In earlier issues, I’ve discussed frevel — a playful, teasing, un-serious, un-respectful, un-cautious attitude, “infantile daring,” “asking for trouble”. Like hubris, frevel often ends in disaster.
When my niece received a hoverboard for Christmas, I decided to try it. I took to it quickly, and soon was spinning, going backwards, etc. I was teasing relatives about their difficulties with the hoverboard. I said, “Now I’m going to go near the woodstove, for some added danger.” This is a textbook example of frevel, but I didn’t realize it at the time, I was immersed in the game. Only in hindsight is it obvious that I was in the clutches of hubris and frevel.
I scarcely need to say how the game ended: while trying to step off the hoverboard, I fell hard, and got a bloody brow, a black eye, a swollen wrist, etc. (The first rule of hoverboards is to get off by stepping backwards.)
I enjoyed Forster’s Room With A View. It’s short, readable, full of life, and often philosophical. In 1985, it was made into a popular film by Merchant & Ivory.
As I read A Room With A View, I sometimes felt that I was reading a JaneAusten novel — the guy and girl seem destined to come together, but all sorts of obstacles are thrown in their way. The plot consists of overcoming these obstacles, untangling these knots. We know that Forster was influenced by Austen. When he was asked what he had learned from her, he replied, “I learned the possibilities of domestic humor. I was more ambitious than she was, of course; I tried to hitch it on to other things.”1 A Room With A View has humor, but it also deals with personal growth, the ideal person, the beautiful soul. It’s remarkable that Forster achieved so much at such a young age; much of the novel was written in 1902, when he was just 23.
The first half of the novel takes place in Florence. Chapter 1 is set in a hotel (“pension”) that’s full of English tourists. We meet Mr. Emerson, who seems to represent the archetypal Wise Old Man. He isn’t well-dressed or well-mannered, but he has a beautiful soul. There’s “something childish” in his eyes, and when Charlotte refuses his offer to trade rooms, he thumps the table with his fists “like a naughty child.”
One character says that Mr. Emerson is “not tactful; yet, have you ever noticed that there are people who do things which are most indelicate, and yet at the same time — beautiful?” Charlotte doesn’t understand this, she equates beauty with delicacy, propriety, manners. When she finally accepts the rooms with views, her young cousin, Lucy, wonders “whether the acceptance might not have been less delicate and more beautiful.”
In Chapter 2, Lucy (the protagonist) meets Mr. Emerson in a church. He scorns religious formalities and churches, but says “I do believe in those who make their fellow-creatures happy.” Mr. Emerson says he raised his son, George, “free from all the superstition and ignorance that lead men to hate one another in the name of God.”
Mr. Emerson’s saintliness puts him at odds with society. George tells Lucy that most people are kind “because we think it improves our characters. But he is kind to people because he loves them; and they find him out, and are offended, or frightened.”
George has imbibed some of his father’s ways; when Lucy speaks of “a kind action done tactfully,” George is disgusted at the notion of tact, and throws up his head “in disdain”. What the tour guide says about St. Francis seems applicable to Mr. Emerson: “full of innate sympathy... quickness to perceive good in others... vision of the brotherhood of man...” Like Dostoyevsky in The Idiot, Forster is attempting to depict the beautiful soul, the saint, the Christ figure. Surely this is one of the chief themes of world literature.2 A Room With A View is a novel of ‘domestic humor’ that’s ‘hitched onto other things.’
In Forster’s society, young women are taught to be wary of men, but Mr. Emerson urges Lucy to get closer to George:
|Let yourself go. Pull out from the depths those thoughts that you do not understand, and spread them out in the sunlight and know the meaning of them. By understanding George you may learn to understand yourself. It will be good for both of you.|
Life seems hard and meaningless, Mr. Emerson tells Lucy; “the things of the universe... won’t fit.” The universe has no plan: “We come from the winds... we shall return to them.” George is depressed by this aspect of life, Mr. Emerson says, but we shouldn’t let it depress us. “Let us rather love one another, and work and rejoice. I don’t believe in this world sorrow.” We should make the best of the situation, we should call the glass half-full instead of half-empty.
In the early chapters of the novel, Lucy seems stuck in the world of tact and propriety, and she regards Mr. Emerson as “a very foolish old man.” But Lucy has the potential for growth, as we see in her piano-playing. Mr. Beebe says, “If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting both for us and for her.” Lucy plays passionately, and this alarms her mother, who “doesn’t like one to get excited over anything.”
Her mother seems oblivious of all beauty except “beautiful manners”; she finds beautiful manners in Cecil, Lucy’s bookish suitor. Cecil only kisses Lucy after asking permission, while George kisses her without any preamble.
