On what basis do we reach out and connect with one another as persons? Is there any link between our social and cultural place, so to speak, and our ability to form an intimate, authentic relationship with another human being? The most straightforward answer to the second question is “yes.” Our milieu and our mentalité and our mingling are bound basically together. Nobody encounters another person in the non-existent land of someplace. Evidently I am asking about much more than this, though. I am asking about the nature of the relationship between a person here in Montréal and another person over there in Mumbai. So, to start with, and as my example suggests, it isn’t hard to imagine a situation in which a connection is difficult to make. Just think of how challenging it may be for two people from different cultures who speak different languages. In that case there are several hurdles to traverse before a relationship could even be formed. An analogous set of obstacles, of a more subtle and entangling kind, can also exist between two people within the same society—around divisions of sex, race, class, or religion. Even the character of the connection I have in mind is murky: forming authentic intimate relationships has not been a perennial human desire. Put in the broadest possible terms, politics, history, and culture play structuring roles in how we relate to one another.
While he doesn’t quite put it this way, on the last page of The Pattern of Politics the philosopher Charles Taylor makes a clear reference to the sense in which human connections are always “situated.” He does so by appealing to the motto from Howards End: “only connect!” Why make such a reference? And why do so in a book written as part of a campaign for federal political office in 1970?
Taylor lays out a political program which he believes will forge links between everyday Canadians from coast to coast, across regional differences and linguistic barriers. He believes that the vast majority of Canadians have shared interests which are not being served by the traditional political parties. In terms of the Forster motto, he is saying that Liberals and Conservatives, and Prime Minister Pierre Eliot Trudeau in particular, govern in ways that do not truly unite Canadians. Trudeau’s politics of personality and consensus masks the structural barriers that keep Canadians apart. The second type of connection Taylor has in mind in The Pattern of Politics is much closer to that invoked in Howards End. It involves a sense of contact between people, an intimacy that goes beyond the external limitations of social propriety. In terms of Canadian politics, Taylor’s gambit is that “reform socialism” will enable deeply meaningful connections—but democratically, on the widest possible scale. More specifically, he argues that the politics of polarization embodied in reform socialism will help Canadians establish a link between “the problems that people feel and the political goals and aspirations that can overcome them.” With these two senses of “only connect” in mind, I want to consider a contrast between Taylor’s intent and the message of Forster’s great novel. If we do so I think we will see that there is a rather drastic disjuncture between them. In the final analysis Howards End silences precisely the kind of political action Taylor calls for.
The Pattern of Politics raises many of the philosophical and political themes central to Taylor’s later work: human nature, personal identity, language, democracy, pluralism, justice. Although he would go on to refine and develop his thinking in much more substantial terms, this campaign book does a decent job of encapsulating his overall perspective. It is at once deeply ambitious, in terms of the polarizing political program it puts forward, and personal. At that time Taylor was running for political office, he had played a central role in founding a new political party as a vehicle for his vision, the New Democratic Party, and he was perfectly situated at the nexus of central political issues in Canada, running for a seat in the city of Montréal.
Broadly speaking, this short book proposes political reform on a constitutional and institutional level with the goal of enshrining wide and meaningful participation through difference. He argues passionately and persuasively that Canadians’ common interests and purposes are best served by a politics that recognizes cultural diversity and social inequality rather than one that brandishes a false sense of bourgeois consensus. He associates the latter with the Liberal Party of Trudeau, which fits hand-in-glove with postwar free-market ideology and corporate political power. The most dubious aspect of Trudeau’s consensus politics is its presumption that a harmony of individual interests will follow from the technocratic management of national life by civil bureaucrats. If such an analysis is right, it renders Trudeau’s rhetoric little more than mystification. In other words, we should always be on guard against the claim that bureaucratically managed capitalism works for the democratic good of the majority of Canadians, as if it were merely a matter of the metaphorical “rising tide” that “lifts all boats.” And in any case, it is always worth focusing one’s critical attention on the mechanism by which social prosperity is supposed to be guaranteed—like Adam Smith’s sleight of the “invisible hand.”
The pattern of politics of the book’s title is a reference to the best way of understanding Canadian social and political life. Taylor wants his readers to ask: What is the structure of Canadian society? Whom does this structure serve? And how does it relate to the functioning of democracy? He believes that “there are structural faults in our society which make it almost inevitable that the usual policies will fail to serve the well-being of large numbers of people.” Furthermore, these structural faults “are built into the way the economy is owned, managed, or organized and the way in which this structure is related to power.” If Trudeau is rightly seen as a consensus politician who works in piecemeal fashion, what is needed by way of contrast is a reform package which acknowledges structural conflict and productively works it into collective decision-making. This is what Taylor means by “reform socialism.”
