EM Forster, Aspects of the Novel, chapter 7: Prophecy


Aspects of the Novel

EM Forster, 1927

Chapter 7: Prophecy

The word “prophecy” is a little misleading, because Forster is among the few people in the past thousand years to use it correctly. It means, or meant, not predicting the future, but speaking for the gods, whether about the past, present, or future.

Forster isn’t sure that what he discusses here is real, because it happens so seldom: “Though I believe this lecture is on a genuine aspect of the novel, not a fake aspect, I can only think of four writers to illustrate it—Dostoevsky, Melville, D. H. Lawrence and Emily Bronte. … Always, at the back of my mind, there lurks a reservation about this prophetic stuff”. He’s conscious that it’s different from most other chapters (lectures) in the book: “For the first five lectures of this course we have used more or less the same set of tools. This time and last we have had to lay them down.” You don’t need to understand or use it to be a great writer; few have. But if something will help me write like Dostoevsky and Melville, I want in.

Before reading this, you need to read my post on chapter 6, Fantasy.

This is a confusing chapter, perhaps more confusing than chapter 8, Pattern and Rhythm, which I don’t intend to review. I’d better just quote Forster’s opening of the chapter:

What will interest us today—what we must respond to, for interest now becomes an inappropriate word—is an accent in the novelist’s voice, an accent for which the flutes and saxophones of fantasy may have prepared us. His theme is the universe, or something universal, but he is not necessarily going to “say” anything about the universe; he proposes to sing, and the strangeness of song arising in the halls of fiction is bound to give us a shock. How will song combine with the furniture of common sense? we shall ask ourselves, and shall have to answer “not too well”: the singer does not always have room for his gestures, the tables and chairs get broken, and the novel through which bardic influence has passed often has a wrecked air, like a drawing-room after an earthquake or a children’s party.

Prophecy—in our sense—is a tone of voice. It may imply any of the faiths that have haunted humanity—Christianity, Buddhism, dualism, Satanism, or the mere raising of human love and hatred to such a power that their normal receptacles no longer contain them: but what particular view of the universe is recommended—with that we are not directly concerned. It is the implication that signifies and will filter into the turns of the novelist’s phrase, and in this lecture, which promises to be so vague and grandiose, we may come nearer than elsewhere to the minutiae of style. We shall have to attend to the novelist’s state of mind and to the actual words he uses; we shall neglect as far as we can the problems of common sense…. Before we condemn him for affectation and distortion we must realize his view point. He is not looking at the tables and chairs at all, and that is why they are out of focus. We only see what he does not focus—not what he does—and in our blindness we laugh at him.

…humility is in place just now. Without its help we shall not hear the voice of the prophet, and our eyes will behold a figure of fun instead of his glory. … Like the school-children in the Bible, one cannot help laughing at a prophet—his bald head is so absurd…

Forster contrasts a passage from George Eliot with one from Dostyevsky. Both are scenes of, I think, guilt and repentance. Eliot’s is straightforward Christian dogma. Dostyevsky’s is a dream sequence. Again I can do nothing but quote it:

“Why are they crying? Why are they crying?” Mitya asked as they dashed gaily by.

“It’s the babe,” answered the driver. “The babe weeping.”

“But why is it weeping?” Mitya persisted stupidly. “Why are its little arms bare? Why don’t they wrap it up?”

“Why, they’re poor people, burnt out. They’ve no bread. They’re begging because they’ve been burnt out.”

“No, no,” Mitya, as it were, still did not understand. “Tell me, why is it those poor mothers stand there? Why are people poor? Why is the babe poor? Why is the steppe barren? Why don’t they hug each other and kiss? Why don’t they sing songs of joy? Why are they so dark from black misery? Why don’t they feed the babe?”

And he felt that, though his questions were unreasonable and senseless, yet he wanted to ask just that, and he had to ask it just in that way. And he felt that a passion of pity, such as he had never known before, was rising in his heart, that he wanted to cry, that he wanted to do something for them all, so that the babe should weep no more, so that the dark-faced dried-up mother should not weep, that no one should shed tears again from that moment, and he wanted to do it at once, at once, regardless of all obstacles, with all the recklessness of the Karamazovs. . . . And his heart glowed, and he struggled forward towards the light, and he longed to live, to go on and on, towards the new beckoning light, and to hasten, hasten, now, at once!

“What! Where?” he exclaimed, opening his eyes, and sitting up on the chest, as though he had revived from a swoon, smiling brightly. Nikolay Parfenovitch was standing over him, suggesting that he should hear the protocol read aloud and sign it. Mitya guessed that he had been asleep an hour or more, but he did not hear Nikolay Parfenovitch. He was suddenly struck by the fact that there was a pillow under his head, which hadn’t been there when he leant back exhausted, on the chest.

