To the Editor:
Cynthia Ozick’s essay on E. M. Forster [“Forster as Homosexual,” December 1971] seems to me so brilliant, so penetrating, so—in almost every respect—right, that I feel somewhat querulous in offering any objection at all. However.
Let me begin at the end, with Miss Ozick’s revaluation of Forster’s famous statement about betrayal. This declaration (of which she omits—as is common, I grant, in quoting it—the first clause) occurs in an essay entitled “What I Believe,” written in 1939. Forster does not believe, he says, in Belief. He looks about him with dismay at the carnage caused by the clash of Creed against Creed, but because he lives in an “Age of Faith,” an “extremely unpleasant reality . . . bloody in every sense of the word,” he has to “keep up my end of it.” And where does he start? “With personal relationships.” To “get a little order into the contemporary chaos,” he declares, “I certainly can proclaim that I believe in personal relationships.” He is asserting that sanity and order are to be sought—and cherished—in the private realm, and proceed, if they proceed at all, from there to the public. “Personal relations,” he says, “are despised today. They are regarded as bourgeois luxuries, as products of a time of fair weather which is now past, and we are urged to get rid of them, and to dedicate ourselves to some movement or cause instead. I hate the idea of causes, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country,”
He goes on to say that “probably one will not be asked to make such an agonizing choice. Still there lies at the back of every creed something terrible and hard for which the worshiper may one day be required to suffer, and there is a terror and a hardness in this creed of personal relationships, urbane and mild though it sounds. Love and loyalty to an individual can run counter to the claims of the State. When they do—down with the State, say I, which means the State would down me.”
I find it very difficult to read this passage and keep in mind, as Miss Ozick would have me do, that by “personal relationships” and “love and loyalty” he means homosexual attachments, and by “friend” he means that coy term by which homosexual “roommates” sometimes refer to each other. Whatever you may think of his conviction that personal loyalties should precede political ones (I like it well), I don’t believe you can imagine him to mean by “friend” anything different from what you or I or anyone would mean by it—someone we loved and wished, above all else, not to betray.
Maurice, to be sure, contains a passage about a “friend.” Early on, the youthful Maurice dreams: “He scarcely saw a face, scarcely heard a voice say, ‘That is your friend,’ and then it was over, having filled him with beauty and taught him tenderness. He could die for such a friend, he would allow such a friend to die for him; they would make any sacrifice for each other, and count the world nothing, neither death nor distance nor crossness could part them, because ‘this is my friend.’”
If ever there has been set on paper the epitome of the ideal of the homosexual “friend,” here it is. In a dream. Dreamed in, as Miss Ozick so perfectly points out, a fairy tale. The meaning of the word “friend” here is absolutely clear. The meaning of the same word in the passage I have quoted from “What I Believe” is, I believe, and as I have already stated, equally clear and absolutely different.
But what happens if we try to equate them? First and most obviously, we must answer Miss Ozick’s question, “Does it devalue the large humanistic statement to know that its sources are narrowly personal?,” just as she does: “Yes.” We might add, “!,” and “Devalue it? It renders it ludicrous.” And that is too bad, because it is an interesting and courageous idea (my interpretation, not Miss Ozick’s), and deserves our consideration. But worse trouble lies ahead. If we decide that by the term “friend” Forster could mean only one thing—that is, that he was incapable of talking at one time and context within and about his homosexuality, and at another outside and apart from it—then unpleasant problems arise in the evaluation (or, in the light of Maurice, revaluation) of the rest of his work. Are these “narrowly personal sources” to be read into it all? Has Maurice provided some sort of master clef that will unlock the surprise secret: he was writing about homosexuals all the time?
We have been familiar in the recent past with the charge that a form of literature has arisen—particularly though not exclusively for the stage—in which homosexual themes and situations are tricked out in heterosexual, family, marital dress, and presented as “straight” goods. (This is a bit passé now, of course, the clanging of so many closet doors being flung wide stridently rebuking the putative tradition of genteel deception.)
Are we to locate Forster somewhere early in this dubious tradition? A gifted novelist with a single vision which, whatever the apparent subject matter, would out and out—and eventually, when he told all—cause everything to mean something different from what we had thought?
What shall we make of Howards End? If he was incapable of using “friend” in two truly different senses, how are we to evaluate his descriptions of the personal relationships in this (or any other) novel? Are they not seriously suspect? If homosexual yearning and conflict and anguish and guilt—and resignation—lay behind it all, how can we trust him on love, courtship, marriage, sisterhood, fatherhood, sonhood—how can we trust him, above all, to tell us about men and women, and especially men and women together? Well, fair enough, say I. Don’t trust him. I wouldn’t, given the credentials of Maurice. But, read Howards End. Doubt is dispelled. He knew.
