Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Wednesday Wendell: on affection and Howards End

Earlier this year Wendell Berry gave the loftily named Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. He took as his title a line from E.M. Forster's novel Howards End. It's a line spoken by Margaret Schlegel, the novel's pivotal character, in one of the novel's pivotal scenes as described by Berry.

The climactic scene of Forster’s novel is the confrontation between its heroine, Margaret Schlegel, and her husband, the self-described “plain man of business,” Henry Wilcox. The issue is Henry’s determination to deal, as he thinks, “realistically” with a situation that calls for imagination, for affection, and then forgiveness. Margaret feels at the start of their confrontation that she is “fighting for women against men.” But she is not a feminist in the popular or political sense. What she opposes with all her might is Henry’s hardness of mind and heart that is “realistic” only because it is expedient and because it subtracts from reality the life of imagination and affection, of living souls. She opposes his refusal to see the practicality of the life of the soul.

Margaret’s premise, as she puts it to Henry, is the balance point of the book: “It all turns on affection now . . . Affection. Don’t you see?”

Berry argues in "It All Turns on Affection" that without imagination, sympathy and affection for the people, places and things that surround us in our daily lives we'll succumb to the assumptions of corporate industrialism in which everything is valued according to the "supposed authority of market price." Without affection, Berry warns, "the nation and its economy will conquer and destroy the country."

Towards the end of his jeremiad Berry turned to a broader discussion of the book. Here Berry the English teacher meets Berry the critic of industrial capitalism.

In thinking about the importance of affection, and of its increasing importance in our present world, I have been guided most directly by E. M. Forster’s novel, Howards End, published in 1910. By then, Forster was aware of the implications of “rural decay,” and in this novel he spoke, with some reason, of his fear that “the literature of the near future will probably ignore the country and seek inspiration from the town. . . . and those who care for the earth with sincerity may wait long ere the pendulum swings back to her again.” Henry Wilcox, the novel’s “plain man of business,” speaks the customary rationalization, which has echoed through American bureaus and colleges of agriculture, almost without objection, for at least sixty years: “the days for small farms are over.”

In Howards End, Forster saw the coming predominance of the machine and of mechanical thought, the consequent deracination and restlessness of populations, and the consequent ugliness. He saw an industrial ugliness, “a red rust,” already creeping out from the cities into the countryside. He seems to have understood by then also that this ugliness was the result of the withdrawal of affection from places. To have beautiful buildings, for example, people obviously must want them to be beautiful and know how to make them beautiful, but evidently they also must love the places where the buildings are to be built. For a long time, in city and countryside, architecture has disregarded the nature and influence of places. Buildings have become as interchangeable from one place to another as automobiles. The outskirts of cities are virtually identical and as depressingly ugly as the corn-and-bean deserts of industrial agriculture.

What Forster could not have foreseen in 1910 was the extent of the ugliness to come. We still have not understood how far at fault has been the prevalent assumption that cities could be improved by pillage of the countryside. But urban life and rural life have now proved to be interdependent. As the countryside has become more toxic, more eroded, more ecologically degraded and more deserted, the cities have grown uglier, less sustainable, and less livable.

Forster's novel is inseparable in my head from the 1992 film adaptation by Merchant & Ivory, starring Anthony Hopkins as Henry Wilcox and Emma Thompson as Margaret Schlegel, along with a veritable Who's Who of British acting talent. I vividly recall the first time I saw it on a rainy Saturday afternoon at the old Carefree Theatre in West Palm Beach. It made such an impression I went back the next Saturday and saw it again! In a way it's surprising my 23-year-old self responded so positively to a story that was subversive of my then rigidly ideological view of the world (I suspect if I had encountered Wendell Berry in those days I would have written him off as an "environmentalist wacko"). Having lived a little I've discovered that things are rarely as simple as they appear on the surface, and I hope I've learned a little about the importance of affection, sympathy and forgiveness as epitomized by the character of Margaret.

Still from Howards End (dir. James Ivory, 1992) via DVD Beaver

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