The first pattern identified and addressed in Taylor’s politics of polarization concerns private corporate interest. If corporations want to maximize profits and minimize risks, it is hypocritical for them to uphold their supposed autonomy if they have secured their interests by eliminating competition or protecting themselves against it. In the 50 years since it was first made, this claim is arguably more compelling than ever. We live in a world dominated by a select tier of monopolistic corporations (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) whose ambition to replace democratic oversight of public goods is blindingly obvious and on the public record. In Canada as elsewhere, corporate interests seek to minimize risk by appealing to government politicians and civil bureaucrats, creating favourable conditions for themselves at the expense of their rivals and the majority of the population. This is the dogmatic centre of consensus politics. It sustains the view that the liberal state will continue to increase wealth and welfare for all by maintaining the conditions for corporate profit. But even if that were true—and it isn’t—its mystifying blind-spot is power. In the context of “free market” capitalism corporations typically speak in terms of the production of goods and services as meeting the demands of the consumer. But they will never raise the question of who exactly has the power over consumer demands. In the past the Canadian government has frequently acquiesced to corporate “need” because it fears retaliatory moves from businesses and banks. If the private sector uses the smokescreen of a “loss of confidence” to cover their interests, Taylor invites Canadians to make it clear that they are not going to play by the rules of that game anymore. Corporate interests would undoubtedly resist increased public spending and government control, but this simply highlights the fact that the private sector is sometimes at odds with Canadian society’s collective needs. The basic point being that the ground rules of capitalism, in combination with the corporate-friendly ideology of Liberal consensus, massively restricts citizens’ “ability to establish the order of social priorities which we all recognize as imperative.”
To effect real and systematic change Taylor urges Canadians to address not only the actual imbalance of power, but the rules of the game which have created that imbalance. If Canadians are to avoid disaster, however, they must address the retaliatory power of the corporate system. In combination with a politics which clearly identifies the source of inequality in wealth and power, embodied in collective political action in a new federal party committed to a polarizing stance, this requires package reform rather than piecemeal liberal gradualism. What does package reform mean? As Taylor saw it in 1970, it entails greater government and public control over many aspects of the economy, including corporate policy and national investment. The goal is to free Canada’s political decision-making from the narrower interests of business. This would simultaneously deflate the mystique generated by the self-flattering lie corporate Canada likes to tell about itself: that it truly secures well-being through the provision of consumer goods. In an era before NAFTA, Taylor argues that reform socialism would require Canada to address its economic dependence on the U.S.A. Without going into too much detail here, suffice it to say that this is part of a broader reform which would institute democratic control over the Canadian economy, notably by rebuffing the power of American capital in Canadian media. Once again, 50 years later each of these problems remains acute. Given that Canada is a small power and a small nation, Canadians can only correct their situation by strong public initiative domestically and collaboration internationally. Rather than follow the consensus-building model of the Liberals, though, who try to get concessions from the U.S., Taylor thinks Canada should chart its own path. The federal government will need to fund research and development, and it will have to provide large pools of capital to complete large-scale development projects. The result would be an economy with a distinctive shape over which Canadians would have collective control.
The politics of polarization, which will ideally involve the majority of Canadians, will not only help redress the issues of structural inequalities in wealth and power, it will revitalize Canada’s sense of community too. If Canadians attend to both their commonalities and their differences, Taylor maintains, this should lead to a national dialogue about shared goals: what can be achieved across such a wide geographical space, through regional and linguistic difference, not only between provinces, but between cities and towns and the rural population, etc. Of course, the aim of the politics of polarization is not conflict for the sake of conflict. It is supposed to enable Canadians to achieve genuinely wide agreement about binding collective decisions in the service of the majority of the population, while simultaneously respecting existing differences. An added virtue of such a political reform is that it will encourage Canadians to participate in politics, addressing the longing and alienation many people feel as a result of the decline of traditional sources of legitimacy and authority. In this way, reform socialism will also tap into the universal human need for meaningful recognition.
In the aftermath of the Révolution tranquille in Quebec and general secularization in the rest of Canada after World War II, new sources of social cohesion have emerged, consumerism most conspicuously. While the old order was rooted in religion and certainly had its problems, it’s also clear that market-friendly consumerism was concomitant with a widespread sense of ennui and alienation. Technocratic governance by the doyens of the corporate sector cannot meet this challenge. Nor will Trudeaumania and the politics of personality suffice. Such solutions can only ever be fleeting and substitute satisfactions. Indeed, Taylor would go on to spend the whole of his philosophical career demonstrating the fundamental need of every human being to be in contact with, and an active participant in, something larger than themselves, something more significant from which they can derive a sense of fullness. Such plenitude cannot be anything more than stilted in a world permeated by the instrumental, calculating rationality of managerial bureaucracy. Nor can the aspiration to belong to something greater be fully satisfied solely by providing a product to a consumer. It is a question of one’s identity, one’s humanity, of “connecting” on the deepest level with others, something which inexorably involves a sense of purpose and recognition.
The basic thrust of this part of Taylor’s argument is that each of us has been educated into larger social and existential realities: cultures, religions, nations, etc. They provide the context from which we become who we are, from which we distinguish ourselves, and then something to which we contribute and help shape. Again, in this light, both Trudeaumania and Trudeau’s dismissal of nationalism fail to respond to the real problem. The Pattern of Politics insists that interaction with something greater, in this case understood as participation in a society’s self-governance, can address people’s need to belong. Needless to say, conflicts can and will arise in democratic polarization between consensus and dissensus (they already do). But the issue is a matter of comparison: either Canadians maintain the status quo in which corporate-friendly, bureaucratic liberalism generates a shallow and highly unequal form of consensus, but also widespread alienation and deep inequality, or they incorporate conflict into a participatory politics which generates solidarity across difference by forming common purposes.
