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Forster–What the Great Minds Tell Us in Sad Times



After letting myself go lately on the depressing subject of military tattoos and tainted investments, I thought, as I often do, of a line of Matthew Arnold’s: “Who prop, thou ask’st, in these bad days, my mind?”… We are passing through a much rougher time, perhaps the roughest time that has ever been. And if we look back into the past for comfort, we see upon the faces of its great men a curious mixture of comprehension and of blankness. They seem at the same time to understand us and not to understand… Who is going to prop our minds? They? The great minds of the past? They, who imagined, at the worst, a local or a philosophic catastrophe?

Yes. They are going to do something. If we have read them, or have listened to good music, it is going to be some use. The individual who has been rendered sensitive by education will not be deserted by it in his hour of need. But the help won’t be given as directly, as crudely, as Matthew Arnold thought… Their gifts are received less consciously and often provoke no thanks. But it is a great mistake to assume that nothing is going on, and a great blunder to close one’s mind to the past because the present is so large and so frightening. The past, though its very detachment, can re-interpret…

It is easier to catch it failing that succeeding, and a little experience of my own not long ago, when Beethoven failed to do his job, will, anyhow, indicate the area where the job lies… The Arts are not drugs. They are not guaranteed to act when taken. Something as mysterious and as capricious as the creative impulse has to be released before they can prop our minds.

Edward Morgan Forster, “A Note on the Way” (1934) reproduced in Abinger Harvest pp. 73-74 (1936)

The up-beat high Victorian view of art as a cure to the woes of society, as a tonic that would cure the roughness from the human soul, plays a role in many of E.M. Forster’s novels—perhaps most effectively in the trials of the autodidact central character in Howards End. There Forster very cleverly infuses the work with references to German metaphysics (especially of the Schlegels) that underlie this thinking to some extent. But if one had to pick a vessel for it, that certainly would be Matthew Arnold, with his relentless emphasis on education and self-improvement. It’s understandable, then for Forster to be pressing the question as the storm gathers in the years leading up to World War II. Forster had a very dark vision of what was ahead. In this remarkable essay–I think one of Forster’s finest and most provocative, notwithstanding the tones of occasionalism that it shows–Forster prophetically speaks of the years on the immediate horizon as “perhaps the roughest time that has ever been” and he makes clear that civilization itself may be at the breaking point. He clearly understands the threat of totalitarianism rising now in Europe, on the left and right. He understands the threat that it portends for his Bloomsbury world. It pains him. What solace does the optimism of Matthew Arnold, and the culture that he so appealingly surveyed, offer in such a circumstance?

Forster’s attitude is ever ironic and realistic. He has his fun with Arnold and his affectations. But at the same time, Forster finds an essential core to affirm. Yes, the great minds of the past can still speak to us, provide us guidance, comfort and a way forward. But sometimes their influence will come in ways that we don’t expect. In this sense, “the arts are not drugs. They are not guaranteed to act when taken.” Sometimes they will have no effect. Sometimes the effect will be delayed. Sometimes they will offer sadness and introspection to a listener seeking solace. But this world of personal interaction with art is an essential source of inspiration for society, a sort of beacon—though a beacon that may lead us in altogether unanticipated directions. It is not the art work of the past as much as the interaction with it that produces this beneficial process–the “creative impulse” as Forster writes.

That is the case for the musical example that Forster presents—the concert to which he rushes hoping for relief from his worries. But alas, the music did not offer escape. The concert to which Forster alludes here includes a performance by the Busch Quartet of the first movement of Beethoven’s quartet no. 14 in C Sharp Minor, op. 131 (1826), in London’s Wigmore Hall in 1934. As luck would have it, this was recorded by EMI and released as part of their collection of Busch Quartet performances. Listen to it here and you will come one step closer to Forster’s own experience and also to his meaning. This is music of lamentation and not, yet, of delivery. It is without a doubt one of Beethoven’s finest compositions for strings, but is its purpose to lift up? Rather it may launch an inward journey which may be disquieting.

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