It is a shock to read Ozick's essay, "Morgan and Maurice: A Fairy Tale," written soon after the posthumous publication of Forster's Maurice. The shock lies less in Ozick's convincing argument that the novel is an artistic failure than in her evaluation of Forster's humanism, a humanism publicly demonstrated in his anticolonial writings and court appearances to defend artistic freedom of expression. Ozick's appraisal, or more accurately, a re-appraisal, resulted from the startling revelation of Forster's homosexuality. The question was, what does that homosexuality means for Forster's humanism? Ozick writes,
The shock of the publication of Maurice, then, is not what it appears to be at first sight: Forster as Forerunner of Gay Lib. Quite the opposite. He used his own position as an exemplum, to show what the universe does not intend. If that implies a kind of rational martyrdom, that is what he meant; and this is what shocks. We had not thought of him as martyr. For Forster, "I do not conform" explains what does conform, it does not celebrate nonconformity. He was a sufferer rather than a champion. Now suddenly, with the appearance of Maurice, it is clear that Forster's famous humanism is a kind of personal withdrawal rather than a universal testimony, and reverberates with despair.
JL: That last sentence formulates the "problem" with Forster's humanism. "Personal" withdrawal" is a tactful way of saying "smokescreen." Ozick is not without empathy for Forster's human situation; note the last clause, "reverberates with despair." This reading of Forster's humanism also implies a certain view of his novels: the scenes suggestive of homosexuality are not literary daring, but literary disguises. She goes on:
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in a recent Times review remarks that Maurice's homosexuality is "a symbol of human feelings."
JL: This reminds me of one common defence of "Brokeback Mountain": the love depicted is universal ("and not merely homosexual" is the implicit qualifier, made explicit in some reviews). The problem with this formulation, besides its defensiveness, is its incompleteness. The homosexual love between Ennis and Jack is both similar to and different from heterosexual love. Lehman-Haupt's remark, apparently liberal, dilutes the specificities of Maurice's homosexuality, specificities whose meaning Ozick offers this general interpretation:
But Forster would disagree (JL: with Lehmann-Haupt) that homosexuality stands for anything beyond what it is in itself, except perhaps the laying waste of the Cnidian Demeter. Homosexuality to Forster signified sterility; he practised it like a blasphemer, just as he practised his humanism as a blasphemer (JL: Forster rejected the Christianity of his day). There is no blasphemy where there is no belief to be betrayed; and Forster believes in the holiness of the goddess of fertility: Demeter, guardian of the social order and marriage.
JL: Ozick then goes back to the compromised universality of Forster's humanism by tackling one of his most daring ideas:
The most dubious social statement Forster ever made is also his most famous one: if I had to choose between betraying my country or my friend, I hope I would have the guts to betray my country. He says "I"; the note is personal, it is not an injunction to the rest of us. Maurice instructs us explicitly in what he understands by "friend"; in Maurice's boyhood dream the word "friend" foretells the love of a man for a man. We have encountered that charged word in Forster before. The statement about betrayal cannot be universalized, and Forster did not mean it to be. Declarations about bedmates do not commonly have general application.
JL: "bedmates" is a low blow. "Friend", to Forster, means more than sexual partner. Ozick's main reading of the meaning of "friend" to Forster is persuasive but it overlooks the accommodation of more than one meaning. The face-off between "country" and "friend" is also one between "abstract entity" and "concrete relations." One can be asked to sacrifice a person for some nationalistic ideal. Or, to see it another way, Forster's choice of "friend" over "country" is only as wrong as someone else's choice of "country" over "friend." The concrete details of the ethical choice are paramount, as Isaiah Berlin teaches, in order to adjucate between the competing claims of ultimately incompatible ideals. But Ozick is after some universally valid principle held without self-interest. This becomes clearer in her reply to a Mrs. A. F. who responded to the essay:
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 shabby 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.
JL: I think Ozick exaggerates when she says "[t]here is nothing admirable" in Forster's anticolonialism. Many homosexuals of his time, hurt by the same English public schools, did not support decolonization. And it is hard to see any non-metaphorical vested interest for Forster in promoting Indian independence. But she strikes home, I think, about Forster's support for homosexual novels. His support was special pleading, disguised. I don't think that special pleading is wrong, but we should see it for what it was. It's so easy for me to get on my high horse when arguing for gay rights; it's harder to remember that the horse is not a thoroughbred. American political culture rallies one to fight for one's own rights; it is much quieter on fighting for the rights of others.