The body is deeper than the soul and its secrets inscrutable (E.M. Forster)
The Wisdom of the Body
In the wake of the shooting in Orlando, I’ve begun re-reading E.M Forster’s novel Maurice. I first read the book as a sexually confused teenager, who thought there was something wrong with being gay. Some of the ‘wrongness’ I felt about myself had something to do with an ill-thought out Christian faith. I believed (wrongly) that I was committing some awful sin by feeling the way I did. I vividly remember praying to God and asking him to make things easier. If he could take these feelings away, all the better. It was at this rather low ebb that Maurice came into my life, and I’m so happy it did. Written in 1913 (but only published after its author’s death in 1971) Maurice is a wrenching portrait of internalized homophobia at the cusp of the First World War. Yet along its depiction of unrelenting self-hatred, there is joyous hope. Forster wrote the story after staying at home of the English socialist Edward Carpenter and his partner George Merill, just outside Sheffield. After the legal hysteria initiated by Oscar Wilde trials of the 1880s, Carpenter had made his home a sanctuary for those liable to fall victim to hardening social attitudes. As Forster recounts the genesis of the story in a Terminal Note attached to manuscript:
It must have been on my second or third visit to the shrine that the spark was kindled as he and his comrade George Merrill combined to make a profound impression on me and to touch a creative spring. George Merrill also touched my backside—gently and just above the buttocks. . . . The sensation was unusual and I still remember it. . . . It was as much psychological as physical. It seemed to go straight through the small of my back into my ideas, without involving my thoughts.
It taught Forster something life-changing. It was not good enough to live one’s life through the prism of outmoded ideals, repressions and deceptions. One must be true to oneself, by being to true to reality of one’s bodily needs. Our embodiment has wisdom and grace that our mental wisdom simply cannot approach. The seriousness with which Forster took this new philosophy of life can be glimpsed in the book’s stunning dedication; “To a Happier Year”. This was not merely another tale of homosexual tragedy but a manifesto of personal redemption. Forster’s chief narrative device throughout the novel is one of psychological progression. Our protagonist, Maurice Hall, begins life as a member of the sheltered Edwardian middle-classes. His course is mapped out for him from birth. He sleepily plods through school, dimly aware that he is different from the other boys, but shielded from both the realities of sex and his own body, he possesses no words to express this ominous sense of otherness. This all changes with his arrival at University. He begins to feel a sexual awakening and it terrifies him:
Maurice became modest and conscious of sin: in all creation there could be no one as vile as himself. No wonder he pretended to be a piece of cardboard; if known as he was, he would be hounded out of the world. God, being altogether too large an order, did not worry him: he could not conceive of any censure being more terrific that, say Joey Fetherstonehaugh’s, who kept in the rooms below, or of any Hell as bitter as Coventry (AM 19).
Yet, Forster provides a possible liberator for Maurice in the form of the aristocratic Clive Durham. Intellectual, charming and upstanding, Clive stands like a lighthouse in the midst of Maurice’s inner storm.
The Home of the Body
Clive inducts Maurice into depths of feeling and passion he never thought possible. Yet, he never feels satisfied with Clive, because the young undergraduate can never offer Maurice what he truly desires; a full physical relationship. Like many Edwardian gay men, Clive suffers under the weight of Hellenistic romanticism. He believes, like some Platonic ascetic, that he can sublimate his sexual passion into a pure, chaste and selfless love. As Forster summarizes this ethic of self-denial, ‘Clive had influenced him (Maurice) as always. It had been understood between them that their love, though including the body, should not gratify it, and the understanding had proceeded—no words were used—from Clive.’ Yet, the abstemious young Platonist knows that the Greek ideals he worships are really dead and lifeless things, incapable of framing human beings as they truly are. In a heartbreaking scene, Forster has Clive travelling to his beloved Greece, where he finds nothing but spiritual emptiness:
Clive sat in the theatre of Dionysus. The stage was empty, as it had been for many centuries, the auditorium empty; the sun had set through the Acropolis behind still radiated heat. He saw barren plains running down to the sea, Salamis, Aegina, mountains, all blended in a violet evening. Here dwelt his gods—Pallas Athene in the first place: he might if he chose imagine her shrine untouched, and her statue catching the last of the glow. She understood all men, through motherless and a virgin. He had been coming to thank her for years because she had lifted him out of the mire. But he saw only dying light and a dead land. He uttered no prayer, believed in no deity, and knew that the past was devoid of meaning like the present, and a refuge for cowards (AM 22).