This is no small task in a country as geographically and culturally diverse as Canada. Taylor encourages Canadians to recast the institutional structures of their collective decision-making so that the local, the regional, the provincial, and the federal levels of government each have as much power as they can be given. Such overlapping powers will undoubtedly mean tension and conflict (which exists already), not to mention risk and a near-limitless reserve of good will, but such conflict is not something to be feared. It is the evidence we need of the free functioning of democracy. In effect he suggests decentralization can lead to greater overall solidarity. To maximize the benefit of a conflictual, participatory politics, it will be in the public interest of Canadians to have as wide an access to relevant information as possible (this at a time when our digital future was a dimly perceived fantasy), so that people can feel that they are part of the political process and are able to make informed contributions. This way of reframing power would mean doing away with the liberal assumption that each person’s search for significance is merely an individualistic, private affair. In order to be successful, it will require a transformation of Canada into a “dialogue society.” Drawing on the fact that Canada was always a place with several language communities, several cultural forms in one federated political society, Taylor proposes that cross-Canadian dialogue could start from the dissatisfaction many people feel with contemporary life and then draw on that energy in the search for meaning. The creation of a dialogue society would build on already-existing forms of belonging in churches, mosques, gudwaras, or non-religious civic associations. From there a political conversation could take place around the most important questions Canadians face: their collective aims.
The dialogue society would be a continual effort to express what we are in our diversity and why, and this through the most effective medium of all, the space in which we live and move.
A politics of dialogue would be a politics built around the acknowledgement of the way in which power works in Canadian society, challenging its structure by confronting it directly. And instead of pretending Canadians live in a society free from struggle and inequality, the politics of participation turns this struggle into a means of collective decision-making. “Divided as we are by language, culture, tradition, provenance, and history,” Taylor writes, “we can only be brought together by common purposes; our unity must be a projective one, based on a significant common future rather than a shared past.” In order to build a strong multicultural society, then, Canadians need common social purposes framed on the basis of wide democratic participation in political decision-making. This will necessitate being open to working together and learning from one another across real and valued differences; it will require good faith, patience, and creativity; and it will certainly require endurance. Obviously, collective decision-making aimed at the public good will necessarily challenge those people, groups, and institutions of great wealth, power, and privilege.
How can reform socialism be realized, then? Most importantly, Canadians need to see their situation clearly and correctly. They need to realize that there are inequalities of wealth and power, that these are a reflection of the structure of Canadian politics, and that in order for the majority of Canadians to have their interests and needs met, which include not only their material needs but their need to belong as well, a politics of polarization is necessary. This can be achieved democratically through a political party which will embody this set of convictions and will attempt to practice the form of participatory, polarized politics it preaches. The goal of this party should be to introduce institutional and constitutional changes that will enshrine a more genuine form of Canadian self-governance and a more robust democratic process. Before the repatriation of the constitution, bilingualism, multiculturalism, and the creation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Taylor proposes a parliamentary bill enshrining both individual and collective rights and duties, including the recognition of both the English and French language. Given that The Pattern of Politics is a campaign book, Taylor also outlines a series of tangible proposals the government could take in order to realize the transformation of Canadian society.
One of the most important challenges to such a transformation concerns its longevity: where would the energy come from to sustain such large-scale change? Taylor believes that the working and lower middle class have an inherent interest in seeing these changes through since they stand to benefit most. On an even wider level, he believes that most Canadians would also have an interest in maintaining reform socialism because it incorporates their need to belong by tying it to participation in the democratic process. By trying to practice the principle of deep and wide participation, Taylor hopes the New Democratic Party will be able to draw on the energy generated by the search for meaning, as well as the legitimacy created by self-governance. Ideally, the NDP would mobilize the population through regular and consistent meetings, giving people the chance to voice their concerns and to experience collective decision-making through member-driven policy-making, free from the inhibitions created by corporate influence and social deference.
Reform socialism is a political program that hopes to enable genuine connections between people across geographical and social space, but it does so by being fully conscious of structural socioeconomic inequalities and their cultural manifestations. This stands in rather stark contrast to what happens in Forster’s great novel.
Before connecting Taylor to Forster I need to very briefly and provisionally address a possible objection. Namely, that reading a literary work by the lights of democratic socialism is to get things mixed up. Even if Taylor quotes Forster directly, isn’t it possible that I’m starting off on the wrong foot? What does political philosophy have to do with fiction?Recall what Taylor is saying and how he is saying it. Firstly, The Pattern of Politics proposes that our human capacities and needs are developed and met to the fullest degree in a social context of egalitarian economic fairness, deeply self-aware cross-cultural dialogue, and shared political decision-making. Secondly, The Pattern of Politics uses language in a heightened, structured way, it offers a form of narrative analysis, and it squarely addresses human experience. In that sense it checks several of the same boxes that make Howards End a fine work of literature. Of course no one would label Taylor’s book fiction. Although it uses figurative language, employing rhetorical techniques explicitly in the service of political persuasion, it does not do so in the same way as, say, Margaret Atwood’s poem “Cyclops.” Taylor is constrained by pragmatism. Even though Atwood’s poem addresses human experience, albeit from the perspective of animals, it is by no means a political plan.