Lucy chafes under Charlotte’s control. Lucy wants to be free, to spread her wings. She doesn’t want to stay in the background, and help men “by means of tact and a spotless name.” Forster sympathizes with the independent woman of his day:
|She too is enamored of heavy winds, and vast panoramas, and green expanses of the sea. She has marked the kingdom of this world, how full it is of wealth, and beauty, and war — a radiant crust, built around the central fires, spinning towards the receding heavens.|
Mr. Emerson looks forward to a day when the sexes are equal, when men and women are “comrades.”
Lucy’s discontent starts the plot moving. “This afternoon she was peculiarly restive. She would really like to do something of which her well-wishers disapproved.” Lucy wants to do something “unladylike.”
Forster admires instinct more than intelligence, and he admires Italians for being closer to their instincts than the English. Forster tells us that the Italian cab-driver “had played skillfully, using the whole of his instinct, while the others had used scraps of their intelligence.” The English “gain knowledge slowly, and perhaps too late.”
Forster rejects the English, Protestant, Victorian world, as Lucy rejects the advice of her older cousin, Charlotte. Charlotte had presented to Lucy
|the complete picture of a cheerless, loveless world in which the young rush to destruction until they learn better — a shamefaced world of precautions and barriers which may avert evil, but which do not seem to bring good, if we may judge from those who have used them most.|
For Forster, Italy seems to represent instinct, wholeness, personal growth. Lucy returns from Italy “with new eyes.... Italy was offering her the most priceless of all possessions — her own soul.”
Like his contemporary D. H. Lawrence, Forster respects instinct and the body. Mr. Emerson says, “The Garden of Eden... which you place in the past, is really yet to come. We shall enter it when we no longer despise our bodies.”
Mr. Emerson’s scorn for social propriety is matched by his love of natural beauty, and doubtless Forster shares both. When Lucy’s brother says, “I must... have the pleasure of calling on you later on, my mother says,” Mr. Emerson responds, “CALL, my lad? Who taught us that drawing-room twaddle? Call on your grandmother! Listen to the wind among the pines! Yours is a glorious country.”
Forster touches on one of the deepest philosophical questions: coincidence, synchronicity, fate. Mr. Beebe says, “When I was a young man, I always meant to write a History of Coincidence.” But George doesn’t believe in coincidence: “Everything is Fate. We are flung together by Fate, drawn apart by Fate.” What appears to be coincidence, George thinks, is actually Fate.
Near the end of the novel, Mr. Emerson tells Lucy that when George was twelve, he had a serious case of typhoid. When he recovered, his mother (Mr. Emerson’s wife) became sick and died. It sometimes seems that one person dies in another’s stead, as if Death must take somebody, but doesn’t care who. When Jung was gravely ill, he had a vision of his doctor dying; soon Jung recovered, and his doctor died in his stead.3
[Spoiler Warning: Don’t read the rest of this section if you’re planning to read Room With A View.] After Lucy breaks her engagement to Cecil, Mr. Emerson talks with Lucy, and steers her toward George.
|[Mr. Emerson] had robbed the body of its taint, the world’s taunts of their sting; he had shown her the holiness of direct desire. She “never exactly understood,” she would say in after years, “how he managed to strengthen her. It was as if he had made her see the whole of everything at once.”|
Isn’t this the philosopher’s goal — to present “the whole of everything at once”?4
I’m a fan of the critic Laurence Brander, whom I discussed before in connection with Forster’s Passage to India. When Brander discusses A Room With A View, he compares Mr. Emerson to Gino, a character in Forster’s first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread. Both Mr. Emerson and Gino are “completely out of tune with the others, a real person among Edwardian marionettes.” Mr. Emerson puts “truth and passion before the suburban niceties.”5
Brander points out that it is Mr. Emerson who offers Lucy and Charlotte the rooms with views. “The offer becomes a symbol. The old man who made it will help the girl to see things she might never have seen in her stuffy Edwardian suburban life.”
Brander describes Cecil Vyse as “a Meredithian character who will mold the woman to his design.” George Meredith was from an older generation; perhaps in Meredith’s day, men often molded women. Among younger novelists like Hardy, Kipling, and Lawrence, one finds a different theme: men who are dominated, crushed by their wives. Forster doesn’t seem to deal with the theme of men dominated by women, he seems more interested in the theme of women dominated by men, women striving for freedom.
