Magazine article The American Prospect

Connecting with E.M. Forster

Magazine article The American Prospect

Connecting with E.M. Forster

Article excerpt

As my jetliner rears back, I look up from E.M. Forster's Howards End to gaze at the concrete sprawl of airport momentarily filling my window. The rows of parked airplanes and automobiles make a fitting backdrop: In the period when Forster wrote Howards End, 1908 to 1910, he was already decrying the filthy, cluttered underside of life in the motorized age. Although he was not alone in despising the stink of gasoline and the frantic pace of vehicles, Forster had an unusual grasp of how technological advance promised to change social interaction--often for the worse.

Forster also had an uncanny ability to predict exactly how technology would develop. At the century's beginning the telephone was new and the computer not even invented, yet Forster anticipated their modern evolution, perhaps most explicitly with his short story "The Machine Stops." Today the Internet and its related technologies are as ubiquitous as the automobile, within easy reach even as I fly five miles up. They raise all sorts of questions about relationships, community, and sexuality--the very same questions that Forster was contemplating in these two works.

For those who have never read Howards End (or missed Emma Thompson in the 1992 film version), it is a book about human connection. Margaret Schlegel--the older of the two cultivated, well-to-do sisters central to the story--becomes impassioned over the phrase "Only connect!" which carries two meanings. One is a call to unite the opposing elements within each person--what Margaret calls the beast and the monk, the prose and the passion--while the other is a call to put the greatest energy into personal relations. "Only connect!" is the book's epigraph, and whenever Forster speaks as narrator he emphasizes the value of personal relationships.

But Forster also realizes that the quality of personal connection depends on the quantity-often inversely. "The more people one knows the easier it becomes to replace them," Margaret sighs. "It's one of the curses of London." Too many connections, in other words, devalues each one in a kind of emotional inflation. For the Schlegel sisters, this is the constant danger of frenetic city life; for the characters of "The Machine Stops," it is the inevitable by-product of remote communication technology.

Written in 1909 partly as a rejoinder to H.G. Wells's glorification of science, "The Machine Stops" is set in the far future, when mankind has come to depend on a worldwide Machine for food and housing, communications and medical care. In return, humanity has abandoned the earth's surface for a life of isolation and immobility. Each person occupies a subterranean hexagonal cell where all bodily needs are met and where faith in the Machine is the chief spiritual prop. People rarely leave their rooms or meet face-to-face; instead they interact through a global web that is part of the Machine. Each cell contains a glowing blue "optic plate" and telephone apparatus, which carry image and sound among individuals and groups.

The story centers around Vashti, who believes in the Machine, and her grown son Kuno, who has serious doubts. Vashti, writes Forster, "knew several thousand people; in certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously." Although clumsy public gatherings no longer occur, Vashti lectures about her specialty, "Music During the Australian Period," over the web, and her audience responds in the same way. Later she eats, talks to friends, and bathes, all within her room. She finally falls asleep there, but not before she kisses the new Bible, the Book of the Machine.

Kuno, in contrast, once made his way illegally to the surface, where he saw distant hills, grass and ferns, the sun and the night sky. The Machine dragged him back to its buried world, but he understands the difference between pseudo-experience and reality. "I see something like you in this plate," he tells his mother, "but I do not see you. …

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