So, to repeat the question, is it fair to employ Taylor as the basis of a critique of Forster? We’ve just seen that there is more overlap between political writing and fiction than one might have thought at first blush. Now let me also make a point that should be rather obvious, but needs stating. In order for something to be important to us, for us to find something beautiful and therefore a source of inspiration, it does not have to get everything right, morally or politically. Karl Marx was an ardent admirer of the novels of Honoré de Balzac, whose politics were the polar opposite of his own. So there may be several legitimate reasons for appreciating a work of art, including, as with Marx’s admiration of Balzac, the artist’s ability to reveal the nature of experience in the society in which they live, regardless of that same artist’s own political views. Or consider an example from the history of painting. It is by now almost a cliché to say that the female nude has often been the embodiment of the patriarchal gaze. Yet we may nonetheless be drawn to the beauty of artworks in this genre. What I would want to immediately and insistently add to this last concession is a more holistic vision of criticism, such as Marx himself intimated in various places (The German Ideology, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, the first volume of Capital). In order to fully appreciate an artwork, to understand and explain it best, to engage it as comprehensively as possible so that it can enrich our world, enhancing our own expressive possibilities in the present, a political critique of its shortcomings, its problems, and its blunders, needs to be integrated into our aesthetic estimations. Appreciation and estimation and expression are activities undertaken concretely, with one’s feet firmly planted on the ground in some particular time and place. It does not and cannot occur except within a tangible political situation. All of which is a way of saying that Taylor’s proposal of reform socialism builds upon Marx’s own viewpoint. In order for each person to develop their nascent expressive capacities, capacities which are constitutive of being human, we must attend closely and critically to the structure our society takes and the inequalities in wealth and power that it embodies. To put it simplistically but clearly, a work of art can either turn our attention away from this truth or it can distract us with smoke and shadows.
Let me reframe this one more time. The fact that I am a Christian and that I grant the words of Jesus Christ and the apostle Paul an authoritative status for me and the Christian community to which I belong does not mean that I simply ignore the parts of the New Testament that I find difficult, challenging, puzzling, or even offensive. Just as the nature of my appropriation of the Bible involves coming to terms with what it has to say about women and slaves, to say nothing of my response to how Christians have used Scripture in order to justify deeply immoral and unjust practices in the past, likewise my involvement with a work of art—if it is to be as sincere and open and robust and dynamic as possible—has to address its limitations and possible mystifications. Swap in Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas, and the point would be the same. Careful scrutiny does not preclude appreciation.
One of Jesus’ less-frequently cited aphorisms should be vigilantly maintained, with its political connotations resounding in our ears: Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
In Howards End the resolution of the plot’s central conflict occurs in what might be called establishment terms. As in each of Forster’s novels, while the hypocrisy and artificiality of English society is repeatedly dramatized, evocatively exposing the polished mores of the middle and upper classes as frequently false and distorted, leading them into tangled situations both comic and tragic, there is almost never any connection between this observation and the hope of meaningful societal change. Well, so what? Forster is hardly obliged to write a version of Germinal or Oil! Nevertheless, it’s striking that the problems of English society are stated and perceptively needled, but aside from the pleasure of the rhetorical richness Forster is able to derive therefrom, furnishing him with much of his material and the means of his ironic self-distancing, political solutions, broadly conceived, don’t impinge on the story. Nor are they typically regarded with much seriousness. In fact, I would say that the moral force of each novel’s passion is directed elsewhere, usually towards the development of one particular character or another. In the case of Howards End, critical observations about the attitudes and practices of the wealthy are indeed made, but the denouement simply reproduces the very social form by which the same injustices would likely occur again. As in A Room with a View and A Passage to India, it even does so, in spite of what Forster himself says about such resolutions in Aspects of the Novel, by a rather typical, conservative means: marriage.
While a novel is distinct from a political program, it not only inhabits some ideological perspective or other, which organizes the imaginative landscape, but that viewpoint is also related to the historical ideologies of the society from which it emerges. That does not mean it is easily determined. A novel’s ideological relationship to its time, place, and to subsequent history, literary or otherwise, is anything but straightforward. If a literary work is like a mirror, it is more like the funhouse mirror you find at a circus than the one in your home. With this essential proviso in mind, we can start with some of the more obvious features of Howards End. For instance, the narrator actually goes out of the way to disclaim any concern with the poor. Or consider the fate of one of the poorest character’s we meet in the novel, Mr. Leonard Bast. He is earnestly trying to gain a firm foothold in middle class life when he is killed off—fictional order is restored through what amounts to aristocratic consolidation. Socialism, on the other hand, is raised and dismissed as an unrealistic, confused abstraction entertained by well-meaning but slightly silly women.
What about the novel’s motto, the phrase Taylor adopts for his reform socialism in The Pattern of Politics? How does the ideal it aspires to encapsulate meet up with the structure and narrative trajectory of Howards End? First off, the slogan signals the wider significance of intra- and interpersonal authenticity in virtually all of Forster’s novels. Evidently he was interested in the artistic possibilities offered by the fact that artificiality, authenticity’s antonym, and hypocrisy, artificiality’s close cousin, play a vital role in the cultural life of the middle and upper classes in England. This is certainly true in Where Angels Fear to Tread, where Miss Abbott compares Italy favourably with England, the former being a place where she finally encountered “real life.” Precisely this theme is raised by Helen Schlegel in Howards End. She expresses confusion over whether or not “real life” is to be found in outer, public, social situations, or in intimate relationships, such as that between her and her sister Margaret. On one occasion Helen states that “personal relations are the real life”. This quasi-romantic declaration is made after a love match has gone sour. Ultimately it has turned because social proprieties and interests connected with class spoiled it. Helen cannot marry Paul Wilcox because his father doesn’t approve. Even though she is not completely unaware of the demands of elite demeanour, Helen despairs. She values “real life.” She seeks an authentic connection between two people that isn’t constrained by what she regards as artificial conventions. She thought she had found this in Paul.