Miss Ozick also admires Howards End—compares it with Middlemarch, calling them both the “prototypical English Wisdom Novel—wisdom in the category of the way-things-really-are, the nest of worms exposed below the surface of decency.” Of course they are both that—first-rate, detailed, comprehensive sociological newsletters, each reporting its own particular 19th-century period and social context, and each brilliantly conceived and artfully written.
Is that why George Eliot’s and E. M. Forster’s reports on English life are regarded as incomparable novelistic classics? Not likely. I suspect they are so regarded because however gifted these extraordinary writers were as sociologists, however trenchantly Forster, as Miss Ozick says, “impaled English mores in the house-hunting habits of Mr. Wilcox, and wrote of the money-and-property mentality in such a way as to dishevel it permanently,” and however perceptively George Eliot examined the hypocrisy, the corruptibility—and corruptingness—of provincial Victorian society in the early 1830′s, the reason we cherish these books today is that their authors were psychologists and metaphysicians (with good ears)—that is, novelists, and that their superb sociological achievements are inseparable from (and certainly not primary to) their novelistic vision.
Like all good sociologist-historians, both Eliot and Forster tell us a great deal about what life was like and why, in the setting each wrote about; but like the great novelists they both are, they bring us much news of ourselves. Devoted social critics though they both were, they contrived to allow the characters in their novels to address us directly, across historical change and disruption—or rather, they, through (and outside) their characters, address us directly, speaking of issues no change or disruption has yet really changed: passion, greed, foolishness, pride, loyalty, guilt, love—and all the other homely, eternal concerns that constitute our lives as they did theirs, the characters, the authors.
But it doesn’t hold up. Odds and inconsistency are against it. Why should Forster tell us anything, especially anything both surprising and true, indeed how should he know anything about what he manifestly could not know? I can offer no answer to that reasonable question beyond this: I don’t know how he knew what he knew, but I know that others have known things they had no objective “experiential right” to know. Think of writing for and about children, for example. Memory may or may not be useful. It’s universally available, of course, but only occasionally fruitful—without the intervention and interpretation of imagination. Really, imagination is all. Having children of one’s own confers no special wisdom—in the writing; think of those finest writers for children who never had any: Lewis Carroll, Beatrix Potter, C. S. Lewis: think of those childless writers who wrote about children: Henry James, George Eliot, George Meredith, Samuel Butler, Charlotte Bronte; think of E. M. Forster writing about fatherhood and sonhood (read Where Angels Fear to Tread), I shall not offer more lists of names, but, as categories think of the men who have written about women, women about men, young about old, poor and rich about rich and poor, and yes, oh yes, black about white and white about black. All disallowed? All constricted—crippled perhaps?—by “narrowly personal sources”?
Well, perhaps so, and so much the worse for both literature and life. But what if not? What if it is true that writers of all sorts have written accurately and revealingly about matters they could not have “known”? How do they know? They transcend the “narrowly personal sources” by which every one of us is in some particular way bound, and leap out, imaginatively, into another reality, grasp it in some conceptual or aesthetic form, and offer it to us in whatever mode serves their gifts and their perceptions. Novels served Forster; essays, too, yielded their possibilities to his style and thought.
I do not know how or why such imaginative leaps occur—to anyone. In a sense they are miraculous, whether in life or art. (And both depend upon them, utterly.) Miracles of the power of imagination. And I suppose I believe the proper attitude toward miracle is gratitude. That we now know, with the (less than miraculous) Maurice, how far and how heroically Forster had to leap to escape the fetters of his own “sources,” makes his achievement, in his best work, more deserving of our gratitude, less of our suspicions. (Trust the fiction, not the life.) Miss Ozick does not love him enough—for what he did do.
New York City
To the Editor:
I read Maurice and then read Cynthia Ozick’s essay, and I must say that I do not feel Miss Ozick dealt with the book I read. I do not think that homosexual men (or women) are “sterile” any more than heterosexual men (or women) are “fertile,” and I don’t find Forster thinking of people in these terms. The heterosexual Clive whom Maurice confronts at the novel’s end is someone on the other side of the looking glass, a mirror-image not a paterfamilias.
