Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

The Life of Things in the Place of Howards End

Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

The Life of Things in the Place of Howards End

Article excerpt

"[S]he had outgrown stimulants, and was passing from words to things"-E.M. Forster, Howards End (223)

"[O]wnership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them"-Walter Benjamin, "Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting" (67)

"[A] dwelling is characterized less by its architecture than by the quality of life that is sustained in it"-Edward Casey, "How to Get from Space to Place in a Fairly Short Stretch of Time" (27)

E. M. Forster's 1910 novel Howards End continues to seize the imagination of leading intellectuals. Lionel Trilling's study of the novel helped inspire the debates over liberalism and the humanities in the 1940s and after, and more recently, one of America's best and most influential authors, Wendell Berry, took the title "It All Turns on Affection" and much of the rhetorical thrust of his 2012 Jefferson Lecture from the novel. Why does Howards End continue to remain so valuable, so provocative, so contested? I argue here that its appeal resides in its evocation of how things and places are intertwined, how they are lovingly presented to us, along with how such an affectionately rendered combination of them might lead us into an egalitarian, loving community-a community predicated upon particular differences, that elusive quality that so preoccupied Forster.

I have always been struck by how Forster laments the incursion of certain things-the "throbbing, stinking car," for instance (Howards End 19)-into the English countryside, yet employs other things to effect reconciliation, such as with the furnishings of the Schlegel sisters once moved into Howards End late in the novel. Clearly, Forster valued particular cultural objects and rejected others-but how to distinguish between them and thus enter into the life of the important, vivifying things of the novel? Much of the recent Forster criticism has neglected how such things inflect place with dynamism and potential for influencing human relationships. Somewhere between Frederic Jameson's totalizing dialectic of the imperial, urban infinite and the utopian, rural ideal expressed in Trilling's famous discussion of Howards End lies the teeming, dynamic ground of cultural, emplaced things that have been longingly caressed and contemplated sufficiently to revivify the lives of their owners at crucial moments.1

The material objects that surround the Schlegel sisters and reunite them should be classified as "things" because of the deep narrative resonances that they emit; moreover, as things they lead their newly restored possessors into community. "Thing theory" is considered a fairly recent field, but Victor Shklovsky, Hannah Arendt, and certainly Forster himself anticipated it. In Forster's artistic endeavor to perceive the narrative lives of particular cultural things, he shares Shklovsky's concern in "Art as Technique" that "Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one's wife, and the fear of war," and thus that "art exists [to] recover the sensation of life; ... to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. . . . The technique of art is to make objects 'unfamiliar'" (12). In Howards End, previously forgotten things, such as the Schlegels' furniture, carpets, and books, are rendered briefly unfamiliar so that the sisters can see into their narrative lives and become at one with them again, refamiliarized with the emotions that they evoke. Arendt wrote in her 1958 study The Human Condition that "The reality and reliability of the human world rest primarily on the fact that we are surrounded by things more permanent than the activity by which they were produced, and potentially even more permanent than the lives of their authors" (95). Things last-sometimes beyond us, achieving a permanence that we cannot hope to obtain in this life.

In the last fifteen years, Bill Brown, Peter Schwenger, Barbara Johnson, and Ian Bogost, among others, have begun articulating the contours of "thing theory. …

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