As the surname Schlegel indicates, immediately establishing a link with early-nineteenth-century romanticism, Helen derives her intelligent expressivism from her father and the education he provided his daughters. He was a disciple of the philosophers Immanuel Kant and G. W. F. Hegel, we read, which, in addition to the brothers Schlegel, connects Helen and Margaret to the central vein of modern German aesthetics. In keeping with this tradition, Helen is reflective about social life and aspires to find a deep “natural” connection with others. Her brief encounter with love early in the novel foreshadows the rest of the story in miniature. Where Helen fails Margaret succeeds. A basic question the novel asks is that with which I began and which Taylor answered in broadly romantic-Marxist terms: how is a genuinely human connection forged between people? How is it fully realized? In each of Forster’s novels this query is posed in a specific way: is it possible to find and maintain a real connection between two people given the fact that social and cultural divisions cause interminable “muddles?” If Howards End begins with the possibility of a real connection between Helen and Paul, the central exploration of this topic is found in the relationship between Margaret and Henry Wilcox, a relationship shadowed by the figure of Leonard Bast. Together, these are the relational parameters the novel uses to investigate the question of “real life,” of fulfilling personal connections, of meaningful authenticity. Whereas Taylor makes a powerful and convincing case for democratizing the social conditions of human connections, in Howards End it is a narrowly genteel affair.
Helen’s attempt to connect with Paul is thwarted by class distinctions. The same could be said for the character of Mr. Bast. In fact I would say that his character arc is a little more indicative of the ideological texture of the story as a whole. He struggles to maintain the veneer of his genteel status while searching for a more genuine sense of connection to others and fulfillment in life. We learn that he has a modicum of education, we see that he has adopted the ways of middle class culture and its mannerisms, and we observe that he has a respectable job as a clerk. While he may be a long way from the wealth possessed by the Schlegels, and even more distant from the depth of their reading, he still strives to reach their level, if only temporarily and in their company. Bast begins by idolizing them and their Culture-with-a-capital-C, crossing their path at a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. To them such an event is almost mundane, even boring, but for him it is a spiritual session with the sublime. Familiar as he is with the condescension of those better-off than himself, which actually animates his pursuit of Helen when she mistakenly grabs his umbrella, he envies the sisters. Bast has been reading his Ruskin in order to learn how to appreciate art and hold his own in cultured settings. Unfortunately for him, when he meets the sisters they wish to skip over all talk of books. In fact they find his bookishness his least interesting aspect. They are much more inquisitive of what they regard as his unconventional experiences. He appears to be in touch with “real life,” you might say, only he doesn’t appear to realize it. For his part, Bast is convinced that the Schlegels are in control of their lives in a way he can only dream of. They have their hands “on the ropes,” as he puts it. Eventually he is disabused of this dream. The sisters end up pitying him, wishing to find in him the romantic figure who goes about at night on an uninhibited adventure, letting his heart lead him where it may. If they ignore the fact that he doesn’t put as much stalk in this experience as they do, the scales eventually fall from his eyes. Their Culture isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, accompanied as it is with a certain benevolent hauteur.
Bast’s trajectory is one of deadly disillusionment. He and Helen do end up sharing a connection of sorts, but this merely underscores the distance between his life and the novel’s motto. If Forster laments this aspect of English society, if he is criticizing the fact that modern life bounces us to-and-fro like a pinball machine, so that we cannot reach our desired destinations, it would seem that he is also unable to imagine a story in which it is ever otherwise. Bast starts off and remains on the lowest rung of the lower middle class. He strives to solidify his social position by educating himself, not just in terms of books, but in terms of experience and refinement too. Hence the Beethoven and Ruskin. He also conceives of himself in new moral terms. Leonard is stubbornly faithful to Jackie, an example of his fidelity and integrity. In being so steadfast he clearly runs against the grain of his family’s wishes and cherishes the relationship over their protests. Still, it is doubtful whether he is in love with her; he is fixated on the idea of being the kind of middle class person who keeps his word, consequences be damned. Thus his commitment to Jackie has more to do with his own self-estimation, attempting to live up to a middle-class ideal—he aspires to be a man of integrity and respectability. Which makes him stand out all the more distinctly in the company of his so-called betters, men such as Mr. Wilcox. As Forster shows us, they resort to wearing masks of virtue to cover their naked self-interest and class-solidarity. Bast cannot compete with an aristocratic hypocrisy whose solidity was centuries in the making.
Bast is a character we are meant to admire, someone who strives to be independent and of good repute, and he is more or less the victim of his circumstances. He does not have his hands “on the ropes.” The Schlegel sisters, who mean well and who want to help him, who appear to be in control of things, end up playing a central role in Bast’s demise. Basically, Forster exchanges the harmonious resolution of Bast’s storyline for theirs (which includes that of Mr Wilcox as well). The sisters invite Leonard over to advise him to leave his job because Henry has told them that the firm where Bast works is about to go belly-up. They are genuinely concerned for him and suggest that he find a new job before it’s too late. Yet not only does Bast lose his new job rather quickly, his old firm does not go bankrupt; nor is he able to secure a position at the Porphyrion again. As a result of Henry’s advice and the sisters’ well-meaning insistence, Bast ends up unemployed and destitute. His bourgeois dreams are dashed.
With whom does the responsibility lie? Helen confronts Henry with the consequences of their collective actions. She wants to ameliorate Bast’s plight somehow, but Henry doesn’t see how he’s in any way culpable. After all, a poor man’s fate cannot be blamed on anyone:
As civilization moves forward, the shoe is bound to pinch in places, and it’s absurd to pretend that any is responsible personally. Neither you, not I, nor my informant, nor the man who informed him, nor the directors of the Porphyrion, are to blame for this clerk’s loss of salary. It’s just the shoe pinching – no one can help it; and it might easily have been worse.
Impersonal forces are at work here, not any one person’s intentions. Henry continues:
Point me out a time when desire for equality has made them happier: No, no. You can’t. There always have been rich and poor. I’m no fatalist. Heaven forbid! But our civilization is moulded by great impersonal forces … and there always will be rich and poor. You can’t deny it … and you can’t deny that, in spite of all, the tendency of civilization has on the whole been upward.
Whereas Helen “ruins” her life because of the guilt she feels in ruining Leonard, Henry is blissfully unaware, going about the management of his business, prospering thanks to the benefits accrued from British imperialism. If the shoe pinches on Leonard, that is not any concern of his. Margaret, meanwhile, is not immune to the fate of Leonard or Helen. She too recognizes the fundamental importance of genuine connections between human beings. She too wants “real life.” Unlike her sister, though, Margaret can connect her desires, her passions, and her reason in a balanced harmony any Platonist would envy. It turns out that this balance manifests itself in her capacity for accommodation—not always an unalloyed good. For her more acutely developed self-awareness enables her to adapt herself to Henry’s flaws and shortcomings.
Ending up where Mrs. Wilcox had wanted her, Margaret shares some interesting similarities with Henry’s first wife. In both cases non-conformism is tamed and enveloped into the establishment. Mrs. Wilcox’s family had once been Quakers, latterly Dissenters. But when she married Mr. Wilcox she joined the Church of England. The trajectory is upwards and inwards, to the heart of English society. It is therefore quite telling that, when Mrs. Wilcox leaves Margaret the property of Howards End, it threatens to reverse Mrs. Wilcox’s social ascent. There is a momentary fear, manifested as a social anxiety on the part of the Wilcox family, of the property improperly returning to the “Anabaptist,” Radical, Socialist Miss Schlegel. The eventual marriage of Henry and Margaret tidies all this up rather nicely, if temporarily.
The fact that Margaret desires to connect her inner and outer life together from the outset of the story is indicative of the fact that her role in central to Howards End. It is a kind of middle-aged Bildungsroman, the story of the development of Margaret’s self-conscious connection of the inner and outer world. What she seeks is the integration of her own life, that of her sister, and that of another person in a suitably stable household—which turns out to be the elite domain of Mr. Wilcox. What relationship does this desire bear to Margaret’s views on politics and society? The answer is complex and a little fuzzy because her views are unclear, a shifting amalgam of romantic idealism, Victorian socialism, and conventionalism. To start with, it must be acknowledged that she bluntly grasps the link between her wealth, her social position, and her comportment. She observes that she and Helen have £600 a year in income each and that their views and manners are precisely those of their class—“six-hundred-pounders.” At another point, when Margaret and Henry are talking about the rich and the poor, she makes a point of saying that she doesn’t modify her speech to her company—i.e. she does not condescend to alter her behaviour according to distinctions of class. In response to such egalitarian forthrightness, Henry is defiant: aren’t there and shouldn’t there be classes? Socialists, he insists, don’t admit that if you redistributed wealth equally there would be poor and rich again in a few years time. Startlingly, Margaret agrees with him, confessing that even her socialist friends wouldn’t contradict him on that.
Over time Margaret appears to give more credence to Henry’s political ideas, or at least the necessity of the aristocratic direction of society by men like him, than one would imagine of a socialist. Though we must keep in mind the fact that earlier she had rejected structural political reforms among her socialist friends in favour of immediately redistributing wealth as more conducive to helping the poor. Socialism at that time was a relatively malleable moniker. In arguing with Helen later in the book, defending Henry, Margaret praises his “public qualities.” His kind, she pleads rather pathetically, helped erect the pillars of British civilization:
“If Wilcoxes hadn’t worked and died in England for thousands of years, you and I couldn’t sit here without having our throats cut. There would be no trains, no ships to carry us literary people about in, no fields even. Just savagery. No – perhaps not even that. Without their spirit life might never have moved out of protoplasm. More and more do I refuse to draw my income and sneer at those who guarantee it.”
It takes sophisticated intellectual gymnastics to square such a view with even a capacious conception of socialism. If Margaret is as self-aware as she is presented, a highly intelligent, deeply sympathetic and dynamic woman, perhaps she realizes that, in order to connect the disparate parts of her life she will need to conform herself to Henry’s limitations. Their marital bliss is depicted as just this achievement. Forster indicates that Margaret’s concessions enable Henry to think himself more enlightened than he is, amplifying the solidity with which he regards his social position by giving him the illusion of radical challenge from her, when in fact she will always submit loyally.
Which brings me to Henry himself and back again to the book’s motto. In Chapter Twenty-Two Margaret is trying to help Mr Wilcox. He had always been ill at ease with his body, we learn, with its passionate desires. In order to bring some stability to his inner life he had opted for partial asceticism. Margaret wants to help Henry remove this unevenly weighted burden. Without inner integration, she opines, humans are “meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man.” For in the soul of every man is the source of their own “salvation.”
Only connect! That was the whole of her 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.
