be a gray, bloodless place where it entirely composed of Miss Schlegels. But, the world being what it is, perhaps they shine out in it like stars.

— E.M. Forster

Most academics can point to a certain text, a singular work that shifted their perception of the world into before and after. Above and beyond a simple ‘favourite book,’ as academicians and intellectuals we develop perhaps overly strong and anachronistic identifications with texts, narrative, and characters in a society that no longer truly reads. For me, that one book, that moment when the scales fell away, is Howards End, E.M. Forster’s evocative and thoughtful 1910 novel.

I studied Passage to India, A Room With a View, and Maurice in college, of course, but only read Howards End in the second year of graduate school, for pleasure, and immediately fell swooning into its narrative of intellect and Capital, beauty and techne, and the struggle to synthesise the two via the mechanism of the Schlegel Sisters, Margaret and Helen, and their complex interactions with the Wilcox family, avatars of imperial capitalism.

Forster’s language, its languid beauty in unfolding the story of Meg and Helen and their relationships to the Wilcox clan, opened a window onto the pleasures of writing and description that was seductive. The Schlegel sisters serve as a foil for the dynamic contrast between reason and passion, counterpoised against the decidedly anti-intellectual accumulation standpoint of the Wilcox family. The Wilcoxes, in their patriarchal patriotism and firm belief in Empire and Mammon, live still in the capitals of the world, perhaps now more than ever.

In the end, Forster allows the Schlegels to win this contest, to triumph over the Wilcoxes through joining their values together, giving us a literary conclusion that is rarely, if ever, found in real life. While perhaps overly utopian in its sensibilities, Forster grounds a humanistic future in the Schlegels, and their principles of connection. The epigraph of the novel, “Only Connect,” speaks both to the immediate desire to park the intellectualism of beauty and soul within the precincts of predatory Capitalism, and the larger need for connection in a world torn asunder by distraction, greed, and material desire and envy.

Meg, in her pragmatism, sees the need to join the two legacies together. Helen rejects Meg’s compromise as a betrayal of idealism, although in the end comes to live under the auspices of the Wilcoxes, not to mention her own annual allowance of £600. The tension between Meg and Helen is driven by the problematic figure of Leonard Bast, striving member of the Edwardian underclass who is a cipher for the fear of “the Abyss” of poverty and destitution, but also for determining a certain political commitment. These aspects of the novel, while striking the sensitive mind as somewhat ugly in their dimensions, are still vivid today, as abstraction as well as literal cognates for the struggles of the principled intellectual, especially those of us who do not come from money and privilege. Meg and Helen are allegories for the professoriate, and the anxiety we find within ourselves and our profession.

The narrative engine of the life of the mind and how, if at all, it could survive in the new, brutalist industrialism still challenges us one hundred years after Howards End was written. The questions Howards End poses remain central to our understandings of ourselves, as thinkers and intellectuals, standing in relation to Capitalism and the meat grinder of development and the blind, uncritical amassing of wealth and things. While I do not think the solution proffered by Forster is the best of all possible worlds, it does offer, in its literary imagination, one way of preserving what is arguably the best of human spirit through a commitment to survival over principle, and but moreover really a synthesis of the two.

Many of us are ostensibly more devotees of the latter than the former, but in truth we need to figure out a mechanism for both survival and principle if we are to thrive. This is what the Schlegels graft onto the capital engine of the Wilcoxes, and what many of us continue to struggle with today, in an anti-intellectual society that regards academicians as irrelevant freaks of nature.

My last summer at Sadistic College, my compadres, Mr. Gordo, and I spent many a leisurely afternoon by the lake or evenings around dinner plates, reading aloud the entirety of Howards End. Not only was this quaint 19th century entertainment charming in its social bonding, but allowed us all to envelop ourselves in the narrative as a communal act of engagement, of connection, reflecting Forster’s own desire to bring together people and ideas in productive and nurturing relationship. Howards End, for me, was the beginning of the conversation, not the end, continuing to resonate within my own life.

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