“Who put that pillow under my head? Who was so kind?” he cried, with a sort of ecstatic gratitude, and tears in his voice, as thoughsome great kindness had been shown him.

He never found out who this kind man was, perhaps one of the peasant witnesses, or Nikolay Parfenovitch’s little secretary had compassionately thought to put a pillow under his head, but his whole soul was quivering with tears. He went to the table and said he would sign whatever they liked.

“I’ve had a good dream, gentlemen,” he said in a strange voice, with a new light, as of joy, in his face.

Mitya’s dream drives him to despair, but when he awakes and finds that someone has put a pillow under his head, him, accused of murder, it redeems humanity in his eyes. He is willing to sign anything because, for the moment,he no longer believes in the categories of innocent and guilty. His dream was terrible, yet he says it was good, and it gives him joy.

The first writer is a preacher, and the second a prophet. George Eliot talks about God, but never alters her focus; God and the tables and chairs are all in the same plane, and in consequence we have not for a moment the feeling that the whole universe needs pity and love—they are only needed in Hetty’s cell. In Dostoevsky the characters and situations always stand for more than themselves; infinity attends them; though yet they remain individuals they expand to embrace it and summon it to embrace them…

The world of the Karamazovs and Myshkin and Raskolnikov, the world of Moby Dick which we shall enter shortly, it is not a veil, it is not an allegory. It is the ordinary world of fiction, but it reaches back…. Mitya is a round character, but he is capable of extension. He does not conceal anything (mysticism), he does not mean anything (symbolism), he is merely Dmitri Karamazov, but to be merely a person in Dostoevsky is to join up with all the other people far back.

Consequently the tremendous current suddenly flows—for me in those closing words: “I’ve had a good dream, gentlemen.” Have I had that good dream too?

The prophet—one imagines—has gone “off” more completely than the fantasist, he is in a remoter emotional state while he composes. Not many novelists have this aspect. Poe is too incidental. Hawthorne potters too anxiously round the problem of individual salvation to get free. Hardy, a philosopher and a great poet, might seem to have claims, but Hardy’s novels are surveys, they do not give out sounds. The writer sits back, it is true, but the characters do not reach back. He shows them to us as they let their arms rise and fall in the air; they may parallel our sufferings but can never extend them—never, I mean, could Jude step forward like Mitya and release floods of our emotion by saying “Gentlemen, I’ve had a bad dream.” Conrad is in a rather similar position. The voice, the voice of Marlow, is too full of experiences to sing, it is dulled by many reminiscences of error and beauty, its owner has seen too much to see beyond cause and effect. To have a philosophy—even a poetic and emotional philosophy like Hardy’s and Conrad’s—leads to reflections on life and things. A prophet does not reflect. And he does not hammer away. That is why we exclude Joyce. Joyce has many qualities akin to prophecy and he has shown (especially in the Portrait of the Artist) an imaginative grasp of evil. But he undermines the universe in too workmanlike a manner, looking round for this tool or that: in spite of all his internal looseness he is too tight, he is never vague except after due deliberation; it is talk, talk, never song.

The extraordinary nature of [Moby Dick] appears in two of its early incidents—the sermon about Jonah and the friendship with Queequeg.

The sermon has nothing to do with Christianity. It asks for endurance or loyalty without hope of reward. The preacher… works up and up and concludes on a note of joy that is far more terrifying than a menace.

I think he’s getting at something like awe.

Melville… reaches straight back into the universal, to a blackness and sadness so transcending our own that they are undistinguishable from glory.

The preacher’s terrifying joy is an emotion religious fanatics have when they believe they are seeing the awful perfection of God, which gives them joy despite having nothing joyous about it. It is like what Buddhists have when they meditate on what they believe to be the sordid and pointless nature of the universe to a point where suddenly it flips and becomes a thing of beauty. It’s like what Jorge Luis Borges described in “The God’s Script”, in which an Aztec priests, through years of study, sees the mind of God encoded in the spots on a jaguar. He engaged in this study to gain the power to free himself from his dungeon and kill the Spanish; having gained the power, he sees everything that is as beautiful and will not change it. It’s like what some scientists feel when they look at the history of human love, hatred, greed, deception, and nobility, and understand what produced it, and how astonishing the end result of simple principles is. And it’s something like the fascination of Cthulhic cultists, enraptured by something so far beyond them that seeing from its perspective erases the distinctions between good and evil.

I think that might be what he’s getting at. There’s more to it than that, because he also talks about the mysterious coincidences in Moby Dick: that the narrator is saved from drowning by a dead man’s empty coffin; that the name of the wrecked ship they encounter is the Delight (harking back to the sermon mentioned above); and other things that seem to have symbolic power but no symbolic intepretation.

That’s as far as I understand it now. Feel free to ask questions, but don’t expect that I know the answer.


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