Insofar as Maurice participates in this Platonic trajectory, his life remains pained and shriveled. Arbitrary restriction of the erotic twists Maurice’s love to bitterness and his gentleness to lust. His self-denial is seen killing his virtue and mortifying all his finer feelings. Forster is clear that if society had let Maurice alone he might have become sensitive, joyful and free. As it was, says Forster, ‘England has always been disinclined to accept human nature’ and this disinclination results in a horrific human cost. Maurice feels so hemmed in, that he is prepared to fasten onto any talisman to free him from himself. He seeks consolation, firstly in good works, and secondly in psychiatry, yet both projects fail. Try as he might, Maurice cannot transcend his bodily nature. He needs more than austerity and fine words, he needs freedom. As Forster has Maurice reflect: ‘The less you had the more it was supposed to be— that was Clive’s teaching. Not only was the half greater than the whole—at Cambridge Maurice would just accept this—but now he was offered the quarter and told it was greater than the half. Did the fellow suppose he was made of paper?’
What is the answer to Maurice’s existential quandary? The answer comes in the form of an employee of Clive’s, the working-class gamekeeper Alec Scudder. Uncorrupted by the falsities and cant of bourgeois society, Alec expresses all that Maurice tries to deny in himself. Alec is crass, open, sexual and in love with life. Their affair, first furtive, then fiery, awakens Maurice to all that Clive’s Scholastic Platonism denies. He begins to see not only the futility of his denial, but the foolishness of middle-class civilization. Evoking a favorite theme of Carpenter’s thought, Forster looks to the earth and the seasons as a spiritual guide. Even if society judges Maurice, God’s green earth does not. As Maurice realizes, ‘(he) was not afraid or ashamed anymore. After all, the forests and the night were on his side, not theirs; they, not he, were inside a ring fence.’ Instead of fearing the body, says Forster, one should embrace it as a gift and an instrument of simple natural joy. Maurice’s body had a knowledge which no Cambridge scholar could ever know. In this respect Alec exists for the once other-worldly Maurice as the gatekeeper of the carnal. The woods, the open sky, and the boundless horizon are all his to share with his beloved. In the morning light after making love with this wild young Pan, the one-time Cambridge snob realizes all that he has hidden and all that he needs to live. Alec becomes for Maurice the very image of spiritual wholeness. At the conclusion of the novel, Maurice tells Clive of his new love, tearing shreds into all the repressions of Hellenism in the process. And unsurprisingly Clive has no new words for Maurice. He merely repeats the old puritan slogans tarnished by time. But Maurice has learnt a greater wisdom through sexual experience. As he tells Clive:
“You care for me a little bit, I do think….but I can’t hang all my life on a little bit. You don’t. You hang yours on Anne. You don’t worry whether your relation with her is platonic or not, you only know it’s big enough to hang a life on. I can’t hang mine on to the five minutes you spare me from her and politics. You’ll do anything for me except see me. That’s been it for this whole year of Hell. You’ll make me free of the house, and take endless bother to marry me off, because that puts me off your hands. You do care a little for me, I know….but nothing to speak of, and you don’t love me. I was yours once till death if you’d cared to keep me, but I’m someone else’s now—I can’t hang about whining for ever—and he’s mine in a way that shocks you, but why don’t you stop being shocked, and attend to your own happiness?”
And with that, Maurice disappears into the night, leaving Clive speechless. In the wake of the Orlando shooting, what lessons might this declaration and its accompanying silence, have for a city reeling from loss?
Orlando: Self-Hatred Kills
In recent days, as we learn more about the Orlando shooter, a troubling picture emerges of a man propelled by self-hatred. As C.NN. reported yesterday, several regulars at the club said the gunman visited frequently over the past few years and that he used gay dating apps. Reading Maurice in the light of the Orlando tragedy confirms what Forster’s novel continually underscores: self-hatred always kills. For Clive this self-despising death comes slowly, a lulling dissent into nothingness. In Orlando death came quickly, to the self-hater and his victims. It appears that Omar Mateen murdered and mutilated in part because his faith was not large enough to contain the contradictions which haunted him. This does not justify the horror of course, but it might restore some sense to an otherwise senseless act. The liberation from a false sense of sin that I experienced as a teenager, was a freedom seemingly denied to Mateen. This man went on hating and in the end it clearly poisoned him. Looking at this reality squarely in the face introduces us to an uncomfortable truth. Sometimes it is not so easy to see the distinction between perpetrator and victim. As Rowan Williams puts it:
The problem is that in ordinary human relationships, boundaries are very fluid indeed. Even in a single relationship, I may be both oppressor and victim (consider the immense manipulative power exerted by the ‘longsuffering’ mother of a large family in certain circumstances: genuinely exploited and victimized herself, she is capable of doing great psychological damage in return), and I can also be involved in all manner of subtle collisions with both my oppressors and my victims. The human world is not one of clearly distinguishable bodies of oppressors and victims, those who inflict damage and those who bear it. Where is a ‘pure’ victim to be found? (Resurrection, Interpreting the Easter Gospel, 2003).
