Faith in E. M. Forster’s What I Believe Essay
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Faith in E. M. Forster’s What I Believe
E. M. Forster’s “What I Believe” is interesting in that it reflects a moderated idealism. Throughout the essay, Forster will make a proclamation, such as rationality is good, and subsequently retreat half a step, in this case insisting on the continued necessity of faith. It is an interesting technique and demonstrates much of the complexity of his positions, and arguably those of Bloomsbury insofar as they are a whole. Particularly interesting are his fascination with faith, which forms the bedrock of the argument, and with personal relationships.
Forster draws a distinction between “belief” and “Belief” in that while he does ascribe to the former, he distrusts the latter. “They…show more content…
“Tolerance, good temper, and sympathy – they are what matter really….but for the moment they are not enough…they want stiffening.”2 And for Forster, it is faith, “a sort of mental starch,”3 that will supplement the qualities that will keep the human race from collapsing.
The direct consequence of Forster’s rather abstract stance on faith is a certain pragmatic attitude towards government. For him, government is founded on personal relationships, leading to the rather controversial statement: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”4 This statement indicates the core of Forster’s argument. For him a democracy works because it is built upon the personal relationships of discrete individuals. The myth of the “Great Man” is impossible in a true democracy where each is considered the equal of the other. And so, at the core of it, it is impossible to betray one’s country by holding true to a friend. In Forster’s view, the entire structure is built upon this relationship and to betray a friend is to betray one’s country much more profoundly than simple treason.
Ultimately, Forster’s argument is on of “an individualist and a liberal who has found liberalism crumbling beneath him and felt ashamed.”5 And so, he presents an argument for rationality, freedom, and equality that advocates faith and force as necessary presences in human
All of Forster’s best-known and most anthologized stories appeared first in two collections, The Celestial Omnibus and The Eternal Moment. The words “celestial” and “eternal” are especially significant because a typical E. M. Forster story features a protagonist who is allowed a vision of a better life, sometimes momentarily only. Qualifications for experiencing this epiphany include a questioning mind, an active imagination, and a dissatisfaction with conventional attitudes. The transformation resulting from the experience comes about through some kind of magic that transports him through time—backward or forward—or through space—to Mt. Olympus or to heaven. Whether or not his life is permanently changed, the transformed character can never be the same again after a glimpse of the Elysian Fields, and he is henceforth suspect to contemporary mortals.
Forster termed his short stories “fantasies,” and when the discerning reader can determine the point at which the real and the fantastic intersect, he will locate the epiphany, at the same time flexing his own underused imaginative muscles. Perhaps “The Machine Stops,” a science-fiction tale about a world managed by a computer-like Machine that warns men to “beware of first-hand ideas,” was at the time of its writing (1909) the most fantastic of Forster’s short fiction, but its portrayal of radio, television, and telephones with simultaneous vision seems to have been simply farsighted.
Forster frequently uses a narrator who is so insensitive that he ironically enhances the perception of the reader. In “Other Kingdom,” for example, when Mr. Inskip finds it “right” to repeat Miss Beaumont’s conversation about a “great dream” to his employer, the reader correctly places the tutor on the side of unimaginative human, rather than in the lineup of Dryads to which the young lady will repair. When the narrator of “The Story of a Panic” boasts that he “can tell a story without exaggerating” and then unfolds a tale about a boy who obviously is visited by Pan and who finally bounds away to join the goat-god, the reader knows that he must himself inform the gaps of information. When the same narrator attributes the death of the waiter Gennaro to the fact that “the miserable Italians have no stamina. Something had gone wrong inside him,” the reader observes the disparity between the two statements and rightly concludes that Gennaro’s death has a supernatural cause—that he had been subjected to the same “panic” as had Eustace, and that only the latter had passed the test.
In Aspects of the Novel (1927), Forster suggests that fiction will play a part in the ultimate success of civilization through promotion of human sympathy, reconciliation, and understanding. In each of the short stories the protagonist gets a finger-hold on the universal secret, but he sometimes loses his grip, usually through the action of someone too blind, materialistic, or enslaved by time to comprehend the significance of the moment.
If, as Forster himself declares, the emphasis of plot lies in causality, he allows the reader an important participation, because the causes of transformation are never explicit, and the more mundane characters are so little changed by the miraculous events taking place around them that they are not puzzled or even aware that they occur.
“The Eternal Moment”
In “The Eternal Moment,” the stiffly insensitive Colonel Leyland, Miss Raby’s friend and traveling companion, is just such a character. While Miss Raby is determined to accept the responsibility for the commercialization of the mountain resort Vorta engendered by her novel, Colonel Leyland can understand her feelings no more readily than can Feo, the uneducated waiter who is the immediate object of Miss Raby’s search. While Miss Raby ostensibly has returned to the village to see how it has been affected by tourism since she made it famous, she also is drawn to the spot because it was the scene of the one romantic, although brief, interlude of her life. For twenty years she has recalled a declaration of passionate love for her by a young Italian guide whose advances she had rejected. This memory has sustained her because of its reality and beauty. She finds the once rustic village overgrown with luxury hotels, in one of which Feo, her dream-lover, is the stout, greasy, middle-aged, hypocritical concierge. Miss Raby, whose instincts have warned her that the progress...
(The entire section is 1849 words.)