Two other points: To announce that if Forster were alive he would not be a member of the Gay Liberation Movement is not a service. Miss Ozick’s clairvoyance is shared by . . . Joseph Epstein in his review of Maurice in the New York Times. For better or worse, the people on the other side of the looking glass—those in the Gay Liberation Movement—have received the exact opposite message. They have not, however, shared Miss Ozick’s and Mr. Epstein’s absolute conviction of being able to speak for the dead.
Miss Ozick’s ability to detect “early signs of affinity between anti-Semitism and Gay Liberation” on the basis of a book review by Gore Vidal should not go unremarked. Mr. Vidal, whatever his merits or demerits, his pro- or anti-Semitism, is (a) officially “bi-” and not “homo-” sexual and (b) not a member of, or spokesman for, the Gay Liberation Movement to the best of my knowledge, and I have been working on an anthology of all pertinent writings of the movement. . . .
New York City
Cynthia Ozick writes:
Lionel Trilling begins his book about Forster with this observation: “E.M. Forster is for me the only living novelist who can be read again and again and who, after each reading, gives me what few writers can give us after our first days of novel-reading, the sensation of having learned something.” To this statement another can be added, virtually a corollary: Forster is also one of those very few writers (and since Forster’s death, there is none now living) who excite competitive passions—possessive rivalries, in fact—among serious readers, each of whom feels uniquely chosen to perceive the inner life of the novels.
In recent years Forster has grown thinner for me, especially as essayist. Not that I would now deny Forster’s powers or his brilliance, or claim that the masterpieces are not masterpieces, still giving out, as Trilling said almost thirty years ago, “the sensation of having learned something.” But what we learn from the novels is not what we learn from the essays. The novels do not preach morality and the essays, in their way, do. Or, to put it differently, the novels preach a novelistic morality—in the early ones, the ethics of Spontaneity; in A Passage to India, the anti-ethics of a mystical nihilism. But the essays—preeminently “What I Believe,” which Anne Farber cites—tell us how we are to go about living from moment to moment. “Where do I start?” Forster asks. And answers: “With personal relationships.” Of this approach Mrs. Farber says: “I like it well.”
I do not, because it strikes me as incomplete and self-indulgent. Nevertheless I recognize Mrs. Farber’s tone—it was once mine, and I think we can spot our erstwhile psychological twins—at the end of her letter, when she concludes that I do “not love [Forster] enough—for what he did do.” I withdraw from the contest and agree that Mrs. Farber is right. She does love Forster’s ideas and qualities, if not more than I once did, certainly more than I do now.
And the reasons I have, so to speak, fallen out of love with Forster are the very reasons she is still in thrall to him. A novelist, as she says, is both psychologist and metaphysician (and social historian). That is why we become most attached to those novels which give us an adequate account of the way the world seems to us. Novelists interpret us, and when we “choose” a novelist we are really choosing a version of ourselves. The same is true of essayists. What I no longer choose to choose among Forster’s ideas is “Only Connect,” which signifies, of course, “personal relationships.” When I said in my piece that it devalued “the large humanistic statement to know that its sources are narrowly personal,” I was not referring to Forster’s novelistic imagination (of course the women in his novels are women and not disguised male homosexuals), but to his liberalism. We are now unambiguously apprised of Forster’s homosexuality, and Maurice makes it shudderingly plain that Forster considered homosexuality to be an affliction, the ineradicable mark of a fated few. To use language grown rusty from repetition, he regarded himself as part of an oppressed minority; and, applying Only Connect, he could stand in for and champion other oppressed minorities—Indians under English colonialism, for instance, who suffered from the English public-school mentality precisely as he had suffered from it. But this, after all, is a compromised liberalism. There is nothing admirable in it; it is devalued by the presence of the vested interest. It is no trick, after all, for a Jew to be against anti-Semitism, or for a homosexual to be against censorship of homosexual novels. The passion behind the commitment may be pure, but the commitment is not so much a philosophy of liberalism as it is of self-preservation. Morality must apply some more accessible standard than personal hurt. In Howards End Mr. Wilcox, disapproving of Helen’s affair with Leonard Bast, gets his nose rubbed in a reminder of his own affair, long ago, with Mrs. Bast: what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. But suppose the gander has had no sauce? I am not a homosexual; if I had been in England in 1935, should I not have been disturbed by the law which interfered with the untrammeled publication of Boy, as Forster was? (See his essay “Liberty in England.”) Liberalism, to be the real thing, ought to be disinterested.
