Quick Thoughts on Zadie Smith’s On Beauty

Rachel and I elected to teach Howards End and On Beauty for self-evident reasons:  both

Zadie Smith
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Dominique Nabokov (Source)

novels are exquisitely crafted in terms of plot, imagery, symbolism and character development, and, consequently, both novels are eminently readable and teachable.  Readers encounter in these novels sympathetic portraitures of humans struggling and often failing, in the words of Forster, to “only connect”.  The fact that all of us desire at times to connect and fail, like the characters, to do so, lends a universality to the themes of the novels that transcends the limitations of time and place (Edwardian England, the United States during the first decade of the 21st century).   Both novels move along a stylistic fault line where comedy and satire (Forster’s carefully crafted representation of middle class arrogance and folly, Smith’s accurate and barbed depictions of the inflated egos and meaningless chatter of academics and administrators) pushes against tragedy (the senseless death of Leonard Bast, the death of Carl Thomas’s poetic and scholastic aspirations) causing tremors and upheaval.

Zadie Smith acknowledges her indebtedness to E. M. Forster, and she pays homage to him by repurposing much of the structure of Howards End in On Beauty.  Her novel, however, is not a pastiche, or simple retreading of the path worn by E. M. Forster’s writing.  Although a reader familiar with Howards End will immediately recognize Smith’s indebtedness, On Beauty stands on its own.  One needn’t read Howards End (presumably many of Smith’s readers had not) to appreciate the merits of On Beauty.

Smith, to an even greater extent perhaps than Forster, dips into a vast reservoir of history, culture and academic theory.  Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps exemplify liberal and conservative positions in how they approach art, textuality, religion and even the question of affirmative action.  Karen Armstrong, a character who only appears in one brief section, provides the reader with a passionate, living examination of the Rembrandt paintings that is overlooked in Howard’s arid and pedantic theorizing.  In Smith’s writing, the paintings of Rembrandt and Haitian artists are vividly realized in ways that seem alien to her characters who make a living teaching about them.  There is also the liminality of the various characters – Howard, a white, British expatriate from a lower-class background who has married Kiki, a black American, and now works at Wellington College; Monty, a knighted, black, Caribbean-British intellectual who starts the novel in London, but moves with his family to Boston.  And then, of course, there are the young characters who struggle to define their identities – Levi, who embraces the cause of Haitians, even though he has really only learned about Haiti through a book, Carl, who shifts between hip-hop and classical music, the gritty streets of Boston and the refinement of Wellington, and Victoria, who moves from sexual relationship to sexual relationship in search of somebody who “sees” her as a person.  In all of this Smith moves seamlessly back and forth between geographic and ideological positions: London and Boston, Foucault and TuPac all find places in her world.

One of the cultural borrowings I have not addressed is Zadie Smith’s use of Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just.  I’ve included a link to it here for anyone who might want to skim it.

An Introduction to E. M. Forster and “Howard’s End”

ForsterE. M. Forster, born January 1st, 1879, a mere three years after Queen Victoria adopted the title Empress of India, came of age in the late Victorian period, and much of the social anxiety of that period around empire, the status of women, radical politics and social class infused his writing. However, if one message threads through all of Forster’s writing, it is that admonishment at the start of Howard’s End – “Only connect!”.  In A Passage to India, Forster strives to connect India and Britain, Adela and Dr. Aziz, in A Room with a View, the upper-middle class Lucy finds love with George, her social inferior, in “The Machine Stops,” Forster envisions a future society where social intercourse, mediated by the Machine, has increased immensely, but at the expense of real intimacy with others, and the posthumously published Maurice is dedicated to “a happier year,” perhaps to when two men can love each other openly. Finally, in Howard’s End, Margaret contemplates her ability to save her suitor, Mr. Wilcox:

Mature as he was, she might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion.  Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man.  With it love is born, and alights on the highest curve, glowing against the grey, sober against the fire.  Happy the man who sees from either aspect the glory of these outspread wings.  The roads of his soul lie clear, and he and his friends shall find easy-going.

….

It did not seem so difficult.  She need trouble him with no gift of her own.  She would only point out the salvation that was latent in his own soul, and in the soul of every man.  Only connect!  That was the whole of her sermon.  Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.  Live in fragments no longer.  Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.

Perhaps Forster’s own desire to connect was inherited.  The marriage of his parents was a union between two social classes, with the poor Lilly marrying “up” into the wealthier Forster family.  Perhaps, too, the fact that Forster’s father, Edward Morgan Llewellyn Forster, for whom Forster was accidentally named, died when Forster was two meant that Forster missed that connection.  Perhaps, Forster’s depiction of, at the time, socially problematic connections (Indian and British, male-male, social inferior and social superior), was produced by his reading of his father’s homoeroticism.  After all, as Wendy Moffat writes in A Great Unrecorded Life:  A New Life of E. M. Forster, Lilly and Eddie had gone on their honeymoon, not with a lady companion for Lilly, but with a male friend of Eddie’s, Ted Streatfeild.  Moffat notes that Aunt Monie “wrote that [Streatfeild] was ‘very nearly’ a lady companion, ‘I own, but not quite’” (25), and “While Lily rested at the hotel, the men walked and talked” (25-26).  Perhaps, Forster sought connection because of how others read him as a child as effeminate:

The whole of the world appeared as a set of rules, to be negotiated with care if you were not powerful.  There seemed to be ways to earn a little safety.  At the age of four, Morgan told his mother he “would much rather be a coward than brave because people hurt you when you are brave.” At other times it seemed that however much one tried, who you were was determined by whether you adequately act a part.  But both his anachronistic dress and his extremely sensitive manner made him seem “half a girl,” Lily complained.  “I was he was more manly and did not cry so easily.”  Once, when he was mistaken for a girl by a servant, he was told to go back and correct the misapprehension. Dutifully, he returned and announced, “I’m a little boy.”  “Yes, miss,” was the reply. (Moffat 30)

Perhaps Forster’s desire to connect arose out of his own homosexuality.  Later in life he would record how he and a neighbor boy “built a little house between a straw stack and a hedge, and often lay in each other’s arms, tickling and screaming” (qtd. in Moffat 31).  It might be proper here to historically contextualize Forster’s sexuality.  In 1895, the year Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for a homosexual affair, Forster was sixteen.  Forster died in 1970, just a year after the Stonewall riots in New York, and only three years after the process of decriminalizing homosexuality had begun in Britain.  No wonder, then that Maurice, Forster’s ode to homosexual love, was not published until after his death, fifty-eight years after he wrote it!

As we move into a discussion of Howard’s End, I think we need to keep all of the above in mind, and we need to also keep in mind Forster’s humanist ideals.  He wrote, “The humanist has four leading characteristics – curiosity, a free mind, belief in good taste, and belief in the human race.” His belief in the human race, his desire to “only connect,” meant that tolerance would never been enough for him: “Tolerance is a very dull virtue. It is boring. Unlike love, it has always had a bad press. It is negative. It merely  means putting up with people, being able to stand things.”

You may wish to read the following:

An excerpt from Wendy Moffat’s “A Great Unrecorded History”

Edwardian Transcendentalism … Maurice, by E.M. Forster