Detour through deviance ends at a camp site

Queer Forster
July 31, 1998

Once E.M. Forster's intellectual running-mate was held to be liberalism. Thought to offer truth with a small "t" it proved in fact to be offering Ideology with a large "I", already in hock to the goose-stepping alternatives against which it so mildly murmured. This book, conceived in a frightfully civilised way "over white wine and pasta at an MLA conference" seeks to rehabilitate E.M. into a new form of political correctness by taking a detour through sexual deviance, bringing a deconstructive acuteness to the question of what exactly this deviance is supposed to be tangential to in the first place. Its contributors offer a lively and scholarly critique of our bad binarising habits, conducting rigorous inquisitions into that Forsterian universe in which otherness (or queerness), whether in race or culture, class or gender, has a habit of dissolving on close inspection or contact, areas in which the mind may turn turtle.

"Queer" in this sense, then, as positively valorised, can be extended from sexual preferences to achieve the wider resonance of "all things counter, original, spare, strange" (including queer?) as hymned by Hopkins, the Jesuit poet whose own inclinations or proclivities seem to have been largely homoerotic. Since queerness (whether excluding or excluded) invites persecution and may well be associated with other forms of repressed otherness or difference, awareness of his homosexuality may itself be said to have made a man of Forster. To inscribe (or even subscribe to) "queerness" offers that sad word "gay" a happy comeuppance. As sanctioned by Teresa de Lauretis it also offers something of a "war embrace" (in Coleridge's idiom) to its own stigmatisation, and a "camp site" as George Piggford pleasantly puts it, whose camp sightings may include camp citings of the pious and the platitudinous.

Finally, it would seem, in Forster's work, it is all things pompous and patriarchal, colonial and condescending that stand "under erasure" in the light of a fiction that seemed poised to celebrate just such enormities, and which achieves a polyphony resisting a domination or closure that also seems always to be just around the corner in the novels. Contributors like Gregory Bredbeck, Eric Haralson, Christopher Reed, Joseph Bristow and Judith Scherer Herz develop such nuances, tracing debts and differences among Henry James, Edward Carpenter and Whitman, links and lesions with the Cambridge Apostles, and conscious structural similitudes and affinities with as well as (finally) distance from and distaste for Wagner (whose anti-Semitism is refused and refuted by Forster).

These critics naturally distance themselves from the surprisingly homophobic note struck by previous critics, including Leavis (who weaves the word "bent" into his discourse on Forster so frequently it begins to seem like tipping the wink), a Bloomsbury-phobic sorority too quick to identify Forster with a sodomitical hegemony (Strachey and Keynes), and the macho-ised proponents of a masculinist modernism prone to mug anything "effeminate".

In other essays, Debrah Raschke notes Forster's rejection of the ascetically aesthetic, Christopher Lane forbids sentimentalised versions of a queerness that may be felt to secrete its own master-slave dialectic (truly Hegel is everywhere), especially as Forster liked low-life lovers. Tamera Dorland describes the quasi-misogynistic investment in a "(M)other" figure who, it seems, is merely a secreted or encrypted version of an internalised self-reproach. There is a quite uproarious essay by Yonatan Touval on the abusive relations of coloniality, involving rumours of a "famously queer" viceroy, his wife's lover, and the consequent awarding of Kashmir to India, which could have lawyers reaching for their briefs. These discussions naturally include extensive references to novels like The Longest Journey, Howard's End, A Passage to India and the rather underrated Maurice.

The book is at once more nuanced and more probing than the its title might suggest. However, even if, finally, all this (mainly male) gazing at Forster's queerness does not work to suspend all scepticism by everyone over the final value of his work, at the very least it does nothing to queer his pitch.

Edward Neill is senior lecturer in English, Middlesex University.

Queer Forster

Editor - Robert K. Martin and George Piggford
ISBN - 0 226 50802 1
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £12.99
Pages - 302

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