But the inadequacy of Only Connect—that it is not disinterested—is not the whole of my charge against “personal relationships” as the ultimate moral standard. Deciding your behavior person by person (Forster was apparently the inventor of an early form of situation ethics) seems to me a localized, partial, highly contingent, catch-as-catch-can sort of morality. “This is my friend; I love him; therefore I will not kill him” is, in my view, inferior to saying, once and for all, “Thou shalt not kill.” The reason is not simply that the overall Commandment is relatively more efficient than figuring it out one person at a time as you go along, but also that it is more reliable. “This is my friend; I love him” can too easily turn into “This was my friend; now I hate him.” And if that is all there is to it, if there is no larger motive than “personal relationships” to govern human behavior, one might as well kill him. It is not only that “Love and loyalty to an individual can run counter to the claims of the State” (though the single example Forster can think of to illustrate this possibility is Brutus and Cassius vis-à-vis Caesar, not exactly the sort of situation that one is likely to encounter on an everyday basis)—it is also, as Forster himself recognizes, that love and loyalty can run counter to themselves; in short, they rot. They are “a matter for the heart, which signs no documents.” That is why, taking up—as Forster himself does—the question of reliability, and writing about these matters on stone some four thousand years before Forster, Moses thought that having it down on a document might not be a bad idea. “But reliability,” Forster sensibly answers Moses, “is not a matter of contact—that is the main difference between the world of personal relationships and the world of business relationships.” It is also one of the differences between personal relationships and universal ethics. To Forster, Moses comes out a businessman with a contract, and in the same essay (we are still in “What I Believe”) he says he prefers Montaigne and Erasmus. “My temple stands,” he asserts, “not upon Mount Moriah but in that Elysian Field where even the immoral are admitted.” It is not a very great distance from an Elysian Field that makes no distinction between innocents and murderers (for we have a right to take the persons Forster calls “immoral” at their most extreme) to the ou-boum of the Marabar Caves, which swallows up both good and evil into one of the unknown black holes of the universe, similarly without distinction. The problem with Forster’s “personal relationships”—or, to use Mrs. Farber’s term, his personal loyalties—is that they tend to slip away at the first intrusion of something spooky or ineffably cosmic—of something, in brief, that suggests his notion of Religion, which is pagan in the sense of fearful, imbued with the uncanniness of lacrimae rerum, un-human, without relation to the world of men. When Mrs. Moore in the cave hears the ou-boum of nothingness, she “lost all interest, even in Aziz [who had become her good friend], and the affectionate and sincere words that she had spoken to him seemed no longer hers but the air’s.”
Mrs. Moore in the Marabar Caves is obviously an extreme example of the dissolution of a friendship. But Forster, as we know, is fond of extremes, so it is not too much to say that Mrs. Moore is also an extreme example of someone who—quoting Mrs. Farber quoting Forster—“hate[s] the idea of causes.” Her hatred of causes does not strengthen her in friendship. She betrays her friend by losing interest in him, because the universe has shown her that it is impersonal, and that friendship and betrayal and loss are all the same to it. She has no “cause”—no motivation, no ideal contract—which restricts her from betraying her friend. Forster’s dedication to personal relationships without contract is doomed to work only very rarely, not only because friendship succeeds only very rarely, but because it is, in a world of friends and non-friends, not enough. “Do not lie about your friend, whom you love” is, in moral distance, a light-year from “Do not tell lies about anyone at all”—or, as it is more commonly formulated, “Do not bear false witness.” A contractual, or communal, ethics, when violated, at least leaves the standard intact. A catch-as-catch-can ethics, based on your feelings for your friend, leaves everything in a shambles when it is violated. A case can of course be made that Forster’s ethics of privacy derives through Romanticism with its discovery of the Individual from Non-Conformism with its emphasis on regulating personal morality through conscience. Whatever their sources, though, the moral and political positions that emerge from “What I Believe” seem to me to be disturbingly partial. They may do a certain credit to the sensibility of a hurt man who knows enough to be thoughtful about the hurts of others, but they fail of universal application. Forster never comes head-on against the problem of how to get the “bloods” to behave less callously. Or, rather, he dodges the problem by loading it: by giving Mr. Wilcox an old affair to hide, by making Maurice a homosexual. His whole men turn out not to be whole at all; Forster appears incapable of accepting the principle of not hurting without first making a hurt felt. His humanity goes from wound to wound. His politics, his morality, ultimately his liberalism, all signify the humanism of cripples. It is too thin. The thugs escape.
