“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, October 10, 2003

Bollettino

Leonard Bast

If you rehearse the news of this week � the deaths and explosions in Iraq, the shredding of our excuse for a pre-emptive war, the double standard of an administration that, on the one hand, imprisons dark skinned men en masse for security reasons, and, on the other hand, claims the de facto right to leak illegal, punitive information, the continuing unemployment misery, the shadows cast by the mountain of debts piled up in two brief years by this country � you would think that now, if ever, was the progressive moment. That poses an ugly question, however: why, if this is the progressive moment, has a Republican actor been overwhelmingly swept into office in California?

We believe part of the answer lies in Howard�s End.

We�ve been reading Howard�s End with a lot of attention this week, as part of our on-going campaign to scope out things we can use in the classic novels. Foster is a wholly admirable writer. Here�s how he does that most difficult thing, letting time, blank time, pass: �And the conversation drifted away and away, and Helen�s cigarette turned to a spot in the darkness, and the great flats opposite were sown with lighted windows, which vanished and were relit again, and vanished incessantly�� This is superb on every level. The great flats opposite will soon be figuring in the story, for one thing, so their place as a sort of chronometer is appropriate � and yet, since the reader, at this point, doesn�t know that, their insertion here is one of those ways a writer insinuates his facts into the reader�s unconsciousness, becoming a sort of fate in the process, something that presses, however mildly, upon the reader, as we know that those lights will press upon Helen Schlegel � whose cigarette is (in a bit of a cheat) lit for an awful long time. The perfection of this kind of writing extends to the freedom it gives Forster with regards to his characters. Forster, again and again, will come out of his seemingly neutral role and make blatant and manipulative comments that he means to be read as blatant and manipulative. Thee reader, who is already caught up in the artificial fate spun by the text, has the sense, in these passages, that luck itself is speaking � that here at last privilege, the unfairness in things, is disclosing itself, becoming palpable.

Which brings us to Bast. Those who�ve read Howard�s End will remember that Bast is the striving clerk � the lowbrow from the East End whose entanglement with the Schlegel sisters will lead to disaster. Forster sizes up Bast with a famous passage. This passage crystallizes a mood and tone that, at least since the seventies, has been endemic to the American progressive culture. It comes in Chapter VI, which announces �We are not concerned with the very poor.� The hauteur of this announcement sets the whole tone for Leonard. He doesn�t have the Dickensensian advantage of rags and sentiment. No, he is merely one of the lowly. And the lowly must be squashed. �He knew that he was poor, and would admit it: he would have died sooner than confess any inferiority to the rich. This may be splendid of him. But he was inferior to most rich people, there is not the least doubt of it.� This, so far, is such a break with the politics of the English novel that we have to pause. Even Thackeray, who probably thought along these lines, never violated the novelistic rule here: the poor might be shown as greedy, criminal, ungenerous, etc. But at the end of the day, the poor anchor the novelistic notion of virtue. This is true not just in Bleak House, but in the Princess Cassamassima; in Vanity Fair, which departs about as far as any Victorian novel from the sentimentality that we associate with the Victorians, the excesses of the rich, or at least those who possess the credit of the rich, are projected, as it were, upon the screen of a society in which one man�s excess is the absence of another man�s bread.

What Lytton Strachey�s Eminent Victorians was supposed to have done, Forster, with these brief sentences, does; he rings down an era by negating its deepest sentiments. It is a curious gesture. There�s a fierce defense of caste encoded in it � a freezing of the social whole to preserve it from the social mobility that Wells� characters were all about � as well as Dickens. As well, perhaps, as Becky Sharp. This, in a way, is Foster's blow against the Invisible Man -- for the Invisible Man is from that class of the self-educated whose threat to Foster's own group will grow with the century. Forster effortlessly merges this affection for caste into the liberalism of his favored caste, whose progressive role is to worry, infinitely, about the social inequities at the origin of their wealth, even as they weld it as a weapon to defend their cultural privileges. This, I think, has a lot to do with the alienation between progressives and what would seem to be their natural constituency. Here is how Foster catalogues the gulf between Bast and the Schlegels (who, we later learn, are rich only by Bast like standards � between the three of them, they bring in a rentier income of about 1,900 pounds a year, not exactly wealth on the American scale -- but much more like the kind of income a tenured American professor can depend on): "He was not as courteous as the average rich man, nor as intelligent, nor as healthy, nor as lovable. His mind and his body had been alike underfed, because he was poor, and because he was modern they were always craving better food.�

The astonishing impudence of this affects a reader like me with the force of a slap in the face. It is, in fact, denied within the very narrative. We already have measured Charles Wilcox's manners, and found them wanting. When we later learn about Bast�s incredible patience with Jacky, the unlikely down at heels bathing beauty with whom he is living, we know immediately that no rich man would be as kind, or as lovable, in this kind of relationship � that is, no rich man in a novel. Forster, while blatant, does lace his presentation of Bast with irony. We watch Bast read the Stones of Venice, an activity Foster pokes a lot of fun at. Bast, we are told, has been �trying to form his style on Ruskin: he understood him to be the great master of English prose.� Of course, if we go back to the passage about the lights going on and off in the great flats opposite the Schlegels, we know that Bast isn�t the only one to absorb certain patterns of English prose from Ruskin. We know that the perfection of the dying phrase, �� which vanished and were relit again, and vanished incessantly� certainly comes out of Ruskin�s influence, if not Ruskin. That is inescapable. But rarely has a great writer been so undercut by another great writer � for Ruskin, become Leonard Bast�s standard of greatness, can certainly not be Bloomsbury�s.

I think it says a lot about the Progressive community that Schwarzenegger's obviously awful behavior towards women and men -- towards any subordinate, in fact -- was simply shrugged off by the electorate. The aftermath of the trashing of such as Paula Jones is not going to go away so easily. It discredits almost every word out of the mouth of the various feminists who enthusiasticaly piled on that Arkansas secretary whose down at heels-ness was every bit as painful as Foster's Jacky. Hypocrisy, which has become the conservative vice, is one thing; but meanness for the sake of power is something a lot scarier. That's because anybody who exists in that realm of the "craving for food' knows that meanness every day. The progressive movement without labor becomes Bloomsbury, and Bloomsbury is only attractive to people who live in Bloomsbury.

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