At various moments in Forster’s novel, Maurice, Clive and Alec are oppressors and victims all at once. Maurice’s self-hatred frequently makes him unfeeling and incapable of true affection towards others. Clive frequently rejects Maurice, not because he does not love him, but because the love he feels crushes him. Every unguarded touch and furtive kiss confounds Clive’s hopes of living a ‘normal life’. The rustic Alec at one point attempts to blackmail Maurice, not because of hatred, but because of fear. In a society of rigid class-distinctions, the game-keeper does what he must to survive. Likewise, if we look closer at the Orlando shooting, we see that the line between oppressor and victim is not straightforward. The same society that was in large part revolted by the carnage in Florida contains collaborators, who can be relied upon to offer a wink and a nod to the assailant’s bullets. Mateen was not an explicable monster wholly unrecognizable to the society around him. Everyone from fundamentalist Evangelical preachers to gay-conversion therapists willed a kind of social death on the shooter and clubbers that night. And as it turned out, they got their wish in a highly literal and bloody fashion. “But” indignant folk cry, “how could Mateen be a victim”? As much as it might churn our stomachs, it seems likely that Mateen’s actions were partly the result of a religious culture that hated him. A whole tradition of Islamic exegesis teaches gay Muslims that their lives are worthless. As Mateen’s father, Seddique Mir Mateen, expressed the sentiment succinctly: ‘the punishment for homosexuality is upon God and he will decide on them not humans’. While decrying the violence, he could not see the people in the club as anything other than objects of punishment. What basis is that for a life? How can a person, who is nothing but an object of judgement, amount to anything?
Like Clive before the ruins of the theatre of Dionysus, so many queer Muslims and Christians try to hang their lives on a series of dusty religious ruins, yet these remnants of past devotion contain little which is life-giving. Instead such weary wanderers encounter nothing but judgment and rejection. It is not surprising therefore that some are willing to kill and die rather than live in the shadow of condemnation. In this sense, Omar Mateen is another sad product of a homophobic theology that refuses to acknowledge the pain and suffering it causes. How then do we walk beyond the cycles of violence and condemnation found in the old theologies? As Forster knew all too well, the only way to build the world anew is to reject all false judgment about ourselves and live with radical honesty. As a Christian, I root this new world in the absolute conviction that we are all loved and upheld in the sight of the Eternal. As Paul says, ‘I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[b] neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:38). We can be honest and open to the possibilities of love because we know our lives sit within this greater truth, a truth which can never hurt us. Such a truth does not negative human darkness (or what the old religions call sin) but it places such claims in their proper context. We must learn that our bodies and desires are not sinful, rather it is the negation of our capacity for love and honesty which is truly sinful. In this effort towards wholeness, we must not be shaken by violence and rejection, lest we turn in on ourselves and stop the adventure of loving. Instead, we must practice joyful courage rooted in how we really are and not in how others see us. We must affirm the rightness of our capacities for love, care and pleasure. In place of the relics of inert ‘gods’ that cannot speak for us, we should utilize our sexual experience as basis for a new wisdom and a new faith. As Andre Lorde puts it in her now famous essay The Uses of the Erotic:
Beyond the superficial, the considered phrase, “It feels right to me,” acknowledges the strength of the erotic into a true knowledge, for what that means is the first and most powerful guiding light toward any understanding. And understanding is a handmaiden which can only wait upon, or clarify, that knowledge, deeply born. The erotic is the nurturer or nursemaid of all our deepest knowledge.
Here the erotic (the power of our desire) is are visible companion, tutoring us in what matters; care, generosity and mutual desire. This, for gays and lesbians, should be the whole of the Law. Only when we take this Law as seriously as the homophobe takes his condemnation, will we find space in our world for values other than repression and fear.