The difficulty with Mrs. Farber’s letter, I think, is that she mixes up these specific questions raised by Forster’s political and moral positions with a general analysis of the novelistic imagination. Her description of the “miracle” of the fictive imagination is superb and very nearly complete, but I am puzzled about why she has introduced it. My judgment on Forster’s humanism does not lead logically to any judgment on his capacity to imagine. If I believe, as I do, that Forster’s sense of himself as a kind of martyr taints the candor of his liberalism with a hidden self-interest, how does this relate to Mrs. Farber’s notion that I somehow also believe the novels to be homosexual disguises? They are obviously not homosexual disguises. Nothing in what I wrote suggested they might be. That there are in Forster’s fiction men with homosexual tendencies was always clear and is now clearer. A pair of obvious examples: Ricky and Ansell, Aziz and Fielding. Revisited in the aftermath of Maurice (I have, for instance, been rereading A Passage to India), they have new resonances; so does the passionate “friend” in the essay called “Notes on the English Character” (1920), who is an adumbration of Aziz as Forster himself in that essay is an adumbration of Fielding. As for Forster’s use of the word “friend”: until some industrious clod of a graduate student gives us the definitive concordance for that word in Forster’s oeuvre, we shall not know how often he intended it wistfully and how often straightforwardly. But until we get the concordance, we will have to rely on impressions—and my impression is that it is a word Forster most often uses wistfully. I feel certain—it is an impression—that the friend for whom Forster would betray his country is thought of wistfully. When you betray your country, that is treason, a capital offense. Betraying your country for your friend, you die. I quote Mrs. Farber quoting Maurice in a passage she herself calls “the epitome of the homosexual ‘friend’”: “He could die for such a friend . . . they would make any sacrifice for each other, and count the world nothing.” Maurice would betray his country for such a friend; Forster is largely indistinguishable from Maurice; and yet Mrs. Farber writes, “I don’t believe you can imagine him to mean by ‘friend’ anything different from what you or I or anyone would mean by it.” My impression is otherwise.
But all this is about friendship between men. Against the rest—Mrs. Farber’s catalogue of “love, courtship, marriage, sisterhood, fatherhood, sonhood”—nothing can be insinuated. Forster believed, as I have said, in Demeter, the most domestic of all the goddesses.
So two cheers for Forster’s Friendship. “Two cheers are quite enough,” Forster remarked of Democracy, saving his third for “Love the Beloved Republic.” If, as Mrs. Farber asserts, I do not love Forster enough for what he has done, it is not because I fail to celebrate his novelistic imagination, but rather because I would dislike living in his Republic, where personal relationships govern (one might dare to say seethe) and there are no communal contracts. I save half my third cheer for the Covenant; and the other half, following Forster in all his novels but the last, for Demeter.
In reply to Leo Skir: World-shaking news: men can’t make babies with men, women can’t make babies with women. That much, it would seem, Mr. Skir and I and all the rest of us ought to be able to agree on. Whatever else can “sterile” and “fertile” mean? Metaphorical fertility doesn’t lead to dirty diapers. If Mr. Skir does not “find Forster thinking in these terms,” he must become reacquainted with the meaning of Gino’s baby in Where Angels Fear to Tread, Helen’s baby in Howards End, Stephen’s child in The Longest Journey; he must think again about the meditation on fertility in A Room with a View, and the explicit passage on sterility in Maurice. Mr. Skir has read Forster only superficially; otherwise he is obtuse—or, worse, means to use a writer tendentiously.
If the last is true, it is especially unfortunate that Mr. Skir chooses Forster to politicize. Honest literary criticism is not engaged in for the purpose of performing services for movements. And in Forster’s case it is not necessary for anyone to speak for the dead (is this, by the way, what Mr. Skir thinks literary criticism is?), since the living Forster spoke for himself vigorously enough: “I hate the idea of causes.” Is this a statement likely to lead to dues-paying Gay Lib membership? It is especially difficult to imagine Forster wishing to politicize friendship or sex. Indeed, A Passage to India culminates in a plea for the de-politicization of friendship.
But if, like Mr. Skir, homosexual men and women determine to politicize their own friendships and sexuality into a movement, they must not be surprised at finding themselves stuck with the consequences—the entire range of possible consequences—exactly like Rockefeller or Lindsay or Wallace. Politics is not poetry. What sensitive people, however sexually inclined, ought to regret about the Gay movement is precisely this: that it took love and sex and friendship and out of them made only another political party.