Later, at the story’s climax, when Henry is trying to distance his own behaviour from Helen’s, Margaret presents him once again with his divided self:
“Not any more of this!” she cried. “You shall see the connection if it kills you, Henry! You have had a mistress—I forgave you. My sister has a lover—you drive her from the house. Do you see the connection? Stupid, hypocritical, cruel—oh, contemptible!—a man who insults his wife when she’s alive and cants with her memory when she’s dead. A man who ruins a woman for his pleasure, and casts her off to ruin other men. And gives bad financial advice, and then says he is not responsible. These men are you. You can’t recognize them, because you cannot connect. I’ve had enough of your unweeded kindness. I’ve spoiled you long enough. Mrs Wilcox spoiled you. No one has ever told you who you are—muddled, criminally muddled. Men like you use repentance as a blind, so don’t repent. Only say to yourself: What Helen has done, I’ve done.”
Henry remains at sea because of what Forster elsewhere calls his “obtuseness.” He is not self-critical or self-aware and so he cannot really respond to Margaret’s attempt to help him, at least not until something so dramatic happens in outer life that it absolutely demands that he connect it with his inner passions. Even when this occurs, when he is confronted by Jackie face-to-face, he feigns nonrecognition and turns away—just as he turns away and refuses to see any similarity between his past actions and those of Helen and Leonard. Henry is that elite Englishman who stands on his hypocritical sense of propriety, demanding that Helen be held to account for her indecorous and unseemly sexual liaison with Leonard. If he did not do so he would be “false” to his “position in society,” Henry says lamely. Leonard is actually far more admirable. Despite the fact that he sinned in seizing life passionately in his tryst with Helen, having taken a sort of Kierkegaardian leap, the narrator observes that at least he did not engage in the convenience of self-deception.
Is Henry’s obtuseness merely a personal trait? Or is it a something he can develop and exercise precisely because of his social position? The easiest way to answer this question is to compare Mr Wilcox with Mr Bast. Does Leonard have the luxury of being as obtuse as Henry? Surely not. Henry would probably be confirmed in his attitude to someone like Leonard, whom he sees as a poor man, by the fact that he does not have the means to save face if he did something his social superiors find improper. Mr. Wilcox would certainly not allow Mr Bast to be obtuse to him. That would be false to his position in society. Indeed Henry says exactly as much to Margaret. The same forces are at work in the desperate action of Henry’s son Charles when he strikes Leonard with the sword, inadvertently killing him—he is ostensibly defending Helen’s honour in the name of propriety, a word whose etymology is indistinguishable from that of property. Evidently the obtuseness which prevents Henry from connecting with others is a quality deriving from the power of his social position, which, to reiterate, is part and parcel of British imperialism. Overall, Margaret’s point about connecting the “fragments” of passion and intellect, of the whole of life together, is lost on Henry until the last minute. The fact that Henry is forced to yield to Margaret, partly through the circumstance of Leonard’s death and his son’s role in it, should not distract us from the fact that this amounts to the redemption of Wilcox at the expense of Bast. The poorer man’s life is fodder for the rich man’s moral development. In marrying Margaret the aristocrat becomes better, becomes moderately self-aware, is able to forge some kind of connection with himself and with her, just as his property is secured and family harmony peaks over the horizon.
The longing for communion between human beings links Howards End to several other of Forster’s novels, including Where Angels Fear to Tread, A Room with a View, and A Passage to India. To varying degrees, each are concerned with the tensions of modern life insofar as they impede or empower individuals to authentically relate to one another and the confusions caused by the conventions of class and culture. In A Passage to India this is portrayed through the unfulfilled friendship between Aziz and Fielding. As Edward Said noted in Culture and Imperialism, Forster can only imagine such a friendship finding root in a deferred postcolonial future. Likewise in Howards End, where Mr Bast is sympathetically presented as someone who is on the verge of connecting but is crushed by the circumstances of civilization.
The malaise of modernity seizes Margaret most of all. There is first of all the fact that her and her sister are being forced to move from their childhood home. Her world is being upended by urban expansion and property development. This is just one of the instances in which she is overtaken and overwhelmed by the pace of life in modern London and seeks to escape it. Ultimately she will find peace in the domesticity of the English countryside. The accelerated velocity of her social reality repeatedly gives her motion sickness, which helps explain why she leaps from a moving car when it hits and injures an animal. As an index of the speed of modern innovation, the car is a harbinger of a change that makes her physically and psychologically sick. By finding a new abode in the countryside, is she not trying to arrest the seemingly inexorable trajectory of modern life, rushing around her with a deafening and dizzying whirl? At Howards End she feels uniquely at home, ensconced in the bucolic beauty of its environs; at Howards End she is surrounded by the permanence of rural life, she is in touch with a stability and wholeness she feels she has been missing; at Howards End she can truly participate in the community of humankind, apparently without the complications and barriers that cause confusion and “bitterness.” If Kafka’s nearly contemporaneous work provides readers with a bewilderingly bureaucratic cage as a metaphor modernity’s labyrinth, Forster’s fiction frequently portrays the deepest human longings as frustrated by the social artifice of class and culture. It further reveals the multitudinous means by which which the progressive development of imperial civilization loses, misdirects, or compromises the possibility of authentic personal connections.
