The Prose and the Passion

From The New Republic:

Forster Whenever E.M. Forster is discussed, the phrase “only connect” is sure to come up sooner or later. The epigraph to Howards End, the book he described with typical modesty as “my best novel and approaching a good novel,” seems to capture the leading idea of all his work—the moral importance of connection between individuals, across the barriers of race, class, and nation. What is not as frequently remembered is that, when Forster uses the phrase in Howards End, he is not actually talking about this kind of social connection, but about something more elusive and private—the difficulty of connecting our ordinary, conventional personalities with our transgressive erotic desires.

“Only connect” makes its entrance shortly after Margaret Schlegel, the novel’s liberal intellectual heroine, is first kissed by Henry Wilcox, the conservative businessman whom she has rather surprisingly agreed to marry. Passion has played little part in their relationship, and though they have gotten engaged they have not yet touched. When Wilcox suddenly embraces her, then, Margaret “was startled and nearly screamed,” and though she tries to kiss “with genuine love the lips that were pressed against her own,” she feels afterwards that “on looking back, the incident displeased her. It was so isolated. Nothing in their previous conversation had heralded it, and, worse still, no tenderness had ensued … he had hurried away as if ashamed.” A few pages later, Margaret’s reflections on this erotic incompetence lead, as often happens in Forster’s fiction, into an authorial homily:

Outwardly [Henry Wilcox] was cheerful, reliable, and brave; but within, all had reverted to chaos, ruled, so far as it was ruled at all, by an incomplete asceticism. Whether as boy, husband, or widower, he had always the sneaking belief that bodily passion is bad…. And it was here that Margaret hoped to help him.

It did not seem so difficult. She need trouble him with no gift of her own. She would only point out the salvation that was latent in his own soul, and in the soul of every man. Only connect! That was her whole sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.

More here.