One critic (David Ellis) argued that both Forster and D. H. Lawrence aimed at “the presentation of a unified whole.” Forster and Lawrence didn’t celebrate “the fragmentary nature of modern experience,” as the Futurists did. After Lawrence visited the studio of painter Duncan Grant, he said, “Tell [Grant] not to make silly experiments in the futuristic line.... It is the Absolute we are all after, a statement of the whole scheme.” Lawrence and Forster wanted an artistic wholeness that stayed close to life; they had no use for a modernism that “simplified the problem of ‘wholeness’ by disconnecting art from life (so that unity in art became a formal matter only).”
Forster met D. H. Lawrence in 1915. At first, they got along well, and Forster visited Lawrence and his wife (Frieda) at their house in the country. In a letter, Forster wrote, “The Lawrences I like — especially him.” Forster described “walking in ‘the glorious country between here [i.e., Greatham] and Arundel’ listening to Lawrence’s account of his background (his ‘drunken father, sister who married a tailor, etc.’).”6 Forster was then 36, Lawrence 29. Both were already established writers.
Later Lawrence quizzed Forster about his bachelor lifestyle. Forster wasn’t open about his homosexuality, and Lawrence wondered, “Why can’t he act? Why can’t he take a woman and fight clear to his own basic, primal being?” Lawrence wasn’t known for tact, he was known for complete openness. Forster became annoyed; the friendship was heading for the rocks.
A few days later, Forster wrote the Lawrences and said that he liked Frieda, and he liked the D. H. Lawrence who “sees birds” etc., “but I do not like the deaf impercipient fanatic who has nosed over his own little sexual round until he believes that there is no other path for others to take.” The friendship that had blossomed quickly died just as quickly, and it never revived. But it should be noted that after Lawrence’s early death, Forster was a champion of his work.
Forster dealt with homosexuality in his novel Maurice, but he didn’t publish Maurice during his lifetime. Forster regarded Maurice as a groundbreaking work; he said he had
|created something absolutely new, even to the Greeks. Whitman nearly anticipated me but he didn’t really know what he was after, or only half knew — shirked, even to himself, the statement.|
Critics are cool toward Maurice; few critics regard it as one of Forster’s best works. Forster himself eventually cooled toward Maurice, and wondered if it was worth publishing. The film version of Maurice, made by Merchant & Ivory, also has few admirers.
David Ellis argues that several people, including Forster, suspected that Lawrence himself had homosexual inclinations. In Forster’s view, Lawrence didn’t understand his own sexuality, yet he presumed to lecture others about their sexuality. Lawrence himself said, “nearly every man that approaches greatness tends to homosexuality, whether he admits it or not; so that he loves the body of a man better than the body of a woman.” Ellis notes that both Lawrence and Forster were brought up by “a loved but dominating mother.”
At their 1915 meeting, Lawrence and Forster agreed that capitalism was bad, and socialism was better; the time had come for revolution, or at least bold reforms. Lawrence advocated “a program of mass nationalization which will ensure that every man ‘shall have his wages whether he is sick or well or old.’” Until the economic problem is solved, literature is pointless:
|I am ashamed [Lawrence said] to write any real writing of passionate love to my fellow men. Only satire is decent now.... Forster knows, as every thinking man now knows, that all his thinking and his passion for humanity amounts to no more than trying to soothe with poetry a man raging with pain that can be cured. Cure the pain, don’t give the poetry.|
Though Lawrence and Forster agreed about politics, their disagreement about personal matters ruined their rapport. Lawrence summarized their conversation thus:
|We have talked so hard — about a revolution — at least I have talked... and now I wonder, are my words gone like seed spilt on a hard floor.... I must tell you I am very sad, as if it hurt me very much.|
Lawrence said, “I get a feeling of acute misery from [Forster]... the acute, exquisite pain of cramps.” David Ellis spoke of “the paralysis or blockage which Lawrence felt he had detected in his visitor.”7 This blockage may be connected to Forster’s sexuality. This blockage also has a literary aspect: Forster wrote only one novel in his last fifty years.
