Friday, August 25, 2006

Cynthia Ozick on "Maurice"

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.

11 comments:

Greg said...

Interesting discussion Jee Leong--I appreciate the way you take on Ozick; thank you.
It seems to me that rights causes are advanced not only through explicitly political confrontation, but also through building consciousness more idiosyncratically on personal-communication and cultural (literary) levels. So (and I'd be interested to know what you think of this), I'm not sure but what "special pleading" might be too narrow a phrase for what Forster does in Maurice.
(Also I'm astonished at Ozick's statement that "Indians under English colonialism...suffered from the English public-school mentality precisely as he had suffered from it." How absurd to say that a British citizen's suffering under a British system is "precisely the same" as that of a British colonial from a different, & colonized, culture; or for that matter that anyone's suffering is "precisely" the same as anyone else's!)

Anonymous said...

"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."

wow. what high moral standards the woman has. i kowtow in shame and admiration.

even the great moral teachers of the past have understood that altruism / morality is often based on at least the fear of 'personal hurt', if not the reluctance to hurt other people as one has been hurt.

'do unto others as you would have others do unto you'
'don't do to others what you would not have them do to you'

etc etc.

cheers,
Rui

Anonymous said...

oh dear. maybe i was unfairly sarcastic. i really should learn to think before i speak, or write, as the case may be.

the point still stands though. it's so hard to make judgements on motivations. so EM Forster championed minority groups in general because he'd experienced being part of a (different) minority himself. ok. most people would call that 'empathy'.

Rui

Greg said...

And, to follow up on what you said Rui about classic moral teachings, for Kant in the 18th century the highest moral law was that one should always treat humanity, whether in oneself or in others, as an end in itself and never as a means only. As I see it Forster in Maurice was searching for ways better to treat humanity in his (homosexual) self as an end in itself--he was approaching a more morally sound attitude towards himself than the morally backward conventions of his time and place allowed.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi Greg and Rui,

by “building consciousness through... personal-communcation and cultural (literary) levels, I take Greg to mean advancing gay rights through conversations with anti-gay or “neutral” straights and through the full and empathetic depiction of homosexuality in literature and other cultural artefacts. Forster infamously (?) did not do as you recommend, of course, since he did not publish “Maurice” in his lifetime. In his published novels, homosexuality is always a subtext and never the text. On reading my post again, I was struck by my, and Ozick’s, assumption that coming-out is the right thing for a gay man to do, right in the sense of being morally right, and not merely pscyhologically. In the light of that morality, Forster now seems evasive. Any excuse for him necessarily dims the brightness of my, and countless others’, coming-out.

Ozick describes Forster’s humanism (and not “Maurice”) as “special pleading.” In response, Rui reminds us of Aristotle’s, and other moral philosphers’, golden mean. My reading of that ethical injunction (do unto others as you would have others do to you) does not depend on “personal hurt,” in fact, quite the opposite. The injuction asks me to imagine (the key word here) my own hurt if others do to me what I want to do to them. To imagine my own hurt implies I am not hurt yet. Though unhurt, I am called to do right by others. Does this seem like a just reading?

Greg’s reading of Forster’s intention in “Maurice” (“searching for ways better to treat humanity in his (homosexual) self as an end in itself”) applies Kant interestingly to the novel. I don’t know how much Kant influenced Forster. In Forster’s note to the novel, he distances himself from Maurice by describing the latter’s different character as dull, insensible and non-literary. As the novel unfolds, Maurice’s homosexuality makes him a finer man. Ozick’s criticism of the novel is that its plan and teleology require the frank description of Maurice’s sexual awakening. Forster gives only poeticism, an evasion of the description of man-on-man sex, a poeticism at odds with Maurice’s character. Maurice does not work as a character; he is not credible. Ozick speculates that Forster did not publish the novel not because of its explicit homosexuality but because he knew it was an artistic failure. How could he not know that when he was writing then at the height of his powers, between the writing of the great novels, “Howards End” and “A Passage to India”?

Anonymous said...