Consider once more the contrast between the Schlegels and the Wilcoxs. As a slightly excessive embodiment of the integration of inner and outer life, Helen correctly tells Margaret that Henry does not know how to connect. Of life, death, and the poetry of existence, the Wilcoxs of the world “can only take them on hearsay.” Howards End “belongs” to Margaret and Helen, she surmises, because they know how to inhabit it. They know how to dwell in the wholeness it provides and they are attuned to its spiritual heritage. Wilcox and his ilk, on the other hand, know only the satisfaction of holding the property deed. Forster pushes this point further still. Charles Wilcox, Henry’s eldest son, is spoken of as a kind of destroying angel, an “Imperial” who is “ever in motion.” In direct competition with the country yeoman, the imagined backbone of English resilience, Charles heralds the expansive, destructive “cosmopolitanism” of empire.
“Only connect!” In the case of Howards End this is a literal and metaphorical form of shelter. It is protective, has a firm foundation, is located in the measured tempo of rural life, and available to a select few. With his inimitable style, Forster provides a reflective, critical reader with the opportunity to see the many ways in which human fulfillment can be thwarted by social and cultural change. Obliquely, he also alerts us to the fact that, in times of transition, wherein an individual’s status is slowly shifting from being ascribed to being achieved, what counts as “felt affinity” alters and can therefore lead to malaise. The fundamental need for contact with love and beauty, the very tragedy of its rarity, the unweeded forces at work which choke its growth, are impressively arranged in Howards End. Yet, as I hope to have shown, Forster’s imagination has certain bounds. On the broadest level, he lacks what you might call shrewd hope. The plot of his stories retreat in the face of the wider problem’s scope, taking solace in the distance the narrator puts between himself and the messy, contingent world of politics and history, favouring the aesthetic realm’s supposedly transcendent autonomy. What shall we say, then? Has Forster himself connected the prose and the passion? He has—and yet…
The promise of communion is attained in his fiction not through social and political transformation, but in spite of it. Herein lies the decisive difference between the vision of Charles Taylor and E. M. Forster.Notes
- Being “situated” is a keyword I’m taking from Taylor himself. He claims, rightly in my view, that freedom is always situated and that it only makes sense to speak of human liberty in the context of constraint. See: Hegel, Cambridge University Press, 1975. To this one can add nearly the whole œuvre of Paul Ricœur, but see especially his Philosophie de la volonté, 1955, tome I.
- Charles Taylor, The Pattern of Politics, McClelland & Stewart, 1970, p. 160.
- Taylor would go on to develop his thinking further on this topic in later writings, most notably, and with specific reference to Canada, in Reconciling the Solitudes, McGill & Queen’s University Press, 1994.
- In a recent essay by Perry Anderson, who also hails from the New Left, like Taylor, he levels a similar critique against the governing institutions and politics of the European Union. The essay was published across three issues of the London Review of Books: 1, 2, 3.
- This rhetoric has become even more entrenched since 1970 as neoliberalism has become ever-more dominant. See my review of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s book.
- Taylor, Pattern of Politics, p. 4.
- Recently the WallStreetBets subreddit’s intervention in the stock market, buying up GameStop shares to punish “short sellers,” confirms that people are aware of this.
- This hasn’t changed either. To wit: in 2020-21, the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec’s take-it-or-leave-it stance with respect to the expansion of the REM here in the Montreal area.
- Taylor, Pattern of Politics, pp. 35, 43.
- I would say that Quebec has a far better track-record on this than the rest of Canada, with its stronger sense of cohesive identity, helped no doubt by the fact that it distinguishes its collective self, at least in terms of political culture, from the Catholic Church and from its Anglophone neighbours.
- See: Charles Taylor, The Malaise of Modernity, House of Anasai Press, 1992.
- See: Charles Taylor, The Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, Harvard University Press, 1989; idem, A Secular Age, Harvard University Press, 2006. See also: Paul Ricoeur, Soi-même comme une autre, Seuil, 1990; idem, Parcours de la reconnaissance, Stock, 2004.
- See: Charles Taylor, Hegel and Modern Society, Cambridge University Press, 1979.
- A theme one also finds in Reconciling the Solitudes.
- Taylor, Pattern of Politics, p. 127.
- Taylor, Pattern of Politics, p. 131.
- This can now be compared with Charles Taylor, Patrizia Nanz, Madeleine Beaubien Taylor, Reconstructing Democracy: How Citizens are Building from the Ground Up, Harvard University Press, 2020.
- Alas, it was not to be. The NDP is nowadays torn between being a party like the others, focused on “winning,” and being an alternative, “new” democratic model.
- This example comes to me from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, Penguin, 2007 , and my reflections are indebted to some of his perceptive insights.
- By referencing the political connotations of the Gospel of Matthew, 10:16, in which Jesus sends out his disciples, I have in mind the different but complementary arguments of Stanley Hauerwas and Richard Horsley.
- “We are not concerned with the poor. They are unthinkable,” E. M. Forster, Howards End, Penguin, 2012 , p. 46.
- Howards End, p. 26.
- I hope to explore the word “muddle” as a key to Forster’s perspective in combination with a study of his lectures on the novel in a future work, especially with reference to A Passage to India.
- Howards End, p. 46.
- Howards End, pp. 199, 200.
- Margaret is given the home in Henry’s will.
- Howards End, p. 62.
- Howards End,p. 182.
- Howards End, pp. 270-1.
- Howards End, p. 323.
- Howards End, p. 195.
- Howards End, p. 322.
- Howards End, p. 335.
- Culture and Imperialism, Vintage, 1994, pp. 203-5.
- Howards End, p. 282.
- Howards End, p. 316.
- Howards End, p. 341.
- The phrase is David Martin’s. See On Secularization: Towards a Revised General Theory, Ashgate, 2005, p. 27.