Sunday, September 06, 2009

Re-reading Forster's "A Room with a View". . .

. . . I have been impressed by the figure of Old Emerson who stands in the novel for the views of the American Transcendentalist, the Sage of Concord. Old Emerson is given to philosophizing, a trait at least potentially irritating if his words are not suffused with such human warmth. He speaks for direct experience, as opposed to reliance on authority and tradition, and for that most direct of experiences, sexual passion. A passage from Ralph Waldo's essay "Nature" (1836) is so pertinent to the Sacred Lake episode, when the three men stripped to play in a natural pool in the woods, that I wonder if Forster had the Sage's words before him as he wrote. The passage is famous.

To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood. His intercourse with heaven and earth, becomes part of his daily food. In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. Nature says, -- he is my creature, and maugre all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me. Not the sun or the summer alone, but every hour and season yields its tribute of delight; for every hour and change corresponds to and authorizes a different state of the mind, from breathless noon to grimmest midnight. Nature is a setting that fits equally well a comic or a mourning piece. In good health, the air is a cordial of incredible virtue. Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, -- no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, -- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, -- all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, -- master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.

Not only would the passage provide the woods setting of the novel, its water imagery ("bathed by the blithe air," "the currents of the Universal Being") might suggest the Sacred Lake. The emphasis on the child's special powers of appreciation is reflected in the novel's stress on the childlikeness of George Emerson, and the youthful abandon over to which the men, including Reverend Beebe, give themselves. In taking off his clothes, a man "casts off his years," as the passage exhorts. The dominant note, in Emerson as in Forster, is one of joy.

Near the end of the novel, Old Emerson, weakened by his son's despair, is still strong enough to see through Lucy's lies. Unmasked, but undecided, Lucy appeals to Reverend Beebe, and so the battle for her soul is joined. Would she strike for a sanctifying passion or a devilish asceticism? Forster despicts this spiritual struggle with potent yet realistic details, such as the Bible commentaries that hem in the room and permit no outside view. Meanwhile, her family calls her name impatiently from their waiting carriage, their voices assuming the tones of the saved--or are they the lost? Kiss me, Lucy cries out to Old Emerson, and I will have the courage to tell the truth.

No comments: