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Queer fragments: ruination and sexuality in E.M. Forster.

Critics have tended to treat the crucial leitmotif of ruins in E. M. Forster in terms of an unremitting nostalgia or melancholia. This paper argues that Forster's relationship to spatial damage, destruction, and loss is much more complicated and capacious--anguished and mournful, but also mingled with certain provisional compensations, even pleasures. What troubles matters, the essay contends, is a subtle but recurrent association throughout Forster's writing between ruins and queer sexuality: a coupling that emerges in Howards End (1910), Maurice (1913-1914), the "letter" to Mohammed el-Adl (1922-1929), and the short story, "The Obelisk" (7939). In these works, we find a topography of queerly coded ruination that sheds light on otherwise overlooked dimensions of Forster's treatment of architecture, sexuality, time, secrecy and publicity, and culture.


Ruins pervade the writings of E. M. Forster yet defy straightforward explanation. Such is the claim with which I would like to begin, hoping to correct an all-too-persistent caricature of Forster and his relation to the thematics of the ruined. Ventriloquizing what he takes to be Forster's unwaveringly pastoralist Weltanschauung, the novelist David Lodge writes in the introduction to the most recent Penguin edition of Howards End: "Things were always better in the past, before they were damaged or destroyed by the internal combustion engine, or the industrial revolution, or land enclosure, or the dissolution of the monasteries, or whatever ..." (2000, xv; ellipsis in original). For Lodge, Forster is an author of unmitigated nostalgia, permanently pitted against fragmentation in accordance with the categorical imperative that forms the core of Margaret's famous "sermon": "Only connect!" (Forster 1973,183). It is worth remembering, however, that the novel's frequently misquoted epigraph declines to reproduce Margaret's words exactly, but assumes the far more tentative, literally open-ended form, "Only connect...."

Given our concern with incompleteness and ruin, it is significant that the short "authorial" paratext that prefaces the novel performs incompleteness at the level of grammar and is thus open to being interpreted in multiple ways. The ellipsis, we could say, allows for an increase in interpretive room. In such a spirit, I would like to propose an approach to the "damaged or destroyed" (Lodge 2000, xv) things in Forster that significantly departs from that implied by Lodge; an approach, that is, which resists the presupposition of a routinized anguish and instead remains attuned to a complicated responsive range: a range that includes anguish but is not limited to it and where provisional compensations and even pleasures find expression in modes of queerness. Interweaving space and sexuality, I want to claim that throughout his writing Forster invests certain zones of ruination with a queer erotic energy, a variously submerged current of same-sex desire that troubles the idea that his fragments ceaselessly cry out for wholeness and restitution.

To grasp this sexualized topography, it is useful first to turn to Forster's private "letter" to Mohammed el Adi, an unusual epistolatory text written over the course of seven years between 1922 and 1929 following el Adi's untimely death from tuberculosis. Forster first met the young Egyptian while working for the Red Cross in Alexandria during World War I, or more exactly "in the spring of 1916" (Forster 2004,329).1 Their initial encounter occurred on a tram on which el Adi was working as a conductor, a chance meeting that eventually led, after several altogether more orchestrated run-ins on the tram, into an intense, physically involved friendship and love. It is their precious but now impossible moments together that the letter attempts to recollect; one such moment returns to Forster, as he writes, "nearly a year ... since the date at the head of this letter" (331):

You called out my name at Beebit el Hagar station after we had seen that ruined temple about two miles from it that no one else seems to have seen. It was dark and I hear an Egyptian shouting who had lost his friend: Margan, Margan--you calling me and I felt we belonged to each other, you had made me an Egyptian. (Forster 2004, 331)

In this dramatically fluctuating scene of the men losing and finding each other in the nocturnal confusion of the station, one could almost be excused for overlooking the subtle background detail of the "ruined temple ... that no one but us seems to have seen," However, what are we to make of this strange architectural fragment that is at once visible and invisible, as if simultaneously there and not there? Of course, ruins consist, by definition, of both presence and absence, being remainders of larger entities that no longer exist in their entirety. Yet in this case the situation is markedly different; at least for the majority in its would-be purview, the ruin acts as an absence tout court, unmingled with any sort of presence. Conveying this unaccountable visual rupture between the unseeing mass and the two lovers, Forster proceeds with caution: by writing "seems" he throws into question the objective "reality" of the rift. If anything, this word choice steers explanation toward the realm of subjectivity, toward a subject for whom an event seems to take place. Indeed there is a strongly persuasive temptation to read the "ruined temple" as a psychic projection shared by Forster and el Adi, given the uncanny echoing between the structure and the unique terms of their relationship. Like the ruin, their homoerotic bond hovers beneath the radar of general awareness, something that only they can see.

Offering helpful elaboration to such a reading in his insightful essay, "Re-orienting Forster: Intimacy and Islamic Space," Amardeep Singh writes: "In his various colonial writings, Forster develops a unique concept of intimacy in semi-public spaces, which might enable him to provisionally overcome the obstacles introduced by the imbalance of powers between white and brown, between colonizer and colonized" (2007, 35-36). Although Singh does not offer a close reading of the el Adi letter--his analysis focuses rather on Forster's essay "The Mosque" (1920) and A Passage to India (1924)--his thesis astutely fits the passage quoted above referring to the ruined temple, where the relationship between Forster and el Adi assumes an almost transformational aura of equality ("I felt we belonged to each other, you had made me an Egyptian"). It is true, of course, that nothing in the passage indicates that the "ruined temple" is necessarily a mosque or "Islamic space." Forster's stripped-down language leaves the precise religious affiliation of the structure obscure, and Alexandria is a city with a densely layered, famously cosmopolitan past. What counts more to the fostering of intimacy than the specific religious character of the space, it thus seems, is the more general status of the space as (semi-)public--after all, this is the crucial term in Singh's wide-ranging thesis. Or to put it differently, as Wendy Moffat remarks in her recent biography of Forster: "Only in public spaces could they [Forster and el Adi] have privacy" (2010,155). To be discovered alone in the seclusion of a bedroom, say, would be instantly and incontrovertibly incriminating, whereas circulating around in the city paradoxically allows for a kind of secrecy in plain view.

In this sense, the "ruined temple" possesses a distinctly generative association, despite the dense melancholia that, as Jesse Matz has searchingly examined, envelops this text. Linking Forster's grief over el Adi to his subsequent dearth of novelistic output, Matz argues that Forster's letter "documents for us the development of what we might call melancholy realism--the generic mode that would, for the next forty-five years, produce only unwritten novels" (2002, 304). Still, the startling thing about the "ruined temple," indeed doubly startling given the traditional symbology of melancholia surrounding ruins, is that the damaged structure is most directly associated not with the undoing but rather with the unfolding of the relationship between the men. A projection of the enabling conditions of their relationship, the structure cannot be strictly reduced to an embodiment or retroactive affective sign of grief. As I have mentioned, such queerly salutary resonances in ruins can be found across Forster's oeuvre; what follows offers an archaeology and cartography of them, moving on to explore sites of damage, destruction, and loss in Howards End (1910), Maurice (1913-4), and the short story "The Obelisk" (1939).


It is well known that Forster modeled the eponymous house in Howards End on his beloved Rooksnest, the modest, semirural house in Hertfordshire that he and his mother left when he was fourteen after living there for a decade. Although the house was never knocked down and reduced to ruins, it nonetheless carried a deep burden of loss for Forster; this sense of the fragility of spaces--our tenuous hold on them, their tenuous presence in the world--extends to, indeed grounds, the novel. I want in this section to focus on one of the key sites of precariousness in Howards End, one in which notes of queerness resonate subtly, but before doing so it will be constructive to look at the larger panorama of spatial fragility in the novel in order to situate the former within the latter.

By evocative accident, the first meeting between the Schlegels and Wilcoxes occurs in the midst of a site of extreme ruination, albeit in a less obvious sense of the term. Members of both families happen to be tourists "at Speyer" (Forster 1973, 62), a medieval German town whose main attraction, a historic Romanesque cathedral, the visitors discover to be "ruined, absolutely ruined, by restoration; not an inch left of the original structure" (4), as Margaret later reports to her Aunt Juley. Margaret's dismay over the state of the structure strongly recalls the language of Ruskin (a recurrent presence in the novel). (2) In The Seven Lamps of Architecture, published in 1849, Ruskin describes the newfangled practice of restoration as "the most total destruction which a building can suffer: a destruction out of which no remnants can be gathered: a destruction accompanied with false description of the thing destroyed" (1989, 194). Margaret's association with Ruskin's brand of militant preservationism, however, undergoes a significant mutation by the end of the novel, as the private monument of Howards End comes to loom ever larger in her life. Initially, after she marries Henry Wilcox, Howards End serves merely as a storehouse for the furniture displaced from Wickham Place, the family home in the city from which she and her sister had been turned out (about which more shortly). Eventually, however, Margaret collaborates with Helen in renovating and redecorating the house using the stored items, carrying on a process begun by Miss Avery, the local woman engaged to look after the house:

[Helen and Margaret] opened window after window, till the inside, too, was rustling to the spring. Curtains blew, picture frames tapped cheerfully. Helen uttered cries of excitement as she found this bed obviously in its right place, that in its wrong one. (Forster 1973, 297)

As Victoria Rosner aptly points out in Modernism and the Architecture of Private Life, this redecoration "is not modernist design, but it does lead to modernization" (2005, 145). Updating and altering the "original" house, such modernization results in an inevitable degree of disappearance; yet, unlike the renovations to the cathedral at Speyer, no rankled, pathological valence attaches to them. Rather, the changes echo the sisters' need to accommodate their new "queer family" (including, crucially, Helen's illegitimate "bastard" son, fathered by Leonard Bast) at Howards End, which persists into the future yet in a state non-identical with that of its past.

Ruination also figures suggestively in the Schlegel sisters' family history, coloring their father's life-altering decision to exile himself from his native Prussia and emigrate to England. Chronicling Mr. Schlegel's experiences as a soldier in Otto von Bismarck's series of imperial-nationalist wars, the narrator relates:

He had fought like blazes against Denmark, Austria, France. But he had fought without visualizing the results of victory. A hint of the truth broke on him after Sedan, when he saw the dyed moustaches of Napoleon going grey; another when he entered Paris, and saw the smashed windows of the Tuileries. (Forster 1973, 26)

Amidst so much carnage, the Schlegels' father zeroes in on the broken palace windows (a consequence of the coup d'etat that broke out in Paris following the defeat and capture of Napoleon III) and reads such small and seemingly trivial details as indicators of his country's falling off, of its betrayal of Kant and Hegel's dreamy "imperialism of the air" (26). Indeed, it is as if the damage inflicted on the architecture of someone's house, even if belonging to a tyrannical monarch, is enough to make up the mind of the hardened soldier, instilling in him the necessary courage and/or repulsion to give up his own home. Calling to mind Lionel Trilling's famous argument about Forster's "refusal to be great" (1943, 9), the Schlegels' father declines to participate further in his country's bid for geopolitical greatness, for ascendance into the ranks of the Great World Powers. Undeniably, the exile stirs intense nostalgia in him: "His gaze was always fixed beyond the sea. It was his hope that the clouds of materialism obscuring the Fatherland would part in time and the mild intellectual light re-emerge" (Forster 1973, 26). Yet the father's decision to reject the Fatherland, and thus open himself to uprooting, dislocation, and fragmentation, serves for him as an indispensible means for maintaining his ethical integrity.

The ruins of restoration, the ruins of wars': Forster adds to this anatomy of destruction the everyday ruins of urban development. Shifting into explicit condition-of-England mode while describing Leonard Bast's walk home from Wickham Place after the umbrella mix-up at the Beethoven concert, the narrator describes his neighborhood as a space of endless, sprawling, Babelesque creative destruction:

A block of flats, constructed with extreme cheapness, towered on either hand. Further down the road two more blocks were being built, and beyond these an old house was being demolished to accommodate another pair. It was the kind of scene that may be observed all over London, whatever the locality--bricks and mortar rising and falling with the restlessness of the water in a fountain, as the city receives more and more men upon her soil. (Forster 1973, 44)

And indeed we discover that, like this "old house," Wickham Place is also destined to be swept away before its naturally appointed time. As Margaret offhandedly mentions to Mrs. Wilcox during their Christmas shopping trip in the city, the lease on the Schlegel family home is set to expire and the landlord, hoping to capitalize on the rising value of the freehold, intends to expel them and build flats in its place.

The news elicits an appalled reaction from Mrs. Wilcox:

To be parted from your house, your father's house--it oughtn't to be allowed. It's worse than dying. I would rather die than--oh, poor girls! Can what they call civilization be right, if people mayn't die in the room where they were born. My dear, I am sorry-- ... Howards End was nearly pulled down once. It would have killed me. (Forster 1973, 81)

In response to this outpouring of sympathy, however, Margaret is able to muster only a sense of bewilderment, remarking: "Howards End must be a very different house to ours. We are fond of ours, but there is nothing distinctive about it. As you saw, it is an ordinary London house. We shall easily find another" (81).

Margaret's remark proves mistaken or misguided in several ways. First of all, the hunt for a home hardly turns out to be as uncomplicated as Margaret initially assures herself. Mrs. Wilcox attempts to rectify the loss of Wickham Place from beyond the grave by bequeathing Howards End to Margaret, effectively making the house the Christmas present that she wished to find for her friend but never did on their shopping trip together, but the gift fails to reach its intended receiver until the closing pages of the novel. Indeed, the complications surrounding the cryptic act of giving constitute the narrative's main plot. Further, once immersed in the vagaries of the hunt, Margaret is forced to revise her ideas not only about finding a new house but also about letting the old one go. Hence the narrator muses:

The Londoner seldom understands his city until it sweeps him, too, away from his moorings, and Margaret's eyes were not opened until the lease of Wickham Place expired. She had always known that it must expire, but the knowledge only became vivid about nine months before the event. Then the house was suddenly ringed with pathos. It had seen so much happiness. (Forster 1973, 107)

Echoing her father during the wars, Margaret too displays a kind of Freudian Nachtraglichkeit (commonly translated as "deferred action" or "afterwardness") in the face of disturbing events, only beginning to "see" the city and comprehend the "truth" of its transience belatedly. Leading to her own predicament of displacement, albeit on an intranational scale, the expiration of the lease functions much as the shattered Tuileries windows functioned for her father: to bring about the breakthrough of a difficult, delayed knowledge. (4)

Once Wickham Place is slated for demolition following the expiration of the lease, the narrator offers a eulogy for the house that is for me perhaps the greatest passage on ruins in all of Forster:

Houses have their own ways of dying, falling as variously as the generations of men, some with a tragic roar, some quietly but to an afterlife in the city of ghosts, while from others--and thus was the death of Wickham Place--the spirit slips before the body perishes. It had decayed in spring, disintegrating the girls more than they knew, and causing either to accost unfamiliar regions. By September it was a corpse, void of emotion, and scarcely hallowed by the memories of thirty years of happiness. Through its round-topped doorway passed furniture, and pictures, and books, until the last room was gutted and the last van had rumbled away. It stood for a week or two longer, open-eyed, as if astonished at its own emptiness. Then it fell. Navvies came, and split it back into the gray. With their muscles and their beery good temper, they were not the worst of undertakers for a house which had always been human, and had not mistaken culture for an end. (Forster 1973, 254)

The opening salvo offers a kind of variation on the famous beginning of Anna Karenina (1877), reworking Tolstoy's domestic axiom about the uniqueness of unhappy families in more strictly spatio-architectural terms: even the happiest of houses, faced with the unhappy prospect of death, dies in its own way. Later, Margaret makes a similar claim about the radical singularity of human death: "People have their own deaths as well as their own lives, and even if there is nothing beyond death we shall differ in our nothingness" (311). That differences may exist in nothingness--an ostensibly absolute and uniform state--is an obscurely paradoxical idea, but one perfectly in keeping with the overriding drift of the passage; namely, to keep pursuing a negotiation of that which appears most recalcitrantly opposed to negotiation.

Forster structures such an attempt according to what we might call a micronarrative of desacralization. Just as the sisters are evicted from the house, so the "spirit" of the house (the genius loci) is evicted from its "body," and what remains is a thing of obdurate corporeality. Emptied of the three decades of "hallowed" memory traces, Wickham Place becomes a "corpse" subject to a brutal postmortem dissection. As if to reinforce the atomization of the ensemble that they once comprised, the family's personal effects are removed one by one ("furniture, and pictures, and books") through the yet-to-be-fragmented "round-topped doorway," leaving the rooms in a state of bodily abjection: "gutted." And from here the equivalent of a process of dissolution, of a progressive reduction to nothingness, sets in. Merely "void of emotion" in September, the house undergoes an exponential multiplication of voids a week or two later, standing "open-eyed, as if astonished at its own emptiness" (Forster 1973, 254); in other words, with two void-shaped organs staring reflexively at the general vacuity of which they are a part. In short, Wickham Place transforms from sacred site to abyss, as if enclosing in miniature the whole story of the disenchantment of the modern world.

What has always seized my attention as a significant disruption to the affective investments typically surrounding such a narrative, however, is the almost throwaway detail of the brawny navvies, entering the rubble-strewn scene with a conviviality owing perhaps only to being lightly buzzed on the job. According to the OED, the term "navvy" originally refers to a type of laborer employed in the construction of canals and, later, of roads and railways--that is to say, of many of the central features of the infrastructure of modernization. (5) There is no mistaking the navvies' line of work; they are not keepers of the greenwood. Despite being pawns in the very processes obliterating Wickham Place, however, these working-class figures with whom the novel elsewhere claims "we are not concerned" (Forster 1973, 43) manage to bring some strange consolation to the scene of destruction and, crucially, at precisely the moment in which the fresh stings of loss might most be expected to incite a burning bid for reclamation and repossession. Indeed, the navvies arrive as emissaries of what Trilling refers to as Forster's characteristic "relaxed will" (Trilling 1943, 9), a phrase he borrows--although without going into the ramifications--from the homoerotic scene in A Room with a View (1908). In this scene, George, Freddy, and Mr. Beebe take to the woods for a decompressive dip "after the fashion of the nymphs in the Gotterdammerung" (Forster 1977, 130).

As he later claimed in a letter to Cynthia Ozick in 1972, Trilling wrote his monograph without any consciousness of Forster's sexuality: "It wasn't until I had finished my book on Forster that I came to the explicit realization that he was homosexual. I'm not sure if this was because of a particular obtuseness on my part ... or because homosexuality hadn't yet formulated itself as an issue in the culture. When the realization did come, it at first didn't seem of crucial importance, but that view soon began to change" (quoted in Tobin 1999, 12). At the time of writing, in the early 1940s, Trilling was primarily parsing "will" in relationship to the contemporary world crisis, the terrible unfolding of World War II, to which he alludes in both his opening and closing paragraphs, arguing for the particular timeliness of a consideration of Forster. The book concludes: "A world at war is necessarily a world of will; in a world at war Forster reminds us of a world where will is not everything....He is one of those who raise the shield of Achilles, which is the moral intelligence of art, against the panic and emptiness which make their onset when the will is tired from its own excess" (Trilling 1943, 184). "Will," it is useful to recall, had taken on increasingly dark resonances at the time via Nazi propaganda that had conscripted the language of Wille from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche for its own purposes: the notorious example here is Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph des Widens (1934). By pointing out that Trilling takes the phrase "relaxed will" from a scene in Forster whose homoerotic dimensions he neglects to consider, I do not mean to point to an invalidating blind spot in his analysis, but rather to suggest the intersectional relevance and amenability of his analysis to queer concerns. Indeed, if anything the sourcing of the concept of the "relaxed will" (so crucial to Trilling's overall picture of Forster) in the all-male swimming scene argues for an important grounding of Forster's "liberal imagination" in his queer imagination.

Once the navvies arrive the prose starts to recover its serpentine fluency, expanding from the most laconic, benumbed point in the passage ("Then it fell") to a rather sumptuous litotes describing the workers: "not the worst of undertakers for a house which had always been human, and had not mistaken culture for an end." Here, the titular word "end" functions chiefly in terms not of time or space but of telos or purpose, as in that which is negated in Kant's conception of beauty as "purposefulness without purpose." Whereas the narrator might seem to be saying that Wickham Place maintained a strict barrier between culture and use--and here one thinks immediately of architect Adolph Loos's infamous 1908 manifesto "Ornament and Crime," which argues for a strict division between the aesthetic and the utilitarian in architecture and design--a closer analysis suggests just the opposite. Given the singular form of the noun "end," a much more compelling case can be made for the following interpretation: that the house refused to conflate culture with an end in itself, thus opposing the position of l'artpour l'art with which Loos shares much in common. After all, "a house which had always been human" hardly seems a likely candidate for the upholding of a rigidly sealed-off aesthetic autonomy.

A Latin tutor for many years, Forster would have been well aware of the etymological origins of the word "culture" in the verb colere, meaning both to till the land (cf. "cultivate") and to worship (cf. "cult"). Primordially, the word accommodates a semantic duality, a straddling of the divide between low and high foreign to Loos's sense of "culture" yet intimately familiar to that of Wickham Place. Hence the eulogy ends up imagining the departing sacredness of the house as indistinguishable from that quality earlier evoked by Margaret when she refers to Wickham Place as an "ordinary London house." Only now such mundanity is being treated as an object worthy of deep reverence. Why this immanent aspect of the house should matter so much, why the navvies function as such fitting undertakers in light of it, and what role sexuality might play in the passage are questions the next section will bring together in an attempt to clarify Forster's conception of ruin.


Let us begin with sexuality, a source of certain blockage for Forster during the composition of Howards End and a problem for which he was not without acute, often mortifying, self-awareness. Recounting his mother's reaction to the affair between Helen and Leonard Bast, Forster wrote in his "locked diary" on September 19, 1910:

I can hardly detail my chief trouble. Mother is evidently deeply shocked by Howards End. The shocking part is also inartistic, and so I can not comfort myself by a superior standpoint. I do not know how I shall grind through the next months. There are Maimie & Aunt Laura too. Yet I have never written anything less erotic. (Forster 2011, 13)

Making a similar criticism, yet in a heavily sarcastic vein, Katherine Mansfield quipped in her own diary: "I can never be perfectly certain whether Helen was got with child by Leonard Bast or by his fatal forgotten umbrella. All things considered, I think it must have been the umbrella" (Mansfield 1998, 388). However, reading against the grain of Mansfield and even of Forster himself, I think it would be a mistake to read the novel as categorically void of erotic traces and especially of queerly erotic ones, even if these are only available in a kind of flashing, blink-and-you-miss-them way. Take, for instance, the navvies: strapping, working-class men to whom Forster was attracted throughout his life--desire-object staples, actually, of much English writing by gay men before and after him, amply available in Carpenter, Isherwood, and Auden--and just the type to whom he turned for the creation of Alec Scudder, the gamekeeper with whom Maurice eventually finds love at the end of Maurice, the novel on which Forster went to work directly after Howards End. (6)

Still, the question remains: why would this subtle hint of queer erotic possibility appear at the moment in the novel in which it does, amidst the ruins of Wickham Place? (I take it for granted that to point out that the navvies are employed to clear away the rubble of demolished houses doesn't get us very far.) To begin to formulate an answer, it is useful again to turn to Maurice, although the passage on which I want to focus first involves not Alec but Clive, Maurice's aristocratic, Hellenophile classmate at Cambridge with whom he has his initial same-sex relationship, a "Platonic" yet still highly engrossing affair.

As the two steal a moment alone on horseback during a vacation from school at Clive's family's estate, Clive expresses his anger with his family, reserving particular ire for his mother, who lately has been putting increasing pressure on him to find a bride and produce "an heir for Penge." At this mention of children Maurice suddenly falls into a despondent hush, as "it had not occurred to him before that neither he nor his friend would leave life behind them" (Forster 1981, 96); or, putting a more cuttingly grandiose cadence on it, that "he and the beloved would vanish utterly--would continue neither in Heaven nor on Earth" (97). Here the progression of the ride itself suggestively stops and Maurice begins to put his apprehension into words:

He had not meant to trouble Clive, but it all came out as soon as they lay down in the fern. Clive did not agree. "Why children?" he asked. "Why always children? For love to end where it begins is far more beautiful, and Nature knows it."

"Yes, but if everyone--"

Clive pulled him back into themselves. He murmured something about Eternity in an hour: Maurice did not understand, but the voice soothed him. (Forster 1981, 97)

Thus what I. A. Richards calls Forster's "special preoccupation, almost obsession, with the continuance of life," his "half-mystical and inevitably vague survival theme" (1966, 18), emerges in the form of a kind of Symposium--esque dialogue, of a debate not yet decided and far from easily or straightforwardly decidable on the side of survival. If anything, Maurice's retort, in which his thoughts turn anxiously and apocalyptically to the end of the human race altogether ("Yes, but if everyone--"), suffers a blow of credibility through its association--minus the rhetorical tics--with the claptrap of Dr. Barry, the physician who attempts to "cure" young men of their same-sex desires. "Be frank, man, be frank. You don't take anybody in. The frank mind's the pure mind. I'm a medical man and an old man and I tell you that. Man that is born of woman must go with woman if the human race is to continue," the doctor rambles to an impressionable Maurice in an earlier scene (Forster 1981, 28).

Challenging such imperatives and hoping to assuage his friend's "trouble," Clive offers an encomium to nonprocreative, same-sex love that aligns the practice with "beauty" and "Nature," reversing the modern medical vilification of homosexuality as monstrous and perverse. Such an encomium, of course, finds direct support in Platonism (the doctrinally congealed extraction of the dialogues), which holds that the highest goal of love is the production not of children but community with a coterie of "higher" ideals. As Diotima representatively remarks in the Symposium,

This is what it is to go aright, or to be led by another, into the art of Love: ones goes always upwards for the sake of this Beauty, starting out from beautiful things and using them like rising stairs: from one body to two and from two to all beautiful bodies, then from beautiful bodies to beautiful customs, and from customs to beautiful things, and from these lessons he arrives in the end at this lesson, which is learning of this very Beauty, so that in the end he comes to know just what it is to be beautiful. (Plato 2006, 72)

At the same time as Clive's antiprocreative stance synchronizes with a view such as this, however, he also plays rather fast and loose with the philosophy of which he is a professed adherent. Whereas Platonism valorizes the immortal and transcendent Idea, Clive reserves the greater part of his praise for the here and now, for the mundane world where love, like all things, must draw to an "end" and wither away. As the narrator remarks, reinforcing this move, "Clive pulled him back into themselves": that is, not to a higher plane beyond themselves. The lovers begin to merge into one another as the pronouns shift from "him" to "themselves," but the newly merged entity remains distinctly earthbound, as if under the sway of Clive's gravity-like "pull," a word also containing distinctly ruinous connotations if we recall Ruth Wilcox's remark about Howards End being "nearly pulled down once." As the passage and the chapter draw to an end on this Platonically heterodox note of veneration for the mundane and the mortal, language itself too breaks down. Clive's philosophizing melts into a murmured "something," into a kind of raw acoustic matter that works upon its listener like tranquilizing white noise. (7)

Linking homoeroticism, mortality, and the pleasurable collapse of self and language, Forster's scene strikingly brings to mind the argument of Lee Edelman in his controversial, much-discussed book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004). (8) Edelman takes as his object of critique what he calls "reproductive futurism," an ideology of the dominant socio-political order that relies upon a phantasmatically idealized "image of the Child" in order to solidify the "absolute privilege of heteronormativity by rendering unthinkable, by casting outside the political domain, the possibility of a queer resistance to this organizing principle of communal relations" (2). Interrogating the status of the Child as an "emblem of futurity's unquestioned value" (4), Edelman formulates a mode of queer oppositionality that is at once opposed to the logic of oppositionality upon which identities are constructed and unredemptively "for" (insofar as such a position can be for anything) an intractable kernel of negativity that he identifies with the death drive. As he puts it in his own deconstructive Lacanese:

If the fate of the queer is to figure the fate that cuts the thread of futurity, if the jouissance, the corrosive enjoyment, intrinsic to queer (non)identity annihilates the fetishistic jouissance that works to consolidate identity by allowing reality to coagulate around its ritual reproduction, then the only oppositional status to which our queerness could ever lead would depend on our taking seriously the place of the death drive we're called on to figure and insisting, against the cult of the Child and the political order it enforces, that we, as Guy Hocquenghem made clear, are "not the signifier of what might become a new form of'social organisation,'" that we do not intend a new politics, a better society, a brighter tomorrow, since all of these fantasies reproduce the past, through the displacement, in the form of the future. We choose, instead, not to choose the Child, as disciplinary image of the Imaginary past or as a site of a projective identification with an always impossible future. The queerness we propose, in Hocquenghem's words, "is unaware of the passing of generations as stages on the road to better living. It knows nothing about 'sacrifice now for the sake of the future generations' ... [it] knows that civilization alone is mortal." (Edelman 2004, 31) (9)

It is not difficult to imagine Edelman's book retitled with the question Clive poses as he lays with Maurice in the fern: "Why children?"--or rather, "Why always children?" as Clive says in an important repetition that drives home the depth of the entrenchment of the logic of hetero-reproductive normativity in his society. Edelman and Clive come very close in regarding a solution (or what might better be termed a nonsolution) to the dilemma that they isolate: do not resist the end, but rather embrace it, fully and without apologies. To exalt the "love [that] ends where it begins" is in its way to say "yes" to the "no" of the death drive.

Of course, in the context of the novel as a whole, Clive ends up straying about as far as possible from Edelman's position as one could imagine. Breaking off his three-year relationship with Maurice, Clive eventually marries, becomes a politician, and settles into Penge, with his repression system working in permanent overdrive. When Maurice tells him about Alec, sparing none of the details of the physicality of the relationship, Clive reacts with a mix of disgust and dumbfoundedness:

Even in his nausea, Clive turned to a generalization--it was part of the mental vagueness induced by his marriage. "But surely the sole excuse for any relationship between men is that it remain purely platonic." (Forster 1981, 244)

Whatever subversive currents the erratically promulgated Hellenism of his Cambridge days might have contained, there can be no question about the reactionary implications of such a statement in the present situation. Yet Clive's old praise of expiratory, queer love does not fail to be lost on his once-fretful protege. At the end of the novel, Maurice disappears en route to the "greenwood" to be together with his new beloved, "leaving no trace of his presence except a little pile of the petals of evening primrose, which mourned from the ground like an expiring fire" (246).

This fragile, floral ruin is infused with a melancholy poignancy, yet it also can't be forgotten that the ending of Maurice is a happy one, for better or for worse, satisfyingly or not. (10) As Forster remarks in the suggestively titled "Terminal Note" to the novel, which he wrote in 1960:

A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn't have bothered to write otherwise....If it ended unhappily, with a lad dangling from a noose or with a suicide pact, all would be well, for there is no pornography or seduction of minors. But the lovers get away unpunished and consequently recommend crime. Mr. Borenius is too incompetent to catch them, and the only penalty society exacts is an exile they gladly embrace. (Forster 1981, 250)

Again eliciting misgivings about a potential theoretical overlap between Maurice and No Future, Forster's insistence on a positive, happy ending for the queer couple clashes with Edelman's desire to embrace terminal, queer fates precisely in their culturally projected, and for him psychically intrinsic, negativity. Yet despite this evaluative discrepancy, the fact is that there isn't a future for Maurice and Alec beyond their life together in (or more accurately on the fringes of) this world, and the novel hardly recoils from this state of affairs. Indeed, the jouissance in the fern that hovers over the image of "Penge's End"--of the house dying out heirlessly--hovers also over the final dispossession of the lovers from society as such, which speaks to a broader affinity between the two works. Ultimately, both allow a space for queer terminality, whether imbued with cheerfulness or corrosiveness; this can be extended tentatively--yet crucially, I think (indeed it has been the point of this entire contextualization)--to the ruins of Wickham Place, into which enter the well-built navvies to usher the wreckage, with some measure of consolation, into oblivion.


To appreciate this spatio-sexual logic in even more crystallized form and make headway toward a conclusion, let us turn to Forster's short story "The Obelisk" (1939), which like Maurice is part of Forster's corpus of posthumously published homoerotic writings. The story concerns an unhappy married couple, a punctilious schoolmaster and his wife, as they while away the time before their bus departs from an unnamed English seaside town where they are vacationing for the day. As they walk down the esplanade towards the town's main attraction, an Obelisk, they are interrupted by two off-duty, "powerfully made sailors" (Forster 1972, 128), one of whose request for a cigarette offers some welcome distraction to their boredom and bickering. The four continue together toward the irresistibly sexualized landmark like pilgrims toward some phallic shrine; they eventually drift into new couple formations as they break off and are no longer within eyeshot of each other. Thrilling with a newfound sense of freedom from her life and "very very small" (113) husband, the wife submits to the sailor's advances as he pulls her off the path into the bushes, where she plays the opposite of the damsel in sexual distress. "She took the lead, ordered the mysterious stranger, the film-star, the sheikh, what to do, she was, for one moment, a queen, and he her slave" (123). Hence the fast lovers, having more urgent matters to attend to, never make it to the monument. When the wife finally reunites with her husband, it occurs to her that he might press her for details of what she was supposed to see, so she goes off to buy a postcard of the Obelisk. However, the woman running the kiosk makes an offhand disclosure that alters the wife's (and the reader's) perception of everything that has come before:

"It (the Obelisk] fell down last week. During all that rain. It's fallen right over into the landslip upside-down, the tip of it's gone in ever so far, rather laughable, though I suppose it'll be a loss to the town."

"Ah, there it is," said her husband, coming up and taking the postcard out of her hand. "Yes, it gives quite a good idea of it, doesn't it? I'll have one displaying the inscription."

Then the bus swept up and took them away. Hilda sank into a seat nearly fainting. Depth beneath depth seemed to open. For if she couldn't have seen the Obelisk he couldn't have seen it either, if she dawdled on the way up he must have dawdled too, if she was lying, if she and a sailor--she stopped her thoughts, for they were becoming meaningless. She peeped at her husband, who was on the other side of the coach, studying the postcard. He looked handsomer than usual, and happier, and his lips were parted in a natural smile. (Forster 1972, 128-29)

Such an ending is not untraced by disturbance, bringing the wife into contact with a proliferation of voids ("Depth beneath depth seemed to open"), and reverberating with the depressing fact of the ill-matched character of the marriage that has been going on now for who knows how long. Simultaneously, however, the literal ending of the Obelisk, its having been ruinously turned "upside-down" or, to invoke the insinuated archaism for homosexuality, "inverted," coincides with the emergent knowledge of the husband's having had a gratifying sexual experience too. The "loss to the town" is implicated with his newly discovered "happiness}," with the "natural smile" that breaks across his usually guarded face like the sign of a momentary relaxation of the will.

For more reasons than one, "The Obelisk" returns us to the passage from the el Adi letter with which I began this essay. An imitation of an archetypal Pharaonic structure, the monument at the heart of the story quite obviously evokes the architectural landscape of Egypt; a suggestion that, in case we missed it, the ironically named Tiny, the husband's lover, makes even more explicit when he remarks bawdily of the structure that "Killopatra's Needle's bigger" (Forster 1972, 127). Imagining her lover, Stanhope or "Stan," as a "sheikh," the wife too conjures up an image of the Middle East, one that takes on increasingly imperial associations as she becomes a "queen" and "he her slave." Aside from these stock-in-trade Orientalist allusions, however, the toppled Obelisk more idiosyncratically harks back to the "ruined temple that no one else seems to have seen" by introducing a similar problematic concerning visibility. The monument is something only the two sets of illicit lovers can--or rather claim to be able to--see; for everyone else, the general populace, it is no longer there, having toppled over days ago.

It is impossible to know whether Forster was consciously working back over the moment in the earlier text when he wrote "The Obelisk." What is certain, however, is that such queerly coded ruins form a distinct pattern throughout his writing. Indeed, just as the problematic concerning visibility reinforces the connection between the short story and the el Adi letter, so we might detect an uncannily graphic (if not quite homophonic) echo between the navvies who clear away the ruins of Wickham Place and the sailors in "The Obelisk" who belong to the Navy. "It's a funny life, the Navy," Stanhope relates to the wife (Forster 1972, 119). And later, through the wife's eyes, we learn: "He looked the very flower of the British Navy as he lied and lied" (125). A thread--along with several subthreads--runs through the "ruined temple that no one else seems to have seen," the ruins of Wickham Place, Penge in Clive's projection of the house heirlessly dying out, and the collapsed Obelisk. This thread reveals a topography that tells a very different story about Forster's relation to fragmentation, damage, and loss than the one we are used to hearing. Refusing to be assimilated into a straightforward pastoral, Edenic narrative," such sites open up possibilities for reclaiming the precarious qua the precarious under the sign of queerness. Their predominating concern isn't with being put back together, with being made whole again. Attending to them, we grasp a spatio-temporally and affectively richer Forster, a Forster who accords more closely with the kaleidoscopic texture of his prose than with a single directive or categorical imperative. Far more so than prevailing opinion has been willing to see, Forster's ruins finally allow for more, not despite but precisely in their very partiality and proneness to vanishing.


Abraham, Nicolas, and Maria Torok. 1994. "Notes on a Phantom: A Complement to Freud's Metapsychology." In The Shell and the Kernel: Volume 1, edited by Nicholas T. Rand. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Beauman, Nicola. 1994. E. M. Forster: A Biography. New York: Knopf.

Bond Stockton, Kathryn. 2009. The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Edelman, Lee. 2004. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Forster, E. M. 1972. "The Obelisk." In The Life to Come, Abinger Edition, Vol. 8. London: Edward Arnold.

--. 1973. Howards End, Abinger Edition, Vol. 4, edited by Oliver Stallybrass. London: Edward Arnold.

--. 1977. A Room with a View, Abinger Edition, Vol. 3. London: Edward Arnold.

--. 1981. Maurice. New York: Norton.

--. 2004. "Memoir: Mohammed el Adi." In Alexandria: A History and Guide and Pharos and Pharillon, edited by Miriam Allott. London: Andre Deutsch.

--. 2011. The Journal and Diaries of E. M. Forster, Vol. 2, edited by Philip Gardner. London: Pickering and Chatto.

Hocquenghem, Guy. 2010. The Screwball Asses. Translated by Noura Wedell. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

Hynes, Samuel. 1968. The Edwardian Turn of Mind. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Lodge, David. 2000. "Introduction." In Howards End. New York: Penguin.

Loos, Adolph. 1970. "Ornament and Crime." In Programs and Manifestoes on 20th Century Architecture, edited by Ulrich Conrads. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Mansfield, Katherine. 1998. Journal entry for May 1917. In Howards End, edited by Paul B. Armstrong. New York: Norton.

Matz, Jesse. 2002. "'You Must Join My Dead': E. M. Forster and the Death of the Novel." Modernism/Modernity, 9.2: 303-17.

Moffat, Wendy. 2010. A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster. New York: Picador.

Munoz, Jose Esteban. 2009. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press.

Plato. 2006. Symposium. Translated by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff. In Plato on Love, edited by C. D. C. Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Raschke, Debrah. 1997. "Breaking the Engagement with Philosophy: Re-envisioning Hetero/Homo Relations." In Queer Forster, edited by Robert K. Martin and George Piggford. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Richards, I. A. 1966. "A Passage to Forster: Reflections on a Novelist." In Forster: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Malcolm Bradbury. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Rosner, Victoria, 2005. Modernism and the Architecture of Private Life. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ruskin, John. 1989. The Seven Lamps of Architecture. New York: Dover.

Singh, Amardeep. 2007. "Re-orienting Forster: Intimacy and Islamic Space." Criticism 49.1: 35-54.

Snediker, Michael. 2008. Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood and Other Felicitous Persuasions. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Tobin, Colm. 1999. "Roaming the Greenwood," review of A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition by Gregory Woods. London Review of Books 21.2 (January 21): 12-16.

Tsuzuki, Chushichi. 1980. Edward Carpenter 1844-1929: Prophet of Human Fellowship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Trilling, Lionel. 1943. E. M. Forster. New York: New Directions.


(1) The el Adl letter is reproduced in its entirety for the first time in Miriam Allott's Abinger edition at Alexandria: A History and Guide and Pharos and Pbarilloti (2004).

(2) The character in the novel who exhibits a more explicit relationship to Ruskin is Leonard Bast, whose small library of volumes dedicated to his cultural "improvement" includes The Stones of Venice (1851-53).

(3) War ruins haunt the novel not only from the past, but also from the future, given the strong anticipations of World War I in Howards End. In one of several allusions to the intensification of arms stockpiling by England and Germany, the narrator takes an aside to condemn "our national morality," which "assumes that preparation against danger is in itself a good, and that men, like nations, are the better for staggering through life fully armed" (Forster 1973, 104). For more on English writing that anticipates the war, although in a reactionary rather than critical vein, see Samuel Hynes on the literature of the "Edwardian invasion scare" in his The Edwardian Turn of Mind (1968, 43).

(4) I should point out that there is also an intriguing, complex maternal dimension to the working of Margaret's epistemological process in the passage. Becoming "vivid nine months before the event," and giving rise to a womb-like "ring" of pathos around the house, the knowledge of the expiration of the lease affects her like a cryptic sort of pregnancy. The odd thing to note here, of course, is that such reproductive imagery is being invoked to figure a death. Yet to have death (and in particular the death of a house) occupy the place of birth for Margaret seems less opaque given her later, anti-essentialist rejection of the maternal: "I do not love children. I am thankful to have none. I can play with their beauty and charm, but that is all--nothing real, not one scrap of what there ought to be. And others--others go further still, and move outside humanity altogether. A place, as well as a person, may catch the glow" (Forster 1973. 335). Moreover, as Oliver Stallybrass points out in a note, there is a queer flavor to Margaret's lines: "With the hindsight given by Maurice," he writes, "it is hard to help seeing Margaret's speech as a concealed plea for charity towards homosexuals" (364). In the next section, I'll have more to say about the relationship between houses, reproductive continuity, and sexuality.

(5) Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. "navvy."

(6) Compare Carpenter: '"My ideal of love is a powerful, strongly built man, of my own age or rather younger--preferably of the working class'" (quoted in Tsuzuki 1980, 43). Forster's link with Carpenter on the subject becomes explicit in his entry in the "Locked Diary" for August 28, 1920: "E. C. {Edward Carpenter} has explained why I like the Lower Classes. They are not self conscious. I am and therefore need them" (Forster 2011, 60). Compare also Forster's remark: '"I want to love a strong young man of the lower classes and be loved by him and even hurt by him'" (quoted in Moffat 2010, 316).

(7) In viewing his Platonism as internally inconsistent and not fully abided by, I am perhaps being less hard on Clive than has been the tendency in criticism on Maurice. In "Breaking the Engagement with Philosophy: Re-envisioning Hetero/Homo Relations in Maurice," Debrah Raschke writes: "What Maurice implies is that, in order for the bodily fulfillment of the Alec-Maurice relationship to transpire, Platonism (represented by both Ducie and Clive, who are both cast as having the wrong answers) must be relinquished" (1997, 160). My argument puts the matter somewhat less drastically: whereas Maurice must relinquish Clive's Platonism, that relinquishment entails a retention of that which exceeds Clive's articulation and practice of his philosophy.

(8) Among the recent works on queer temporality that address--and challenge--Edelman's "anti-relational," anti-futurist thesis are Michael Snediker's Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood and Other Felicitous Persuasions (2008); Kathryn Bond Stockton's The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century (2009); and Jose Esteban Munoz's Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009).

(9) Compare also Hocquenghem in The Screwball Asses: "We do not have children. We do not secrete that kind of surplus value. (It isn't simply our refusal of women that stops us from having children. It is the bourgeois law of adoption that will only entrust parentless children to bourgeois and heterosexual couples, duly recognized after investigation by the police. Not only do we not fertilize women, but our situation prohibits our transformation by those tiny barbarians.) We are thus the strongest remedy to the natalist population of the planet. If we were the only ones here, humanity would immediately cease; no one would be born, there would be no children or adolescents, and we would become peaceful nihilistic old men sodomizing one another" (Hocquenghem 2010, 39).

(10) Colm Tobin's opinion is the latter, as he explains in an illuminating comparative discussion of unhappy endings in gay and Irish fiction: "There is something heroic in Forster's refusal in Maurice to insist that Scudder doesn't get arrested, or hang himself, or go to Buenos Aires. Instead, he meets Maurice again and says: 'And now we shan't be parted no more, and that's finished.' Yet somehow it isn't satisfying, any more than it would be if Leopold Bloom had been happily married and was wandering around Dublin leading his son by the hand. It would be heartening and hopeful, and politically correct, but it would not fulfill any other truth which has nothing to do with hope or politics. This truth may change, of course, as gay lives change and Ireland changes; and then unhappy endings, dead children, and mad old fathers may seem tagged on for reasons which have nothing to do with the truth that art requires" (Tobin 1999, 15).

(11) While helpfully pointing to the many "disappearing houses" (Beauman 1994, 4) in his life, Nicola Beauman's biography leans heavily--too heavily, I believe, and confusingly--on Edenic images and metaphors to describe Forster's relation to lost places. Beauman begins her book by giving an account of Forster's London birthplace, 6 Melcombe Place, which was demolished by the expansion of the Metropolitan Railway, a modernizing project in which more than a thousand residences in the neighborhood were slated for clearance and several times more inhabitants displaced. Although at the time of the leveling Forster was sixteen and had not lived in the house in more than a dozen years, Beauman interprets the event as a "loss he could never remedy" (6). In the chapter entitled "Clapham," Beauman dwells at length on Marianne Thornton--Forster's beloved aunt and benefactor who was expelled in middle age from her family home, Battersea Rise--and arrives at the conclusion: "There is no doubt that it was from her that the infant Morgan first learnt to associate leaving houses with unhappiness" (22). In "Rooksnest," Beauman writes that after Forster's exile from the house in Hertfordshire "he never recovered" (39) and that he "departed from paradise" (43). As the sources and triggers of Forster's melancholic relation to lost houses accumulate, a coherent etiology of his condition becomes more and more foggy. Was it the loss of Melcombe Place or Rooksnest that proved foundational? Beauman speaks of both, contradictorily, it would appear, as the Big Event after which no recovery was possible. Or, in light of Marianne Thornton's dispossession, was the condition in fact transmitted to Forster transgenerationally in the form of a dark family inheritance of loss, what Abraham and Torok would call a "crypt"? Compare Abraham and Torok's (1994) "Notes on a Phantom: A Complement to Freud's Metapsychology."

JONAH CORNE is Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Film, and Theatre at the University of Manitoba. His writing has appeared in Literature/ Film Quarterly, Film International, and Modernist Cultures. His work on Forster is part of a larger project on ruins and the modern novel entitled Endangered Zones: Books, Buildings, and Modernity.
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Date:Jun 22, 2014
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