Perhaps one reason why Forster stopped writing is that his “domestic humor,” his satire of suburbia, was out of place in an age of World War. The critic P. N. Furbank suggests another reason why Forster stopped writing. Furbank says that Forster belongs among those whom Freud called “wrecked by success.” Ellis speaks of the “enormous success” of Forster’s Howards End (1910), and the “spectacular success” of Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (1927). Ellis wrote,
|Like the Greeks [Forster] seemed to feel that any good luck was always likely to be followed by its opposite. Furbank records how, after the spectacular success of Aspects of the Novel, [Forster] told the other Lawrence (T. E.), “a sort of nervousness — glancing at my stomach for the beginnings of cancer — seems to gather in me.” It would no doubt be possible to trace this... common form of superstition to Freudian concepts of guilt.|
If you want to learn more about Forster, consider Furbank’s biography, which Ellis speaks highly of.8
In an earlier issue, I mentioned Daniel Pink:
|I discovered a book called A Whole New Mind, by Daniel Pink. It’s a business book, published in 2005. It’s very popular, a bestseller. It argues that the Information Age is giving way to the Conceptual Age, and logical, linear thinking is becoming less important than intuition and “big picture” thinking. Does it intersect with what I call The Philosophy of Today?|
I recently saw an excellent TED talk by Pink called “The Puzzle of Motivation.” Pink is a good speaker — lucid, passionate, witty. He argues that employees aren’t motivated by carrots and sticks, aren’t motivated by externals. Carrots and sticks may be effective if the task is clearly defined, if the task is mindless labor, but if the task requires creative thinking, carrots and sticks are ineffective.
Pink urges us to think about “intrinsic motivators... we do something because we like it, it’s interesting, it matters, it’s part of something important.” Instead of using carrots and sticks, we should try to inspire people to do things for their own sake. Pink says that Wikipedia is an example of a successful project where workers aren’t motivated by carrots and sticks, but rather because it’s interesting, it matters, etc.
Pink’s argument applies to philosophy. Philosophers have long argued that what holds a nation together, what inspires people to follow the law and to sacrifice for the nation, isn’t carrots and sticks, but internal motivations — their feeling of community, responsibility, etc. “Commonplace thinking,” wrote Hegel, “often has the impression that force holds the state together, but in fact its only bond is the fundamental sense of order which everybody possesses.”9 Ortega also said that force isn’t the important thing: “The substantive, motivating power always consists in a national dogma, an inspiring plan for a life in common.”10
Not only the average citizen, but also the political leader, is driven (at least in part) by a feeling of community and responsibility, an inspiring plan. The political leader often pursues goals for their own sake, not for externals like power and glory. Caesar, for example, aimed to advance Roman civilization, not just obtain power and fame. Hegel spoke scornfully of, “that familiar psychological view of history which understands how to belittle and disparage all great deeds and great men by transforming into the main intention... the fame and honor, etc.”11
What’s true in the political sphere is also true in the cultural sphere: what motivates a Shakespeare or a Beethoven is generally not externals like money and fame, but the project itself. This is evident in the case of Shakespeare because he concealed his identity, and had little hope of money or glory.
Pink is an advocate of play, “bringing humor and light-heartedness to business.” Here again there’s an analogy to culture. One finds a playful spirit in many branches of culture. Nietzsche often derided “the spirit of gravity.” When I discussed Joseph Campbell, I wrote,
|The purpose of the game of life, Campbell says, isn’t winning; we should “abandon absolutely all concern for the fruits of action.” Renounce worldly aims, but play the game for its own sake. “Life as an art and art as a game — as action for its own sake, without thought of gain or of loss, praise or blame.”|
For more on this topic, see Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Pink also wrote a comic book, The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need.
|1.||1952 interview. See Howards End, Norton Critical Edition, p. 293 back|
|2.||Kipling attempted to depict the saint in his novel Kim, as we saw in an earlier issue. back|
|3.||Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Ch. 10 back|
|4.||At the end of the novel, it’s suggested that Charlotte had long been trying, unconsciously trying, to put Lucy and George together. I discussed Charlotte’s actions in an earlier issue. Surely this is a profound idea, and Forster deserves credit for it. But does he present this idea well in the novel? Or does he throw the idea in at the end without adequate preparation? Is there anything in Charlotte’s prior actions to suggest that she’s trying to get Lucy and George together? Forster is a deep thinker but is he a great artist?
Personal growth is difficult, life is constantly challenging; Mr. Emerson quotes Samuel Butler: “Life is a public performance on the violin, in which you must learn the instrument as you go along.” back
|5.||E. M. Forster: A Critical Study back|
|6.||“Lawrence and Forster in 1915,” by David Ellis, The Cambridge Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 1 (1998), pp. 1-14, jstor.org/stable/42967889. back|
|8.||The critic P. N. Furbank should not be confused with Ronald Firbank, a writer of fiction. back|
|9.||The Philosophy of Right, Additions, 160. The feeling of community and responsibility is apparent in the field of courtesy, which I’ve discussed in earlier issues. Courtesy shows community feeling in a pure form because it generally brings no external reward or punishment. back|
|10.||Invertebrate Spain, Ch. 1 back|
|11.||The Philosophy of Right, #124. Freud’s theory of life- and death-instincts says that the life-instinct motivates all of us to pursue not only our own self-interest, but the interests of the larger group, just as the life-instinct motivates ants and bees to work for the community. back|