'through the full and empathetic depiction of homosexuality in literature and other cultural artefacts.'

well, i remember tom stoppard's 'the invention of love' being pretty mind-opening. i'd never thought much about homosexuality before watching the play. actually, i'd go further and say that it'd be hard for anyone to remain unthinkingly 'anti-gay' after watching it. which is what art should do, isn't it - to make us at least question our assumptions? can i add, though, that it wouldn't have worked if it hadn't been so good as a work of art - both the script, and the actual production. i watched the premiere and the acting and directing were brilliant. then i watched it again a few years later, cos i'd missed most of the historical references the first time round. the 2nd production i saw was good but not quite so brilliant, and even though i was familiar with the script by then, much of the impact of the play was lost due to comparatively lacklustre acting.

have you seen / read the play? it'd be interesting to hear your perspective if you have, especially since it contrasts housman's closeted life with oscar wilde's flamboyant out-ness.

'My reading of that ethical injunction (do unto others as you would have others do to you) does not depend on “personal hurt,” in fact, quite the opposite.... Though unhurt, I am called to do right by others. Does this seem like a just reading?'

hmm. in its purest form, yes. it's more good ('better' just doesn't seem to cut it) to be ethical for the reasons you speak of. though i think that when applied in practice the golden mean includes instances when people do the right thing because they remember how it felt when someone else didn't. and i guess i wasn't precise when i said 'the fear of personal hurt'. your formulation expresses what i meant much more clearly - i avoid doing XYZ because i can imagine how i would feel if someone did it to me, not because i'm afraid that doing XYZ would open the floodgates for others to do the same unto me (as my wording may have implied).

i will stop rambling now.


cheers,
Rui

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi Rui,
a pleasure to go rambling with you, or is it bunburying? No, I've not read or seen "The Invention of Love." My knowledge of Stoppard is zero. Thanks for the recommendation.

Greg said...

Jee Leong you interpret me as follows:
"'by “building consciousness through... personal-communcation and cultural (literary) levels,' I take Greg to mean advancing gay rights through conversations with anti-gay or “neutral” straights and through the full and empathetic depiction of homosexuality in literature and other cultural artefacts. Forster infamously (?) did not do as you recommend, of course, since he did not publish “Maurice” in his lifetime." And you read me as making an "excuse" for Forster that "necessarily dims the brightness of my, and countless others’, coming-out." Thank you for those comments Jee Leong--they make me see that I did not communicate the meaning I wanted to communicate; maybe I will do better with this (or maybe not!): However unsuccessful his gay writings may have been, and despite the fact that he did not publish them in his lifetime; and independently of any questions about whether or not we view him as justified/"excused" as a person/author, in my view Forster's gay writings are nonetheless important to us now as part of our inherited history of ways gay people have tried to state and assert the fact of our existence an our right to exist as gay. As I see it, having some kind of gay literary heritage from Forster's time & place--even one that we flunk for the good reasons of our literary, political, and personal standards as gay men today--is better than having none. I'm grateful that he left his writings for us to disapprove of, and for you to blog about.

Anonymous said...

eh? bunburying? i just checked, and found no inclinations towards bunburying, either hidden or otherwise, in my subconscious or unconscious or ego or id or whatever. ;P so yeah, guess this means i'm coming out on your blog as a straight gal. boring but true. :)

thanks much anyway for the offer to bunbury with me, but it looks like i'll just have stick to the rambling. ;P

btw, you MUST go and discover stoppard. 'the invention of love' is laugh-out-loud funny, compassionate, and freakin' intelligent. some of it is also beautifully poetic. brokeback mountain for literary geeks. the other one that's totally brilliant is 'rosencrantz and guildernstern are dead'.

cheers,
:) Rui

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi Greg,
I'm sorry if I have not read your first posts correctly. I'm also glad that Forster left us "Maurice" when he could have destroyed it before he died.

Hi Rui,
aren't we, gay and straight, bunburying when we blog or post comments on blog? I did watch "Rosencrantz" once upon a time and enjoyed it very much. Thanks.

Jee Leong

Anonymous said...

my secret life/lives on the internet? heh. sorry that i misinterpreted. it *is* an oscar wilde reference though. :)

happy bunburying then.

cheers,
:) Rui